orchestral

Peter Maxwell Davies – Symphony No. 9

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Though it lasts only 23 minutes, is cast in a single movement and was described by its composer as being “very modest”, Peter Maxwell DaviesSymphony No. 9 is a seriously substantial, thought-provoking work. Composed in 2012, those of a more republican persuasion might be put off by it being dedicated to “Her Majesty the Queen, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee”, but the symphony is about as far from being strewn with bunting as it’s possible to get. It seems to me that the work is, in fact, focused on Britain, and in a way that will always offer food for thought, but which at the present time in particular, with the lamentable, seemingly never-ending wranglings over Brexit potentially reaching their denouement in the coming days, provides a whole lot more to contemplate and consider.

The symphony portrays an entity, a body, represented by the orchestra, that is essentially at war with itself. Max presents this civil war – made to sound deliberately militaristic from the outset – in the first part of the work (though nominally in a single movement, it is structured in two large, connected parts), and while it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that the cause of the conflict stems from the brass, the reality is more subtle: they just happen to be the loudest and most demonstrative group. In truth, pretty much every section of the orchestra is a distinct faction making no meaningful attempt to integrate with or accommodate the others. At best, there’s a certain amount of ‘listening’ going on, though increasingly the wind, strings and brass all tend to talk over each other, trying to shout each other down and occasionally hurling abstract insults. Read more

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Judit Varga – …alles Fleisch… (UK Première)

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All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls…

Words from the biblical book of 1 Peter, set to music in Brahms’ German Requiem and thereby alluded to in the title of Hungarian composer Judit Varga‘s orchestral work …alles Fleisch…. Composed in 2013, the piece commemorates flautist Zoltán Gyöngyössy, who died two years earlier. In her programme note (see below), Varga describes the piece as a requiem, though the soundworld is quite far removed from the kind of connotations that that word might immediately suggest. Certainly, considering the meaning of the word ‘requiem’, there’s very little rest in the piece. Or, rather, what traces of rest there are are militated against by a continual strain of tense, fidgety restlessness. Sometimes these two elements seem superimposed, as if they were parallel but disconnected from each other, while elsewhere they seem to be permeating each other in a complex, discomfiting amalgam of mood. Read more

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Arne Gieshoff – Burr (World Première)

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“You put structures in place, and then they kind of surprise you.” Words said by German composer Arne Gieshoff prior to the first performance of his orchestral work Burr. This seems entirely appropriate, since the piece takes its name and inspiration from burr puzzles, in which pieces of wood are arranged to form complex interlocking geometric shapes. In his piece, Gieshoff has sought less to suggest the geometry than the complexity, and perhaps also more than a little of the frustration that can arise when attempting to solve these puzzles. As such, the work’s six-minute duration veers unpredictably back-and-forth between episodes of energy and enervation.

The result of these wild oscillations is that each successive episode tends to sound more extreme than its siblings. So the more energetic passages, which begin the piece, progress from sounding muscular and flamboyant – an exercise in blatant showing-off – to a more desperate and confused kind of activity. The trumpets in particular, wonderfully busy in these sections, increasingly take on the quality of a bunch of mad birds chattering randomly away at each other all at once, while the percussion seem obsessed with filling their bars with ever more crashes and splashes. Another way of putting it, and it’s perhaps an odd word to use, is that there’s something dutiful about these episodes: gradually less about a simple display of energy than the compulsive need to appear to be energetic. It’s a subtle and fascinating shift. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII (World Première)

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Fanfares are strange things. Short, loud and flamboyant, like hearing an introduction being given by the world’s biggest extrovert. Back in the days when i flirted with being a percussionist, my role in fanfares seemed to amount to little more than providing brief, barely-controlled crashes and bangs at carefully-coordinated moments; and as a composer, the one time i’ve written one was when my then-fiancée asked me to compose the music to accompany her walking down the aisle at our wedding. Up to a point, convention took over: there weren’t any bangs or crashes (being for two trumpets and organ, only an accident could have caused them) but they remain 90 of the most overblown seconds i’ve ever created.

