concerto

Proms 2014: Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (UK Première); Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory; Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’ (World Premières)

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The three Proms premières given at the end of last month make for an interesting comparison, with regard to the relationship between material and intention. There was no little weight being hefted around; Jonathan Dove‘s Gaia Theory aspired to James Lovelock’s hypothesis of the same name, concerning ideas of ‘self regulation’ in the systems that make up our planet, whereas Gabriel Prokofiev‘s Violin Concerto took both its subtitle, ‘1914’, and its narrative from aspects arising from the commemorations of World War I. Heavyweight stuff, then, making Simon Holt‘s inspirational starting point of a mythical god waking from slumber seem almost triflingly trivial by contrast. The results, though, were rather different.
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Proms 2014: Qigang Chen – Joie éternelle (UK Première)

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The first of this year’s Proms premières came from Chinese composer Qigang Chen, with a new trumpet concerto for Alison Balsom. Inspirationally, the title of the work, Joie éternelle, stems from an acknowledged act of nostalgia on Chen’s part, referencing a melody of the same name from the Kunqu operatic version of The Peony Pavilion, a work Chen heard in his youth. He describes the melody as “delicate and graceful, yet [it] also has an unyielding, instantly identifiable character […] Subsequent encounters with the tune as an adult have thus evoked childhood memories”. However, that title, Joie éternelle, gains additional resonance when one considers that Chen was the last composer ever to study with Olivier Messiaen (Chen’s activities have been split between China and France ever since), and Chen perhaps acknowledges something of this by remarking how the melody’s name has “a quasi-religious connotation”. The work was premièred by Balsom with the China Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Long Yu, in Beijing at the start of July, and it was they who gave this first UK performance at the Proms. Read more

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Proms 2013: Peter Eötvös – DoReMi (UK Première)

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The penultimate première of this year’s Proms almost didn’t happen last Thursday, when two of the trio of percussionists failed to turn up, resulting in seven or eight rather tense minutes while presumably a host of minions dashed about behind the scenes attempting to find and drag them onstage. It falls to these three players to begin DoReMi, the second violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, so their eventual arrival was met with a generous round of applause as well as, one imagines, some hefty sighs of relief. Eötvös composed the work for Midori, the title being a pun (of sorts) on her name, in addition to its obvious reference to the notes C, D and E (in solfège); she was joined by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Read more

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Proms 2013: Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto (World Première); Gerald Barry – No other people. (UK Première)

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Prophets, visionaries, seers, they’re an acquired taste, are they not? Often they get relegated to an idealistic niche characterised as “head in the clouds”—yet a more careful survey reveals that most luminaries are among the most earthly-wise and practical of people. This difficult-to-digest paradox coloured much of the music at yesterday’s late night Prom, which, alongside Feldman’s timeless Coptic Light, featured the UK première of Gerald Barry‘s 2009 work No other people. and the first performance of Frederic Rzewski‘s new Piano Concerto, performed by the composer with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. Read more

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Proms 2013: Nishat Khan/Pete Stacey – The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1) (World Première)

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It’s interesting to be considering the next Proms première in the wake of having seen, last night, Bollywood’s latest blockbuster offering, Chennai Express. Bollywood’s glory—and at its best, that is definitely the right word—is in its uniquely convoluted appropriation and reinvention of western tropes, served in a form that, to western eyes, is as charming as it is (at times) utterly bewildering and comic. Its supreme success and effectiveness are surely due to the fact that it is the best kind of cultural fusion, built upon twin—and, more importantly, equal—foundations. A benchmark worth bearing in mind when turning to The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1), the new vehicle for renowned sitarist Nishat Khan, performed on Monday by him with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by David Atherton. Immediately, it must be stressed that to describe this piece as being ‘by’ Nishat Khan is to bend the truth intolerably. Welsh composer and music therapist Pete Stacey was commissioned by the BBC to “develop and orchestrate” Khan’s ideas, as Stacey explains: “As well as our meetings I would receive recordings. These were the melodies that Nishat wanted to use, and I spent many months developing these single lines into full orchestral pieces.” As collaborations go, looking at the concerto as a whole, Stacey’s contribution arguably outweighs that of Khan, which makes it all the more disingenuous that Stacey’s name should be entirely absent from all of the Proms’ promotional materials. Having said that, perhaps it’s all to to the good, as The Gate of the Moon is a work far more worthy of blame than praise. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Ensemble Resonanz

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The first day of my weekend at HCMF ended back where it had begun, in St Paul’s Hall, for a late-night concert by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Peter Rundel. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 and comprised just three pieces, all focusing on strings, two of which featured solo cello, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras.

