Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Freya Waley-Cohen

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This afternoon’s Prom, the last of this season’s concerts at Cadogan Hall, features the newly-formed Knussen Chamber Orchestra. Alongside various works by the man himself, there’s also the world première of a short new work by one of Knussen’s former students, Freya Waley-Cohen. In preparation for that, here are her answers to some of my pre-première questions together with the programme note of her piece, Naiad. Many thanks to Freya for her responses. Read more

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relief – The Gloaming

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An album that i’ve been returning to again and again in recent months is The Gloaming, the debut release from relief, nom de guerre of composer Chris Berkes. As debuts go – a 42-minute work cast in four broad movements – it’s certainly impressive. A title like The Gloaming, with its connotations of fading crepuscular light and evening weariness, possibly suggests a music inclined towards shadow, its details vague, half-lost in encroaching darkness; the fact that the second part is titled ‘Tenebrae’ only reinforces such an assumption. Yet, interestingly, The Gloaming turns out to be nothing like that at all.

Taken as a whole, the piece is caught between veracity and artifice, in which field recordings make their presence felt in the midst of heavily processed and sculpted sounds. As such, it makes sense to think of The Gloaming as an acousmatic work, setting out to immerse the listener in a vivid metareality, the parameters and landscapes of which are continually shifting and reforming. That being said, one of the great strengths of the work is the relative limitation of its range of materials, which helps to give a greater sense of definition to its soundworld. It’s both earthy – the third part is even titled ‘Vom Grund’ (from the ground) – and airborne, the product of impacted industrial dirt and floating effervescence, manifesting in close juxtapositions of sharply contrasting materials: the clarity of pitch and clouds of noise; hard accented attacks and soft-edged sustained tones; sounds that are immovable and immaterial. Read more

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Proms 2019: Dobrinka Tabakova – Timber & Steel; Linda Catlin Smith – Nuages (World Premières)

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i’ve often wondered whether, in music today, energy and complexity tend to be mutually exclusive. The whole ‘clocks and clouds’ dichotomy: regularity versus ambiguity, pulse versus drift, clarity versus obfuscation. This is certainly one of the considerations that arises from the latest pair of Proms premières: Dobrinka Tabakova‘s Timber & Steel, which could be described as acting like a metaphorical clock, and Linda Catlin Smith‘s Nuages, which in both its title and behaviour directly invokes the nature of clouds. In many ways they’re a polarised couple of pieces: Tabakova’s avoiding almost all traces of vagueness in its precise, relentless forward momentum, Smith’s obfuscating its reality in a floating, pulseless environment.

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Linda Catlin Smith

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This evening’s Prom concert, given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov, opens with the world première of a new work, Nuages, by US composer Linda Catlin Smith. In preparation for that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, plus the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Linda for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Dobrinka Tabakova

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This evening’s Prom concert, given by the BBC Concerto Orchestra, is another tribute marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Henry Wood, founder and first conductor of the Proms. In addition to various piece premièred or orchestrated by Wood, the concert includes the world première of a new work, Timber & Steel, by Bulgarian composer and the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, Dobrinka Tabakova. To provide a bit of context for that piece, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme note of the piece. Many thanks to Dobrinka for her responses.

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Proms 2019: Jocelyn Pook – You Need to Listen to Us; Alissa Firsova – Red Fox; Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto (World Premières)

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A few weeks back, when critiquing Hans Zimmer’s short work Earth, i almost held back from writing about the piece as it was taking place in a concert for children. i couldn’t help wondering to what extent it was fair to hold up something so intentionally superficial to critical scrutiny. Yet why should music composed with children in mind feel the need to resort to superficiality? Isn’t that making some fairly hefty assumptions about what children can engage with, enjoy and understand? In the case of Zimmer, the question is essentially moot, as Earth didn’t make any concessions at all to the children at the concert – except insofar as literally everything he’s composed in recent years has been an abject concession: to creativity, originality and imagination. Perhaps that suggests his film music makes that same assumption about what adults can engage with, enjoy and understand – indeed, perhaps it compounds its fundamental problems by making this assumption about children and then seeking to treat adults in the same way. But i’m digressing; that’s a discussion for another time; suffice it to say that, at his Proms appearance, Zimmer just sounded like Zimmer, regardless of who happened to be in the room, young or old.