Yet – maybe that’s exactly what a fanfare should be, maybe that’s the point of them. It’s conceivable that fanfares provide a kind of pre-concert equivalent of the post-concert applause: a huge burst of cacophony that cleanses the palate and clears the air in readiness for what is about to follow. ‘Twas ever thus, perhaps, though ’twill not always be the case, and Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest addition to this particular genre certainly goes beyond standard issue bombast. A work for wind, brass and percussion composed to herald the start of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2018/19 concert series, Donum Simoni MMXVIII is, at its title translates, a gift for the orchestra’s conductor, Simon Rattle.

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Catherine Lamb – portions transparent/opaque (World Première)

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I am interested in the long introduction (unfolding) form, in elemental tonal interaction, in aggregation and augmentation, in liminal perceptual states, shifts in density, the filtered atmosphere, and intense, focused experiences.

This is how US composer Catherine Lamb summarised her music to me in 2017. On that occasion, they served as an introduction to her then new piece Prisma Interius V, being premièred at that year’s Proms, but they apply just as much to portions transparent/opaque, composed in 2014. The work’s title hints at the presence of light, and this is primarily explored in an atmosphere of constantly shifting colour and clarity. In addition to these aspects, Lamb throws in a couple more, titling the work’s two movements ‘expand’ and ‘saturate’ respectively, suggesting something of the way this atmosphere manifests within its broader theoretical space or boundaries.

Using just the strings of the orchestra, ‘expand’ sets up thin, drawn-out lines of microtonal pitch, shaded with varying quantities of noise. Initially, though faint, these lines are concentrated in a small space, like the beam of a flashlight in thick fog. The fact that it’s obviously a tight cluster makes no difference to the integrity of what is practically a single, multifaceted line. Only very slowly does the titular expansion start to take effect, the widening harmonic palette articulated in alternation with brief hiatuses. Read more

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John Oswald – I’d love to turn (World Première)

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Many people will likely have first encountered the work of Canadian composer John Oswald through one of two things: either the wonderfully weird collection of ‘Mystery Tapes’ he began putting out in the early 1980s or, more likely, his 1989 album that gave the name to a new form of musical creation: Plunderphonic. Oswald’s entire career has been dominated by this approach to composition, initially by plundering existing recordings that became the basis for intricate and deeply irreverent electronic collages – the most mind-boggling being his 19-minute Plexure from 1993 – and later by pilfering bits and bobs of material as the basis for mangled and reimagined instrumental works. Since 2004 these have formed part of a series given the, from a linguistic perspective, equally plunderphonic title ‘Rascali Klepitoire’, including I’d love to turn, which was composed in 2014.

Oswald has used three compositions from the 1960s as source material for the piece, all very different from each other: The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Terry Riley’s In C, which in the context of I’d love to turn are deconstructed and distilled so that their respective essences remain, providing rhythmic drive and harmonic clarity (Riley), nebulous transforming textures (Ligeti) and a simple gestural motif (Beatles). What Oswald makes from these essential elements has the heightened, off-kilter eccentricity of a hallucination or a state of delirium. Read more

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Naomi Pinnock – The Field is Woven (World Première)

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The inspiration for Naomi Pinnock‘s 2018 orchestral work The field is woven is a series of paintings from 1979 by Agnes Martin titled The Islands. From a distance, these paintings appear to be squares of off-white blankness, yet on closer inspection details become apparent, in the form of colours and carefully-arranged lines and grids. As in Pinnock’s earlier piece Lines and Spaces, this becomes the basis for music where ostensibly great simplicity belies quantities of underlying complexity.

