orchestral

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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HCMF 2014 revisited: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – æquilibria (UK Première)

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i went to Huddersfield last November not knowing anything about Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s music; two months on, following an HCMF première and a CD release (review coming), that’s happily no longer the case. In many ways æquilibria, the work of Þorvaldsdóttir’s receiving its first UK performance at HCMF, serves as something of a paradigm for her work as a whole. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a composer from a country characterised and constantly being altered by shifting geological activity, her music often avoids concrete statements, preferring the establishment of firmaments, the stability and permanence of which are forever being undermined and questioned. In æquilibria (the title being an archaic plural of equilibrium) this is captured via a series of fundamental pitches—’tonics’ in a post-tonal sense, reinforced by being heard in multiple octaves—over and upon which intricate lines of filigree extend and rival harmonic emphases are brought to bear. As octaves become untenable, other intervals—4ths and 5ths—start to operate as indicators of permanence, Þorvaldsdóttir flirting with conflicting major/minor connotations above them, before threatening these too, roiling low winds at the work’s epicentre leading to a huge surge and ebb, leaving the piece in an entirely unclear state. Read more

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Wolfgang Rihm – IN-SCHRIFT-II (World Première)

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Earlier this week it was announced that the recipient of the 2015 Grawemeyer Award for music composition is Wolfgang Rihm, for his 16-minute orchestral work IN-SCHRIFT-II. Whatever people may say about Rihm (and, in more recent times, who hasn’t?), it was a superb decision, as this particular piece has considerable ambition in terms of both sound itself as well as the way it speaks within the performance space. Rihm is hardly the only contemporary composer to have these concerns, of course, but IN-SCHRIFT-II, despite or perhaps because of its brevity, makes an overwhelmingly immediate and deep impression that genuinely sets it apart from what one usually encounters in new music. And yet, to dance on the head of a paradox for a moment, you could easily argue that there’s not that much new about it—it certainly doesn’t break new ground, but at the same time it doesn’t really sound like anyone else, and in fact pretty much nothing about it at all sounds familiar. Rihm’s soundworld is remarkably immersive and attractive, non-threatening but nonetheless thrilling and in no small part that’s down to the very specific choices of instrumentation he has made, with heavy stress placed on lower instruments.

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