Premières

Proms 2017: Harrison Birtwistle – Deep Time (UK Première)

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It’s easy to believe – even take for granted – that we ‘get’ Harrison Birtwistle. He represents a lot of things to a lot of people, but the tendency is to conflate the man and his music, mix in stereotypes drawing on his age and northern heritage, and arrive at a surly amalgam that, crudely stated, neither gives nor takes any shit. Very many years ago, as a callow student volunteering at the Cheltenham Music Festival, i was charged with attending to Birtwistle during his time in the town, which ultimately consisted of a brief greeting followed by my being told in no uncertain terms that he did not need looking after, and off he went. So i certainly know all about the brusqueness of the man, but his music has always been another, entirely separate, matter. To me, its primary characteristics are an earthiness, an inclination to sing in the midst of turbulence, a strong sense of persistent determination, and an urgent, passionate humanity yearning to be unleashed no matter what. These qualities have permeated his works performed at the Proms in recent years – particularly The Moth Requiem, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and Angel Fighter – and they manifest again in his most recent orchestral work, Deep Time, given its first UK performance at the Proms last Sunday.

That being said, there were occasions during the work where i found myself wondering if what i was hearing really was by Birtwistle. But not early on, the music establishing a dark admixture of rumble and grumble within which nascent ideas take shape. It’s a beautifully measured and arresting introduction, the strings clambering up and out of this claustrophobic gloom with such oomph that it almost seems as though, two-and-a-half minutes in, we’re already reaching a climax. But this is a mere overture to the more complex behaviour that forms the firmament of Deep Time. Birtwistle’s programme note speaks of the piece sitting alongside The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances due to its twin temporal and geological concerns. This finds expression in a fascinating underlying order that evidently has a pulse at its core, though sufficiently subterranean that it’s often masked, inaudible or simply forgotten about. Yet it finds expression in another way too, in a remarkable sense of architectonic plasticity, as though the bedrock of the piece were warping and stretching, with concomitant effects occurring on the surface. On this surface, when pulse isn’t pushing through, a plethora of melodies break out (those from a soprano sax are especially striking), invariably short-lived, broken up by unpredictable surges and lunges or multi-layered textures from the full orchestra. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: 21st Century String Quartet, The Hallé

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Here’s a suggestion: if a composer can’t summarise their programme note in fewer than a couple of hundred words, that’s a problem. Is that terribly controversial? Judging by what we were given at the Cheltenham Music Festival last Saturday, it is. This is not a local problem, though, it’s something that manifests itself all too often, composers seeking to convey at length not merely the inspiration for their music but a blow-by-blow account of what happens in it. It’s interesting that they deem this necessary. Does it suggest a lack of faith either in the audience or, more worryingly, in the music? It would be strange for a writer to introduce their novel with a breakdown of the structure and key plot-points; likewise with a programme note full of aural spoilers, it’s impossible to be drawn in and surprised by the music, as we already know what’s coming. Increasingly, programme notes seem akin to the abstracts that preface academic papers, and that’s not necessarily the ideal model for the concert hall. There are two caveats to this: first, it’s not just contemporary music that’s treated to such ‘programme essays’, and second, of course, one’s not obliged to read them at all. Of the first caveat, this is partly to do with the understandable desire for a degree of historical contextualisation, but regarding the second, i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Roderick Williams

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Today’s Proms première is by renowned baritone Roderick Williams, whom many may not have realised – as i didn’t, until relatively recently – also has a sideline in composition. In preparation for the first performance of his new work Là ci darem la mano at Cadogan Hall this afternoon – in a concert otherwise devoted to the music of Monteverdi – here are his answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Roderick Williams for his responses and to Francesco Bastanzetti at Groves Artists for acting as go-between. Read more

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Proms 2017: Tom Coult – St John’s Dance (World Première)

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And we’re off: the first performance of Tom Coult‘s new orchestral work St John’s Dance got the 2017 Proms season up and running last night, courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. i’ve only really scratched the surface of Coult’s music, having heard two earlier works in the last couple of years, Codex (Homage to Serafini) and Spirit of the Staircase, premièred in 2014 and 2016 respectively. They’re both interesting pieces (i’ll aim to feature them on 5:4 when i get a chance), but the thing that stood out most in them was Coult’s very particular approach to pace and direction. i need to qualify that by saying my initial impression was that, in each case, these aspects seemed a bit off, but returning to them since, i’ve wondered whether in fact Coult actually succeeds in pulling it off through a mixture of audacity and simple unpredictability. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Tom Coult

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Tonight, this year’s Proms season kicks off in earnest, and once again i’ll be reviewing all of the contemporary pieces receiving world or UK premières. As an extra feature this year, i’ve interrogated some of the featured composers with a short series of questions, the answers of which hopefully will provide a little extra insight into each composer and their music, both generally and specifically with regard to the piece being premièred at the Proms. First up is British composer Tom Coult, whose new work St John’s Dance gets the season up and running this evening. Many thanks to Tom for his responses; you can also read the programme note of his piece after the questions. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Love Songs

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Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Louth Contemporary Music Society: Silenzio Festival, Dundalk

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In terms of outlook (non-partisan), commitment (total to the point of absurdity) and above all its track record during the last eleven (essentially unsung) years, Louth Contemporary Music Society unquestionably deserves to sit alongside the very best contemporary musical festivals. Its most recent, Silenzio, which took place last weekend in Dundalk, on Ireland’s east coast, only cements that fact yet more solidly. The focus on this occasion was the music of Salvatore Sciarrino – making his first appearance in Ireland – coupled with the world première of a substantial new work from Swiss composer Jürg Frey. At first glance, the pairing of Frey and Sciarrino seemed somewhat arbitrary, though as things turned out there was an unexpected aural connection in at least one piece (though it didn’t exactly work in either of their favours). The festival was once again populated by a spectacular collection of interpreters of contemporary music, including clarinettist Carol Robinson, flautist Matteo Cesari, Quartetto Prometeo, percussionist Simon Limbrick and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart.

The festival began in the narrow confines of Dundalk Gaol with an evening of Jürg Frey’s music. It opened with As imperceptibly as grief, a setting for solo soprano of Emily Dickinson’s poem, and in hindsight it was this opening song that carried the greatest weight of the concert, though not due to anything radically different about its music. As one might have expected from Frey, the piece unfolded in a calm, unhurried manner. Initially, the space was ‘setup’ via the soprano – Hélène Fauchère, in a tour-de-force display of infinite control – slowly placing evenly-spaced quasi-isolated notes in the air. Two ‘parts’ were present: syllables of the text on one pitch, open vowels a semitone higher, an oscillation that soon became more melismatic. As in many of Frey’s pieces, it was permeated with a sense of profundity, one that was heightened by these moments of melisma. At one point in particular (before the text moved from the afternoon to dusk), the song became captivated in an extended ‘ooh’ episode that suggested pure ecstasy, as though Fauchère were caught in a private emotional reverie or possessed by a vision. On a more musical level, it displayed an intense enjoyment of sound itself, both its mere presence and its tangibility – tactility even – wanting to linger over its pitches as well as the movement between them. Read more

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