choral

Charles Uzor – mimicri/ pieces with tape

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Another interesting release from the NEOS label is mimicri/ pieces with tape, a double album featuring nine works by Nigerian-born composer Charles Uzor. As the name suggests, most of the music is electroacoustic, together with a chamber piece and two works for choir, and the majority of them are relatively recent, dating from within the last five years. Uzor was an entirely new name to me, and while this album is helpful as a portrait of the composer’s outlook and aesthetic, if anything that portrait is an intriguingly multifaceted one, in which connections between the different works are far from obvious. Perhaps it would be fair to characterise Uzor’s music as ‘consistently inconsistent’.

The opening work on the album is 2016’s Nri/ mimicri, in which an ondes martenot and percussion quartet coexist – or, rather, co-behave – in a way that could be described as ‘meta-ambient‘. It’s an unhurried atmosphere combining small individual attacks from the percussion with more extended sounds from the ondes (both sustained pitches and glissandi), within a kind of ‘open’ ambiance articulated by gentle granular noise on the tape. The piece coalesces into more focused episodes where there’s an overt sense of dialogue, yet as the work’s half-hour duration progresses the broader context suggests that these kinds of action – and others, such as prominent passages from vibraphone and marimba – are all elements that can be essentially switched on and off. It leads to a beautiful form of steady state where small-scale interest is always balanced against large-scale equilibrium, though it’s important to stress the small-scale interest is not merely striking but at times surprising, such as the introduction of previously unheard birdsong into the texture just a few minutes before the end. Read more

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Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 2)

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Being the host nation, music from Norway was especially well-represented at this year’s Nordic Music Days in Bodø. Harnessing the large and impressive organ of Bodø Cathedral, Trond Kverno‘s Triptychon 2 was one of the fieriest things i heard at the festival. We tend to think of toccatas as fast-flowing, though the ones that appeared here were often crushingly strong, to the point that it sounded as if their notes were audibly fusing into dense clusters. Its more ruminative middle movement only made the powerful outer sections sound more assertive, the final movement managing to turn a pedal point into an aggressive surge before letting high notes hang while the pedals became pushy in the depths. And just when it seemed the work couldn’t get any more forceful, organist Gro Bergrabb’s rendition of the final climax was so crashing it practically threatened the integrity of the building. Read more

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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 5 ‘Le grand Inconnu’ (World Première)

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Symphonies – one minute you think that no-one’s really writing them anymore, and then suddenly three of them turn up in quick succession. Of course, in reality the apparent lack of them may well be more to do with the fact that composers today are reluctant to title a work ‘Symphony’ (embodying as it does such an accumulation of historical connotation and baggage) in favour of something more personal and snappy, and less to do with a reality in which music that could be described as ‘symphonic’ is becoming a thing of the past. Either way, in the last few months three works bearing the name ‘Symphony’ have received their first performances, which i’ll be exploring in my next few articles.

James MacMillan‘s Symphony No. 5, premièred in August, takes as its theme the religious notion of the Holy Spirit. To this end, MacMillan structures the work in three movements each of which is devoted to one of its mythical physical attributes: wind (or breath), water and fire. The subtitle of the work, Le grand Inconnu (the great unknown), is an associated term, borrowed from the French because MacMillan could not find an equivalent in English. It’s a choral symphony, involving both a chamber choir and a chorus, but instead of directly setting a text MacMillan has taken words from the Bible, John of the Cross, and the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus to form a composite text mingling English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Read more

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King’s Place, London: Theatre of Voices – Baltic Voices

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Personality and connection tend to go hand in hand. This is just as true for getting to know a person as it is for getting to know a piece of music: we’re drawn towards or pushed away according to the ways in which its personality – its qualities and characteristics, the way it behaves – is conveyed to us. I was reflecting on this during last Friday’s concert at King’s Place featuring Paul Hillier’s vocal group Theatre of Voices, performing a sequence of choral works from Estonia and Latvia (although titled ‘Baltic Voices’, the concert did not include anything from Lithuania; a work by Rytis Mažulis was dropped from the programme). We heard works by five composers, and it was particularly interesting to note the marked differences in their respective musical personalities – informed in part by their relationship to earlier forms of music – and the effect this had with regard to engaging with and feeling connected to the music.

