Cheltenham Music Festival 2017

Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: 21st Century String Quartet, The Hallé

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Here’s a suggestion: if a composer can’t summarise their programme note in fewer than a couple of hundred words, that’s a problem. Is that terribly controversial? Judging by what we were given at the Cheltenham Music Festival last Saturday, it is. This is not a local problem, though, it’s something that manifests itself all too often, composers seeking to convey at length not merely the inspiration for their music but a blow-by-blow account of what happens in it. It’s interesting that they deem this necessary. Does it suggest a lack of faith either in the audience or, more worryingly, in the music? It would be strange for a writer to introduce their novel with a breakdown of the structure and key plot-points; likewise with a programme note full of aural spoilers, it’s impossible to be drawn in and surprised by the music, as we already know what’s coming. Increasingly, programme notes seem akin to the abstracts that preface academic papers, and that’s not necessarily the ideal model for the concert hall. There are two caveats to this: first, it’s not just contemporary music that’s treated to such ‘programme essays’, and second, of course, one’s not obliged to read them at all. Of the first caveat, this is partly to do with the understandable desire for a degree of historical contextualisation, but regarding the second, i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: Tenebrae

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What is it with British contemporary choral music? i found myself asking that question constantly during the fourteen minutes of Footsteps, the work that opened last night’s Cheltenham Music Festival concert in Tewkesbury Abbey, given by the vocal ensemble Tenebrae. It perhaps goes without saying that one makes a double set of allowances when considering contemporary music for choirs. Within British life and culture, such music is focused almost entirely within the realm of religious services. If you’re thinking the next step of this argument is to stress how such choirs are invariably amateur, and therefore unable to handle the more imaginative machinations of contemporary musical thought and practice, then (up to a point) i don’t really believe this to be true. Speaking as one who has both participated within and directed choirs, the religious faithful of the British Isles are among the most culturally conservative people i have ever encountered, for whom dissonances are iniquities to be temporarily endured until the resolution that will – must! – surely come.

This, as far as i’m concerned, is the primary allowance that one is forced to make when considering British contemporary choral music. Much of it can be regarded as functional, and as such needs primarily to please the people for whom it functions. i’ve said this before, quite a while back now, but tuning into any weekly broadcast of choral evensong on Radio 3 is to travel back in time and step into the aural equivalent of a museum, music trapped in aspic, and this is for the most part no less true when contemporary music is included. The amateur aspect is the secondary allowance one usually has to make, but this obviously doesn’t apply when the music is written for choirs of a high standard, such as Tenebrae. But wouldn’t it be nice if composers of this stuff could challenge the necessity of these allowances, reach a little further and employ some of that spirit of adventurous, unafraid, fundamental questioning of the conventional way of doing things that supposedly underpins – indeed, inaugurated – the very faith for which their music is being written? After all, institutions, if they progress at all, do so at a pace that—well, to call it glacial would be a compliment (just look at the Church of England’s ongoing inability to accommodate, let alone accept, gay people in their midst). So what is it with British contemporary choral music? What on earth are their composers so afraid of? Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: Love Songs

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Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: 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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