Last Saturday’s Proms matinee focussed on a work created 60 years ago to mark the Queen’s coronation. Instigated by Benjamin Britten, he & five other composers each wrote a variation for string orchestra based on the Irish tune ‘Sellenger’s Round’; titled Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, the complete suite was given its first performance in June 1953 in a concert marking the coronation at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. For last Saturday’s Proms performance, given by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Watkins, the suite was expanded with two additional variations, composed by John Woolrich & Tansy Davies.
Prophets, visionaries, seers, they’re an acquired taste, are they not? Often they get relegated to an idealistic niche characterised as “head in the clouds”—yet a more careful survey reveals that most luminaries are among the most earthly-wise & practical of people. This difficult-to-digest paradox coloured much of the music at yesterday’s late night Prom, which, alongside Feldman’s timeless Coptic Light, featured the UK première of Gerald Barry‘s 2009 work No other people. & the first performance of Frederic Rzewski‘s new Piano Concerto, performed by the composer with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. Read more
The beauty & diversity of nature has been a recurring theme in this year’s new music at the Proms, whereas religious sentiment has been entirely absent—until, that is, last Tuesday’s performance of Sofia Gubaidulina‘s The Rider on the White Horse. Culled & reworked from her 2002 oratorio St John Easter (which, with its counterpart St John Passion, comprise Gubaidulina’s magnum opus), the work draws on imagery from the most vivid & strange book of the Bible, the Revelation to John.
It’s interesting to be considering the next Proms première in the wake of having seen, last night, Bollywood’s latest blockbuster offering, Chennai Express. Bollywood’s glory—& at its best, that is definitely the right word—is in its uniquely convoluted appropriation & reinvention of western tropes, served in a form that, to western eyes, is as charming as it is (at times) utterly bewildering & comic. Its supreme success & effectiveness are surely due to the fact that it is the best kind of cultural fusion, built upon twin—&, more importantly, equal—foundations. A benchmark worth bearing in mind when turning to The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1), the new vehicle for renowned sitarist Nishat Khan, performed on Monday by him with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by David Atherton. Immediately, it must be stressed that to describe this piece as being ‘by’ Nishat Khan is to bend the truth intolerably. Welsh composer & music therapist Pete Stacey was commissioned by the BBC to “develop & orchestrate” Khan’s ideas, as Stacey explains: “As well as our meetings I would receive recordings. These were the melodies that Nishat wanted to use, and I spent many months developing these single lines into full orchestral pieces.” As collaborations go, looking at the concerto as a whole, Stacey’s contribution arguably outweighs that of Khan, which makes it all the more disingenuous that Stacey’s name should be entirely absent from all of the Proms’ promotional materials. Having said that, perhaps it’s all to to the good, as The Gate of the Moon is a work far more worthy of blame than praise. Read more
On the one hand, the BBC’s decision not to provide online programme notes in any form for this year’s Prom concerts is as hard to understand as it is unequivocally idiotic. On the other hand, it forces listeners to engage with music on its own terms, without the cosy couch of propaganda provided by the composer or one of their flock. In the case of Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest work, The Moth Requiem, given its first UK performance at Cadogan Hall yesterday, not even the audience was given programme notes(!), but perhaps it was just as well. In his pre-performance talk, Birtwistle spoke at length about the disappearance of cherished things & people, in addition to citing his own (as he sees it) looming demise. A melancholy theme indeed, but Birtwistle positively bristled at the prospect of writing something “soppy”, all but suggesting that the only decent way to confront such painful loss was via anger. Sadness was implied, but conspicuous by its absence; if we are to take the composer at face value, The Moth Requiem, adopting the names of extinct moths as a metaphor for loss, has anger as the central characteristic of its mode of expression. Read more
It’s rare for the Proms not to feature music by Mark-Anthony Turnage (he’s only been absent from five of the last twenty seasons), & this year’s commission comes from the Royal Philharmonic Society, requesting a work to sit alongside their most famous commission, the climactically hysterical behemoth that is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When pieces begin in such a way as this, it’s always interesting to see how the composer squirms & wriggles around the legacy to which they have been connected; in Turnage’s case, there have been somewhat mixed messages emerging, Turnage expressing both love & dismay at the Beethoven. Read more
Last Monday saw a world première at each of the day’s Prom concerts. Having recently returned from Norway myself, the afternoon concert in Cadogan Hall was especially welcome, featuring the Norwegian brass group tenThing, led by Tine Thing Helseth; for them Diana Burrell had composed a new work, Blaze. The evening performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda, including the première of the first work in a new orchestral cycle by Edward Cowie, Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef.