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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Louth Contemporary Music Society: Silenzio Festival, Dundalk

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In terms of outlook (non-partisan), commitment (total to the point of absurdity) and above all its track record during the last eleven (essentially unsung) years, Louth Contemporary Music Society unquestionably deserves to sit alongside the very best contemporary musical festivals. Its most recent, Silenzio, which took place last weekend in Dundalk, on Ireland’s east coast, only cements that fact yet more solidly. The focus on this occasion was the music of Salvatore Sciarrino – making his first appearance in Ireland – coupled with the world première of a substantial new work from Swiss composer Jürg Frey. At first glance, the pairing of Frey and Sciarrino seemed somewhat arbitrary, though as things turned out there was an unexpected aural connection in at least one piece (though it didn’t exactly work in either of their favours). The festival was once again populated by a spectacular collection of interpreters of contemporary music, including clarinettist Carol Robinson, flautist Matteo Cesari, Quartetto Prometeo, percussionist Simon Limbrick and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart.

The festival began in the narrow confines of Dundalk Gaol with an evening of Jürg Frey’s music. It opened with As imperceptibly as grief, a setting for solo soprano of Emily Dickinson’s poem, and in hindsight it was this opening song that carried the greatest weight of the concert, though not due to anything radically different about its music. As one might have expected from Frey, the piece unfolded in a calm, unhurried manner. Initially, the space was ‘setup’ via the soprano – Hélène Fauchère, in a tour-de-force display of infinite control – slowly placing evenly-spaced quasi-isolated notes in the air. Two ‘parts’ were present: syllables of the text on one pitch, open vowels a semitone higher, an oscillation that soon became more melismatic. As in many of Frey’s pieces, it was permeated with a sense of profundity, one that was heightened by these moments of melisma. At one point in particular (before the text moved from the afternoon to dusk), the song became captivated in an extended ‘ooh’ episode that suggested pure ecstasy, as though Fauchère were caught in a private emotional reverie or possessed by a vision. On a more musical level, it displayed an intense enjoyment of sound itself, both its mere presence and its tangibility – tactility even – wanting to linger over its pitches as well as the movement between them. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: New Estonian Choral Music, Tõnu Kõrvits – Moorland Elegies, Galina Grigorjeva – Nature Morte

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To bring this first Estonia in Focus weekend to a close, some excellent CDs of Estonian contemporary choral music have been released in the last few months. Together they admirably demonstrate the considerable range and richness of compositional thought typical of the country’s new music scene. For a broad but in-depth overview of this scene, there’s a superb new anthology released by the Estonian Music Information Centre, the primary and superbly supportive outlet for the country’s musical output (at present, the disc only appears to be available directly from there). It contains music by no fewer than ten composers, works all written within the last 15 years.

Folksong, whether clearly invoked or implied, is an influence in several of the pieces. Most obviously in Kristo Matson‘s Three Estonian Folk Songs, a strangely-structured work – the middle ‘song’ is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that it hardly counts – and perhaps a little too simplistic for its own good, but with some pretty moments, particularly in the opening song. Piret Rips-Laul‘s Paradisi Gloria is similarly simple, and regarding the album as a whole feels like the odd one out, more redolent of the sugary choral styles so prevalent in the US, tapping into a harmonic world not unlike Morten Lauridsen’s but without the scrunchy diatonics. Also with a folk sensibility, but greater invention and beauty, is Maria Kõrvits‘ work for female choir Haned-luiged (Geese-Swans), essentially homophonic but here and there enriched with sustained chords behind, while Mariliis Valkonen‘s Usalduse jõgi (River of Trust) widens the scope of such simplicity, combining relatively rigid underpinning (via drones) with a mixture of unified declamation and bursts of more textural music. Many of the works on this disc have love as a central theme. In Near by Evelin Seppar, setting texts by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it’s implicit rather than stated (Seppar’s partner conducts the choir for whom it was written), though the work’s strong upward movements that coalesce around the phrase “mystic shape”, and the overwhelmingly passionate outpouring heard later, answered by a soft, heartfelt conclusion, make the subtext abundantly clear. Born in 1958, Toivo Tulev is the elder statesman here, and not simply in terms of age: Tulev has acted in the role of composition teacher for four of the other featured composers. Though the two movements from his 2007 vocal cycle Sonnets are unfortunately marred by an imperfect recording (afflicted with a low hum), the stirring melancholy that Tulev wrings from Dante’s La vita nuova is crystal clear. First the choir laments and consoles itself as a kind of close-knit support group, before turning outwards in a more emotionally raw episode that benefits from sounding intuitive, the contrast between loud, high outbursts and sustained softer passages making this arguably the most direct music on the disc. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Galina Grigorjeva – Vespers (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Thematic series | 1 Comment

