Premières

Proms 2010: Tarik O’Regan – Latent Manifest and Alissa Firsova – Bach Allegro (World Premières)

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For this year’s Proms, Saturday 14 August was designated “Bach Day”, and buried beneath all the BWVs were two new works, by Tarik O’Regan and Alissa Firsova, both works described as ‘arrangements’.

O’Regan’s approach, as he saw it, was to tease out ‘hidden’ musical lines within the opening movement of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3 BWV 1005. Who’d have thought that, buried within Bach’s music, was a whole load of post-John Adams material waiting to get out? The conductor, Andrew Litton, says in the interval discussion that his criterion for judging a great transcription or arrangement is “when you listen to it, you don’t wish you were hearing the original…”, and on that basis O’Regan comes off rather badly. All the same, Latent Manifest has some nice orchestrational moments, preventing it from being entirely dull.

Firsova roots herself in the last movement of Bach’s Viola da gamba Sonata No. 3 BWV 1029 and, thankfully, she doesn’t try so obviously to be seen to be clever. The title, Bach Allegro, says it all; unlike O’Regan’s work, which was nothing of the kind, this is a true arrangement, allowing Bach’s material to stand squarely in the foreground. While the orchestration is a little dry, there are some beautifully quirky moments, including an amusing brief dialogue between tubas and piccolos (Berlioz would be proud), as well as a hilarious bit of counterpoint proffered by, of all things, a flexatone (Gordon Jacob would be proud). It’s by far the superior offering, and the audience was clearly able to perceive that as well. Read more

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Proms 2010: Stephen Montague – Wilful Chants (World Première) plus Takemitsu

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A world première from Stephen Montague is always an exciting prospect; while hardly an avant-garde figure, he’s highly unpredictable, and one imagines neither the BBC nor the audience could have envisaged what Montague would ultimately present them with in his new work Wilful Chants, given its first performance on 8 August. The work states its intentions immediately, opening with a hectic maelstrom of vocal sounds including half-whispered words, rolled ‘r’s, loud chanting, glissandos, whistles, guttural grunts and the like. The cumulative effect, driven along by a brisk pulse, is entrancing, even hypnotic, the ear constantly pulled left and right, by no means making out the filigree of details (which is hardly the point), but simply trying to hold on for the ride. A climax is reached, and things shift into pitched territory, the brass making uncanny, muted oscillations that suddenly bloom as a dark chorale, into which the choir is swiftly drawn, although remaining in the middleground at this point. A more simplistic chorale follows, sounding distinctly eastern-European; the occasionally half-heard brass oscillations keep things from becoming too conventional or familiar, however, and as the resultant high point appears to be becoming all too generic, it pulls itself apart before getting too portentous, dissolving in a new plethora of noises, accompanied by percussive clatterings. And in no time at all, the conventional trappings are long forgotten as merry mayhem breaks out everywhere, the two elements—noise and song—wonderfully blended in a thrilling street party of a finale. Read more

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Proms 2010: Hans Abrahamsen – Wald (UK Première) plus Knussen, Bedford and Benjamin

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So, where were we? Ah yes, The Proms; my catchup starts with the concert that took place on Friday 6 August, given by the splendid Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Oliver Knussen‘s Two Organa is a work all the more engaging for its entirely lopsided nature. The first ‘organum’, “Notre Dame des Jouets”, could perhaps best be described as “sugar and spice and all things nice” (although without very much spice); exploring just white notes, it’s derived from an earlier incarnation, composed for a diatonic music box, and while undeniably rather fun, there’s little more going on beyond froth and fancy. The latter movement, on the other hand, could not be more different, drawing heavily on Knussen’s more characteristic, harmonically rich palette. In the wake of such a frivolous predecessor, the dense, concentric lines at work here come as something of a shock, given gravitas by the imposing presence of deep gongs. But it restrains itself from becoming ponderous, swiftly reducing into a sparser mixture, the lines given more room to move, fragments of the imagined organum sliding in and out of view. Read more

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Proms 2010: Simon Holt – a table of noises (London & World Premières)

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This evening’s Proms première came from the pen of one of England’s most intriguing and engaging composers, Simon Holt. Holt’s music betrays little of the generic English sound that plagues so many of the ‘established’ (i.e. published) composers in this land—there’s no trace of the anodyne ‘Faber sound’ here. On the contrary, Holt’s inspirations and method of execution are cosmopolitan, highly eclectic and invariably utterly unpredictable, as is the case with tonight’s piece, a table of noises.