A context for this was provided by the opening piece on the programme, The Bishop and the Pagan by Veljo Tormis. Detailing the exploits of an ill-fated English missionary’s pilgrimage to Finland in the 12th century, Tormis initially mirrors the age of the story by employing a musical language shaped by the melodic contours of chant and the perfect fifth-laden harmonic strictures of organum. But from the outset it’s clear that Tormis is not engaging in some kind of postmodern exercise in pastiche. If anything, these overt allusions to earlier music turn out to be a ruse, gradually becoming more and more strained and contorted, peppered with obsessive syllabic repetitions, brief garbled asides and startling chord clusters soaring overhead. The result came across not so much as a conflict of musical languages but as both a homage to and an expansion of an earlier idiom, conveying a personality that was both solemn and, here and there, quite tongue-in-cheek. It was easy to connect to music that sounded so personal. Read more

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Proms 2019: John Luther Adams – In the Name of the Earth (European Première); Louis Andriessen – The Only One (UK Première); Freya Waley-Cohen – Naiad (World Première)

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The latest crop of premières at the Proms have encompassed extremes of scale and duration. John Luther AdamsIn the Name of the Earth received its first European performance at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday by no fewer than eight choirs, comprising 700 singers. At a little over three quarters of an hour in duration, it’s by far the longest new work to be heard at the Proms so far. The UK première of Louis Andriessen‘s orchestral song cycle The Only One – lasting a mere 21 minutes – also took place yesterday, and earlier today the shortest of them all, Freya Waley-Cohen‘s 8-minute chamber work Naiad, received its world première at Cadogan Hall. Reflecting on these three pieces together, never has it been more true that size isn’t everything.

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Proms 2019: Errollyn Wallen – This Frame is Part of the Painting; Joanna Lee – At this man’s hand; Jonathan Dove – We Are One Fire (World Premières)

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Three of the last four world premières at the Proms have been vocal works, two of them for unaccompanied choir, the other for voice and orchestra. One of the choral works, Jonathan Dove‘s We Are One Fire, was commissioned as a birthday present for the 90th anniversary of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Dove turned to playwright Alasdair Middleton for a text that could serve as both a response to and an echo of the sentiment in Schiller’s Ode to Joy, celebrating humanity’s “shared ancestry”. Apparently, Dove wanted to compose “something joyous and tribal, but not using (or copying) any traditional music from another country”. It’s bizarre, then, that what Dove has created is so slavishly generic in its musical language.

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Proms 2019: Huw Watkins – The Moon (World Première)

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There are times when it seems the Proms is incapable of commissioning a new work without foisting upon the composer some theme or connection that they are required to incorporate into the piece. The festival’s ongoing theme commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings was brought to bear on yet another new work, Huw WatkinsThe Moon, which received its world première last night. Watkins opted to sidestep notions of spaceflight and technology in favour of something more romantic, turning to 19th and 20th century poetry about the moon, by Shelley, Whitman and Larkin, for inspiration.

The moon landings took place half a century ago, but listening to The Moon you’d be forgiven for thinking it was composed when notions of getting to the moon were still but a pipedream, yet to make it even to a drawing board. While not exactly pastiche, there’s an overt (even ersatz) early 20th century vibe permeating a great deal of the work. Clean, basic, straightforward, undemanding, every idea outlined in the musical equivalent of black marker pen; even before a few minutes have passed, it all sounds incredibly timid and tired. Watkins’ musical language has always tended towards the conservative, but i’m not sure it’s ever been articulated so overtly as here.