Yet these same questions raised their head again at the Proms last Sunday, at an event called ‘Lost Words’, another concert aimed primarily at children (and/or treating adults like children). The concert was a uniquely bizarre mélange of cloying, alarmist, nostalgic propagandising about the environment, nature and language. It was a performance as difficult to negotiate as it was to stomach, including two world premières, by Jocelyn Pook and Alissa Firsova, performed by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain with the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Jessica Cottis.

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Proms 2019: Dieter Ammann – Piano Concerto (“Gran Toccata”) (World Première)

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None of the premières so far at this year’s Proms has left me with a more conflicted first impression than Dieter Ammann‘s new Piano Concerto, given its first performance on Monday by Andreas Haefliger with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. The basis for that reaction is wrapped up in trying to decide whether the piece is full of contrasts or contradictions. Considering its essential behaviour, if were a 5- or even 10-minute work it would be quite easy to write it off as all – or at least predominantly – superficial froth. Yet at over 30 minutes’ duration, that’s not the case at all, it’s not a work that can be taken lightly. Yet the extent to which – and the way in which – it can be taken seriously is another quandary. One thing that’s certain, though, is the importance of its subtitle: “Gran Toccata” – any ‘toccata’ worthy of the name is going to consist of a fair amount of fleet-footed material that twists and turns in unpredictable ways. Ammann’s Piano Concerto doesn’t simply do this, it embodies this. Read more

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Proms 2019: Errollyn Wallen – This Frame is Part of the Painting; Joanna Lee – At this man’s hand; Jonathan Dove – We Are One Fire (World Premières)

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Three of the last four world premières at the Proms have been vocal works, two of them for unaccompanied choir, the other for voice and orchestra. One of the choral works, Jonathan Dove‘s We Are One Fire, was commissioned as a birthday present for the 90th anniversary of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Dove turned to playwright Alasdair Middleton for a text that could serve as both a response to and an echo of the sentiment in Schiller’s Ode to Joy, celebrating humanity’s “shared ancestry”. Apparently, Dove wanted to compose “something joyous and tribal, but not using (or copying) any traditional music from another country”. It’s bizarre, then, that what Dove has created is so slavishly generic in its musical language.

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Proms 2019: Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. (World Première)

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A week ago, the Proms saw the world première of a new work by no fewer than 14 composers. Conceived by conductor Martyn Brabbins as a 60th birthday present to himself, the piece is inspired by, and modelled on, the structure and character of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. For this new work, Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B., Brabbins selected a theme (keeping its origin a secret) as the basis for fourteen variations, composed by Dai Fujikura, David Sawer, Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, Iris ter Schiphorst, Brett Dean, Wim Henderickx, Richard Blackford, Harrison Birtwistle, Judith Weir, Gavin Bryars, Kalevi Aho, Anthony Payne and John Pickard. (It’s impossible to ignore how much of a sausage-fest that is, but it’s Brabbins’ party so obviously he calls the shots.) The tempos and approximate durations of Elgar’s original movements are, with a few exceptions, generally retained in Pictured Within, resulting in a composite work that corresponds to the overall shape, nature and inner relationships running throughout the Enigma Variations. Read more

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Joanna Lee

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This afternoon’s Prom moves away from the Royal Albert Hall to Holy Sepulchre church, for a concert given by the BBC Singers. The programme is an all-English selection of works, finishing with the world première of At this man’s hand by Joanna Lee. In anticipation of that, and to provide a bit of background and context to the work, here are her answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Joanna for her responses. Read more

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Fermata

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Today’s my 20th wedding anniversary, so i’m going to be away for the rest of the week enjoying a completely music-free time with my best Beloved. i’ll be catching up on all the Proms premières as soon as i’m back.

Proms 2019: Benjamin Beckman – Occidentalis (European Première); Detlev Glanert – Weites Land (UK Première)

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Until last Sunday, among the new works premièred at the Proms there hadn’t been what we’re all used to hearing: namely, a short, ebullient romp that gets a concert up and running. And then, a couple of days ago, the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, directed by Antonio Pappano, gave the first European performance of Occidentalis, by US composer Benjamin Beckman. In his response to my pre-première questions, Beckman spoke about writing a piece that was a way of getting away from the vocal music he had been writing (as part of an opera), and the programme note explains the title by reflecting on the historical use of the term and its associations with travel – going west – as well as connotations of immigration with regard to the USA.

