Premières

Estonia in Focus weekend: Galina Grigorjeva – Vespers (World Première)

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A major new choral work was premièred at this year’s Estonian Music Days in Tallinn, by one of the country’s most celebrated composers. Born in the Ukraine, Galina Grigorjeva relocated to Estonia 25 years ago and has since become essentially adopted by the country as one of its own. On 6 April, Vox Clamantis, conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve, gave the first performance of Grigorjeva’s Vespers. It’s an ambitious, 30-minute work in seven movements, each of which sets words (in English) drawn either from the Orthodox prayerbook or passages of the King James Bible. Not all of Grigorjeva’s music shows this so overtly, but the Vespers are clearly indebted to the general aesthetic (if not quite the technique) of Estonia’s most famous composer Arvo Pärt. It’s a different approach from that in some of her other choral work (about which i’ll be writing in due course), but here the music is for the most part intentionally kept emotionally remote, focusing instead on a more austere, one-step-removed mindset that taps deeply into both the soundworld and attitude of Orthodox worship. Perhaps it goes without saying that this won’t necessarily prove inviting for everyone.

Personally, both at the concert and a few months on i remain in two minds about the piece. As i noted in my original review, one of the risks taken by the most fervent religious contemporary composers – most obviously, in recent years, Pärt, John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, as well as, to an extent, James MacMillan and even, further back, Olivier Messiaen – is that the music can (inadvertently or deliberately) end up depending on the notion of a higher power in order, as i wrote before, “to ‘fill in the blanks’ and imbue the music with some of that power”. This is not true of every piece by these composers, of course, and in most of what i’ve heard of Grigorjeva’s music it certainly isn’t the case. In the Vespers, though, there are times when the music exhibits a kind of listlessness that one senses is precisely one of these places where the ‘magic’ is missing (or not, depending on your spiritual outlook). i’d cite the fifth movement as an example of this, a setting of the Nunc dimittis that’s perfectly pretty but at the same time seriously enervated, to the point that its broad assertive climax sounds terribly forced. Even more, though, is seventh movement ‘I will bless the Lord’, an extended setting of Psalm 34 that arguably pushes things too far for too long. There’s nothing wrong with a composition resembling (or indeed, for the composer, being) an act of worship, but in this movement the music seems to be leaving a very obvious spiritual ‘outline’ that – again, depending on where you’re coming from – either does or doesn’t get filled in. It’s a shame this is how the work ends. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes – To My End and to Its End… (World Première)

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A few months back, i reported on the goings-on at the Estonian Music Days, the second year running that i’d attended the festival. During this time, i’ve become increasingly interested in the country’s new musical endeavours, which for various reasons – both our fault and theirs – remain almost entirely unknown and unheard here in the UK (in one of my articles i outline some reasons why). i’m therefore going to address that by devoting a couple of long weekends to focusing on some of the more interesting music i’ve encountered from Estonia recently. It’s fitting to feature the first weekend now, as today is Võidupüha, ‘Victory Day’, when Estonians celebrate a military victory against the German forces in 1919 (the Battle of Võnnu), part of the Estonian War of Independence that continued until 1920. The memories and scars of Estonia’s back-and-forth with independence throughout the twentieth century have played and continue to play a major part in its cultural life and identity, a fact that will probably emerge in some of my forthcoming discussions about their music. For this weekend i’m focusing on the type of music for which Estonia should perhaps be most loudly celebrated: choral music.

By far the most outstanding new choral work that i’ve heard in recent times – both from Estonia and, i suspect, anywhere else – is Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes‘ To My End and to Its End…, which was premièred in Tallinn back in April. For her text, Kozlova-Johannes has turned to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, setting most of his poem from which the work takes its title (the entire poem can be read here). The poem speaks of a difficult and dangerous journey Darwish and his father made across the Lebanon-Palestine border (he and his family had been forced to flee to Lebanon during the 1948 Palestinian war), made under cover of darkness and with death an omnipresent possibility. Kozlova-Johannes has removed the few lines that mention geographical specifics, enabling the text to speak more generally about the threat posed by nearby borders. This is particularly apt from the perspective of Estonia, who only wrenched back their independence from neighbouring Russia in 1991, and where a palpable sense of disquiet – exacerbated by the sabre-rattling reign of Vladimir Putin – persists today. Furthermore, the fact that Kozlova-Johannes is herself Russian-born – she settled in Estonia in the mid-1990s – adds an extra layer of potency to the subtext. Read more

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Jack Sheen – Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze (World Première)

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Today being the solstice, i’m marking the first day of summer with a small seasonal work by UK composer and conductor Jack Sheen. Sheen was one of the three winners of the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers’ Competition in 2011, and his piece Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze was composed the following year. It utilises a relatively small ensemble – cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass, led by a solo alto flute – to highly impressionistic ends, resulting in a kind of contemporary re-imagining of the soundworld of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Sheen’s piece inhabits precisely the same kind of lush, balmy atmosphere that typifies the Debussy, and what it (understandably) lacks in post-romanticism is instead represented with an impressively heady quality that sounds as though it might just swoon at any moment. An idea accompaniment for the sweltering heatwave Britain is currently enjoying. Read more

