i had many reasons for wanting to hear last night’s National Youth Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, not least of which was simply to hear NYO in action again. They are an astonishing orchestra, not merely able but mature, sensitive and abounding in talent; their rendition of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie a few years back is a particularly vibrant memory. Beyond this, i was intrigued to hear more music by German composer Iris ter Schiphorst, whose Aus Liebe had been one of the most striking works at the Arditti Quartet’s HCMF concert last year. But most of all, i wanted to hear Richard Strauss‘ Also Sprach Zarathustra, a work i’ve known intimately since my teenage years but which i’ve never, until yesterday, had the opportunity to hear performed live.
There’s something very strange about this; the rest of Strauss’ tone poems enjoy regular performances in the UK, both at national and local level (particularly Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan), but trying to find a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra is almost impossible. In this respect, it’s completely the opposite of the other major work included in last night’s concert, Holst’s The Planets, a work so ubiquitous in the UK that it borders on the absurd. Hearing the Strauss and Holst in close proximity (a superb bit of concert programming) only makes the absence of Also Sprach in British concert halls all the more unfathomable. Read more
The latest pair of premières at the Proms have shared a leaning towards, not abstraction exactly, but a kind of elusive vagueness that seeks more to hint and evoke rather than aiming at direct statement. Both, however, got there via quite specific starting points. Dutch composer Reinbert de Leeuw turned to Hölderlin for both the title and the environment of his new large-scale orchestral work Der nächtliche Wanderer. At nearly 50 minutes’ duration, it’s one of the longest contemporary works to be featured at the Proms in a while, although the extent to which de Leeuw justified this duration is debatable. Its primary objective is to create an immersive nocturnal soundscape, theatrical and even rather frightening. To this end, the work’s opening gambit is very effective, featuring the recorded sounds of a distant barking dog segueing into a lengthy prelude where low tam-tams and bells form the backdrop to a small repeating motif from a lone viola, answered by rising/falling phrases from divided strings. Read more
Further information has been made available today about this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, following the announcement in May that Georg Friedrich Haas will be the featured Composer in Residence. Predictably, there’s a great deal to get excited about. The music of Harry Partch will be making an appearance courtesy of Ensemble Musikfabrik, who’ve done so much to promote Partch over the last few years, reconstructing his vast array of weird and wonderful microtonal instruments (their rendition of his And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma at Bristol New Music 2014 was a dazzling testament both to the ensemble’s meticulous care/preparation as well as to Partch’s discombobulating approach to—well, pretty much everything). To expand upon this, the ensemble has commissioned composers to write for these instruments, and will be premièring several of them at this year’s festival, including an hour long work by Claudia Molitor titled Walking with Partch.
Swiss composer Alfred Zimmerlin will be bringing his Stone Orchestra to Huddersfield, and the festival’s fondness for improvisation will this year be entertained by Peter Brötzmann and Gareth Davis, the latter appearing once again in conjunction with the music of American composer/guitarist Elliott Sharp (of whose solo contrabass clarinet piece Silva Silvarum Davis gave a wonderful first performance a couple of years ago). Having brought the festival to an end in recent years, the Arditti Quartet will this time be getting it up and running with an opening night concert alongside contemporary music’s most radical nightingale, Jennifer Walshe, giving the UK première of Walshe’s Everything is Important (which, coincidentally, received its world première in Darmstadt just last night). The Ardittis will also be joining with Klangforum Wien in a concert presenting two major works by Haas, The Hyena and his brand spanking new String Quartet No. 10. The Diotima Quartet will also be appearing, performing new works by Enno Poppe and Sam Hayden, and HCMF regular Richard Uttley is back with music by Haas, Eric Wubbels and Olga Neuwirth, as well as—best of all—a new piece for Fender Rhodes piano by Michael Cutting, whose This Is Not A Faux Wood Keyboard remains a particularly memorable highlight from last year.
Throw in new and recent works from the likes of Rebecca Saunders, Liza Lim, Eva Reiter, George Lewis and John Zorn and HCMF 2016 is already shaping up to be a typically kaleidoscopic and challenging festival. It runs from Friday 18 to Sunday 27 November; full details and tickets are available from the festival website.
Hot on the heels of one new violin concerto at the Proms, here comes another, this time courtesy of Russian-born, US-based composer Lera Auerbach. But no ordinary concerto, as it’s also subtitled a ‘symphony’, her third, and the involvement of a mixed chorus lends it the quality of both a cantata and a song cycle. Auerbach’s great compatriot Alfred Schnittke also used to mix up idioms in just this way, and aspirations towards his sort of wry take on things (though definitely not his soundworld; more about that in a moment) can be felt in the core of the piece, which goes by the grand title of The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie. The titular minstrel is a role taken on by the solo violin, acting as a peripatetic storyteller, given a literal voice by the chorus. The work’s eight songs are also written by Auerbach, closely modelled on familiar tropes of nonsense rhyme calling to mind Edward Lear, Spike Milligan, Lewis Carroll and even Dr. Seuss.
Violin Concertos are a regular feature among the new works premièred at the Proms, and the first of this year’s came from Michael Berkeley, given by violinist Chloë Hanslip with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. Berkeley’s work remains somewhat underappreciated in the UK, despite his prevalence over the years on TV and radio, maybe because he’s viewed as a traditionalist. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is, i think, more subtle. First of all, Berkeley is abundantly open to new ideas, and his support for the music of other composers has been considerable (his tenure directing the Cheltenham Music Festival, where every concert included a contemporary work, is one of the steepest apogees in its history). As far as Berkeley himself is concerned, his work thrives on a balance between a soundworld broadly steeped in richly complex definitions of consonance, from which he is prepared to depart as and when necessity dictates. Aesthetically speaking, Berkeley always makes this tension a comfortable one, in the sense that he is clearly at ease going where he likes (and as such, makes an interesting contrast with James MacMillan, whose work often sounds ill at ease balancing its inherent tendency to convention with extrinsically imposed urges towards modernism). His new Violin Concerto arguably embraces and makes a feature of that tension more than ever before.
There were paradoxes at play throughout Anthony Payne‘s new work for choir and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky, given its première at last night’s Prom by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Andrew Davis. Well, paradoxes is one word for them: inconsistencies and/or anachronisms would be another equally accurate way of putting it. First is the matter of old and new. Aesthetically speaking, Payne’s musical language emanates from the 20th century, a mash-up of idiomatic traits from the likes of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton and, occasionally, Britten, all of whom made their presence felt in this piece. Read more
Last week, i finally got round to watching a concert i’d recorded last year celebrating the music of film composer John Williams, featuring highlights from throughout his long career. For better or worse, i couldn’t help recalling that concert again and again during last night’s world première at the Proms of Magnus Lindberg‘s Two Episodes, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. In some respects, this wasn’t entirely a surprise. Always a demonstrably accessible composer, Lindberg’s work in the last few years has reached more and more into the kind of musical language associated with movie soundtracks (a quality i’ve pointed out with regard to both Al largo and Era). What was surprising, though, was that the piece was entirely conceived to serve as an homage to the work following it in the programme, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Read more