It’s rare for the Proms not to feature music by Mark-Anthony Turnage (he’s only been absent from five of the last twenty seasons), & this year’s commission comes from the Royal Philharmonic Society, requesting a work to sit alongside their most famous commission, the climactically hysterical behemoth that is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When pieces begin in such a way as this, it’s always interesting to see how the composer squirms & wriggles around the legacy to which they have been connected; in Turnage’s case, there have been somewhat mixed messages emerging, Turnage expressing both love & dismay at the Beethoven. Read more
Last Monday saw a world première at each of the day’s Prom concerts. Having recently returned from Norway myself, the afternoon concert in Cadogan Hall was especially welcome, featuring the Norwegian brass group tenThing, led by Tine Thing Helseth; for them Diana Burrell had composed a new work, Blaze. The evening performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda, including the première of the first work in a new orchestral cycle by Edward Cowie, Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef.
One of the most striking things about several of this year’s Proms commissions is their scale, with three works of over 40 minutes’ duration. Thomas Adès’ Totentanz was the first, & the second—The Cosmic Dance by the Punjab-born British composer Naresh Sohal—received its first performance last Friday by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. Clocking in at a little over 50 minutes, Sohal’s aim, as that title suggests, is creation itself, both the violent act that brought it all into being as well as its subsequent evolution.
In previous years, some readers will have noticed that there have always been a few Proms premières about which i haven’t written. Jazz-related works, being somewhat removed from my zone of interest & expertise, are ignored, along with re-discovered works from many decades ago (e.g. Britten’s Elegy for strings, receiving its first performance at the end of this month), contemporary cashings-in of earlier music (e.g. Anthony Payne’s latest ‘effort’, a rehash of Vaughan Williams songs being performed next month) & works by cartoon characters (e.g. the concerto ‘by’ Wallace, heard last year). Beyond these omissions, i’ve never overlooked a work for reasons of quality, as some of my less praiseworthy articles will bear witness. But never have i been more tempted to do this than when confronted by Philip Glass‘s latest contribution to the repertoire, his Symphony No. 10, given its UK première at Wednesday’s late night Prom by the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more
Having hitherto bewailed the fact that more challenging composers (Finnissy, Lachenmann et al.) are kept at bay from the Proms for decade after decade, last Monday’s new work came from Colin Matthews, a composer almost wildly over-represented at the festival; Matthews’ new work, Turning Point, was the 22nd of his to be featured at the Proms, a statistic that ought to raise even more eyebrows than those accompanying the glaring composer absences. Judging from the programme note, the piece evidently caused Matthews difficulties in knowing how to proceed, leading to him putting the score aside for over a year. The solution seems to have been to turn the work into a diptych, the second panel of which contrasts hugely with the first. Having finally made it to the concert hall, Turning Point was given its first performance in January 2007 by its commissioners, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Monday’s UK première was by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales directed by Thomas Søndergård. Read more
Last Thursday’s Prom saw the world première of a piece that went through no little trial to be completed. While working on Joybox, with only 40 bars remaining to be composed, John McCabe was struck down with a brain tumour; for many people that would be that, for the time being at least, but McCabe rather impressively slogged on through his subsequent period of treatment to ensure the work was ready on time. Quite apart from anything else, kudos. For inspiration, McCabe turned to an experience at an arcade in Japan, “full of slot machines (one-armed bandits) playing widely different musical jingles, all going on simultaneously but independently. Eventually I seemed to perceive a kind of musical structural pattern to the babel of noise, and this gave me the idea for what I hope is an ‘entertainment’ piece”. This first performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena.
Just over a week ago, the Proms was introduced to a brand new orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, bringing to an end their inaugural concert tour. Having come via Moscow & St Petersburg with Valery Gergiev at the helm, & with works by Tchaikovsky & Shostakovich featured in the concert, it was perhaps not surprising that composer Sean Shepherd would find Russia a dominating inspirational force. Shepherd’s new work, Magiya (Russian for ‘magic’), seeks to tap into the spirit of (in the composer’s words) “the great tradition of the Russian overture” as well as its narrative impetus, “a specifically Russian sense of magic … in the stories, folklore and literature (old and new) of the country, a kind that often gets no explanation or justification; a ‘normal’, everyday magic”.