It began with the UK première of Rolf Wallin‘s Ground, the title of which alludes to the cyclic Baroque form of divisions, whereby a repeating bassline (the ground) is gradually overlaid with layers of faster material. That description probably suggests a certain amount of mayhem, but Ground is a decidedly pensive piece—Wallin describes it as “about finding rest”—in which the solo cello is closely surrounded by the rest of the strings, together forming a close collaboration. Furthermore, while the work has no repeating bassline (seven chords are the indiscernible equivalent here), it is highly episodic, exploring an extensive cycle of moods and atmospheres. A collaboration it may be, but it’s an intrepid one, bringing to mind a gradual descent into the earth (a connotation of the title?), passing through increasingly dark and ambiguous layers of strata. What makes the piece particularly interesting is its central melodic identity; Wallin allows tension to manifest itself in diffident, unstable music, but it never comes off the rails, preserving the sense of a pre-planned mission, rather than a mystery tour. At the work’s conclusion it enters its most cryptic episode; bordering on a stasis, both soloist and strings arrange themselves into a dense web of gently wafting notes. It begs the question: is this the ‘rest’ Wallin was striving for? or is the mission not yet completed? Read more

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The concerto reinvented: Jakob Kullberg – Momentum: Nordic Cello Concertos

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i’ve commented in the past about the number of contemporary composers drawn to writing violin concertos—they’ve been a regular fixture among the works premièred at the Proms in the last few years—but personally, i’ve always been more drawn to the cello concerto. Composers exploring this medium seem, almost unavoidably, to feel the urge to tap into things deep and profound—or at least, profoundly mysterious. This is definitely what pervades one of the more interesting CDs i’ve been sent recently, a disc that has been strangely ignored by most commentators. Showcasing the seriously impressive talent of Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg, together with the Poland-based New Music Orchestra conducted by Szymon Bywalec, the disc explores cello concertos by arguably the three most renowned Nordic composers, Per Nørgård, Arne Nordheim and Kaija Saariaho. Nørgård’s second cello concerto lends its name to the album as a whole—Momentum—and it’s a wisely chosen title, as the concept of momentum—or more specifically the way it manifests itself within a larger dramatic dialogue—seems to be of central importance in all three pieces. Read more

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Proms 2012: Olga Neuwirth – Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory (UK Première)

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i’ve commented before on the number of contemporary concertos that crop up during the Proms, and we were treated to another one from Olga Neuwirth, a 20-minute viola concerto bearing the intriguing title Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory. It was composed in 2009 and premièred that year by its dedicatee Antoine Tamestit; on this occasion, the Philharmonia Orchestra was joined by Lawrence Power, conducted by Susanna Mälkki. Anyone familiar with Neuwirth’s surreal, left-field music won’t be surprised to learn that an amphigory is “a meaningless or nonsensical piece of writing, especially one intended as a parody”. That tongue-in-cheek reference is matched by the more serious first half of the title, which is borrowed from a book that examines “trauma and the experience of modernity” in the writings of Baudelaire and Celan. Neuwirth sees to it that these discrete inspirational forces become incorporated into each other, the work presenting a weird and unsettling amalgam in which fragments from an assortment of earlier musics act as signified elements that regularly cause the uneasy relationship between soloist and orchestra to shift direction. Read more

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Proms 2012: Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2, Harrison Birtwistle – Gigue Machine (UK Premières) & Brian Elias – Electra Mourns (World Première)

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Last weekend’s Proms Matinee, given by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell, was the concert i had been most eagerly awaiting in this year’s season, featuring as it did some of my favourite composers and three premières. Back in April i opined that this concert “may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season”; i think that prediction was pretty close to the mark. Read more

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Proms 2012: Richard Dubugnon – Battlefield Concerto (UK Première)

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Concertos are a regular feature among the new works heard at the Proms, but it’s rare to hear one for two pianos; Richard Dubugnon’s Battlefield Concerto, composed for those most characterful and quirky of siblings, Katia and Marielle Labèque, was therefore a refreshing break from the norm. It was given its first UK performance a little over a week ago by the Labèques with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Semyon Bychkov. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Šu

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As as addendum to my coverage of last year’s Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin (part 1, part 2), here is one of the few remaining pieces from that day, which was only broadcast a few weeks ago. Šu is a concerto for sheng and orchestra, the sheng being one of the most ancient traditional Chinese instruments, dating back over 3,000 years. Comprising a series of pipes played via a mouthpiece, its sound is something like a cross between a harmonica and an accordion; its appearance is like nothing else at all. Alongside the traditional instrument is a keyed version that enables fully chromatic tempered pitches, and it’s for this instrument that Chin composed Šu.