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Zbigniew Karkowski – Encumbrance

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In recent years, one of the most vividly memorable Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festivals was 2017, when the work of Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski was prominently featured. Huddersfield is in fact the only place in the UK that i’ve ever had the opportunity to experience Karkowski’s music performed live, which suggests everywhere else is either too ignorant or – more likely – too timid to consider programming it. Karkowski’s music is not necessarily intimidating, though his radical, implacable embracing of extremes perhaps makes his music more likely than most to send certain portions of the audience scrambling for the exit.

One of the most striking performances from HCMF 2017 (which i somewhat raved about at the time) was given by Gęba Vocal Ensemble. The concert included Encumbrance, a half-hour work by Karkowski for choir and electronics. The piece seriously bowled me over, so i was excited to learn that a CD of Encumbrance has recently been issued on the Polish label Bôłt. Better still, the disc includes two performances of the work, which may seem peculiar but turns out to be extremely revealing about which aspects of the music are fixed and which are variable. The performances, which date from 2014 and 2016, are again given by the Gęba Vocal Ensemble, with the electronics realised by Wolfram in the earlier recording and Constantin Popp in the latter. Read more

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Proms 2019: Hans Zimmer – Earth; Alexia Sloane – Earthward (World Premières)

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The most significant love-hate musical relationship of my life has been – and continues to be – with film scores. Few idioms have the power to elevate, charm, horrify, astonish and amaze us more while at the same time displaying the irresistible propensity to eschew all originality and imagination in favour of the most derivative bluster and cheese. For me, the epicentre of this love-hate relationship has for many years been centred on Hans Zimmer. He’s someone whose work i’ve appreciated and enjoyed in the past: i think True Romance was the first time i really took notice of his work, and what he did for Inception is hard to beat. But his most recent work – especially his collaborations with director Christopher Nolan, each film of which Zimmer has emphatically marred – has been an ever more reductionist descent into some of the most unoriginal, flaccid, bombastic and manipulative histrionics ever created: musica generica, made all the more horrendous to experience due to its inherent terror of ever falling silent. It’s not just nature, it seems, that abhors a vacuum; Zimmer has clearly convinced himself that if the noises he’s generating (yes: generating, not composing) stop for even a moment, then all hope of maintaining the film’s impetus is lost.

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Proms 2019: Zosha di Castri – Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (World Première)

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Many of the Proms seasons in recent years have begun with a world première, and that was again the case this year. In 2018, the opening work commemorated the end of World War I, whereas in 2019 the topic of commemoration is altogether more triumphant: humanity walking on the moon. However, Canadian composer Zosha di Castri‘s piece, Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory, premièred by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis, is concerned with more than just celebration; she writes in her programme note of “the noticeable lag in enthusiasm for further exploration since the late ’60s”, so the tone of the work is therefore somewhat conflicted. It’s worth noting that the broad scope of di Castri’s conception wouldn’t suit the kind of short, concert-opening firework that the Proms has often commissioned to get the season going, and it’s nice to see – as with last year – that the opening night première has been allowed a more generous duration, in the case of this piece around 17 minutes.

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 4)

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Aside from the chamber concerts, by far the most dominant force at this year’s World Music Days in Estonia was choral music. i’ve written before of my admiration of Estonia’s choral tradition – both the standard of its choirs (including, in my view, two of the very best in the world, Vox Clamantis and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) and the approach to choral writing by many of its composers, new and old – but this year, as with everything else, the concerts did not primarily feature home-grown works but were filled with music from around the globe. When the conjunction of text, music and choir is as its best, something genuinely magical can happen. Unsurprisingly, the festival had its share of pieces aspiring to that magic: some succeeded, many more failed, but a few clearly deemed it unnecessary to work for, or in any way earn, that magic, expecting it simply to happen on command. Two of the most glaring examples occurred in back-to-back concerts during the opening weekend, on Saturday evening. Estonian Peeter Vähi and Belgian Wim Henderickx both evidently believed that all it took was the throwing together of a few quasi-religious words, tropes, and mannerisms with a can-do evangelical attitude in order to directly summon up the numinous. Hardly: in the case of Vähi’s Siberian Trinity Mantra (a world première) it felt surprising, considering its purportedly earnest Buddhist underpinnings (explained at great length in a tl;dr programme note) how massively self-important and self-indulgent it was; Henderickx’s Blossomings. Three Prayers for a Better World was equally off-putting and fatuous, a simplistic blend of pseudo-‘holy’ blather so cheap and shallow it sounded like some kind of infernal Sven Grünberg / Eric Whitacre mash-up. Both works were lazy, pious and nauseating. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Schola Cantorum, Kúbus

