Eric Whitacre

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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Proms 2015: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks for all of your votes on this year’s Proms premières. Having closed the polls yesterday, i’ve crunched the numbers a few different ways and here’s a summary of what you, my esteemed readers, had to say about this year’s offerings.
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Proms 2015: Jonathan Newman – Blow It Up, Start Again & Eric Whitacre – Deep Field (European Premières)

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Composers say one thing; their music does something else. It’s nice when the two fit together, or at least fall broadly into the same conceptual and/or aesthetic ballpark. But they don’t always. Not by a long chalk.
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Proms 2012: the premières – how you voted

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Two weeks have passed since the Proms 2012 season came to an end, so today i’ve closed the polls for each of the works premièred this year. This was the first year that i included polls, and in total 615 votes were cast; thanks to all of you who took part. i’ve taken a careful look at the results, and they make for interesting reading; here’s a summary of how you voted.

Worst New Work

Bob Chilcott – The Angry Planet

69% of readers reacted negatively to this piece, rising to 85% if we include those who could muster only a “meh” in response. It’s understandable really; Bob Chilcott’s considerable abilities did him no favours in this vapid anthology of sentiment. The work’s message—both in terms of words and music—is stale and unconvincing, barely rising to the level of a mere divertissement. It’s hard to tell whether composer and librettist were trying too hard or not hard enough, but either way, it falls woefully short of its elevated aspirations.

Runners up

Eric Whitacre – Higher, Faster, Stronger
Elaine Agnew – Dark Hedges

Eric Whitacre’s full-fat musical confectionary has a proven tendency to distract listeners from its inadequacies, so i was surprised to see that so many 5:4 readers shared my view about his Olympic tie-in new work. 62% of you didn’t like it, and who can blame you? It looked for a while as though Elaine Agnew’s piece would be voted the worst new work, but it rallied some last-minute support that pushed it into third place. Clearly i wasn’t the only one exasperated by its incessant need for percussive novelty, which turned the piece into an irritating slice of bombast, entirely at odds with its evocative inspiration.

Best New Work

Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 7

Per Nørgård’s newest symphony received an overwhelming 91% positive response, which makes for an interesting contrast to the reception of his Sixth Symphony—performed at the Proms ten years ago—which seemed to bamboozle both audiences and critics alike. All the same, Nørgård’s Symphony No. 7 is by no means an ‘easy’ listen (“beautiful and bewildering in equal measure” as i wrote in my review), so it’s heart-warming to see such an uncompromising work meet with such a positive response.

Runners up

Mark Simpson – sparks
Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2

Mark Simpson’s reputation has been given a significant boost by coming up trumps with his Last Night work, which managed to be intricate and unusual while remaining immediate and accessible. Michael Finnissy’s music—so rarely heard in the UK—was both a deeply refreshing experience and also something of a revelation, making abundantly clear just how similar so many British composers sound these days. Finnissy, as he always has, stands alone, sounding absolutely unique. i’ll reassert what i wrote in my review, the hope that Finnissy’s music will be heard much more often on these shores in future, particularly at the Proms.

Speaking personally, i broadly agree with how you voted. i think my own favourite of the premières was Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but Charlotte Bray’s At the Speed of Stillness was highly impressive too, and Julian Philips’ Sorowfull Songes—which seems to have fallen off the radar of many listeners and critics—and Brian Elias’ Electra Mourns were both surprisingly powerful works. As for the worst, it’s hard to argue with your results, but i’m still staggered by the ineptitude of Emily Howard’s Calculus of the Central Nervous System; mistakes of that magnitude really ought not to be made in public.

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Proms 2012: Eric Whitacre – Higher, Faster, Stronger & Imogen Heap – The Listening Chair (World Premières)

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Yesterday’s late night Prom focussed on the USA’s most popular manufacturer of choral music, Eric Whitacre. Featuring his own choir joining forces with the BBC Singers and ensemblebash, the concert included two world premières, a new work of Whitacre’s own plus an arrangement by him of a new song by the UK’s most brilliantly eclectic chanteuse, Imogen Heap. Read more

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Mix Tape #11 : Joy

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A very belated Happy Easter to you all! Following a hectic Easter weekend, and a few days spent in Cambridge, here’s a new mix tape for Eastertide, the theme being joy.

To start, a wonderful jazz-folk fusion number from Yellowjackets; Greenhouse is an album i’ve loved for years, and “Freda” is one of its most exciting tracks. It’s followed by the last movement from one of Michael Tippett‘s earliest mature compositions; strident and full of momentum, it briefly allows a moment or two of wistful reflection before culminating in an elated dance. Freezepop‘s latest album remains their one consistent release, and “Ninja of Love” is one of its most infectious songs. Continuing the pace like a runaway train is the opening track from Squarepusher‘s brilliant 2006 album Hello Everything, “Hello Meow”, filled with retro synths and riffs. Each album by Deerhoof has its share of instrumentals, and “Rainbow Silhouette Of The Milky Rain” bludgeons its experimental way along in rip-roaring fashion. The mix now enters a gentler mode, beginning with Imogen Heap‘s ravishing track “Just For Now”, all glorious (if realistic) optimism. And then Björk, who has surely composed some of the most unreservedly happy songs ever; “All Is Full Of Love” is here given extra treatment in the form of beats and strings, becoming if anything, more ecstatic than the original version. The “Communion” from Tournemire‘s Easter music shows him at his mystical best, placing the plainsong themes into complex, shimmering chords that hover and float in rapture. Julee Cruise, bless her, only knows extremes: her music is either abjectly mournful (“The Dying Swan”) or caught up in ecstasy, as she is here, in one of her most well-known songs. Read more

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