In previous years, some readers will have noticed that there have always been a few Proms premières about which i haven’t written. Jazz-related works, being somewhat removed from my zone of interest & expertise, are ignored, along with re-discovered works from many decades ago (e.g. Britten’s Elegy for strings, receiving its first performance at the end of this month), contemporary cashings-in of earlier music (e.g. Anthony Payne’s latest ‘effort’, a rehash of Vaughan Williams songs being performed next month) & works by cartoon characters (e.g. the concerto ‘by’ Wallace, heard last year). Beyond these omissions, i’ve never overlooked a work for reasons of quality, as some of my less praiseworthy articles will bear witness. But never have i been more tempted to do this than when confronted by Philip Glass‘s latest contribution to the repertoire, his Symphony No. 10, given its UK première at Wednesday’s late night Prom by the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more
Having hitherto bewailed the fact that more challenging composers (Finnissy, Lachenmann et al.) are kept at bay from the Proms for decade after decade, last Monday’s new work came from Colin Matthews, a composer almost wildly over-represented at the festival; Matthews’ new work, Turning Point, was the 22nd of his to be featured at the Proms, a statistic that ought to raise even more eyebrows than those accompanying the glaring composer absences. Judging from the programme note, the piece evidently caused Matthews difficulties in knowing how to proceed, leading to him putting the score aside for over a year. The solution seems to have been to turn the work into a diptych, the second panel of which contrasts hugely with the first. Having finally made it to the concert hall, Turning Point was given its first performance in January 2007 by its commissioners, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Monday’s UK première was by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales directed by Thomas Søndergård. Read more
Last Thursday’s Prom saw the world première of a piece that went through no little trial to be completed. While working on Joybox, with only 40 bars remaining to be composed, John McCabe was struck down with a brain tumour; for many people that would be that, for the time being at least, but McCabe rather impressively slogged on through his subsequent period of treatment to ensure the work was ready on time. Quite apart from anything else, kudos. For inspiration, McCabe turned to an experience at an arcade in Japan, “full of slot machines (one-armed bandits) playing widely different musical jingles, all going on simultaneously but independently. Eventually I seemed to perceive a kind of musical structural pattern to the babel of noise, and this gave me the idea for what I hope is an ‘entertainment’ piece”. This first performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena.
Just over a week ago, the Proms was introduced to a brand new orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, bringing to an end their inaugural concert tour. Having come via Moscow & St Petersburg with Valery Gergiev at the helm, & with works by Tchaikovsky & Shostakovich featured in the concert, it was perhaps not surprising that composer Sean Shepherd would find Russia a dominating inspirational force. Shepherd’s new work, Magiya (Russian for ‘magic’), seeks to tap into the spirit of (in the composer’s words) “the great tradition of the Russian overture” as well as its narrative impetus, “a specifically Russian sense of magic … in the stories, folklore and literature (old and new) of the country, a kind that often gets no explanation or justification; a ‘normal’, everyday magic”.
My recent travels in Norway—focussed in & around the environs of second city Bergen—yielded plenty of jaw-droppingly splendorous landscape, but nothing in the way of contemporary music. Neither of the city’s CD stores betray any knowledge of the existence of Arne Nordheim, Maja Ratke & the like, while the concert repertoire essentially revolves around the (not unsurprising) omnipresence of Edvard Grieg. However, disappointment was turned on its head during my final morning in the city last Friday, when wandering through the network of backstreets i came upon Østre. An otherwise anonymous building, the billboard outside proclaims it to be a ‘Hus for Lydkunst og Elektronisk Musikk’ (House for Sound Art & Electronic Music); inside, the custodian explained that Østre (formerly the Lydgalleriet) is the only space dedicated to sound art in all of Scandinavia. The collection of books & CDs for sale certainly backed up its avant-garde credentials, & anyone in the Bergen area would do well to check it out, especially within the next couple of weeks.
i’m now heading off to Norway for a week, so the Proms reviews will be on hold until my return. In the meantime, don’t forget to vote in the polls for the premières heard so far.
Se deg snart!
Hot on the heels of the large-scale work of Helmut Lachenmann’s a few days ago, tonight’s Proms première was even more ambitious, Thomas Adès‘ Totentanz. Composed for a large orchestra with mezzo-soprano & baritone soloists, Adès has set to music a sequence of German verses known as the Lübecker Totentanz, originally composed in 1463 to accompany an artwork created the same year at the Marienkirche in Lübeck by Bernt Notke. Sadly, the artwork was destroyed during World War II, but images of it remain, as do the texts, depicting death interacting with a collection of diverse characters, including a monk, a king, a doctor, a knight, a merchant, a maiden & even the pope, interactions that inevitably result in terrorised laments at the protagonists’ prospect of impending doom (the entire text, in its original Middle Dutch with an accessible English translation, can be read here; a high resolution photo of the wonderful original artwork is available here). Clocking in at just over 30 minutes—considerably less than the inflated estimate of 45 minutes in the Proms guide—Totentanz is the latest in a succession of works that together demonstrate Adès’ innate & enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, & it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn & Simon Keenleyside (who famously portrayed Prospero in Adès’ opera The Tempest) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Read more