Proms

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: George Benjamin – Duet (London Première)

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Another day, another première—this time, it was the first London performance of George Benjamin‘s Duet, for piano and orchestra. In the solo rôle is the unsurpassable Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and he precedes Benjamin’s work with a rendition of György Ligeti‘s “Mesto, rigido e ceremoniale”, the second piece from his enthralling Musica ricercata series. It’s a piece that’ll be immediately familiar to anyone who knows Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, and Aimard superbly taps into its dark, profoundly unsettling mood. Built upon disarming repetitions and extreme dynamics, it’s unlike almost anything else in the piano repertoire (except, perhaps, for the sonatas of Galina Ustvolskaya); substantial way beyond its mere three-minute span, the piece suffuses the air with mystery, establishing a dense, almost choking atmosphere for Benjamin’s Duet, which follows without a break. Read more

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Proms 2010: Brett Dean – Amphitheatre (London Première)

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Tonight’s Prom concert opened with another London première, Amphitheatre by the Australian composer Brett Dean, who won last year’s prestigious Grawemeyer Prize. The work was composed a decade ago, and appropriately enough was presented this evening by the Australian Youth Orchestra, conducted by the effervescent Mark Elder.

The clarity of Amphitheatre‘s opening gesture is immediately undermined by the lugubrious, half-lit shapes and fragments that succeed it, the music not so much happening as lurking. Rocking chords, bizarre brass buzzes and tentative, shivering percussion paint a whoozy, intoxicated backdrop from which—eventually, suddenly—concrete ideas arise, pummelling a melody into existence, before descending (or expanding) into dense clamour that impacts the ears with a myriad colours and timbres. Things become subdued; and in an unsettling stillness, the brass quietly convulse—in this work, it seems, as the textures assume a softer quality, the more tense and spasmodic the ensuing behaviour becomes. Quieter still, and things do genuinely seem to calm down, only to be—again—finally questioned by the work’s close gesture, an unnerving, nervous tic. Read more

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Proms 2010: Colin Matthews – Violin Concerto (London Première) plus Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Bedford and Zimmermann

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Tonight’s Proms première found itself nestling among an assortment of contemporary works, each vying for attention. Given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Oliver Knussen’s direction, the concert opened with Stockhausen‘s 1977 work Jubilee, a 16-minute work hysterically described by some as an ‘overture’ (!!). Of course, it’s nothing of the kind, but is rather a broad orchestral tapestry, burgeoning with richness, fragranced heavily with the aroma of ritual. It begins, and remains for some time, with a fairly solemn demeanour, although the incessant high percussion tantalises and hints at more beyond. As it develops, increasingly soloistic strands start arcing out from the texture, highly virtuosic, and the latter half of the work seems to pass in almost no time at all, growing in scale and scope with each passing minute, culminating in a vast hymn-like mass of sound that is utterly thrilling. A splendid example of Stockhausen’s well-worn ‘formula’ compositional approach in action. 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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