It’s arguably less meaningful here to talk about formal structure and shape, which seem to be a secondary (perhaps even incidental) consideration, than about the arrangement of ideas. The opening portion of the work, which lasts around five minutes, involves various ‘bands’ of chords slowly juxtaposing and colliding. While they exist outside a harmonically-rooted world, there’s nonetheless a palpable sense of stability: dissonances sound like dissonances and are swiftly ‘resolved’ after appearing, and furthermore the entire music appears to be rocking and pivoting on and around a single, fixed axis. This develops from oscillating into a kind of call and response between sections of the orchestra, the beginning of a dialogue of sorts that toys with the possibility of what plausibly appear to be chord progressions, but this turns out to be an illusion. Instead, the work arrives at a gently undulating hocketing that gradually muddies the clarity of its tonal makeup while increasing the rate of its exchanges. In the bigger scheme of things everything is still moving at a pretty lethargic pace, but within the context of The Field is Woven this sequence sounds positively hurried. Read more

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Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir – In Praise of Darkness (UK Première)

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One of the things i particularly enjoy when listening is the sense of not knowing where i am, uncertain of what exactly the music is doing or where it’s going: of being kept, for a time at least, in the dark. It’s this kind of ‘darkness’ that i think typifies the orchestral piece In Praise of Darkness, by Icelandic composer Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir.

Much of the work’s first half exhibits an interesting ambivalence, caught between impulses towards reticence and confidence. The latter can be heard both in a repeated-note idea that appears near the beginning, starting in low flutes and migrating through the winds, but most strongly in loud, deep notes intoned by the brass. The former manifests in a more global sense of caution that pervades the whole orchestra, in which sounds feel placed with fastidious consideration and care, and where no particular idea has sufficient impetus to cause a catalytic effect. As a consequence, details emerge and dissipate, and everything seems to be hanging in space with the range of movement of a mobile. Read more

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James Clarke – Untitled No. 9 (World Première)

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British composer James Clarke‘s output has moved away from having poetic or allusive titles, and for the last 12 or so years his works have either been given a codename indicating the year followed by a letter (e.g. 2013-V) or are simply ‘Untitled’. The fact that the latter are numbered suggests, if not continuity, then at least a putative connection, though the instrumentations of the Untitled works vary widely: a large ensemble (No. 1), piano and orchestra twice (Nos. 2 and 8), solo piano on three occasions (Nos. 3, 5 and 7), voices and string quartet (No. 4) and soprano and five players (No. 6). The latest, Untitled No. 9, composed in 2017, is Clarke’s first to be written solely for orchestra. It’s an episodic and elemental piece, two qualities that are in many ways at odds, the episodic structure indicating organisation and clarity, acting in opposition to the elemental nature suggesting wildness and untempered behaviour. Brought together in Untitled No. 9, the result is unsettling yet beguiling, and in an unexpected way they end up complementing each other. Read more

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Liisa Hirsch – Lävi (World Première)

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Being the first day of the season of Lent, today marks the start of the 5:4 Lent Series. This year, i’m going to be exploring works written for full orchestra, beginning with a piece by Estonian Liisa Hirsch. Hirsch is an intriguing composer; i’m still at a relatively early stage of getting to know her work well, but what i’ve encountered thus far suggests that, among other things, texture – or, more specifically, the way a texture changes over time – seems to be significant in her work.

That’s certainly the case in Lävi [‘threshold’] which i was fortunate to hear a couple of years ago during the Estonian Music Days. There’s a lot going on in the piece, but it makes most sense to speak of it in quite general terms. The title is all-important. ‘Threshold’ is an interesting word to use in a musical context as it indicates both stasis, referencing a fixed point, and movement, implying progression through or past that point with the concomitant suggestion of an ensuing effect or change in state. In the specific context of Hirsch’s music, it seems to me that the emphasis is put not simply on the duality but the liminality of this idea, focusing on the identity of material, the nature of change between identities and what constitutes the tipping point from one to the other. Read more

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Estonia in focus weekend: Helena Tulve – Extinction des choses vues (UK Première)

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In the UK, while it’s not that difficult to find performances of music from many parts of the world, opportunities to hear music from Estonia – with the obvious exception of Arvo Pärt – are extremely rare. So the decision of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to include in their season a concert devoted to Estonian music – celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the country’s independence – came as a surprise and a very real treat. The concert took place on 4 July at the BBC’s famous Maida Vale Studios, and was broadcast earlier this week. Conducted by Olari Elts, the orchestra performed works by three generations of Estonian composers, Eduard Tubin (who died in 1982), Erkki-Sven Tüür and Helena Tulve, all three of them pieces that have been around for some time, but which could do with being a lot better known. In this Estonia in focus weekend i’m going to explore two of them, starting with the piece by the most junior composer of those three generations represented at the concert, Helena Tulve’s Extinction des choses vues (Extinction of things seen), composed in 2007 but only now receiving its UK première.

