Proms 2017: Tom Coult – St John’s Dance (World Première)

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And we’re off: the first performance of Tom Coult‘s new orchestral work St John’s Dance got the 2017 Proms season up and running last night, courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. i’ve only really scratched the surface of Coult’s music, having heard two earlier works in the last couple of years, Codex (Homage to Serafini) and Spirit of the Staircase, premièred in 2014 and 2016 respectively. They’re both interesting pieces (i’ll aim to feature them on 5:4 when i get a chance), but the thing that stood out most in them was Coult’s very particular approach to pace and direction. i need to qualify that by saying my initial impression was that, in each case, these aspects seemed a bit off, but returning to them since, i’ve wondered whether in fact Coult actually succeeds in pulling it off through a mixture of audacity and simple unpredictability. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Tom Coult

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Tonight, this year’s Proms season kicks off in earnest, and once again i’ll be reviewing all of the contemporary pieces receiving world or UK premières. As an extra feature this year, i’ve interrogated some of the featured composers with a short series of questions, the answers of which hopefully will provide a little extra insight into each composer and their music, both generally and specifically with regard to the piece being premièred at the Proms. First up is British composer Tom Coult, whose new work St John’s Dance gets the season up and running this evening. Many thanks to Tom for his responses; you can also read the programme note of his piece after the questions. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Tenebrae

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What is it with British contemporary choral music? i found myself asking that question constantly during the fourteen minutes of Footsteps, the work that opened last night’s Cheltenham Music Festival concert in Tewkesbury Abbey, given by the vocal ensemble Tenebrae. It perhaps goes without saying that one makes a double set of allowances when considering contemporary music for choirs. Within British life and culture, such music is focused almost entirely within the realm of religious services. If you’re thinking the next step of this argument is to stress how such choirs are invariably amateur, and therefore unable to handle the more imaginative machinations of contemporary musical thought and practice, then (up to a point) i don’t really believe this to be true. Speaking as one who has both participated within and directed choirs, the religious faithful of the British Isles are among the most culturally conservative people i have ever encountered, for whom dissonances are iniquities to be temporarily endured until the resolution that will – must! – surely come.

This, as far as i’m concerned, is the primary allowance that one is forced to make when considering British contemporary choral music. Much of it can be regarded as functional, and as such needs primarily to please the people for whom it functions. i’ve said this before, quite a while back now, but tuning into any weekly broadcast of choral evensong on Radio 3 is to travel back in time and step into the aural equivalent of a museum, music trapped in aspic, and this is for the most part no less true when contemporary music is included. The amateur aspect is the secondary allowance one usually has to make, but this obviously doesn’t apply when the music is written for choirs of a high standard, such as Tenebrae. But wouldn’t it be nice if composers of this stuff could challenge the necessity of these allowances, reach a little further and employ some of that spirit of adventurous, unafraid, fundamental questioning of the conventional way of doing things that supposedly underpins – indeed, inaugurated – the very faith for which their music is being written? After all, institutions, if they progress at all, do so at a pace that—well, to call it glacial would be a compliment (just look at the Church of England’s ongoing inability to accommodate, let alone accept, gay people in their midst). So what is it with British contemporary choral music? What on earth are their composers so afraid of? Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Love Songs

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Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: E STuudio Youth Choir

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In the wake of my experiences at this year’s Estonian Music Days, extended in my recent weekend of articles focusing on the country’s choral music, yesterday’s late evening concert at St Matthew’s Church in Cheltenham was a real treat. It featured a choir new to me, the E STuudio Youth Choir, formed in 2012 and based in Estonia’s second largest city, Tartu. The concert was something of an ambassadorial occasion, marking the country’s presidency of the European Council and exploring a mixture of home-grown and international contemporary repertoire. Three conductors – Eliisa Sakarias, Jaanus Karlson and Külli Lokko, who was originally responsible for founding the choir – took turns in a programme that’s best described as a mixed bag of confections.

Put another way, if one thing characterised the thirteen pieces performed in the concert, it was a quality of sweetness, music that sought expression in varying degrees and interpretations of consonance. (While Estonia does, as i’ve written about previously, have a decidedly experimental side, it tends to rear its head less in choral music.) Arvo Pärt was of course well represented – one wonders if an Estonian choir will ever be so courageously far-sighted as to exclude Pärt from a concert programme – opening the evening with his short but well-known setting of the Marian hymn Bogoroditse Dyevo, followed by his much longer take on the Triodion. It was useful to have the pieces in this order, as Bogoroditse Dyevo makes the point well that there’s more to Pärt than just luxuriating in solemnity (if that’s not an oxymoron), the choir positively dancing through the hymn’s rushing material, playful and full of happiness, and treated here to the most transparently clear articulations. The Triodion, more trademark Pärt, posed the question of whether the similarity of utterance exhibited in the three odes worked to reduce or even nullify its intended effect. Yet if one regards it in the same way as separate portions of a common liturgy – surely the only way to regard them – the question more-or-less evaporates. Describing it like that may sound off-putting, but neither the music in this piece nor the choir’s rendition of it at any point suggested the kind of piousness that can render concert performances of sacred music so distasteful. Everything was measured, enabling Pärt’s subtle word-painting – particularly the second ode’s large-scale climax – to speak with real immediacy. Read more

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Proms 2017: new essay on Sounds Like Now

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The 2017 Proms season is fast approaching, and in anticipation of this i’ve contributed an essay to the July edition of online journal Sounds Like Now. The essay focuses specifically on the way contemporary music has been and continues to be represented at the Proms, exploring a number of themes with which regular readers of 5:4 will be familiar, concerns of both quantity and equality – particularly the representation (or otherwise) of women and the involvement (or otherwise) of electronics – all placed within the context of why the Proms was originally founded.

Sounds Like Now is subscription only, but subscribers can find the essay here.

Mix Tape #39 : Days

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The new 5:4 mix tape takes as its theme the days of the week, charting a slow progression from Monday to Sunday. That might not sound like a particularly promising theme, but i’ve been noticing in recent months just how many tracks in my music library contain either specific or more general references to days, which led to the idea for this mix tape. Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to it being (from an aural perspective) such an abstract concept, the music in this mix tape is more than usually eclectic, but once i again i’ve been able to navigate what i think is a convincing, interconnected sonic pathway through exceptionally diverse material. This exercise was revealing in the extent to which some days of the week have received a greater amount of musical attention, while others are much more neglected. This clearly has more than a little to do with our cultural experiences and exploits: plenty of music to choose from for the weekend – when we’re more likely to be away from work, enjoying ourselves – while Tuesday and Wednesday in particular provided relatively few options (though good ones). Read more

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