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The most taxing challenge facing Reykjavík on Sunday was not, surprisingly, the -9°C temperatures permeating the city that day, but the evening chamber recital at the Fríkirkjan given by the group Kúbus. The day before, Georg Friedrich Haas had made 70 minutes feel like less than half of that; on this occasion, Kolbeinn Bjarnason made 30 minutes feel like 1,000. It was bad enough that he chose (possibly in an attempt at humour, but who can tell?) to preface his Musik der Unzeitlichkeit II with a 5-minute all-Icelandic spiel that appeared to be an anal-retentive description of each of the work’s sections – immediately followed by a two-sentence English version decrying how unnecessary the preceding spiel had been. LOL? Even worse that he saw fit to keep punctuating the piece with witless theatrics involving metronomes placed within glass recepticles that were then filled with water – one of which agonisingly took several minutes to complete. By comparison, the fact that the rest of the music consisted of the most generic and cliché-ridden gestures and ideas that one has heard a million times before felt only mildly irritating, but the sum total of the work was one of the most infuriatingly stupid, cheap, pretentious, pointless and creatively vacuous musical experiences to which I’ve ever been subjected. Read more

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Alexander Knaifel – Lukomoriye

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What is it that holds music together? How loosely can it be structured and/or organised, and at what point does its integrity irrevocably break down? When does intense earnestness become perceived as affectation? When does patience cease being a virtue and become a problem, even a handicap?

i found myself pondering all of these questions, and many more besides, as i’ve been spending time in the company of Lukomoriye, the most recent disc of music by Russian composer Alexander Knaifel, released by ECM. The nature of those questions indicates a problematic and perhaps ultimately negative listening experience, so i should stress at the outset that it wasn’t actually like that at all. Knaifel’s music was new to me, and for better or worse i’d forgotten the information from the press release that had whetted my appetite, so i hadn’t really known what to expect. In a nutshell, Lukomoriye is probably the strangest thing i’ve listened to this year, and possibly the most fascinating too.

In hindsight, it’s unexpectedly helpful that the accompanying booklet doesn’t go into the usual kind of detail about the compositional thinking behind the eight works on this disc. There are, in fact, no details at all apart from the texts associated with each piece, and one tiny but crucial nugget of information literally relegated to a footnote, which i’ll come back to shortly. To say that what one finds on Lukomoriye is music of extreme quietness would not exactly miss the point but could potentially be misleading. This is, without a doubt, very quiet music, but of a markedly different order than that inhabiting the work of, say, Jakob Ullmann or some of the Wandelweiser composers or the world of lowercase.

In some respects the opening work on the album, O Comforter, Knaifel’s 1995 choral setting of a prayer to the Holy Spirit, is different from the majority of what follows. There are no challenging issues of integrity or coherence here, the choir maintaining a consistent, unwavering solidity throughout (which in retrospect, for all its softness seems almost deafening compared to the other pieces). But behaviourally speaking the nature of the choir’s slow homophony is revealing: it’s almost as if each voice is waiting for someone else to move first rather than choosing to initiate movement themselves. This makes the work’s gradual chord progressions feel not simply painstaking, but almost painful. It communicates something that typifies this album as a whole: a sense of necessity – a burning need and/or desire to express these things – yet from a place so completely overwhelmed that the actual act of expression becomes agonisingly arduous. It’s as if the music were emerging from exposed nerve endings: excruciated music we might call it. Read more