It’s a work that brings together such incongruous ideas as Peruvian box drums—from which the title of the piece is derived, being a translation of ‘mesa de ruidos’, one of assorted names for such drums—and Holt’s great uncle Ash (picture below), a significant figure in his childhood, up in the north of England (Lancashire, to be precise). a table of noises is a percussion concerto, and while percussion continues to be the most hackneyed group of instruments in contemporary instrumental composition, what Holt does with it is strikingly original. The orchestra comprises a selection of wind and brass, colouring the material with a slight abrasiveness that is entirely in sympathy with the atmospheric and often very sprightly solo percussion part. At around 30 minutes’ duration, a table of noises passes through no fewer than ten movements, that explore an exceptionally wide range of both timbres and performing techniques (so much so that George Crumb springs to mind). Above all, Holt clearly relishes the assortment of sounds with which he presents us, allowing them the freedom to speak almost relentlessly rather than resorting to mere novelty (the usual crime perpetrated against percussion). Read more

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Proms 2010: Gunther Schuller – Where the Word Ends (UK Première)

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At tonight’s Proms, almost a year-and-a-half after its world première, Gunther Schuller‘s Where the Word Ends finally found its way to England. It came in the hands of the splendid WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov, in his farewell concert with the orchestra he’s faithfully served for nigh on 15 years.

One never quite knows what to expect from Schuller, but his works rarely disappoint. Where the Word Ends was no exception, being one of the most lush and exhilarating new orchestral pieces i’ve heard in a long time. Cast in four seamless movements, Schuller has packed the piece with the range and variety of material one might expect in a symphonic poem. In fact, it’s rather tempting to describe it simplistically as having “something for everyone”, although its progress from brash, modernistic ebullience to delicate lyricism is convincing and subtle. Moreover, the whole thing somehow holds together and makes sense, although my ear found itself recoiling from one or two moments that sounded like so much generic contemporary music (or do i mean generic English contemporary music?). They were only moments, though; Gunther Schuller’s 25-minute span forms an object ever in flux, ultimately dragging the listener through the most vivid, exciting sonic landscape. Read more

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Proms 2010: looking forward/back; Claude Vivier – Orion (UK Première)

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The Proms season is upon us once again, bringing with it the lively hope of new commissions and world premières. However, a cursory glance at the concert season makes for rather damp reading, the commissions going to an unadventurous gaggle including Mark-Anthony Turnage, David Matthews, Graham Fitkin, Jonathan Dove and Huw Watkins. That being said, new works from Robin Holloway, Tansy Davies and Tarik O’Regan should make for more interesting listening, along with UK premières from Gunther Schuller, Simon Holt, James Dillon and Bent Sørensen. If time allows, each new work and other concerts of note will be covered here on 5:4, together with a recording of the performance. First up is Gunther Schuller next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, here’s one of the highlights from last year’s Proms season, and a work by a favourite composer of mine, Claude Vivier. It’s the UK première of his Orion, a work that emerged following the composer’s extensive trip to the far east. With a title like Orion, it’s rather too easy to reach for an adjective like ‘cosmic’, but that word absolutely applies; its 13-minute duration has a broadness of scope that is remarkable and highly evocative. While other composers are sporadically brought to mind (Takemitsu, Messiaen, even a hint of Varése here and there), Vivier’s sound-world—as ever—is entirely his own, and it’s a ravishing, exquisite sound-world indeed, which makes it all the more surprising that his work persists in being so unknown. Admittedly, there are layers of obtusity in Vivier’s structures and textures that, for all their superficial beauty, can cause one to feel a little uncertain, even lost. But i for one am content to be taken into uncharted waters by one such as Vivier; it’s music worth a bit of trust and effort. Read more

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Interrobang: Steve Peters – The Webster Cycles

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Two months ago, i reported that my ensemble, Interrobang, was to perform Steve Peters‘ remarkable ambient work, The Webster Cycles. It’s a work that’s entranced me since 2008, when it was released on CD, more than 25 years after its original composition date. It gets its name from the fact that the musical material originates in the Webster dictionary; Peters has taken all words that include just the letters A to G (being musical notes), arranged them in alphabetical order, and given them to players as a musical score. The words are grouped into seven columns, according to their first letter, and the result looks like this (click to see full-size):
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