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Christian Wolff – Spring (UK Première)

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Tomorrow is the summer solstice, which technically makes today the last day of spring. To bid farewell to the season, here’s a very interesting orchestral work titled Spring by US composer Christian Wolff. Composed in 1995, Spring was Wolff’s first orchestral piece, and in it he experimented with indeterminate elements, combining them with more conventionally notated and performed (i.e. conducted) music. Despite its title, there’s no extra-musical programme attached to the piece, and each of the four movements is unnamed. Despite its non-programmatic nature, though, Wolff is clearly engaging with existing musical materials with a view toward a kind of Ivesian mash-up as well as varying forms of obfuscation, disintegration and, perhaps, refinement. Maybe Wolff was wondering what might ‘spring’ forth from these processes of experimentation. There’s certainly more than a hint of alchemy to it all, which over the course of the four movements becomes intensified, with the results bearing a concomitantly less obvious connection to their source materials. Read more

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Þráinn Hjálmarsson – As heard across a room (World Première)

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Today is Þjóðhátíðardagurinn, Iceland’s national day, celebrating their independence from Denmark and founding as a republic in 1944. Quite apart from Iceland being one of my favourite countries, its contribution to contemporary music (as seen in my recent Nordic CD review) is a challenging and imaginative one. A very good example of this can be heard in Þráinn Hjálmarsson‘s orchestral work As heard across a room, composed in 2014. That simple, descriptive title immediately brings to mind another, Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, though while Lucier’s piece grapples with the literal effects of aural reality, Hjálmarsson is exploring them from a somewhat more figurative perspective.

Despite appearances, it would be over-simplistic to summarise the piece as being textural. This would place the emphasis and focus of one’s attention on the generalised, nebulous quality of the music. And there’s certainly a great deal of this, Hjálmarsson establishing a soundworld so indistinct – full of strange, distant rustlings; lots of activity but all of it indefinite and blurred – that it would be easy to hear it as ‘non-music’, a candid outtake in which the orchestra were absent-mindedly toying with their instruments. For a couple of minutes, it seems as though this is all that there is, creating an interesting illusion where, despite the granular, gritty nature of this soundworld, it’s sufficiently slippery that one’s ear slides straight off it. This is paradox music: like trying to make out the structure of a void. Read more

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James Gardner – Ten Bells for Turning Forty (World Première)

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Delving into the very deepest recesses of the 5:4 archive, another première performance i’ve been enjoying recently is by British-born, New Zealand-based composer James Gardner. His Ten Bells for Turning Forty for clarinet and percussion dates as far back as 2001, composed as a 40th birthday present for clarinettist Andrew Sparling, who with Julian Warburton gave the first performance the following year at a concert by Ensemble Exposé (remember them?) as part of the Cutting Edge weekend given at the BMIC (remember that?).

The way the piece is performed brings to mind another work for clarinet, Boulez’ Domaines, involving an unspecified order in which fragments of music are to be played. Unlike Domaines, not all of the material needs to be performed; from a total of 22 fragments, the clarinettist selects ten (chosen according to Gardner’s carefully prescribed rules) that are then almost entirely left up to the player to determine their order. The content of these fragments varies wildly (one of them is shown below; it occurs in the performance at 0:46) and choice of clarinet(s) is left up to the performer too, though they’re encouraged to use several “to increase timbral variety”. The percussionist uses tubular bells and three drums, small, medium and large, and their part, also comprising ten fragments, is not indeterminate but performed according to a fixed, specified order. The clarinettist is also instructed to perform at up to four different positions, selected “via chance operations of the player’s devising”. Read more

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John Tavener – Cantus mysticus (UK Première)

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i’ve been exploring the extensive 5:4 archive of recordings of premières recently, listening to both brand new and older works, and was pretty startled to encounter Cantus mysticus, by the late John Tavener. A work for clarinet and soprano soloists with a string orchestra of violins and cellos, it was composed in 2004, first performed the following year at the Cuenca Religious Music Week, in Spain. Three years later it received its UK première at the Proms, and in 2010 its first performance in the USA, but for the last seven years it’s sat dormant. Considering Tavener’s popularity both during his latter years and since his death, this seems strange – particularly as Cantus mysticus lasts only eight minutes – though it possibly has something to do with the very peculiar nature of the piece.

For much of the last two decades of his life, Tavener’s compositional practice was relatively standardised and predictable. If it had anything approximating an evolution, it was more to do with extra-musical than musical concerns, as Tavener shifted somewhat away from the more tangible (i.e. readily explainable) aspects of religious dogma in favour of ‘esoteric metaphysics’. (This evolution would finally move into an intense exploration of human suffering in the wake of Tavener’s own close call with death in 2007.) Personally speaking, this late shift came as something of a relief, though primarily because the particular combination of the abstract and the abstruse embodied within esoteric metaphysics render it far more inert (and that’s really not intended as a euphemism for ‘meaningless’) than Tavener’s more ostentatiously overt theological outlook of earlier years. Put more crudely – though no less accurately – this shift removed some of the unctuous sanctimoniousness of those earlier works, which from an extra-musical perspective, makes them very much more palatable. Read more

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