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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85

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The latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, last Sunday, was an extended celebration for the 85th birthday of Britain’s most radical musical octogenarian, Harrison Birtwistle. In fact, the occasion was marked by not one but two back-to-back concerts, the first of which gave prominence to performers taking part in the ensemble’s NEXT scheme, coaching early-career instrumentalists. In addition to eight works by Birtwistle, the concerts included music by Rebecca Saunders and Australian composer Lisa Illean. Read more

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Forum Wallis 2019 (Part 2)

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The main focus during the five days of concerts at Forum Wallis was on ensemble and chamber music. An important and impressive feature of these concerts was their aesthetic diversity, not showing a marked preference for certain kinds of music-making. This resulted in extremely different – sometimes, practically opposite – works sitting side by side, providing a shifting and engagingly unpredictable experience. That being said, diversity of gender was overwhelmingly absent: just five of the 39 works performed during the festival were by women composers, a pretty bleak statistic that artistic director Javier Hagen would do well to significantly improve in future years.

Three ensembles were featured: two visiting, one in residence. On the opening night, Freiburg’s Ensemble Aventure performed a programme focusing on Latin America. The only piece that overtly referenced this was Javier Álvarez‘s well-known Temazcal for maracas and tape, and while from my perspective the piece, despite its age (composed in 1984), has lost none of its freshness and vitality, it was interesting to compare notes with a trio of young Mexican composers (taking part in the festival’s Composer Academy) who clearly found it rather more irritating, particularly its (to my mind) amusing, folk-infused conclusion. Either way, percussionist Nicholas Reed’s rendition of the work was excellent, not merely meticulous but extremely elegant. Both Leonardo Idrobo‘s macchina and Graciela Paraskevaídissin ir más lejos positioned their materials with utmost care. For Idrobo, the music lived up to its name, turning Ensemble Aventure into a machine-like mechanism that nonetheless exhibited a great deal of spontaneity and caprice; Paraskevaídis’ music was more emotionally-charged, caught between seriousness and volatility, never sounding portentous but packing a lot of emotional weight that interestingly never quite resolved into something concrete. Quema, a trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon by Natalia Solomonoff, was similarly conflicted, alternating harsh, dissonant tuttis with more thoughtful, inward episodes where the players all felt constricted, as if struggling to make any sound emerge from their instruments; it was all marvellously dramatic. Read more

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St Mary’s Church, Penzance: Kevos – Old Kings in Exile

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Last weekend i made a pilgrimage to the far south-west of England to catch the latest concert given by (as far as i can tell) Cornwall’s one and only contemporary music ensemble, Kevos. The title of the concert, named after one of the works being performed, Old Kings in Exile, gave me pause to consider the somewhat exiled nature of Kevos themselves, located so very far from the usual locations we more readily associate with new music.

Directed by Patrick Bailey, on this occasion they presented five works, including a world première. It’s worth saying that, as he had the last time i saw Kevos in action, Bailey gave a short introduction to each piece, and they could hardly have been more perfect: enthusiastic and explanatory without in any way over-simplifying things for the sake of the audience; they really left you wanting to hear what was to come. That being said, not everything in the programme entirely lived up to Bailey’s keen words. Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s Grazioso!, though entertaining, seemed to exhaust its ideas relatively quickly. As such, there was the strange sensation that it was almost a piece in the style of Turnage rather than an authentic original, but it was nice to hear the irony of its title expressed in such a relentless way, like an exaggerated rendition of some much more mellow existing music, pushed here to extremes. Castles in the Air by young composer Oren Velasquez Hirtenstein was supposedly a memorial to Oliver Knussen, but it was difficult to engage with it on anything beyond an intellectual level. It’s perhaps revealing that Hirtenstein’s programme note commented on his having “cracked the code to one of Knussen’s favoured compositional devices”; what we heard sounded very much like the product of code-breaking: cool, calculated and methodical, but without any significant warmth or emotional depth that one might expect from a piece written in memoriam. Read more

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 2)

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The lack of ostentation in most of the music at this year’s Only Connect festival was perhaps nowhere more conspicuous than in a concert last Saturday devoted to French composer Pascale Criton. Performed by violinist Silvia Tarozzi, cellist Deborah Walker and singers Stine Janvin Joh, Signe Irene Stangborli Time and Liv Runesdatter (members of vocal group Song Circus), the concert featured three works of Criton’s. Two of them were solos, and they highlighted just how elusive is the nature of Criton’s material. In Circle Process, the whole nature of playing the violin wasn’t simply stripped back to its essentials, but sublimated and abstracted, Tarozzi primarily concerned with varying forms of friction, the by-product of scuffing and scraping her instrument. From such pitchless (non-)fundamentals, the piece opened out into a complex semi-focused pitch that, while never really deviating, was nonetheless permanently unstable. Only towards the work’s end did Tarozzi become more demonstrative, but even then her wild gestures were a litany of seemingly static harmonics that soon receded back to the pitchless place from whence they began. The process was somewhat reversed in Chaoscaccia, Walker’s cello setting out in a network of dancing ricochets and groaning pitches that occasionally moved close to forming unisons. Criton undermined the boldness of this opening by pushing the material back into nebulous, abstract territory, Walker giving convoluted articulation to harmonics that, again, were fundamentally static. The work’s conclusion was uncanny, a sequence of crescendos from nothing, each abruptly silenced, as if an unseen presence were directly intervening to cancel things out. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Ensemble Musikfabrik, Christian Marclay: To be continued

