J. S. Bach

Proms 2019: Bach Night

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Here we go again. Four of the last premières at the Proms were the product of the festival’s irresistible inclination not to allow composers to just write what they want to write but to force them to ‘respond’ to earlier music. Last year, the most prominent example of this was The Brandenburg Project, and this year they’ve sought to repeat the idea on a smaller scale. Bach Night, which took place last Wednesday, included the first performances of four pieces each of which was composed in response to one of J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites. Performed by the period ensemble Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt, all the pieces were around three minutes long, compelling the four composers – Nico Muhly, Stevie Wishart, Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae – to create not so much responses as brief reactions.

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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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Passionate, gut-wrenching, but humble: Bach – St John Passion

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Two weeks ago, i was fortunate enough to be at the performance of J. S. Bach‘s St John Passion, given by Ex Cathedra in Birmingham Town Hall. i’ve loved this work since i was a teenager, when a friend lent me a recording of the arias and chorales. It was the one by John Eliot Gardiner, a recording that captures every nuance of the drama as it unfolds, in all its beauty and terror. i bought this recording many years ago, while living in The Hague, and it was also during this time that i attended a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the central Gröte Kerk. The Matthew, while wonderful, is far less demanding (both for performer and listener alike), and it seems appropriate that Bach approaches John’s words with such a radical outlook, as his gospel is surely the most transcendent and impassioned, emotionally, psychologically and theologically. A plethora of composers have explored the Passion accounts, but Bach’s St John Passion still, i feel, outclasses most of them; i am no staunch supporter, nor indeed even an avid listener of Bach, but he taps into something here with an honesty and clarity of vision that is extraordinary. Read more

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