concerto

Proms 2018: The Brandenburg Project

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The Proms wouldn’t be the Proms if it didn’t feature one of its favourite obsessions: contemporary music commissioned with the specific aim that it ‘responds’ to existing works in the repertoire. The most recent example of this is The Brandenburg Project, an idea dreamt up by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in which six composers were asked to write a work for solo instrument(s) and orchestra in response to one of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, utilising as far as possible the same instrumentation. The project began in December 2015 with Stephen Mackey (No. 2) and Uri Caine (No. 5), followed by Mark-Anthony Turnage (No. 1) in 2016, Anders Hillborg (No. 3) in 2017, concluding in February this year with Olga Neuwirth (No. 4) and Brett Dean (No. 6). All six pieces received their first UK performances (though it was the world première of the complete cycle), together with their associated Brandenburg Concerto, by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard at two Prom concerts on 5 August.

It’s worth spending a moment to consider what it means – or what it can mean – to ‘respond’ to something. It can of course be part of a warm dialogue, but we shouldn’t automatically infer similarity or sympathy of any kind in that word: a ‘response’ doesn’t need to employ the same use or style or tone of language, exhibiting not just a perspective but also a vernacular uniquely its own. Furthermore, importantly, the nature of a response isn’t restricted to the obvious continuum between positive (yes) and negative (no): it might just as easily – particularly in music – have more in common with the Buddhist ‘mu‘, a response that rejects as flawed or incompatible the very premise of the thing being responded to, demanding that the question it supposedly poses be “un-asked”. Read more

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Proms 2018: Tansy Davies – What Did We See?; Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud; Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon (World Premières); Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto Grosso No. 1 (UK Première)

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Every year the nature of the works premièred at the Proms – presumably due in part to the festival’s (i.e. the BBC’s) risk-averse emphasis on popularity and familiarity over challenge and provocation – veers wildly between extremes of light- and heavyweight fare. The most recent quartet of new works, considered together, are in many respects a vivid microcosm of this qualitative inconsistency.

However, there’s a world of difference between a trifle and mere triviality. No-one would claim – least of all the composer herself – that Jessica WellsRhapsody for solo oud, given its world première at Cadogan Hall on 30 July by oud-meister Joseph Tawadros, was anything more than a simple miniature workout for the instrument. From a tentative series of arpeggios, like warm-up exercises, the music develops into its main idea: rapid, syncopated music, redolent in style of the instrument’s Middle Eastern provenance, interspersed partway through with a slower episode exploring motifs in a more improvisational way. And that’s all there was to it – but this didn’t matter in the slightest, Tawadros executing the piece with such panache that its relatively narrow scope felt not simply forgiveable but beside the point. It was what it was and nothing more: an amuse-bouche (amuse-oreille?), brief, vivacious, harmless fun. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Alba (UK Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50As i’ve noted in previous articles in this Lent series, there are very strong and clear themes and interests – obsessions, even – running through Rebecca Saunders‘ music, with concomitant aspects of overlap and even tautology from work to work. In this respect, Saunders’ entire output can be heard as the ongoing, evolving dogged pursuit of certain lines of enquiry, but in the case of three particular works – the concertos Still (2011, violin), Void (2014, percussion duo) and Alba (2014, trumpet) – Saunders has grouped them together into a discrete series, in which the title of each work “defines a condition, or state, of absence in relation to sound, to space and to colour, respectively”.

While colour has hardly been absent as an active element in Saunders’ music in recent years, it’s been less explicitly signalled than during the first decade of her output (1994–2005), when a large number of her works directly referenced colour in their titles. ‘Alba’ is the Latin for ‘white’, and this is not the first time she has been inspired by this colour, exploring it previously in albescere (2001) – a wondrous work for 12 instruments and 5 voices that’s crying out to be released at some point – as well as a more recent composition, White (2016) for double-bell trumpet solo. Though there are clear similarities in their titles, Alba is at some considerable remove from the soundworld of albescere. Both works draw for inspiration on Samuel Beckett – as do the other concertos in the series, Still and Void – in the case of Alba words from an early poem of the same name (published in Beckett’s 1935 anthology Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates). However, whereas albescere has a distinct air of contemplation running through it – characterised more by its periods of gentleness and restraint than by the gruff eruptions that punctuate them – Alba is a work articulating relentless energy. The title and content of Beckett’s poem allude to the Old Provençal poetic form that has similarities to the aubade, being a song of two lovers lamenting their forced separation in the early hours of the morning (the implication being that their love is illicit, the pre-dawn separation being for fear of being discovered). However, Saunders has appeared to focus more on the implications of the word ‘alba’ from the perspective of its colour connotations, as summarised in her programme note:

Devoid of shade and greyness, white is notably ardent, the colour of fury.

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Rebecca Saunders – still (World Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50The next piece i’m looking at in my Lent Series celebrating the music of Rebecca Saunders is something of an exception on 5:4, as it’s a work i’ve written about before. Saunders’ violin concerto still dates from 2011, and i explored the piece six years ago, following its first UK performance at the Barbican in February 2012. The world première, performed by the same forces – soloist Carolin Widmann and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling (Lionel Bringuier directed the UK première) – took place several months earlier, on 29 September 2011 at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn, as part of that year’s Beethovenfest. It’s fascinating to return to this piece and appraise it afresh, both from the perspective of that alternate performance as well as with regard to Saunders’ other work.

