orchestral

Christopher Fox – Topophony (World Première)

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Back to Tectonics, and to one of the most beautiful new orchestral scores i’ve encountered in recent times. Christopher Fox‘s Topophony, for orchestra and up to three optional soloists (but not a concerto), operates in such a way that the conductor ensures that every beat is a different length. Beats are not of over-arching sonic importance, though, as the music speaks through slow, meditative swatches of instrumental colour, comprising textures of protracted, shifting pitches with a variety of surface articulations. These are often fascinating, conjuring up motors, the noise of something caught in bicycle spokes, the bell of an alarm clock: unpitched occasional worryings that become a delicate counterpoint to the rest of the orchestra which, apart from some moments when deep throbs threaten to overwhelm, comes across by contrast as rather distant (in both senses of the word). Read more

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Peter Ablinger – QUARTZ for high orchestra (World Première)

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A composer whose work has for many years left me both amused and bemused is Peter Ablinger, whose latest large-scale work QUARTZ was also premièred at last month’s Tectonics festival. The piece is in keeping with Ablinger’s ongoing concern with the way relatively rudimentary—not to say mundane—sounds are perceived when heard in conditions that afford a new kind of scrutiny. Here, the relentless ticking of a small quartz clock becomes the basis for a four-part orchestral study; subtitled “for high orchestra”, this indicates at the outset that almost everything heard is in the uppermost registers of the instruments. Ablinger made a recording of the clock, which was then subjected to a frequency analysis to tease out its pitches; this recording is heard at the close of each movement, acting as something between a cadence and a reference point, returning the piece to a kind of ‘default’ position.

Not surprisingly, the four movements, each located within a narrow band up in the pitch domain’s stratosphere, bear strong resemblances to each other, but the act of listening to such similar materials causes even small differences to feel immense. Read more

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Cassandra Miller – Duet for cello and orchestra (World Première)

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Having finally found some time to listen to recent premières, i’ve been struck by several of the large-scale new works heard at last month’s Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. More than a few of them seemed at odds with what i was expecting to hear, and in the case of Cassandra Miller‘s remarkable Duet for cello and orchestra, the piece seemed to be actively pushing one away, only then to perform a complete volte face without, seemingly, doing anything at all.

It establishes a pattern very quickly: the solo cello presents a slow and rather stately procession of alternating pitches, G… D… G… D… G… and so on; the orchestra, with the brass at the forefront, is concerned with completely contrasting fanfare-like material, boisterous and ebullient. This continues, repeats, becomes familiar, becomes routine, and the back-and-forth pushes with increasing force against one’s desire for change. Yet, listen closely and things are not the same: the brass outbursts find both their sharpness tempered and their oblique harmonic connection to the cello bridged by the strings, these fanfares frequently ending with extended chords that are broadly consonant with the cello. And as for the soloist, its 2-note progression has subtly evolved into a pair of descending fifths, G… C…, D… G…. The orchestral sections feel yanked in two directions with regard to the cello, pulling away and pushing towards simultaneously, becoming in the process both more fraught and more relaxed, resulting in a wonderfully bizarre mélange rather like a movie soundtrack being mashed up. Read more

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Mark Simpson – Israfel (World Première)

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Another composer with somewhat filmic leanings is Mark Simpson, heard to good effect in his latest orchestral piece, Israfel, premièred last month at the City Halls in Glasgow. Simpson’s piece reminded me how long it had been since i’d revisited my well-thumbed copy of the works of Edgar Allan Poe; in his eponymous poem, Poe depicts Israfel—the Islamic “angel of the trumpet”—as an apogee of expressive potency and poetic inspiration, causing the very universe to quieten:

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
    ‘Whose heart-strings are a lute;’
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell)
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
    Of his voice, all mute.

One of the things i’ve particularly come to admire in Simpson’s music is the way he’s able to pack a lot of drama into relatively short periods of time, without sacrificing coherence. And that’s certainly the case with Israfel too, which covers a fair amount of ground in just 12 minutes. Read more

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Albert Schnelzer – Tales from Suburbia (World Première)

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Premières – there have been some interesting ones of late, so let’s get back to them. It’s almost five years since Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer has been featured on 5:4, when his quirky orchestral work A Freak in Burbank was played at the 2010 Proms. A few weeks ago, his new work Tales from Suburbia received its first performance at the Barbican, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits. Similarities between the two works are strong; clearly, one of Schnelzer’s most overt stylistic traits—one that may prove off-putting for some—is a resemblance to the world of film scores. In the case of Tales from Suburbia, this seems even more prominent, as there is a deliberate sense of narrative at play; Schnelzer has described the piece as being “like a diary”, referring to his own suburban experiences, although noting that they are “not a paradise … it can be a frightening place”.

Depending on your perspective, and whether you tend to judge glasses as being half full or empty, the piece either takes this as its default position, with dark, mysterious, ominous passages being the norm, offset with sporadic, ephemeral episodes that aspire to, but cannot sustain, lyrical outbursts. Or, on the other hand, Tales from Suburbia can be heard as a work where lyricism is the thread running throughout, grappling with occasions where the line is lost in more blunt and generalised material, characterised by rhythmic drive and/or sullen uncertainty.
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Unsuk Chin – Mannequin (World Première)

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Last night saw the first performance of Unsuk Chin‘s new orchestral piece Mannequin, performed at Sage Gateshead by the National Youth Orchestra—who, these days, can seemingly play anything—conducted by Ilan Volkov. The work’s four movements are subtitled “tableaux vivants”, ‘living pictures’ that are rooted in several episodes from E. T. A. Hoffman’s story The Sandman. i say ‘rooted’, but in fact ‘imbued’ would be a better word; if anything has characterised Chin’s music in the last few years it is an increasing tendency towards gestural material, which is in turn formed into intricate textural fabrics. That abstract shapes and forms such as these operate to enact very concrete moods and ideas—usually, as here, directly invoking literary narratives—makes for an exciting and highly dramatic dichotomy. Chin has likened the work to what she calls an “imaginary choreography”, even going so far as to express the hope that it will be literally choreographed at some point, uniting abstract and concrete ideas of movement in another way.
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HCMF 2014 revisited: James Dillon – Physis (World Première)

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To conclude my revisiting of HCMF 2014 for the time being, i have to feature something by the festival’s Composer-in-Residence, James Dillon. There’s much to choose from, but the single work that made the strongest impact on me was Physis, receiving its world première. i’ve said a little about the work’s background (dating back over 10 years) as well as the way Dillon culled one part of the piece in my original review, but here’s Dillon’s statement in full:

In the process of preparing Physis I & II with the orchestra I took the radical decision to cut ‘Part I’ from the score, this was done for purely musical reasons. The two parts of Physis were always intended to work as independent scores anyway, nevertheless taking the decision to cut the work was not taken lightly. The history of Physis is an unusual one, written as it was nine years ago and never performed at the time it seems destined to maintain a strange position in my work. In taking the decision to withdraw ‘Part I’, I have also decided that this part of the score would remain withdrawn.

In a subsequent interview, though, Dillon cited insufficient rehearsal time as a factor for cutting Physis I (not exactly a “purely musical reason”), and also clarified that the piece was not so much “never performed” as not actually completed on time. The complete truth is no doubt to be found in and among these various ‘facts’. Read more

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