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On the opening night of last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, i remember pondering about the shift in tactic regarding the festival’s opening gambit. In 2017, there was a move away from the full-throttle shock and awe that has often typified HCMF’s opening nights, but the first concert of the 2018 festival, yesterday evening, saw a return to the more ambitious scale of previous years, yet in a totally transfigured way. In the Town Hall, in the company of Ensemble Musikfabrik and soprano Juliet Fraser, HCMF 2018 began with the UK première of Rebecca Saunders‘ 80-minute epic Yes.

In many respects, it’s a work that takes us back into familiar Saunders territory. i’ve remarked previously on the qualities of similarity – even, in the best sense, tautology – running through Saunders’ work, and in Yes we’re once again in a land whose contours and landmarks are shaped by a semi-tangible, emotionally-laden engagement with the words of James Joyce. This connects it to any number of Saunders’ other works, but being a piece for soprano and ensemble there’s an obvious connection to be made to Skin (heard at HCMF two years ago). This connection was reinforced by certain articulations – for example, words uttered from behind a hand – and interactions, such as those between the soprano and a muted trumpet, a particularly memorable relationship exhibited throughout Skin. Read more

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The Tolmen Centre, Constantine: Kevos – From this world to the next

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The extent to which contemporary music is well-represented in ‘the provinces’ of the UK, away from major cities, is extremely variable and in the case of Cornwall it’s not really pushing a point to describe it as being almost non-existent. Kevos (Cornish for ‘contemporary’), a six-piece ensemble formed in 2016 by Patrick Bailey (who directs the group) and dedicated to new music, is therefore not merely an honourable exception to the rule, but something altogether more rare and vital. Nominally based in Truro, in the middle of Cornwall, Kevos take a peripatetic approach to their concerts, performing as far afield as Newlyn to the west, Falmouth to the east and the lovely Kestle Barton arts centre to the south (not far, in fact, from the most southerly point of the British mainland). Kevos’ geographical scope is matched by the repertoire they take on, which in the last year has included music by Steve Reich, Alison Kay, Berio, Charlotte Bray, Richard Causton and Judith Weir. Kevos clearly set their sights ambitiously high, and deserve huge amounts of kudos and encouragement for what they’ve achieved thus far.

A few nights ago i was fortunate to catch the last concert of their current season, titled ‘From this world to the next’, this time taking place at the Tolmen Centre in the tiny village of Constantine. Kevos’ concerts occasionally feature electronic music alongside instrumental works, and they opened with Jonathan Harvey‘s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. Whenever i’m about to be confronted by this piece – so familiar and, composed in 1980, increasingly un-contemporary – i instinctively wonder whether it has anything left to give. Personally speaking, i’ve heard it in practically every possible context, both in concerts and at home, in small halls and vast spaces, through speakers and headphones, in its original 8-channel version and condensed down to stereo. Yet when the piece plays and the bell and the boy sing out once again, i find that that familiarity is at once reinforced and completely undone. Somehow it continues to speak with incredible freshness and vitality; despite its 38 years of age, it could almost have been composed last week. Furthermore, despite not having the finest of sound systems, its rendition in the Tolmen Centre – heard in its full, 8-channel glory – was nonetheless compositionally crystal clear, demonstrating Harvey’s sense of inquisitive play in his treatment of harmonics and morphemes, as well as the work’s sublime balance of densities and registers. The polarised conclusion, high cluster-chords intoned over the low tolling bell, was so striking it suggested that not only does Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco have plenty more to give, but that we never really know the piece in its entirety; just like all those complex overtones of the Winchester bell on which the work is based, there’s always so much more to be discovered within. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 1)

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A few days ago i returned from spending a week in the city of Tallinn, experiencing most of this year’s Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s most important festival devoted to contemporary music. In previous years i’ve commented on the perception that what one hears during EMD often seems remarkably removed from the conventions and traditions that we associate with new music in western Europe, and in tandem with this, that the development of Estonian contemporary music can appear to have taken place – and, to an extent, continue to be exercised – in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble. As my understanding and appreciation of this music has deepened, i’ve come to realise there’s both truth and falsehood in these perceptions, but to say that the situation is a complex one – due to a tangled mixture of political, geographical and cultural elements – is to put it extremely mildly.

For the last three years the artistic directors of EMD, composers Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner, have chosen an annual theme for the festival, which is deliberately pithy and allusive in order not to be too prescriptive and to allow composers and audiences the widest possible scope for interpretation (to date: ‘abundance’ in 2015, ‘green sound?’ in 2016 and ‘through dimness’ last year). For 2018 the theme was püha, the Estonian word for ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and this point of reference could be felt as a constant through pretty much every concert, though continually provoking a need for reassessment of what that word means and implies, and from much more than just a musical perspective. Read more

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