Šu is one of Chin’s most stubbornly enigmatic works; in both structural and material terms, it doesn’t so much develop as flex, passages of great delicacy repeatedly answered by more brutal outbursts. Wisely, Chin assigns the orchestra to a secondary role, allowing the sheng—an instrument that can barely muster a mezzo-forte—to act as both instigator and guide for proceedings. The ‘flexing’ i spoke of results in an episodic music, although Chin takes an audibly different approach in the two halves of the piece. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – still (UK Première)

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Tonight saw the UK première of the latest work by Rebecca Saunders, her violin concerto still. Saunders’ music has been a growing musical passion of mine for a while; as such, i’ve already begun a longer article surveying her work, but i’ll leave that for another day, and for now focus on the concerto. It was composed for soloist Carolin Widmann, and the performance, which took place at the Barbican, was given by her with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Lionel Bringuier. These same forces (directed by Sylvain Cambreling) gave the première of the work last September at the Beethovenfest in Bonn.

The piece is in two movements, together lasting around 20 minutes. In the preamble, Widmann interestingly notes how the piece bore the provisional title rage, a title that seems in keeping for a composer who’s twice written pieces called fury. However, both of those pieces (for double bass solo and double bass plus ensemble respectively) avoid hackneyed tropes of aggression, their protagonists engaged instead in a music that is surprisingly restrained, but pent-up and seething. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto

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Last year, in my article about the Total Immersion day devoted to the music of Unsuk Chin, i didn’t say much about the Violin Concerto, which was omitted from the BBC’s broadcast. However, in November they finally got round to broadcasting it, so here it is. The performance, at the Barbican in London, was given by Jennifer Koh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. In the concert hall, Koh’s violin often struggled to be heard above the considerable orchestral forces pitted against it, so it’s good to hear the balance so nicely restored in the broadcast.

Despite being composed in a familiar, four-movement plan, it’s a piece rather difficult to unpick. In some ways, the textures are simpler and more defined than usual, but this is countered by material that is highly organic. It opens in a dense place, lower notes moving vaguely while the soloist draws a high line filled with open strings and natural harmonics. The brass are the first to become apparent, chords shifting in the background, their movement causing everything momentarily to swell, and then halt. The soloist’s first cadenza is wiry and (in the best sense) aimless, its twists and swoops more a result of fun than purpose. But Chin is just as concerned with momentum as with reverie, and she soon pushes the violin back into a pace that becomes ever more swift, culminating in a moto perpetuo that’s urged on by orchestral stomps. Another cadenza ensues, more rapid than before, and a sustained brass chord ushers in the movement’s climax, which sends the frantic soloist plummeting. The slow second movement places heavy emphasis on Chin’s trademark use of percussion. Read more

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Proms 2011: Harrison Birtwistle – Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (UK Première)

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As already noted, this year’s Proms season has seen an abundance of new concertos, the last and most substantial of which was given its UK première on 7 September: the Concerto for Violin & Orchestra by Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle wrote the work for soloist Christian Tetzlaff, who gave the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra earlier in the year; on this occasion he was joined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson. Read more

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Proms 2011: Michael Berkeley – Organ Concerto

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The Prom concert on the evening of 3 September included a performance of Michael Berkeley‘s rarely-heard Organ Concerto, performed by David Goode with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. There are few British composers who seem to be so centrally connected to the world of music than Michael Berkeley. Son of Lennox, godson of Britten, Berkeley is arguably best known to many through his broadcasting work on television and radio, although as a composer he’s charted an interesting, if at times, quizzical path. The reason i mention the sense of interconnection projected from Berkeley’s cultural persona is because it’s often struck me that his compositional voice doesn’t so much bubble up from within, but appears to be forged from notions, ideas, mannerisms and traits from a plethora of other composers. That’s not intended as a negative criticism at all; on the contrary, in his best music, Berkeley, far from being a ‘stylistic magpie’, comes across as a sort of æsthetic impresario, in the process generating something quite unique irrespective of the apparently disparate nature of its sources. Read more

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Proms 2011: Kevin Volans – Piano Concerto No. 3 (World Première)

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If one thing has dominated the premières at this year’s Proms, it’s the presence of the concerto; thus far, we’ve heard no fewer than six (Dalbavie, Carter, Holloway, Holt, Larcher and Aperghis), with more coming in the days ahead. Monday’s Prom brought yet another concerto into being, Kevin VolansPiano Concerto No. 3, performed by Barry Douglas with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard.