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Proms 2018: Roxanna Panufnik – Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light (World Première)

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And so to the annual conveyor belt of over-cranked fripperies and falderals that is the last night of the Proms. Nestling among them – not, for a change, getting the concert party started – was the last première of this year’s season, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light by British composer Roxanna Panufnik. Like several other 2018 Proms premières, the piece was commissioned as a commemoration of the end of World War I. For her text, Panufnik draws on two sources: a poem by Isaac Rosenberg titled ‘In the Underworld’ and words from the conclusion of the final section of Kahlil Gibran‘s poem ‘The Prophet’. The combination of these two texts is interesting; Rosenberg’s (expressing a personal heartbreak) speaks not merely of separation but of a more severe, experiential disconnect, while Gibran’s articulates a more benign separation, one that holds open the prospect of a (real or imagined) future meeting. These two texts are assigned to the two choruses used in the work, which in this first performance were the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis.

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Erkki-Sven Tüür – Illuminatio/Whistle and Whispers from Uluru/Symphony No. 8, Arvo Pärt & Alfred Schnittke – Choral Works, Arvo Pärt – The Symphonies

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Returning to one of my occasional themes, there have been some interesting releases of Estonian music in the last few months. In February, i wrote about the Ninth Symphony by one of the country’s most dynamic composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, so it’s nice timing that the Ondine label has brought out a disc featuring his Symphony No. 8, performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Olari Elts. The disc also features two slightly older, large-scale pieces, Tüür’s 2008 viola concerto Illuminatio and Whistle and Whispers from Uluru, a work for recorder and string orchestra composed in 2007. One of the primary traits of Tüür’s music is energy, and large amounts of it, though the works on this disc demonstrate (as does the Ninth Symphony) that the way this energy is wielded is not only with devil-may-care abandon – though Tüür is hardly afraid of doing this – but just as often with considerable caution and care. Illuminatio, featuring soloist Lawrence Power, is a case in point, placing the viola within a context that encompasses both the monumental and the fantastical, guided by the soloist’s veering between momentum and lyricism. Particularly striking are its second and third movements; the former charting a complex journey between two poles but where the poles themselves are never fully revealed, the latter starting with the viola rhapsodising but somehow ending up in a barrage of orchestrated machine gun fire. The work’s final thrust towards a place of ethereal transcendence makes sense in pretty much the same way that dreams make sense. Read more

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Proms 2018: Philip Venables – Venables Plays Bartók; Laura Mvula – Love Like A Lion (World Premières); Agata Zubel – Fireworks (UK Première)

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The last few Proms premières have been, to put it mildly, an extremely mixed bag. By far the most excruciating of them was Venables Plays Bartók, a violin concerto of sorts by Philip Venables, given its first performance last Friday by Pekka Kuusisto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo. As its title suggests, the piece incorporates music by Bartók, inspired by an episode in Venables’ life when, as a teenage violinist, he had a lesson with Rudolf Botta, playing to him a piece by Bartók. The lesson was recorded, and Venables’ rediscovery of the tape evidently led to a enormous burst of Proustian nostalgia. Read more

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Proms 2018: Ēriks Ešenvalds – Shadow; Eve Risser – Furakèla (World Premières); Andrew Norman – Spiral (UK Première)

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A piece doesn’t have to be – in fact, can hardly be – all things to all people, but in the case of Shadow, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds‘, one has to wonder if it has much if anything to offer a mature listener. This in itself is interesting precisely because of the fact that the driving force of the piece is a meditation on the implications of parental responsibility, using the words from Longfellow’s eponymous sonnet to contemplate the future and fate of one’s children. The words, as indicated by the poem’s opening line, are literally being said to oneself, so the ‘audience’ or object of these private ruminations is adult, while their subject is children. Read more

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Proms 2018: Anna Meredith – Five Telegrams (World Première)

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This year’s Proms season kicked off on Friday evening with a concert featuring a major new work from Anna Meredith. Titled Five Telegrams, it’s a work that continues a thread that’s been running through mainstream British culture for the last few years, commemorating the events of the First World War. As the title implies, the piece takes its inspiration from telegrams sent back and forth during the conflict, its five movements focusing on different types and contexts for these telegrams, also featuring specific instrumental groups: newspaper spin (10 trombones), field service postcards (choir), redacted information (four euphoniums), codes (6 trumpets and percussion) and the armistice (tutti).