The way Tulve uses the orchestra in this piece – and in all her orchestral pieces – is to transform it into a kind of giant organism, a single entity comprising innumerable interconnected elements. This is something she and i discussed in some depth during our Dialogue together earlier this year. By keeping the title deliberately abstract, Tulve has also made it interestingly misleading: the musical ‘things’ in the piece are indeed ‘seen’ (or, rather, heard), but often not clearly: we glimpse them, but we cannot necessarily grasp or understand them. Read more

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Proms 2018: Iain Bell – Aurora; Nina Šenk – Baca (World Premières)

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The interplay of performing relationships has been at the centre of the last two Proms premières. Iain Bell’s Aurora, a concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra, given its first performance on 29 August by Adela Zaharia and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko, seeks to pit the soloist as a figure of light against an orchestra associated with nocturnal darkness and varying quantities of concomitant danger. Read more

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Proms 2018: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 3 (UK Première); Rolf Wallin – WHIRLD; Bushra El-Turk – Crème Brûlée on a Tree (World Premières)

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Quite apart from anything else they may embody, this year’s Proms premières have occupied pretty much the entire span of the profound—trivial continuum. At its most extreme, this has been exemplified by the most recent new works, which have ranged from a compositional exploration of infinity culminating in a state of enraptured transcendence invoking mysticism, Rilke and Rückert, to a recipe for making custard.

The source for British-born, Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk‘s short, culinary song Crème Brûlée on a Tree is a Thai cookbook by chef Andy Ricker that includes a recipe for custard using the smelly, so-called “king of fruits”, durian (the title possibly comes from this NPR article about the fruit). Read more

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Erkki-Sven Tüür – Illuminatio/Whistle and Whispers from Uluru/Symphony No. 8, Arvo Pärt & Alfred Schnittke – Choral Works, Arvo Pärt – The Symphonies

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Returning to one of my occasional themes, there have been some interesting releases of Estonian music in the last few months. In February, i wrote about the Ninth Symphony by one of the country’s most dynamic composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, so it’s nice timing that the Ondine label has brought out a disc featuring his Symphony No. 8, performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Olari Elts. The disc also features two slightly older, large-scale pieces, Tüür’s 2008 viola concerto Illuminatio and Whistle and Whispers from Uluru, a work for recorder and string orchestra composed in 2007. One of the primary traits of Tüür’s music is energy, and large amounts of it, though the works on this disc demonstrate (as does the Ninth Symphony) that the way this energy is wielded is not only with devil-may-care abandon – though Tüür is hardly afraid of doing this – but just as often with considerable caution and care. Illuminatio, featuring soloist Lawrence Power, is a case in point, placing the viola within a context that encompasses both the monumental and the fantastical, guided by the soloist’s veering between momentum and lyricism. Particularly striking are its second and third movements; the former charting a complex journey between two poles but where the poles themselves are never fully revealed, the latter starting with the viola rhapsodising but somehow ending up in a barrage of orchestrated machine gun fire. The work’s final thrust towards a place of ethereal transcendence makes sense in pretty much the same way that dreams make sense. Read more

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Proms 2018: Philip Venables – Venables Plays Bartók; Laura Mvula – Love Like A Lion (World Premières); Agata Zubel – Fireworks (UK Première)

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The last few Proms premières have been, to put it mildly, an extremely mixed bag. By far the most excruciating of them was Venables Plays Bartók, a violin concerto of sorts by Philip Venables, given its first performance last Friday by Pekka Kuusisto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo. As its title suggests, the piece incorporates music by Bartók, inspired by an episode in Venables’ life when, as a teenage violinist, he had a lesson with Rudolf Botta, playing to him a piece by Bartók. The lesson was recorded, and Venables’ rediscovery of the tape evidently led to a enormous burst of Proustian nostalgia. Read more

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Proms 2018: Tansy Davies – What Did We See?; Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud; Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon (World Premières); Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto Grosso No. 1 (UK Première)

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Every year the nature of the works premièred at the Proms – presumably due in part to the festival’s (i.e. the BBC’s) risk-averse emphasis on popularity and familiarity over challenge and provocation – veers wildly between extremes of light- and heavyweight fare. The most recent quartet of new works, considered together, are in many respects a vivid microcosm of this qualitative inconsistency.