Once again – it’s tempting to say ‘as ever’ – Saunders draws on Samuel Beckett for inspiration: the title of the work comes from Beckett’s short story Still, the final lines from which Saunders quotes in the preface to the score:

As if even in the dark eyes closed not enough and perhaps even more than ever necessary against that no such thing the further shelter of the hand …
Leave it so all quite still or try listening to the sounds all quite still had in hand listening for a sound.

This is expanded upon in Saunders’ usual way through having meditated upon the meaning and connotations of the word ‘still’, which she likens to “unchanging, ongoing, with an exhausting insistence, always, in essence, the same”, “stasis … two starkly contrasting states, in a fragile state of equilibrium” and “the framing of sound with silence, of ‘stillness’ imagined – silence being an endless potential, waiting to be revealed and made audible”, leading to a behavioural character summarised as “pulling gently on the fragile thread of sound, drawing out from the depths of imagined silence; or alternatively, sound erupting from the stasis of relative silence”.

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Proms 2017: Brian Elias – Cello Concerto (World Première)

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Around a month ago, i bumped into Brian Elias at the Cheltenham Music Festival, and we had a brief chat about his forthcoming Cello Concerto, premièred a couple of nights ago at the Proms. As i mentioned in my article with his pre-première questions, he expressed some reservations about including the programme note, worried that it might make people listen too analytically, trying to hear the structure rather than simply listening to the piece on its own terms. i encouraged him not to worry about this, and to trust that it would ultimately enhance the listening experience rather than distract or detract from it.

i’m still convinced that that was correct, though my own reaction to the piece, in light of that programme note, has proved interesting. Though i knew the essence of what it said, i’d forgotten the specifics, and ultimately opted not to re-read the note prior to listening. But as the Cello Concerto‘s half-hour duration slowly unfolded, the knowledge that Elias had created the piece using a carefully-managed structure, plus the fact that i’ve very much enjoyed his earlier work, began to make me more and more confused. Far from the programme note acting as a spoiler, try as i might i simply couldn’t – and still can’t – get my head around the piece. Read more

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Proms 2017: Julian Anderson – The Imaginary Museum (World Première)

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Last autumn, at the Royal Musical Association’s annual conference, composer Julian Anderson presented a paper addressing what he described as “the problem of professionals involved in modern music denigrating and otherwise attempting to devalue the music they are supposed to support”. The paper – which unfortunately i’ve not yet been able to read (anyone have a copy?) – was titled ‘Selling Ourselves Short: Inturned aggression and group self-contempt in the modern music sector since 1973’. As it happens, i was born in 1973, and while i doubt Anderson had myself in his sights, after i’ve written the following review, i suspect he may well do.

His new piano concerto, The Imaginary Museum, was given its world première at Wednesday’s Prom by Steven Osborne with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. Cast in six movements and lasting around 25 minutes, the piece is by far one of the most insubstantial and ineffectual bouts of professional noodling masquerading as music that i have ever encountered. Read more

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Proms 2017: Pascal Dusapin – Outscape (UK Première)

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Concertos are a regular occurrence among Proms premières. Usually – too often – they’re for violin, but last year bucked this trend by featuring a pair of cello concertos (by Huw Watkins and Charlotte Bray). The 2017 season is bucking it some more, again featuring two of them, the first of which, by Pascal Dusapin, was given its UK première last Wednesday by soloist Alisa Weilerstein with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by her brother, Joshua Weilerstein. The title, Outscape, is an interesting word, which Dusapin describes as meaning “the route, or the opportunity to flee, to invent your own path”. He also speaks of one particular way in which the piece behaves, moving “back and forth between a cello ‘becoming an orchestra’ and an orchestra ‘becoming a cello'”. Yes and no. In practice, the relationship isn’t anything like as mutual or reciprocal as Dusapin states. The cello, while not present throughout, certainly dominates, both in terms of the relative foregrounding of its material as well as the very obvious way that the orchestra tip-toes around it, seeking above all to support and/or imitate, almost acting like a protective mandorla. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it again highlights – as i recently remarked – how many pinches of salt are needed to season the reading of programme notes.

Let’s talk about journeys, then, since this is clearly uppermost in Dusapin’s mind. There is a very clear notion of journey running throughout Outscape. It’s not one being undertaken with any alacrity, but an audible sense of the cello moving along – meandering more than anything, suggesting elements of uncertainty about the way forward – is strong. From the outset, the soloist finds something of a familiar or sidekick in a bass clarinet, the work opening with a slow, thoughtful conversation between the two that develops into a duet, often returning to low C♯, a pitch that retains importance and prominence throughout (perhaps problematically so; i’ll come back to this). Dusapin makes it clear in these opening minutes that, despite their dour demeanour, melody is paramount; the journey being taken in Outscape is one articulated above all through the outworking of line. Read more

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