Despite BBC Television’s astonishingly stupid recent efforts to reinforce this myopic dogma, new music does not and never has existed in a hermetically sealed, separate space, set apart from the entirety of music that has gone before it. Composers might sometimes wish it did (echoing Beckett’s “All that goes before forget”), but it’s a moot point; audiences—especially Proms audiences—cannot fail to approach contemporary music saturated with the knowledge and memories of a myriad earlier musical experiences, classical or otherwise. Excising new works from the BBC’s television broadcasts of Proms concerts isn’t merely a craven act of crowd-pleasing complaisance, treating music as little more than an emollient unction with which one can unthinkingly unwind, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the interconnected nature and context of the entirety of music. Composers squirm when you ask them about influences, but they’re there, sometimes very obviously so, and two of the most recent Proms premières, from Behzad Ranjbaran & Jörg Widmann, could hardly have made their earlier points of inspiration more clear.
The latest round of Proms premières got one thinking about the relationship between expectation/innovation and engagement. It was Judith Weir‘s new work that got this particular ball rolling around the mind. A composer already at the less adventurous end of the new music spectrum, in recent years her music has increasingly seemed imaginatively torpid, practically treading water. Day Break Shadows Flee, composed for and premièred by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, went to essentially no lengths at all to challenge that assessment. Read more
Nothing remotely ordinary, it often seems, can come from Scandinavia. This notion was emphatically corroborated at the Proms in the recent pair of UK premières from Iceland’s Haukur Tómasson and Finland’s Jukka Tiensuu. i can’t help wondering whether they succeeded as strongly as they did in part for essentially the same reason, namely that they each embody a remarkable immediacy, even a simplicity. That’s not to say that these are simple pieces—they couldn’t be much farther from it—but there’s an overwhelmingly apparent sense of directness from both composers such that, put crudely, what you hear is precisely what you get. Read more
Last week’s visit to the Proms by Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brought first UK performances of works by two composers of Middle Eastern descent. Ayal Adler and Kareem Roustom, born in Jerusalem and Syria respectively, opted for compositional approaches that in some ways could be described as opposite. Adler, coming from a starting point of pure sonics (“an echo, or a reminiscence of sound, lingering after the vast chords slowly fade away”), aimed for an emphatic example of abstraction; by contrast, Roustom’s course was charted via the metrics of pre-Islamic poetry and a concrete intention to “reflect” on the ongoing violence in Roustom’s native land. Both works suffered at the hands of these divergent aims. Read more
New works at the Proms regularly come in the form of concertos, violin and piano continuing to be represented most. The planned performance of Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes (a work i’d been very much looking forward to) on 7 August was unfortunately cancelled due to soloist Leila Josefowicz having just given birth to her third son. However, that disappointment was more than mitigated by its fine replacement, Brett Dean‘s Electric Preludes, also a violin concerto—but for the 6-stringed electric violin, accompanied only by strings—and also receiving its first UK performance.
The three Proms premières given at the end of last month make for an interesting comparison, with regard to the relationship between material and intention. There was no little weight being hefted around; Jonathan Dove‘s Gaia Theory aspired to James Lovelock’s hypothesis of the same name, concerning ideas of ‘self regulation’ in the systems that make up our planet, whereas Gabriel Prokofiev‘s Violin Concerto took both its subtitle, ‘1914’, & its narrative from aspects arising from the commemorations of World War I. Heavyweight stuff, then, making Simon Holt‘s inspirational starting point of a mythical god waking from slumber seem almost triflingly trivial by contrast. The results, though, were rather different.
In the wake of John Tavener‘s death in November last year, more mainstream music festivals have been rather tripping over themselves to offer posthumous tributes; the Cheltenham Festival devoted two concerts to his music last month, & the Proms has done likewise, including the world premières of two of Tavener’s last compositions, Gnōsis & Requiem Fragments. It makes sense to consider them together as, not surprisingly, they operate & speak with a markedly similar manner & tone of voice. Gnōsis, scored for solo mezzo-soprano, alto flute, percussion & strings, sets not so much a text as a small collection of words drawn from three religious traditions, Hindu (‘sat’ = ‘being’, ‘chit’ = ‘consciousness’, ‘ānanda’ = ‘bliss’), Christian (‘Jesu’ = ‘Jesus’) & Islam (‘lā ilāha illā-llāhu’ = ‘there is no god but God’). Requiem Fragments, for SATB choir, 2 trombones & string quartet, incorporates a few passages from the familiar requiem mass alongside a similar selection of words, in this case all Hindu: ‘Brahma’ (the god of creation), ‘ātma’ (the supreme reality/self), ‘Manikarnika’ (a renowned site for cremations) & ‘Mahapralaya’ (referencing a final absorption of everything back into the universe). Read more