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Summartónar 2019 (Part 2)

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As i previously remarked, one of the most (and one of the only) disappointing things about my first experience of the Faroe Islands’ Summartónar festival was the almost complete lack of music by Faroese composers. The inclusion of Kristian Blak – artistic director of the festival – mitigated that to an extent, and of course i’m conscious of the fact i only attended six says out of more than 90, but i nonetheless came away with a limited sense of what contemporary music in the Faroe Islands is like. During my time there, the emphasis was on an initiative called North Cultitude 6263; begun last year, it seeks to bring together cultural activities from the countries located at the latitudes of 62-63 degrees. The initiative is not simply about showcasing each other’s work, but also to foster collaboration: Ensemble 6263 is a newly-formed group who, performing for the first time at this year’s festival, included players from Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. The plan is to expand this further until all countries around the world at these latitudes are included.

Some of these performers came from the Icelandic ensemble Caput, who gave a concert of their own in Tórshavn’s Nordic House, a much larger and more lavish counterpart to the one in Reykjavik. i’d been highly impressed by Caput when hearing them in action at the Dark Music Days in January, and while their concert on this occasion was a somewhat more relaxed affair (a free lunchtime event), if anything it proved to be even more involving. This was largely due to the choice of repertoire, Caput bringing together a collection of works that all had a tendency to move slowly and meditatively. To this end, the concert was dedicated to three figures who have died in recent times: flautist Manuela Wiesler, and two Icelandic composers whose music book-ended the occasion and brought to it an intense solemnity. Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson‘s Kveðja, which opened the concert, featured episodes of freedom on flute and viola, flying gently out from a steady rhythmic grounding in the harp. It sounded akin to a processional, but one looking steadfastly up at the sky rather than down at the ground. Read more

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Benjamin Beckman

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This morning’s Prom concert, given by the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, features the first European performance of Occidentalis by one of the orchestra’s Apprentice Composers, Benjamin Beckman. To provide some background and context, here are his answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Ben for his responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: Huw Watkins – The Moon (World Première)

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There are times when it seems the Proms is incapable of commissioning a new work without foisting upon the composer some theme or connection that they are required to incorporate into the piece. The festival’s ongoing theme commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings was brought to bear on yet another new work, Huw WatkinsThe Moon, which received its world première last night. Watkins opted to sidestep notions of spaceflight and technology in favour of something more romantic, turning to 19th and 20th century poetry about the moon, by Shelley, Whitman and Larkin, for inspiration.

The moon landings took place half a century ago, but listening to The Moon you’d be forgiven for thinking it was composed when notions of getting to the moon were still but a pipedream, yet to make it even to a drawing board. While not exactly pastiche, there’s an overt (even ersatz) early 20th century vibe permeating a great deal of the work. Clean, basic, straightforward, undemanding, every idea outlined in the musical equivalent of black marker pen; even before a few minutes have passed, it all sounds incredibly timid and tired. Watkins’ musical language has always tended towards the conservative, but i’m not sure it’s ever been articulated so overtly as here.

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Zbigniew Karkowski – Encumbrance

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In recent years, one of the most vividly memorable Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festivals was 2017, when the work of Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski was prominently featured. Huddersfield is in fact the only place in the UK that i’ve ever had the opportunity to experience Karkowski’s music performed live, which suggests everywhere else is either too ignorant or – more likely – too timid to consider programming it. Karkowski’s music is not necessarily intimidating, though his radical, implacable embracing of extremes perhaps makes his music more likely than most to send certain portions of the audience scrambling for the exit.