A recurring question i found myself considering during the piece was the extent to which this layer of extra-musical inspiration had an unambiguous bearing on the music. Underlying conceits and metaphors will always manifest themselves in ways that aren’t merely subjective but impossible to rationalise, and in the case of Five Telegrams Meredith’s inspirational starting point made its presence felt to widely differing degrees and depths.

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 3)

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Over the last few years, i’ve been repeatedly impressed – no, flabbergasted – at the ingenuity, imagination and beauty that seem to typify Estonian choral music as well as distinguish it from pretty much everywhere else. It’s by no means the most experimental music to come out of the country, but the subtle way many Estonian composers explore and redefine notions of consonance and dissonance, as well as ways to structure a musical narrative, are consistently impressive.

However, by way of balance it’s only fair to recount that this year’s Estonian Music Days afforded me the opportunity to hear one of the most entirely terrible vocal compositions that i have ever encountered. Completed in 1987, Songs of Death and Birth by Estonian composer Kuldar Sink (1942–95) is a song cycle for soprano, two flutes, guitar and cello exploring five texts by Federico García Lorca. In his programme note, Sink claims that “… it would be misleading to think that I imitate the style of flamenco.” No, it absolutely wouldn’t: virtually the entire piece is a non-stop stream of appropriated and ersatz materials that cleave slavishly to Spanish musical idioms and mannerisms. It doesn’t help Sink that George Crumb’s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed almost two decades earlier, definitively brought the same texts to life in the most vivid and stunningly original way. By contrast, Sink’s song cycle sounds like an early student exercise in pastiche, rendered all the more wretched due to being not just incredibly boring but so impossibly overlong as to be downright sadistic. One can hardly fault the members of Yxus Ensemble for simply doing what the score told them to do, yet soprano Iris Oja (looking as if she’d just walked off the set of Bizet’s Carmen) unleashed her mediocre material with such impassioned zeal that it felt malicious and personal, seeking only to wound and offend. Thankfully, this was the only concert at EMD to exhibit such tenacity-destroying malignance. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Mirjam Tally – Vårtidens ljus (World Première)

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Towards the end of next week i’ll be heading off to Tallinn once again for the annual Estonian Music Days, and will be exploring what happened in some depth once i return. So in anticipation of that, for my next Estonia in Focus weekend i’m looking at a couple of new works that received their first performances just last month.

i’ve been enjoying the latest new piece by one of Estonia’s most well-known composers Mirjam Tally, a choral work that’s particularly appropriate to the current time of year. Titled Vårtidens ljus (the light of spring), the text is by the late Finnish Sami poet and musician Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, a simple aphoristic text celebrating the season’s light and warmth and their impact upon us both physically and psychologically: “spring days / light is burning / Warms the mind / heals the heart”.

Tally’s response to the text (set in Swedish) takes the form of a blissed-out reverie that occasionally explodes in fired-up climaxes. She equips each member of the choir with a crotale – all different pitches – suspended on a string, and a small bucket of water. More about the latter in a moment. The starting point for the piece is a network of improvised crotale strikes, which the choir then adds to with quiet whistles that Tally adds colour to via wide vibrato and air noise. When the voices finally begin to sing (this opening section can be up to three minutes long), their articulation of the opening words is informed by these sounds, rendering them a mixture of whispers, sibilance and exhalations as much as coherent sung notes. Read more

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