The latest spate of Proms premières have made for an interesting contrast in terms of abstract versus concrete ideas. At the former end of the continuum—where else would you find him?—was Anders Hillborg and his latest orchestral piece Beast Sampler; at the latter end was Raymond Yiu‘s Symphony, a large-scale work for countertenor and orchestra; somewhere in between was Bergen’s Bonfire, a new symphonic poem from Alissa Firsova.
Three years ago i remarked how the performance of Michael Finnissy‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 was only the composer’s second appearance at the Proms, opining that “one can only hope he will be much better represented in years to come; he is truly one of our best”. It’s therefore wonderful that Finnissy has been commissioned for this year’s Proms season, producing a work that forges a connection of sorts with Sibelius, whose music occupied the rest of the concert. Titled after Sibelius’ affectionate nickname, Janne is somewhat special in Finnissy’s output, as it is only the ninth time that he has written for orchestra, a curious fact in itself for a composer whose worklist currently comprises in excess of 320 pieces. Having hitherto flitted between large and chamber-size orchestras, for Janne Finnissy has utilised the same modest forces used by Sibelius in the brace of symphonies (numbers 3 and 4) performed either side of it.
If there’s one thing that pretty much all of the new works at the Proms tend to suffer a lack of, it’s humility; that’s not to suggest this is down to their respective composers (in most cases), but the act of presenting a première usually finds itself festooned in generous quantities of hype and hullabaloo, which only occasionally turn out to be justified. So Singaporean composer Bertram Wee‘s new work Dithryambs, premièred by Evelyn Glennie last Monday at Cadogan Hall, therefore came as a welcome and very refreshing exception to this razzmatazztic norm. Composed for the relatively unfamiliar aluphone—a clattersome instrument made (as the name implies) from aluminium, resembling B-movie flying saucers, arranged like a set of crotales and sounding like a cross between bells and car hubcaps—Dithyrambs is essentially a study, seeking to tease out and have fun with a variety of facets yet without overstaying its welcome.
Composers say one thing; their music does something else. It’s nice when the two fit together, or at least fall broadly into the same conceptual and/or aesthetic ballpark. But they don’t always. Not by a long chalk.
At the start of last week, the Proms saw important premières from two veterans of new music, Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Both composers have a demonstrative relationship with music from earlier times, producing work that often seeks to find a comfortable marriage of old and new, looking back and forth simultaneously. The titles of both pieces bear some witness to this too, ostensibly bald, functional titles yet which carry centuries’ worth of connotation and legacy. Read more
Stability, progression, continuity, predictability, coherence: these concepts jostle, intermingle and regularly find themselves redefined in a lot of new music. And in two recent Proms premières, they felt overtly prominent, Luke Bedford‘s Instability and Anna Meredith‘s Smatter Hauler. This prominence was partly deliberate and partly due to the extreme contrasts these pieces exhibited. In the case of Meredith’s piece, given its world première by the Aurora Orchestra (who, it should be pointed out, performed from memory—if only more orchestras would be up for this), the stated aim was associated with musical ideas being ‘stolen’ by different groups of instruments (the title being a reference to Victorian handkerchief thieves, mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes novel). An interesting aim, yet in practice the aural result was a simple gradual yielding between centres of distinct behavioural activity, like slowly shifting one’s gaze from group to group. In more imaginative hands, it might have proved effective; but here, the predictability in the work’s systemic approach combined with materials woefully in want of a cogent, compelling idea, simply led to a dull descent into increasingly blank forms of inarticulate bludgeoning. Rarely has a creative vacuum made so much empty noise. Read more
The concerto form is a popular one for new works at the Proms, and the most recent, Luca Francesconi‘s Duende – The Dark Notes (originally intended for the 2014 Proms), has, i think, set the bar higher than any of the last few years. ‘Duende’ is a somewhat complex Spanish term implying aspects of heightened emotional response to artistic stimulus, which the work’s soloist, violinist Leila Josefowicz, summarises as a “hypnotic, demonic zone in which a performer loses themselves in the feeling and emotion and in the physicality of what they’re doing […] and it can also be angelic”. To tap into this, and also partly to obviate the pitfall of rehashing conventions, Francesconi has sought to revert “back to primal matter […] something which is hidden energy; [an] unknown, uncharted land which is within each one of us, beyond originality”. Read more