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
Religion is for many the place where peace meets its end, falling at the hands of inharmonious ideologies in the hearts & minds of their most violent advocates. On the one hand, the claim that religion—one or many—is directly to blame for most of the innumerable wars & conflicts that have dogged & continue to dominate civilisation is debatable, yet the claim that religion is often directly associated with their respective protagonists’ motivations is unquestionable. All of which may or may not have been on the mind of Roxanna Panufnik, whose new work Three Paths to Peace received its European première at the Proms a couple of weeks ago, appropriately performed by the World Orchestra for Peace, but embarrassingly directed on this occasion by one of modern conflict’s least strenuous opponents, Valery Gergiev. Read more
The first of this year’s Proms premières came from Chinese composer Qigang Chen, with a new trumpet concerto for Alison Balsom. Inspirationally, the title of the work, Joie éternelle, stems from an acknowledged act of nostalgia on Chen’s part, referencing a melody of the same name from the Kunqu operatic version of The Peony Pavilion, a work Chen heard in his youth. He describes the melody as “delicate and graceful, yet [it] also has an unyielding, instantly identifiable character […] Subsequent encounters with the tune as an adult have thus evoked childhood memories”. However, that title, Joie éternelle, gains additional resonance when one considers that Chen was the last composer ever to study with Olivier Messiaen (Chen’s activities have been split between China & France ever since), & Chen perhaps acknowledges something of this by remarking how the melody’s name has “a quasi-religious connotation”. The work was premièred by Balsom with the China Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Long Yu, in Beijing at the start of July, & it was they who gave this first UK performance at the Proms. Read more
Holidays beckon; back in two weeks, with a mega catch-up of all the new Proms premières…
Festivals come & festivals go, & Cheltenham—just like Bristol New Music a few months back—imaginatively opted to end not with a bang but on a high. It came courtesy of Norway, with the immaculate combination of Trio Mediaeval, three female singers with voices lifted straight out of the Middle Ages, & one of the most versatile trumpeters of our age, Arve Henriksen. The fruits of their collaboration, heard within the majestic space that is Cheltenham College’s Chapel, were as breathtaking as they were unexpected. For a little over an hour, they together weaved a tapestry of sound that integrated early music from throughout Europe, both sacred & secular, with avant garde & experimental elements, including electronics. What this was not—& the lengthy, articulate programme note from the Trio went to some lengths to elaborate this—was an attempt to present early music with an affected air of ‘authenticity’, but instead to embrace the unknowability of such ancient music & reinvent it at each performance. As such, it becomes something simultaneously ancient & modern: Read more
In a rare instance of pedagogical insight, my A-level music teacher once declared, “You can’t put composers into boxes; they have a tendency to get out”. It’s true, yet to some extent we all tend to do it, in our efforts to try & make sense of the musical landscape in front of us. In the case of composers Arvo Pärt & John Tavener, they tend to get that treatment from both directions, those who have striven to market every last pound out of them as well as those who think every last note they write is nothing but the most sanctimonious drivel. Two concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival this week featured large doses of both composers’ music. The first, at Tewkesbury Abbey, was given by the Hilliard Ensemble with the BBC Singers, the Carducci String Quartet & a collection of instrumentalists; it was followed two days later with a late evening concert at Gloucester Cathedral, featuring four string quartets: Cavaleri, Celan, Gildas & Hermes. Together, they provided a fresh opportunity for consideration & appraisal of both composers’ work.
Over the weekend, three concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival, in different ways & for different reasons, caused one to reflect on the present within the context of ideas, experiences & memories from the past. The most frustrating & patience-testing were to found in the Saturday afternoon recital at the Pittville Pump Room given by the Fidelio Trio, the first half of which presented a threesome of works of the kind where composers dearly wish them to be more than the sum of their parts. Graham Fitkin‘s Lens, Michael Zev Gordon‘s Roseland & Tom Stewart‘s Flying Kites: Concentric Circles (receiving its première) took turns to mooch through material so terrified of doing anything demonstrative that they remained trapped in a limbo of blank tonality. Restraint & simplicity do not make something profound, a fact lost on these pieces, their respective blind, senile, melismatic bleatings lacking any meaningful emotional weight or poignancy. The second half brought relief: Piers Hellawell‘s Etruscan Games offered very much more focussed lyricism, the ambitious third movement in particular exploring an impressive density of counterpoint. Arlene Sierra‘s duo Avian Mirrors provided three charming snapshots of behaviour, the last of which, ‘Display’, was amusingly direct, violin & cello (serendipitously played on this occasion by men) becoming a preening, posturing pair of rivals in search of a mate, the material a wild display of testosterone-fuelled showmanship. But overshadowing them all was the concert’s final work & second première: Gavin Higgins‘ The Ruins of Detroit. Where the music of the first half seemed to cleave to something undefinable from a less-demanding earlier age, Higgins confronted the past with courage. Titled after & inspired by the famous photographs by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, the piece opened in a place of anaemic fragility (bringing to mind the start of Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana), given hauntological resonance in deep muted piano notes. Here, finally, was lyricism was a real sense of context. Negotiated with necessary sensitivity by the Fidelio Trio, Higgins’ textures were often strikingly vivid, as in a later episode where the piano became a kind of abstract water dripping on romantic memories of former glories. Appropriately, the material often decayed from melody to fragment to gesture, during which one became aware of something vestigial beneath; the conclusion said it all, a sad downward sagging, under the combination of both physical & nostalgic weight. Read more