Michael Zev Gordon

Cheltenham Music Festival 2018: Quartet Premières; Berkeley Ensemble; Juliana

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Last Wednesday at Cheltenham Music Festival saw the world premières of no fewer than four new string quartets, courtesy of the Ligeti Quartet. Interestingly, all of them were cast as single-movement structures, though in the case of his String Quartet No. 2Michael Zev Gordon presented something akin to a swatch book, the work comprising an episodic collection of diverse patterns and hues. Mildly engaging, not really containing anything unfamiliar or unconventional, these episodes seemed like short exercises in library music, like the underscore cues for a slightly quirky British drama (think The Camomile Lawn). Somewhat lacking in substance and a bit directionless and monotonous in its later stages – some of the ideas were protracted longer than they warranted – it nonetheless had its moments. Similarly incidental was Ayanna Witter-Johnson‘s Mento Mood, a pretty, cheerful piece invoking Jamaican mento music. In many respects it sounded more like an arrangement than an original composition per se, though there were some nice passages where the material extended beyond the instruments, requiring the quartet to sing and vocalise.

Much more involving than these was Sarah RimkusLe Dian, a piece taking inspiration from Gaelic-language musical traditions. Rimkus sets up a diatonic world, powered primarily by cycling rising minor thirds, from which the instruments then broke away, led by the cello. This established a pattern of harmonic side-steps resulting in nice collisions and ambiguity along the way yet never interrupting the constant flow of the material. A later episode, where the rising motif was explored at length, was truly hypnotic. The most outstanding of these four new quartets was Bethan Morgan-WilliamsGhost Tongues. In keeping with the referential aspect that permeated all the pieces, Morgan-Williams’ music appeared to be derived from folk music, though in the most marvellously oblique and obscure way. It would be simplistic – no, it would just be plain wrong – to say that the piece was ‘folk-like’, yet at all times there was something about the material that, in ways difficult to articulate or even understand, made an oblique but undeniable connection back to a folk origin. This fluid, uncanny sense of familiarity was sometimes expressed in exploded form, the music pulled apart into small fragments, before reforming or shifting into a kind of prismatic lyricism, conveying melodies and harmonies as if refracted through the instruments. This back-and-forth between poles of extended lines and atomised pizzicatos were mirrored by the work’s expressive scope, Morgan-Williams not afraid to let the music become pensive, even allowing it to fall silent a couple of times. Though episodic, it all felt part of the same underlying argument, concluded in a lovely ‘dirty’ major seventh chord, as though a cadence had been forced onto the end. A really brilliant piece that i can’t wait to hear again. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: Love Songs

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Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: Fidelio Trio, The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, Tokaido Road

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Over the weekend, three concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival, in different ways and for different reasons, caused one to reflect on the present within the context of ideas, experiences and memories from the past. The most frustrating and patience-testing were to found in the Saturday afternoon recital at the Pittville Pump Room given by the Fidelio Trio, the first half of which presented a threesome of works of the kind where composers dearly wish them to be more than the sum of their parts. Graham Fitkin‘s Lens, Michael Zev Gordon‘s Roseland and Tom Stewart‘s Flying Kites: Concentric Circles (receiving its première) took turns to mooch through material so terrified of doing anything demonstrative that they remained trapped in a limbo of blank tonality. Restraint and simplicity do not make something profound, a fact lost on these pieces, their respective blind, senile, melismatic bleatings lacking any meaningful emotional weight or poignancy. The second half brought relief: Piers Hellawell‘s Etruscan Games offered very much more focused lyricism, the ambitious third movement in particular exploring an impressive density of counterpoint. Arlene Sierra‘s duo Avian Mirrors provided three charming snapshots of behaviour, the last of which, ‘Display’, was amusingly direct, violin and cello (serendipitously played on this occasion by men) becoming a preening, posturing pair of rivals in search of a mate, the material a wild display of testosterone-fuelled showmanship. But overshadowing them all was the concert’s final work and second première: Gavin HigginsThe Ruins of Detroit. Where the music of the first half seemed to cleave to something undefinable from a less-demanding earlier age, Higgins confronted the past with courage. Titled after and inspired by the famous photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the piece opened in a place of anaemic fragility (bringing to mind the start of Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana), given hauntological resonance in deep muted piano notes. Here, finally, was lyricism was a real sense of context. Negotiated with necessary sensitivity by the Fidelio Trio, Higgins’ textures were often strikingly vivid, as in a later episode where the piano became a kind of abstract water dripping on romantic memories of former glories. Appropriately, the material often decayed from melody to fragment to gesture, during which one became aware of something vestigial beneath; the conclusion said it all, a sad downward sagging, under the combination of both physical and nostalgic weight. Read more

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