A major new choral work was premièred at this year’s Estonian Music Days in Tallinn, by one of the country’s most celebrated composers. Born in the Ukraine, Galina Grigorjeva relocated to Estonia 25 years ago and has since become essentially adopted by the country as one of its own. On 6 April, Vox Clamantis, conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve, gave the first performance of Grigorjeva’s Vespers. It’s an ambitious, 30-minute work in seven movements, each of which sets words (in English) drawn either from the Orthodox prayerbook or passages of the King James Bible. Not all of Grigorjeva’s music shows this so overtly, but the Vespers are clearly indebted to the general aesthetic (if not quite the technique) of Estonia’s most famous composer Arvo Pärt. It’s a different approach from that in some of her other choral work (about which i’ll be writing in due course), but here the music is for the most part intentionally kept emotionally remote, focusing instead on a more austere, one-step-removed mindset that taps deeply into both the soundworld and attitude of Orthodox worship. Perhaps it goes without saying that this won’t necessarily prove inviting for everyone.

Personally, both at the concert and a few months on i remain in two minds about the piece. As i noted in my original review, one of the risks taken by the most fervent religious contemporary composers – most obviously, in recent years, Pärt, John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, as well as, to an extent, James MacMillan and even, further back, Olivier Messiaen – is that the music can (inadvertently or deliberately) end up depending on the notion of a higher power in order, as i wrote before, “to ‘fill in the blanks’ and imbue the music with some of that power”. This is not true of every piece by these composers, of course, and in most of what i’ve heard of Grigorjeva’s music it certainly isn’t the case. In the Vespers, though, there are times when the music exhibits a kind of listlessness that one senses is precisely one of these places where the ‘magic’ is missing (or not, depending on your spiritual outlook). i’d cite the fifth movement as an example of this, a setting of the Nunc dimittis that’s perfectly pretty but at the same time seriously enervated, to the point that its broad assertive climax sounds terribly forced. Even more, though, is seventh movement ‘I will bless the Lord’, an extended setting of Psalm 34 that arguably pushes things too far for too long. There’s nothing wrong with a composition resembling (or indeed, for the composer, being) an act of worship, but in this movement the music seems to be leaving a very obvious spiritual ‘outline’ that – again, depending on where you’re coming from – either does or doesn’t get filled in. It’s a shame this is how the work ends. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Cyrillus Kreek – Psalms 121, 137, 141

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Estonia’s highly imaginative approach to choral music is not in any way a recent development. The country’s most dominant figure of the earlier twentieth century is Cyrillus Kreek (1889–1962), who in addition to being a composer was also a choral conductor and a collector of both Estonian and Swedish folk music. Not only did he make countless arrangements of these songs and hymns throughout his life, but they permeated Kreek’s own choral compositions which, while they display the superficially aloof demeanour typical of hymnody, retain an intense, personal immediacy that makes them powerfully poignant. Kreek’s oeuvre has been undergoing something of a renaissance in recent decades. His music was essentially outlawed after World War II for reasons of politics and ideology, but since the late 1980s, coinciding with Kreek’s centenary and, shortly after, the re-establishment of Estonian independence, Kreek has been increasingly celebrated as a composer of surprising ingenuity as well as, from a religious perspective, ecumenicity, drawing on a variety of forms of Christianity, from both East and West.

Three of Kreek’s Taaveti laulud – settings of verses from the Biblical Psalms of David – were featured at this year’s Estonian Music Days, and they demonstrate something of the quietly adventurous nature of Kreek’s music. His treatment of Psalm 121, composed in 1923, is one of simple contrasts, juxtaposing low, lugubrious references to lifting one’s eyes to the hills (as though afflicted with tiredness, only achieved with effort) with a lighter middle section reflecting on the nature of God, introducing richer harmonies, filled with hanging sevenths. Having created a warmer soundworld, Kreek takes the music back down into the depths from whence they came.

His take on Psalm 137, which dates from 1944, is more substantial. One of the most painful of the Psalms (lamenting the Israelites languishing in the wake of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem), Kreek’s setting is very much more Orthodox in nature, using male voices only, homophonic and following a chant-like procession throughout. The air of melancholy is kept understated at first, suddenly plunged into tonally-conflicted plangency at the prospect of being forced to sing “one of the songs of Zion”. But what makes the piece yet more emotionally broken is its other Orthodox trapping, inserting ‘Hallelujah’ at the end of each phrase. The effect in such a context as this – in terms of both words and music – is highly dramatic, bespeaking an inspiring determination to praise even in the midst of profound suffering. It brings to mind the line from W. H. Auden’s ‘Atlantis’, “Stagger onward rejoicing”, and injects into Kreek’s mournful music an extra layer of poignancy, particularly as these Hallelujahs themselves become harmonically contorted, at the end setting up a drone that underpins the final line (with a beautifully extended final Hallelujah). This is music at its most transparently heartbroken, where all that remains is hope. Read more

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