Proms 2008: Steven Stucky – Rhapsodies (World Première)

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In seven days’ time, the 2011 Proms season will be upon us, bringing with it a welter of new music. This year’s season promises no fewer than 12 world premières and eight UK premières, plus four ludicrously-titled “London premières”; once again, they’ll all be featured on 5:4, alongside one or two other interesting pieces. While the anticipation mounts, here’s one of the new works premièred in 2008’s Proms season, Rhapsodies by the American Steven Stucky. It received its first performance on 28 August by the New York Philharmonic (in their first visit to the Proms), directed by Lorin Maazel.

In some ways, Rhapsodies revolves around the woodwind; a solo flute begins the work, hopping restlessly at altitude, its appassionato material gradually accreting with the addition of the rest of the section. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a stylised dawn chorus, lightly punctuated by soft pizzicati and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bells. The cor anglais is the first instrument to be given melodic prominence, provoking energetic interjections from the muted brass, which eventually shift the piece in a slightly different direction, and usher in the upper strings. Throughout all of this, melody is literally everywhere, but the relentless intensity results in a rather delirious kind of texture music, the ear unable to stay focussed for more than a couple of moments on any particular line. A little under halfway through, the brass present an idea that holds things back for a while. As this dissipates, the strings finally come to the fore in an extended melody, backed up with spritely woodwind staccati beyond, reinforced by more distant bells. Read more


Proms 2010: Jonathan Dove – A Song of Joys (World Première)

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i think Tom Service put it best, a few years ago, when he described the Last Night of the Proms as a “calcified cadaver”. It is, there’s no question: beneath the merriment and the klaxons lies an occasion that died many, many years ago; it’s a concert in aspic, filled with a misfitted agglomeration of works that culminate in a trio of singalongs which have at least made the transition from jingoistic anthems to party favourites. It’s almost as bad as Choral Evensong, for goodness’ sake. Anyway, turning away from such blatant party poopery for a moment, it does at least promise something new each year, and last night the opportunity fell to housewives’ favourite, Jonathan Dove, whose A Song of Joys was given its first performance, starting the concert.

Dove has turned to that most ambitious of poets Walt Whitman for his text, lines from the poem whose title Dove has borrowed for his own. And it’s a big text; the scope of Whitman’s vision is akin to that of Psalm 8, conjuring a vista of creation from the vantage point of song. Such epic scope as this makes it all the more disappointing that Dove’s response to the text is so simple and unimaginative. Dove probably wasn’t allowed longer than his 5-minute duration, but did he really have to move through the text in such a perfunctory way? One phrase dutifully follows another, never really bringing alive the words or tapping into their vision, still less presenting one of Dove’s own. It’s all terribly functional: loud and light, with lots of big tunes—but not a hint of the genuine, deep excitement from which Whitman’s words no doubt sprang. In fact, the choral evensong analogy remains apt; what Dove has composed is a secular but unavoidably John Rutter-esque anthem that would sit perfectly comfortably within an edition of Songs of Praise. So, was it suitable to start the Last Night of the Proms? with Tom Service’s description of the occasion foremost in mind: yes, absolutely. Read more


Proms 2010: Robin Holloway – RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots (World Première)

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Prize for the longest title bestowed on a piece in this year’s Proms must surely go to Robin Holloway‘s RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Robert Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’, given its world première two days ago. Holloway has taken Schumann’s last five songs—deemed, it seems, by scholars to be of relatively poor quality—and both orchestrated them as well as providing them with a larger context, a framework within which they sit; Holloway describes how “[the] work as an entity … contains the five original songs as within a mediaeval reliquary, surrounding the precious remains within a suitable setting, tactful and unobtrusive for the most part…” (from the programme note).

