Nothing remotely ordinary, it often seems, can come from Scandinavia. This notion was emphatically corroborated at the Proms in the recent pair of UK premières from Iceland’s Haukur Tómasson and Finland’s Jukka Tiensuu. i can’t help wondering whether they succeeded as strongly as they did in part for essentially the same reason, namely that they each embody a remarkable immediacy, even a simplicity. That’s not to say that these are simple pieces—they couldn’t be much farther from it—but there’s an overwhelmingly apparent sense of directness from both composers such that, put crudely, what you hear is precisely what you get. Read more
Last week’s visit to the Proms by Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brought first UK performances of works by two composers of Middle Eastern descent. Ayal Adler and Kareem Roustom, born in Jerusalem and Syria respectively, opted for compositional approaches that in some ways could be described as opposite. Adler, coming from a starting point of pure sonics (“an echo, or a reminiscence of sound, lingering after the vast chords slowly fade away”), aimed for an emphatic example of abstraction; by contrast, Roustom’s course was charted via the metrics of pre-Islamic poetry and a concrete intention to “reflect” on the ongoing violence in Roustom’s native land. Both works suffered at the hands of these divergent aims. Read more
New works at the Proms regularly come in the form of concertos, violin and piano continuing to be represented most. The planned performance of Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes (a work i’d been very much looking forward to) on 7 August was unfortunately cancelled due to soloist Leila Josefowicz having just given birth to her third son. However, that disappointment was more than mitigated by its fine replacement, Brett Dean‘s Electric Preludes, also a violin concerto—but for the 6-stringed electric violin, accompanied only by strings—and also receiving its first UK performance.
The three Proms premières given at the end of last month make for an interesting comparison, with regard to the relationship between material and intention. There was no little weight being hefted around; Jonathan Dove‘s Gaia Theory aspired to James Lovelock’s hypothesis of the same name, concerning ideas of ‘self regulation’ in the systems that make up our planet, whereas Gabriel Prokofiev‘s Violin Concerto took both its subtitle, ‘1914’, & its narrative from aspects arising from the commemorations of World War I. Heavyweight stuff, then, making Simon Holt‘s inspirational starting point of a mythical god waking from slumber seem almost triflingly trivial by contrast. The results, though, were rather different.
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