orchestral

Proms 2017: Hannah Kendall – The Spark Catchers (World Première)

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The latest orchestral work by British composer Hannah Kendall received its first performance a couple of nights ago at a late night Prom given by Chineke! Orchestra, the flagship orchestra of the Chineke! Foundation, established a couple of years ago “to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe”. As she described in her answers to my pre-première questions, her new piece The Spark Catchers takes its inspiration and title from a poem by Lemn Sissay. The text pays homage to the London matchgirls who in 1888 went on strike in protest at their long hours, meagre pay and dangerous working conditions, involving serious, potentially fatal, risks to their health. Throughout the poem, Sissay plays on the triple-meaning of the word ‘strike’, alluding to the industrial action as well as the motion that causes matches to ignite (in hindsight, i wonder whether ‘Strike’ would have been an even more suitable title for Kendall’s piece), but most specifically the call that went up in the factory when a loose spark shot out, threatening to set everything ablaze, whereupon one of the women would leap to catch the spark before it could touch anything. Requiring a remarkable combination of reflexes and dexterity, Sissay praises “the magnificent grace / The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air / The precision, perfection and the peace.” Read more

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Proms 2017: Andrea Tarrodi – Liguria (UK Première)

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Last night saw the second UK première by a Swedish composer at this year’s Proms, this time from Andrea Tarrodi. For those unfamiliar with her work, the key part of her responses to my pre-première questions was the reference to her parallel passion for painting, plus the related fact that she continues to “connect music with images and colours”. Though she didn’t use the term, in essence she’s an impressionist, creating musical canvasses that evoke, allude and suggest, according to an underlying semi-programmatic scheme. She’s also something of a minimalist, not simply in obvious cycling rhythms and consonances (which she uses sparingly and loosely), but in a slim-line approach to material, setting up ideas and motifs that are then re-used and re-worked, sometimes at length. That may suggest that melody is of lesser importance to Tarrodi, yet her use of motifs is often such that they are either a nascent form of a melody or capable of being easily expanded into one. Another way of putting it would be to regard her approach to melody as being compact and somewhat implicit. Highlands, her cello concerto written in 2013, is a revealing case in point, in which the soloist engages in some lengthy passages of melody (particularly the lengthy cadenza halfway through) – generally more lyrical than virtuosic – but most often is involved in intricate, complex textures with the rest of the orchestra which highlight a simple recurring motif, characterised by a falling minor third.

Originally written for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (who premièred it in 2012), Tarrodi’s orchestral work Liguria demontrates precisely the same compositional outlook and approach. Named for the Ligurian Sea in the Mediterranean, it depicts Tarrodi’s memories of a time when she visited the area. Read more

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Proms 2017: Harrison Birtwistle – Deep Time (UK Première)

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It’s easy to believe – even take for granted – that we ‘get’ Harrison Birtwistle. He represents a lot of things to a lot of people, but the tendency is to conflate the man and his music, mix in stereotypes drawing on his age and northern heritage, and arrive at a surly amalgam that, crudely stated, neither gives nor takes any shit. Very many years ago, as a callow student volunteering at the Cheltenham Music Festival, i was charged with attending to Birtwistle during his time in the town, which ultimately consisted of a brief greeting followed by my being told in no uncertain terms that he did not need looking after, and off he went. So i certainly know all about the brusqueness of the man, but his music has always been another, entirely separate, matter. To me, its primary characteristics are an earthiness, an inclination to sing in the midst of turbulence, a strong sense of persistent determination, and an urgent, passionate humanity yearning to be unleashed no matter what. These qualities have permeated his works performed at the Proms in recent years – particularly The Moth Requiem, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and Angel Fighter – and they manifest again in his most recent orchestral work, Deep Time, given its first UK performance at the Proms last Sunday.

That being said, there were occasions during the work where i found myself wondering if what i was hearing really was by Birtwistle. But not early on, the music establishing a dark admixture of rumble and grumble within which nascent ideas take shape. It’s a beautifully measured and arresting introduction, the strings clambering up and out of this claustrophobic gloom with such oomph that it almost seems as though, two-and-a-half minutes in, we’re already reaching a climax. But this is a mere overture to the more complex behaviour that forms the firmament of Deep Time. Birtwistle’s programme note speaks of the piece sitting alongside The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances due to its twin temporal and geological concerns. This finds expression in a fascinating underlying order that evidently has a pulse at its core, though sufficiently subterranean that it’s often masked, inaudible or simply forgotten about. Yet it finds expression in another way too, in a remarkable sense of architectonic plasticity, as though the bedrock of the piece were warping and stretching, with concomitant effects occurring on the surface. On this surface, when pulse isn’t pushing through, a plethora of melodies break out (those from a soprano sax are especially striking), invariably short-lived, broken up by unpredictable surges and lunges or multi-layered textures from the full orchestra. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: 21st Century String Quartet, The Hallé