To that end, Holloway has put himself in Schumann’s compositional shoes, to the extent that the opening Prologue works so convincingly as a preliminary to the first song, that i didn’t even notice it at an initial listening. This stylistic reserve continues throughout the song (“Abschied von Frankreich”); while the orchestration does sound, at moments, a touch richer than Schumann might have written, the language is faithful, with little to suggest a much later hand has been involved. Until, that is, the very end of the song, when a muted call from the horns causes the style to shift, allowing in some poignant dissonances, all the more cutting in this context. It leads pretty much seamlessly into the second song (“Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes”), in which Holloway’s voice is much more demonstrable—right from the start, in fact: the opening celesta motif almost made me gasp at its stylistic difference. But one gets the impression, quickly, that this song was most in need of assistance; Schumann’s treatment of the text (a prayer for her new-born son’s safety) is somewhat perfunctory and fragmented. While this isn’t helped by Holloway’s interpolation of a number of silences, it is significantly enriched with what he calls a ‘halo’, provided by celesta and strings, continuing throughout; it sits surprisingly comfortably above the song, giving it a delicate, even transcendent dimension. Read more


Proms 2010: James MacMillan – The Sacrifice – Three Interludes (London Première)

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The Proms is now well into its final straight, and the week began with the London première of James MacMillan‘s The Sacrifice – Three Interludes. As the title suggests, MacMillan has extracted the music from his 2007 opera, The Sacrifice.

First of the three is “The Parting”, which opens, disarmingly, like a John Williams-esque bit of film music, continuing in this vein for several minutes. Eventually it coalesces into something deeper; a curious music, driven by the strings, taking some strange harmonic twists (akin to one of Shostakovich’s slow movements), before being abruptly snatched by the brass and percussion. This throws a bit of light and air into the mix, and leads to some brief excitement in the woodwinds, though not for long, finally descending back to the mood from which it sprang. The interlude concludes with the greyest of passages (now Wagner springs to mind), muted, melancholic, ashen.

A “Passacaglia” follows, and if the opening moments suggest Britten or Lutosławski, such notions are quickly dispelled by the boistrous melody that chirps up, setting the tone for where things are going. The music originally accompanied the scene of a marriage feast, and there’s a fair amount of merriment in MacMillan’s material, although equally, the ominous presence of the ground bass, coupled with the nasal quality of much of the music, makes for an ambivalent mood (MacMillan’s programme note bluntly states, “It will end in violence”). Read more

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Proms 2010: Weir, Musgrave, Northcott, Ferneyhough, Taverner, Harvey and Jackson

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The final Proms Saturday Matinee, two days ago, featured the BBC Singers, exploring a variety of contemporary works inspired by early music. The singers were joined for the occasion by the Arditti Quartet and members of Endymion, with David Hill presiding.

The concert opened with Judith Weir‘s millennial composition All the Ends of the Earth. Weir’s innate sensitivity in writing for voices is superbly demonstrated here, the sopranos exploring increasingly complex melismas; they’re answered at intervals by the lower voices, who are backed up by soft harp and percussion. The melodic lines soon become concentric, fast and slow simultaneously, an obvious tip-of-the-hat to Weir’s inspiration for the piece, Perotin. The lower voices’ contributions become more and more static, less and less frequent, as the piece progresses; greatest emphasis is given to the often stratospheric sopranos, whose repeated Alleluia refrain carries real weight, despite the altitude. Towards the conclusion, both the lower voices and the instruments get more caught up in the celebration, the choir ultimately uniting at the very end. Read more

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Proms 2010: Martin Matalon – Lignes de fuite (UK Première)

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On Thursday evening, the Proms was treated to the UK Première of Argentinian composer Martin Matalon‘s Lignes de fuite (“Lines of convergence”), tackled with obvious relish by the splendid BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

The work opens, appropriately, with a single static line, passed between the horns, gradually coloured and fragranced by the percussion and woodwind; it’s a captivating introduction, pregnant with potential. Matalon doesn’t take any time whipping his material into shape, however; the music is positively marshalled around the orchestra. Special attention is given to the brass, who deal with their passages with brusque efficiency, while the strings (aided by celesta) strike more elegant poses, their lines almost coyly twirling their way upward. The structure is given space and more interesting shape by brief episodes where everything momentarily stops, a chance for everyone to get their bearings before launching off somewhere new. Read more


Proms 2010: Graham Fitkin – PK (World Première)

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Graham Fitkin found himself in a sea of populism and accessibility for the world première of his new work PK, performed at the Proms on Monday. The title of his work comes from a reference to the Cornish village of Porthcurno—home of the well-known Minack Theatre, and where, coincidentally, i just happened to be a couple of weeks ago. The piece is related to the village’s connections to early telegraphic communications (Marconi’s ground-breaking first transmission took place only a short distance away, at Poldhu, on the neighbouring Lizard peninsula), and Fitkin has therefore turned to Morse code as inspiration for his material. Read more