However, there’s a world of difference between a trifle and mere triviality. No-one would claim – least of all the composer herself – that Jessica WellsRhapsody for solo oud, given its world première at Cadogan Hall on 30 July by oud-meister Joseph Tawadros, was anything more than a simple miniature workout for the instrument. From a tentative series of arpeggios, like warm-up exercises, the music develops into its main idea: rapid, syncopated music, redolent in style of the instrument’s Middle Eastern provenance, interspersed partway through with a slower episode exploring motifs in a more improvisational way. And that’s all there was to it – but this didn’t matter in the slightest, Tawadros executing the piece with such panache that its relatively narrow scope felt not simply forgiveable but beside the point. It was what it was and nothing more: an amuse-bouche (amuse-oreille?), brief, vivacious, harmless fun. Read more

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Proms 2018: Chaines – Knockturning; Laurie Spiegel – Only Night Thoughts; Daphne Oram – Still Point (World Premières)

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For the most part, the Proms has always liked to pretend that electronics don’t really exist. The exception to this wilful ignorance are the occasions when electronics are made the focus of either a specific piece or an entire concert, as was the case with ‘Pioneers of Sound’, a late evening tribute to the legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 July. The undisputed highlight of the evening was the world première of a recently-discovered large-scale work by Daphne Oram but, alongside music by Delia Derbyshire and Suzanne Ciani, it was preceded by two smaller new works. Read more

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Proms 2018: Ēriks Ešenvalds – Shadow; Eve Risser – Furakèla (World Premières); Andrew Norman – Spiral (UK Première)

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A piece doesn’t have to be – in fact, can hardly be – all things to all people, but in the case of Shadow, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds‘, one has to wonder if it has much if anything to offer a mature listener. This in itself is interesting precisely because of the fact that the driving force of the piece is a meditation on the implications of parental responsibility, using the words from Longfellow’s eponymous sonnet to contemplate the future and fate of one’s children. The words, as indicated by the poem’s opening line, are literally being said to oneself, so the ‘audience’ or object of these private ruminations is adult, while their subject is children. Read more

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Proms 2018: Ben Foster – Young Musician Theme & Variations; David Bruce – Sidechaining; Iain Farrington – Gershwinicity (World Premières)

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Party time!

The Proms needs precisely no encouragement whatsoever to turn a concert into a party, and on Sunday evening, a mere two days after the opening night knees-up, came another boisterous shindig, celebrating 40 years of the Young Musician competition. Given by the BBC’s resident light music aficionados, the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, they were joined for the occasion by a host of past competition winners and finalists. Appropriately enough, the music on offer was to a large extent the equivalent of party food, though thankfully – perhaps a self-conscious nod to Britain’s ongoing obsession with tackling obesity – most of it was savoury rather than sweet. Read more

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Proms 2018: Anna Meredith – Five Telegrams (World Première)

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This year’s Proms season kicked off on Friday evening with a concert featuring a major new work from Anna Meredith. Titled Five Telegrams, it’s a work that continues a thread that’s been running through mainstream British culture for the last few years, commemorating the events of the First World War. As the title implies, the piece takes its inspiration from telegrams sent back and forth during the conflict, its five movements focusing on different types and contexts for these telegrams, also featuring specific instrumental groups: newspaper spin (10 trombones), field service postcards (choir), redacted information (four euphoniums), codes (6 trumpets and percussion) and the armistice (tutti).

A recurring question i found myself considering during the piece was the extent to which this layer of extra-musical inspiration had an unambiguous bearing on the music. Underlying conceits and metaphors will always manifest themselves in ways that aren’t merely subjective but impossible to rationalise, and in the case of Five Telegrams Meredith’s inspirational starting point made its presence felt to widely differing degrees and depths.

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