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Here’s a suggestion: if a composer can’t summarise their programme note in fewer than a couple of hundred words, that’s a problem. Is that terribly controversial? Judging by what we were given at the Cheltenham Music Festival last Saturday, it is. This is not a local problem, though, it’s something that manifests itself all too often, composers seeking to convey at length not merely the inspiration for their music but a blow-by-blow account of what happens in it. It’s interesting that they deem this necessary. Does it suggest a lack of faith either in the audience or, more worryingly, in the music? It would be strange for a writer to introduce their novel with a breakdown of the structure and key plot-points; likewise with a programme note full of aural spoilers, it’s impossible to be drawn in and surprised by the music, as we already know what’s coming. Increasingly, programme notes seem akin to the abstracts that preface academic papers, and that’s not necessarily the ideal model for the concert hall. There are two caveats to this: first, it’s not just contemporary music that’s treated to such ‘programme essays’, and second, of course, one’s not obliged to read them at all. Of the first caveat, this is partly to do with the understandable desire for a degree of historical contextualisation, but regarding the second, i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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Proms 2017: Tom Coult – St John’s Dance (World Première)

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And we’re off: the first performance of Tom Coult‘s new orchestral work St John’s Dance got the 2017 Proms season up and running last night, courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. i’ve only really scratched the surface of Coult’s music, having heard two earlier works in the last couple of years, Codex (Homage to Serafini) and Spirit of the Staircase, premièred in 2014 and 2016 respectively. They’re both interesting pieces (i’ll aim to feature them on 5:4 when i get a chance), but the thing that stood out most in them was Coult’s very particular approach to pace and direction. i need to qualify that by saying my initial impression was that, in each case, these aspects seemed a bit off, but returning to them since, i’ve wondered whether in fact Coult actually succeeds in pulling it off through a mixture of audacity and simple unpredictability. Read more

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Christian Wolff – Spring (UK Première)

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Tomorrow is the summer solstice, which technically makes today the last day of spring. To bid farewell to the season, here’s a very interesting orchestral work titled Spring by US composer Christian Wolff. Composed in 1995, Spring was Wolff’s first orchestral piece, and in it he experimented with indeterminate elements, combining them with more conventionally notated and performed (i.e. conducted) music. Despite its title, there’s no extra-musical programme attached to the piece, and each of the four movements is unnamed. Despite its non-programmatic nature, though, Wolff is clearly engaging with existing musical materials with a view toward a kind of Ivesian mash-up as well as varying forms of obfuscation, disintegration and, perhaps, refinement. Maybe Wolff was wondering what might ‘spring’ forth from these processes of experimentation. There’s certainly more than a hint of alchemy to it all, which over the course of the four movements becomes intensified, with the results bearing a concomitantly less obvious connection to their source materials. Read more

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Þráinn Hjálmarsson – As heard across a room (World Première)

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Today is Þjóðhátíðardagurinn, Iceland’s national day, celebrating their independence from Denmark and founding as a republic in 1944. Quite apart from Iceland being one of my favourite countries, its contribution to contemporary music (as seen in my recent Nordic CD review) is a challenging and imaginative one. A very good example of this can be heard in Þráinn Hjálmarsson‘s orchestral work As heard across a room, composed in 2014. That simple, descriptive title immediately brings to mind another, Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, though while Lucier’s piece grapples with the literal effects of aural reality, Hjálmarsson is exploring them from a somewhat more figurative perspective.

Despite appearances, it would be over-simplistic to summarise the piece as being textural. This would place the emphasis and focus of one’s attention on the generalised, nebulous quality of the music. And there’s certainly a great deal of this, Hjálmarsson establishing a soundworld so indistinct – full of strange, distant rustlings; lots of activity but all of it indefinite and blurred – that it would be easy to hear it as ‘non-music’, a candid outtake in which the orchestra were absent-mindedly toying with their instruments. For a couple of minutes, it seems as though this is all that there is, creating an interesting illusion where, despite the granular, gritty nature of this soundworld, it’s sufficiently slippery that one’s ear slides straight off it. This is paradox music: like trying to make out the structure of a void. Read more

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