The opening few minutes give a clear indication of what lies ahead, the piano presenting a stabbing ostinato that immediately infects the orchestra, responding in glittering accented chords. The piano then dissolves into a fluid, grace note-strewn passage, bringing proceedings briefly to a halt; starting up again, the sections of the orchestra now take turns to predominate. This is the essence of the piece, and also its unifying aspect, since Volans is not concerned here with conventional notions of material development. He has very different ideas, and indeed, his working method—each day to continue where he’d left off, making no amendments to previous work—is audibly etched into the grain of the music. It neither develops nor evolves; in a sense, it unfolds, but even this doesn’t quite fit; perhaps all one can say is that it just happens, swiftly passing from idea to idea with only the barest of constants. There are occasions when Volans allows himself to revisit earlier material, but for the most part, this concerto is a flight of fancy, restlessly keen to press on, with barely a glance behind. Read more

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Proms 2011: Peter Maxwell Davies – Il rozzo martello; Georges Aperghis – Champ-Contrechamp (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – Angel Fighter (UK Première)

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Last Saturday’s Proms matinee was devoted to new music, featuring no less a line-up than the BBC Singers and the London Sinfonietta, both conducted by David Atherton.

The concert opened with Peter Maxwell DaviesIl rozzo martello, a sombre and rather austere choral work that comes across as older than its mere 14 years would suggest. Unlike so many composers of contemporary choral music, Max is happily unequivocal in his mode of expression, but this also makes the piece a bit of a tough listen, so it benefits from repeated listenings, which ‘soften’ the ostensibly hard edges. It proves, at times, to be captivating; the opening, where overlapping plainsong-esque lines sustain their final note, gradually building a rich chord, is a rather magical way to start the piece, and it ends no less impressively, in a deliciously soft morass of lower voices. It’s often the male voices who have the most striking material, including a dense homophonic episode around halfway through, and some unexpected loud whispers towards the end. A difficult piece, no doubt, but given half a chance, an increasingly rewarding one. Read more

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Proms 2011: Thomas Larcher – Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra (World Première)

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Last Thursday’s Prom was an all Austrian affair, opening with the world première of Thomas Larcher‘s Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra; Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley were the soloists, pitted against the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.

Beforehand, one wondered if it might prove to be the most tantalising new work heard this year; alongside the twin soloists, Larcher has included a peculiar concertino quartet comprising accordion, electric zither, percussion and prepared piano (played by Larcher himself). Within minutes, though, it became abundantly clear that we were in very similar territory to that explored by Pascal Dusapin in his String Quartet/Concerto ‘Hinterland’/’Hapax’ three weeks ago. Throughout the first movement, Larcher, too, is hyperactive almost to the point of absurdity, but certainly well beyond the point of irritation. His material feels like the result of a large-scale collage, one put together from microscopic, barely-similar fragments. There are, admittedly, notions of unity in the movement—an occasional returring motif, and an oscillating chord progression redolent of film music—but they can do little to prevent the music from coming across as skittish and schizophrenic. Read more

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Proms 2011: Simon Holt – Centauromachy

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Simon Holt has been featured at the Proms on numerous occasions over the years, and yesterday his music returned to the Albert Hall with the orchestral work Centauromachy. It was given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with whom Holt is Composer in Association; they were conducted by François-Xavier Roth, who also oversaw the première of the piece in November last year. The work features a pair of soloists, of distinct but not dissimilar timbres: clarinet in A and flugelhorn, played by Robert Plane and Philippe Schartz respectively.

Holt has structured the work in five movements, the shortest of which comes first, featuring the soloists alone. Titled ‘Two natures’, it serves to compare and contrast the clarinet and flugelhorn, which at first take it in turns to attempt to catch each other, scurrying around, imitating, their phrases ending together on a unison note. It’s not until the third and final phrase that they move beyond a relatively narrow pitch space, moving swiftly to occupy distinct registral areas, the clarinet initially high above the flugelhorn, then leaping below it. Following a final chirrup, the second movement, ‘Chiron’s dream’ introduces the orchestra, rapidly materialising like a grand, cinematic fade-in. When the soloists restart their activity, it’s with forceful gestures, but they quickly yield to lines that continue to cling together. A trumpet strikes up a rapport with the flugel, while the strings seek to try something out in their uppermost register, delineated by glockenspiel strikes. Everything coalesces onto a lower note, from which the soloists again recommence strongly but immediately become soft; as earlier, though, Holt keeps the material restless, suggesting a dream that’s not entirely comfortable. Read more

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Proms 2011: Marc-André Dalbavie & Elliott Carter – Flute Concertos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening’s Prom concert brought not one but two flute concertos, performed by Swiss virtuoso Emmanuel Pahud, together with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, again under Thierry Fischer’s direction. The two pieces are nearly five and three years old respectively, the first from Marc-André Dalbavie, who turned 50 earlier this year, the second (heard here in its UK première) from Elliott Carter, who will be a staggering 103 years old in December. Despite first appearances, there are commonalities between the two works. Both eschew the contemporary practice of opting for descriptive names; the bald title Flute Concerto has connotations of its own, of course, but nonetheless suggests that deeply programmatic content is not the order of the day. To that end, both also place greatest importance on the surface of the music, inviting the listener first and foremost to place their focus on its undulations. But there the similarities end. Read more

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