One of the most striking performances from HCMF 2017 (which i somewhat raved about at the time) was given by Gęba Vocal Ensemble. The concert included Encumbrance, a half-hour work by Karkowski for choir and electronics. The piece seriously bowled me over, so i was excited to learn that a CD of Encumbrance has recently been issued on the Polish label Bôłt. Better still, the disc includes two performances of the work, which may seem peculiar but turns out to be extremely revealing about which aspects of the music are fixed and which are variable. The performances, which date from 2014 and 2016, are again given by the Gęba Vocal Ensemble, with the electronics realised by Wolfram in the earlier recording and Constantin Popp in the latter. Read more

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Summartónar 2019 (Part 1)

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When did you last listen to music from the Faroe Islands? Who’s your favourite Faroese composer or group? For many, i suspect, those questions would likely be impossible to answer, and until recently – with the big exception of Eivør, one of my very favourite singers – i would have been in the same position. That is, until a few weeks ago, when i took up an invitation to spend some time at Summartónar, the Faroe Islands’ annual music festival.

To say that Summartónar is different from most music festivals is not simply an understatement but a reflection of the broader fact that pretty much everything in the Faroe Islands is, to some degree, different from everywhere else. Its location, a remote spot in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway; its composition, a cluster of 18 principal islands (all but one inhabited) none of which is longer than around 30 miles, rising vertiginously from sea level to form austere, alien hill ranges; its language, rooted in Old Norse and today resembling a curious mash-up of Icelandic and Danish. Though clearly related and connected to a wider community, it’s nonetheless a place that feels uncannily dislocated.

Nothing in the Faroes is ordinary, and unsurprisingly this extends to its cultural life too. Even before i’d experienced anything first hand i’d heard how, due to its relatively small population (around 51,000), musicians there tend not to fit into neat generic or stylistic categories but instead take part in a wide variety of musical forms, encompassing and combining folk, jazz, classical, pop and the avant-garde. Such a pluralistic outlook as this can be seen in the make-up of Summartónar itself. Its events, most of which gravitate around the capital city of Tórshavn, generally fall into one of three broad descriptors: folk / singer-songwriter, jazz / world, and classical / experimental; beyond these are cultural evenings (about which more in a moment) and concerts taking place out of doors and in caves. Despite its remoteness and relatively small size, there’s clearly a wealth of music-making going on in the Faroes, which perhaps explains why the Summartónar festival lasts for no less than three full months (June to August). Read more

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Proms 2019: Outi Tarkiainen – Midnight Sun Variations (World Première)

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Composers generally tend to shy away from admitting their music to be overtly autobiographical, but in the case of the latest Proms première, by Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen, the piece is a clear extension – a manifestation, even – of the composer’s way of experiencing the world. In her answers to my pre-première questions, Tarkiainen wrote of her synaesthetic response to harmony, perceiving it as “various colour-shades of light, and my compositions make extensive use of modality, of ‘scales of light’, as it were.” This perception in turn feeds into a larger inspiration drawing on her experiences of arctic light, which is “rich in hues and varies steeply from one season to another”. Her new work, Midnight Sun Variations, can therefore be regarded as something of a double portrait, capturing an aspect of the natural world, and of herself: “In this work I am very openly what I am.”

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Outi Tarkiainen

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This evening’s Prom, given by the BBC Philharmonic, includes the world première of Midnight Sun Variations by Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen. In anticipation of that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme note of the piece. Many thanks to Outi for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: Peter Eötvös – Alhambra; Tobias Broström – Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul (UK Premières)

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The last two premières at the Proms have both been concertos: Alhambra, the third violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, and Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul, a double-trumpet concerto by Swedish composer Tobias Broström. It’s been interesting to note how their overall approach to narrative is, at a fundamental level strikingly similar, while their respective modus operandi could hardly be more different.

As the name suggests, the inspiration for Eötvös’ Alhambra is the eponymous ninth century palace in Granada. By his own admission, Eötvös hadn’t been to visit the Alhambra before writing the piece (his first time in Granada was at the work’s world première earlier this month); the concerto is instead an imaginary walk around the palace complex and grounds. The nature of this walk, emphatically led by the violin throughout (with a scordatura mandolin as an occasional sidekick), is capricious. Its outlook is divided, inexorably drawn back and forth between impulses that tend to the reflective and the jaunty. The oscillating effect of this is demonstrated in the opening minutes: the violin’s opening solo, ostensibly searching, is suddenly forgotten in a flash of flamboyance; withdrawing inward, the music then opens out into a high register burst of lyricism, surrounded by chiming percussion – something that will recur several times during the piece – before descending into a rollicking sequence of pure merriment with the rest of the orchestra.

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