Jörg Widmann

Proms 2016: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who expressed your views on this year’s Proms premières, it’s always fascinating to compare my own responses with those of so many others, particularly when we disagree! Since closing the polls a few days ago, i’ve fed the results (791 votes) into what has become by now quite a clever little spreadsheet—and voilà, here’s a summary of how you all voted.

Worst New Work

Lera Auerbach – The Infant Minstrel and his Peculiar Menagerie

i must admit i’ve wondered whether my own negative reaction to this piece was somewhat churlish considering how much fun Auerbach is evidently aiming it to be. Further reflections haven’t changed my mind, however—if anything, they’ve reinforced it—and the majority of you clearly felt similarly. To quote from my review: “doggerel masquerading as playful pastiche”; certainly a worthy (if that’s the right word) piece to be judged the worst of this year’s premières.

Runners Up

Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes
Helen Grime – Two Eardley Pictures

Yes, i can see where you’re coming from. While Auerbach’s was, to my mind, the only really egregious example of barrel-bottom-scraping, Lindberg’s was almost an unimpressive. His work in recent years seems to exhibit a kind of laziness, relying on well-worn tropes, that’s disappointing considering how impressive have been some examples of his earlier output. In this particular instance, the Beethoven red herring gives it even less credit. Grime’s music clearly needs an overhaul, pure and simple. It’s limited in scope, tautological and superficial, which is all the more frustrating considering there are moments in the Two Eardley Pictures when one detects something altogether more engagingly nebulous lurking beneath that ultra-crystal clear surface.

Best New Work

Reinbert de Leeuw – Der nächtliche Wanderer

Not my own personal favourite, but a work i enjoyed very much. i still think it’s a risk, de Leeuw extending this lengthy nocturnal meditation to a duration of almost 50 minutes, but i still think he gets away with it (just), avoiding clichés and norms in favour of an ambiguous, spontaneous narrative that’s often strikingly vivid (i can never get that dog’s barking out of my head).

Runners Up

Jörg Widmann – Armonica
Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto

For me, these were the real highlights. i love the mixture of simplicity and complexity that permeates Widmann’s luscious soundworld. It’s a tension that allows one to enjoy the work on a number of levels of engagement; i certainly find more in it each time i hear it. Berkeley’s concerto has, i hope, proved to those who needed convincing that he’s not simply one of the old guard, but a composer simultaneously looking back and forward, embracing the best of both worlds. Beyond this, it’s extremely refreshing to witness a composer being so emotionally raw, a quality that seems to have become alien (or, at best, rationalised) in most contemporary music circles. His concerto ranks among the very best new works that the Proms has heard in recent years.

And in case you’re interested, among the remaining premières, it was Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow that left most of you supremely indifferent, another verdict with which i can readily agree. Once again, i tip my critical hat to the acuity of your discernment.

As i said before the season began, i had been tempted not to bother reviewing this year’s new works, due to the timidity of the selected composers, and while it’s turned out to be more interesting than i’d feared, there’s no doubt at all that the Proms seems to have barely a clue about contemporary music. One of its worst offences, which i’ve probably mentioned every year, is its singular lack of interest in/awareness of electroacoustic music, expanding instrumental groups with electronics. It seems the Proms believes you’re either entirely acoustic and therefore classical, or you use electronics and you’re therefore pop. i couldn’t give a monkey’s about the Proms’ insistence on including pop-related concerts—that’s even less of a crime than clapping between movements (which isn’t and never has been a crime anyway, so shush)—but their ignorant failure to explore what contemporary composers are doing to integrate acoustic and electronic composition is as embarrassing as it is shameful. Proms director David Pickard seriously needs to up his game.

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Proms 2016: Jörg Widmann – Armonica & Reinbert de Leeuw – Der nächtliche Wanderer (UK Premières)

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The latest pair of premières at the Proms have shared a leaning towards, not abstraction exactly, but a kind of elusive vagueness that seeks more to hint and evoke rather than aiming at direct statement. Both, however, got there via quite specific starting points. Dutch composer Reinbert de Leeuw turned to Hölderlin for both the title and the environment of his new large-scale orchestral work Der nächtliche Wanderer. At nearly 50 minutes’ duration, it’s one of the longest contemporary works to be featured at the Proms in a while, although the extent to which de Leeuw justified this duration is debatable. Its primary objective is to create an immersive nocturnal soundscape, theatrical and even rather frightening. To this end, the work’s opening gambit is very effective, featuring the recorded sounds of a distant barking dog segueing into a lengthy prelude where low tam-tams and bells form the backdrop to a small repeating motif from a lone viola, answered by rising/falling phrases from divided strings. Read more

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Proms 2014: Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise (European Première) & Jörg Widmann – Flûte en suite & Teufel Amor (UK Premières)

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Despite BBC Television’s astonishingly stupid recent efforts to reinforce this myopic dogma, new music does not and never has existed in a hermetically sealed, separate space, set apart from the entirety of music that has gone before it. Composers might sometimes wish it did (echoing Beckett’s “All that goes before forget”), but it’s a moot point; audiences—especially Proms audiences—cannot fail to approach contemporary music saturated with the knowledge and memories of a myriad earlier musical experiences, classical or otherwise. Excising new works from the BBC’s television broadcasts of Proms concerts isn’t merely a craven act of crowd-pleasing complaisance, treating music as little more than an emollient unction with which one can unthinkingly unwind, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the interconnected nature and context of the entirety of music. Composers squirm when you ask them about influences, but they’re there, sometimes very obviously so, and two of the most recent Proms premières, from Behzad Ranjbaran & Jörg Widmann, could hardly have made their earlier points of inspiration more clear.
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Jörg Widmann – String Quartet No. 2 (Chorale Quartet)

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One of the greatest gifts of the string quartet is its ability to explore the most intimate of soundworlds. The second of Jörg Widmann‘s string quartets (he’s composed a series of five), subtitled the ‘Chorale Quartet’, is a striking example of this, spending much of its time at the threshold of utterance.

Widmann makes it clear in the opening moments of the piece that there is something familiar, traditional and perhaps fundamental, lurking not far beneath the surface of the music. It emerges from the halting, sporadic notes that begin the work, broken and tainted by the quartet’s hesitance and microtonal inflections. This is almost as clear as it is able to become; much of the time it can barely be perceived beneath the network of near-silent gestures from which most of the work’s fabric is made. It’s a judgement call as to whether the players are working to defeat this latent material or whether it’s defeating them, but either way, the quartet’s demeanour is an uncomfortable one. Their hesitant notes occasionally get drawn-out into long, spindly threads, coated in barely audible shivers; but when they seek to be more assertive, the result is rude blurts, needle-sharp pizzicatos, grinding accents and dull surges. About a third of the way through, the quartet appears to grow, both in terms of substance and confidence, but a potentially strong cadential moment gets caught once again, quickly reduced to fragility. Read more

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