choral

Proms 2017: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hibiki (European première)

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The music of Mark-Anthony Turnage has been on my mind quite a bit of late. i’ve been revisiting my aged CD of his seminal work Three Screaming Popes, released 25 years ago, which was also the first piece of Turnage’s i ever heard performed live, during my undergrad days in Birmingham. Thanks to Simon Rattle, during that time there were lots of opportunities to hear Turnage’s music, and the abiding impression i got was of a composer committed first and foremost to lyricism. Of a smoky, earthy hue, to be sure, and at times downright caustic in nature, but equally capable of astonishing tenderness and beauty. Borrowing liberally from blues and jazz, and often characterised with improvisatory élan, Turnage – i still mean early Turnage – made us re-think what melody was, in a way that was simultaneously rooted in layers of compositional tradition and performance practice yet so fresh and pungent as to be shocking (literally; i can still vividly remember the shock i felt in those long-ago concerts).

These qualities have hardly deserted Turnage over the years, though there are times when it’s seemed he’s more interested in rhythm than melody, particularly in two of his demonstrably less successful Proms premières, Hammered Out and Canon Fever. That path seems to lead Turnage only to empty bombast and pastiche, whereas when his lyrical side predominates – as in the recent string quartet Contusion, and even more in his wondrous 2012 orchestral work Speranza – the results are overwhelmingly powerful. This is also what we find in Turnage’s Hibiki, which received its first European performance at the Proms a little over a week ago. Hibiki was commissioned by Tokyo’s Suntory Hall to mark their 30th anniversary. Turnage conceived the work as “a consolation following loss” in the wake of the disastrous tsunami that struck the country after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, causing enormous damage and meltdowns at three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Read more

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Proms 2017: James MacMillan – A European Requiem (European Première)

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James MacMillan’s latest religious blockbuster, A European Requiem, was given its first performance in Europe at the Proms a couple of days ago. The piece is a little over a year old (premièred in July 2016 in Oregon), and although its concert hall life has taken place in the midst of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU, it was of course composed prior to the onset of that madness. MacMillan has therefore been in the unfortunate position of having to stress that his work is not in any way a response to the UK’s ongoing political inanities. Instead, his concern is very much more generalised, not to say vague; he speaks of the piece looking back to the requiems of Brahms, Fauré and Verdi, and if it responds to anything specific, it’s to Roger Scruton’s book The Uses of Pessimism. Whether or not MacMillan believes ‘Europe’ (however that term is defined) to be ‘dead’ (ditto) he doesn’t say, though he evidently holds the view that it has lost something, which he describes as a “culture of mercy and forgiveness”.

Is there any compelling proof that Europeans are less merciful and forgiving than they were in past generations? Is this a malaise not suffered beyond the bounds of Europe? Regardless of these questions, there are rather more pressing concerns to grapple with in A European Requiem, before one even makes it to any potential subtext and its implications. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: 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: 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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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Richard Causton – The Flight (World Première)

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A couple of days ago, amidst the predictable bucketload of Rutter, Willcocks, Ord, Goldschmidt, Ledger, Darke and so on, the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge produced something singular, rather marvellous and downright challenging, in the form of the newly-commissioned carol from Richard Causton (who is also Fellow in Music and Reader in Composition at the University). Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society:

Earlier this year I spent a great deal of time in libraries looking for a suitable text for my new carol and although I unearthed many old and very beautiful poems about the Nativity, I struggled to find one that I really wanted to set to music. I had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.

I phoned my friend, the poet George Szirtes to ask if he might be prepared to write me a poem which could encompass some of these ideas. By complete coincidence, the very day I phoned he was in Hungary, at Budapest railway station talking to the refugees who were stuck there while trying to leave the country. Within days, George sent me a poem that is at once beautiful, eloquent and hard-hitting.

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Proms 2015: Eleanor Alberga – Arise, Athena! (World Première)

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New music at the Proms, and the season itself, came to an end at yesterday’s Last Night, with the world première of Jamaican-born composer Eleanor Alberga’s brief concert-opener Arise, Athena!. According to the composer, the piece (ahem) arose from a desire to have a female theme, Alberga drawing on the Greek goddess Athena for inspiration, citing her connection (among many others) to “wisdom and the Arts”.
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Proms 2015: Cheryl Frances-Hoad – From the Beginning of the World (World Première)

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Relatively few of the Proms premières include vocal elements, which makes Cheryl-Frances Hoad‘s new work From the Beginning of the World, first performed last Monday, a very welcome exception to the norm. Initially billed as ‘Homage to Tallis’, her piece was nestled amidst a concert otherwise dedicated entirely to the great man’s music, a context that throws down a pretty substantial gauntlet. For inspiration, Frances-Hoad turned to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s detailed account of the “great comet” visible across Europe in 1577. Insodoing, she is appealing both to an innate sense of wonder as well as to more polemical ends, setting words with connotations pertaining as much to present-day resource-depletion and asinine political shenanigans as to 16th century shock and awe. Read more

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