Proms 2011: Havergal Brian – Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’

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Rarely have i felt the need to prepare so thoroughly before a concert as i did prior to yesterday evening’s Prom performance of Havergal Brian‘s Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’. Books were re-read, CDs were re-listened to, and i even re-visited the writings of John Ruskin, who wrote with such authority about the nature of Gothic. The enterprise felt similar to the preparations for a lengthy trek over difficult and taxing terrain, but such is the nature of the musical landscape of Brian’s symphony. At the outset, i suppose, one must tackle the elephant in the room. Except, of course, it’s nothing of the kind; for weeks on end, one commentator after another has been getting in an excited lather at the size of the Gothic Symphony. “Gosh, it needs over 1,000 players” they coo; “Wow, it’s the longest symphony ever written”, they gush, as though mere scale was somehow a laudable trait or even an end in itself. Brian’s not alone in suffering from such witless gigantophilia; Sorabji, too, is seemingly forever spoken of in terms of the size of his output. Even Tom Service, the BBC’s boy scout-in-residence, could hardly remain still in his seat at yesterday’s performance, positively whooping with delight at the sheer colossality of it all. Some deep breaths and chill pills are clearly called for. Read more

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Proms 2011: Judith Bingham – The Everlasting Crown (World Première)

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Given that so few composers seem to show any real interest in the organ these days, the prospect of a new work for the instrument at this year’s Proms—of 35 minutes’ duration, no less—was a mouth-watering one. Splendidly, the honour was given to Judith Bingham, a composer who, compared to some, seems ever to be lauded in somewhat muted tones, yet in my experience, never seems to put a foot wrong in her diverse output. Her oeuvre flits in and out of direct religious statement, but even pieces with a more secular emphasis usually allude to things spiritual. Her new work for organist Stephen Farr, The Everlasting Crown, is just such a piece, exploring the perhaps unlikely subject of precious stones associated with powerful historical figures, stones that, “undecaying, constant – represent aspects of monarchy and power” (from Bingham’s programme note). Read more

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Proms 2011: Judith Weir – Stars, Night, Music and Light (World Première)

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The 2011 Proms season commenced this evening with the world première of a new work from Judith Weir. Evocatively titled Stars, Night, Music and Light, Weir has drawn on three lines of text from the sixth stanza of George Herbert‘s poem ‘Man’, a poem that echoes the sentiments of Psalm 8, celebrating humankind as the apogee and centrepiece of God’s creation. Herbert’s lines are wonderfully deep, even a touch abstruse at times, but Weir’s sliver of text is beautifully simple, as is the music she’s composed for the occasion. Read more

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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 US composer 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 focused 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

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Richard Ginns – Sea Change

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Nostalgia is a curious and dangerous thing. Its essential condition – memorialising past events, beautifying them into an idealised rendition of the original – is a kind of historical plastic surgery, and its prevalence in contemporary culture shows no sign of abating. At its best, in the realm of the hauntological, it can become a sharp, incisive exploration of half-remembered memories, in the process losing the pretence that nostalgia, unwittingly but unerringly, inflicts on its subject. At its worst, in the realm of Hipstamatic and the neo-Polaroid, it becomes a cosmetic conceit, a wistful yet phony affectation, positing the notion that things were better or more lovely ‘once upon a time’.

Richard Ginns’ Sea Change exists somewhere between these poles, although more at the Hipstamatic end of the continuum (the artwork features precisely this kind of imagery). Ginns acknowledges that his foray into “the memory of childhood visits to the seaside” is “completely personal”, and that truth presents a further difficulty emanating from nostalgia: in some ways it is so utterly personal that one can barely hope to engage without resorting to nostalgia of our own, making for a rather diffuse, even faintly solipsistic kind of empathy. This crystallises in Ginns’ hope that such imagery “produces a sensation of fondness and memory”; notwithstanding the fact that ‘memory’ isn’t a sensation, the kind of ‘fondness’ of which he speaks is, again, entirely personal, and he cannot rely on the fact that, merely by presenting the listener with ostensibly loaded material, we will instinctively relate to it and be drawn into his memories as though they were our own. Artistically, as anywhere else, nostalgia is indeed a curious and dangerous thing. Read more

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Adam Duncan – Images Sombres (World Première)

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The final concert in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” series included the world première of Images Sombres by Adam Duncan, composed for the viola da gamba player Jonathan Manson.

A title such as Images Sombres, composed for viol, puts John Dowland in mind, but while Duncan’s sensibility might echo Dowland’s, his language lacks any overt hint of borrowing or pastiche. The work falls into five movements, beginning with a dark, raw melody that demonstrates the gamba’s unique sound, timbrally somewhere betwixt cello and double bass, but, due to its fretted fingerboard, sounding expressively distant. If anything, that makes Duncan’s leaden material sound, paradoxically, all the more expressive, as though the melody were forcing its way out against the instrument’s better judgement. Read more

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Matthew Bilyard – Impressions; Panayiotis Kokoras – Jet (World Premières)

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Third in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” concert series was a recital given by the outstanding Dutch recorder player Erik Bosgraaf. The concert included two world premières: Impressions by Brit Matthew Bilyard and Jet by Greek composer Panayiotis Kokoras.

The preamble claims Impressions conjures up “images of bustling coastal towns”, but to my ear, Matthew Bilyard begins his piece evoking sounds and callings as of some mythical bird, rapidly alternating between repetitive motifs and lengthier bursts of melody. This interplay between noise and song is clearly a fundamental aspect of the work, and Bilyard brings considerable imagination to bear on it. He divides the piece into three, broadly equal, episodes, the first of which maintains a strident, declamatory tone throughout. The surface of the melody bristles with energy, one moment preoccupied with rapid staccato phrases, the next giving way to glissandi that pull the end of each phrase up or down. The second episode initially continues this train of thought, then almost immediately subjects the melodic line to an assortment of trills, flutters and other buzzing treatments. Read more

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