Premières

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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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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