orchestral

Proms 2016: Piers Hellawell – Wild Flow; Emily Howard – Torus (World Premières); Marlos Nobre – Kabbalah (UK Première)

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The most recent Proms premières have demonstrated particularly keenly the highly differentiated approaches being taken by this year’s crop of composers, and while some works at first glance appear to be nothing but effervescence and froth, closer examination proves otherwise. In the case of Piers Hellawell‘s new orchestral work Wild Flow, dedicated to and given its first performance by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Payare, there’s plenty of froth, though it’s been whipped up into a particular dense and sticky consistency. Composed also to mark his own 60th birthday, Hellawell’s aim was to write “immediate” music that “wants to uplift and exalt the spirit”. Four of the work’s five movements are fast and energetic, around a slower central section. The opening, to a clanging bell, suggests the first round in a boxing match, and while Wild Flow isn’t exactly pugilistic, it certainly displays a kind of Varèsian muscularity crossed with a curiously gymnastic melodic attitude. Music seeking to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, perhaps? Read more

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Proms 2016: Helen Grime – Two Eardley Pictures (World Première)

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A pair of paintings by Scottish artist Joan Eardley constitute the starting point of Helen Grime‘s new two-part work, premièred last week at the Proms, Two Eardley Pictures. The paintings are of the same place, the Scottish coastal village of Catterline (where Eardley lived and worked), painted from similar but subtly different viewpoints, both portraying its houses and fields beneath the sullen grey of a heavy, immense winter sky. They’re beautiful images, conveying a directness and authenticity that immediately pull one into their biting chilly freshness. It takes a certain amount of goodwill to find parallels in the music Grime has composed; aesthetically, it often sounds worlds apart from Eardley’s winterscapes. Read more

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Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Iris ter Schiphorst, Richard Strauss, Gustav Holst

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i had many reasons for wanting to hear last night’s National Youth Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, not least of which was simply to hear NYO in action again. They are an astonishing orchestra, not merely able but mature, sensitive and abounding in talent; their rendition of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie a few years back is a particularly vibrant memory. Beyond this, i was intrigued to hear more music by German composer Iris ter Schiphorst, whose Aus Liebe had been one of the most striking works at the Arditti Quartet’s HCMF concert last year. But most of all, i wanted to hear Richard StraussAlso Sprach Zarathustra, a work i’ve known intimately since my teenage years but which i’ve never, until yesterday, had the opportunity to hear performed live.

There’s something very strange about this; the rest of Strauss’ tone poems enjoy regular performances in the UK, both at national and local level (particularly Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan), but trying to find a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra is almost impossible. In this respect, it’s completely the opposite of the other major work included in last night’s concert, Holst’s The Planets, a work so ubiquitous in the UK that it borders on the absurd. Hearing the Strauss and Holst in close proximity (a superb bit of concert programming) only makes the absence of Also Sprach in British concert halls all the more unfathomable. Read more

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Proms 2016: Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes (World Première)

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Last week, i finally got round to watching a concert i’d recorded last year celebrating the music of film composer John Williams, featuring highlights from throughout his long career. For better or worse, i couldn’t help recalling that concert again and again during last night’s world première at the Proms of Magnus Lindberg‘s Two Episodes, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. In some respects, this wasn’t entirely a surprise. Always a demonstrably accessible composer, Lindberg’s work in the last few years has reached more and more into the kind of musical language associated with movie soundtracks (a quality i’ve pointed out with regard to both Al largo and Era). What was surprising, though, was that the piece was entirely conceived to serve as an homage to the work following it in the programme, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Lindberg has apparently undertaken no small amount of analysis of Beethoven’s score, and sought to tap into it in various ways. He describes the first of his ‘episodes’ as “linked to the massive impact of the first movement [of the Beethoven] with its immense tutti writing” whereas the second “is closer to the beauty of the slow movement and acts as a bridge towards the open fifth A and E and its D minor destination”. He goes on to point out that the work doesn’t directly quote Beethoven (sighs of relief all round) but instead embeds “a number of Beethovenian allusions, so there are clear aural links, and the orchestration matches the symphony, so it will have a period colour without harp, piano and exotic percussion that feature in many of my works”. Read more

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Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff: John Pickard – Symphony No. 5 (World Première)

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It’s not often that, partway through an orchestral concert, i find myself imagining i’m a German paraglider. But that’s precisely how i felt yesterday evening in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, during the world première of the Fifth Symphony by Bristol-based composer John Pickard. Not just any paraglider: Ewa Wiśnierska, who in 2007 famously became trapped between two thunderstorms, and subsequently found herself in an airborne hell, subjected to an almighty battering that lasted 3½ hours, during which she was propelled to an altitude of almost 10 kilometres, well above the height of Mount Everest. Pickard’s symphony lasted a mere 30 minutes, but it still gave me more than just an inkling of what Ms. Wiśnierska must have experienced.

The piece found itself in curious company, preceded by a pair of works that, although by no means as ferocious, were in their own ways just as animalistic. That’s not an adjective one tends to hear applied to Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, but ever since i was first subjected to the piece as an unsuspecting sixth-former, it’s always seemed entirely appropriate. Elgar’s cello cuts one of the most pathetic protagonists in the entirety of music; it whines like a bitch, squeals like a pig, bleats like a forlorn little lamb. People loftily proclaim all this to be ‘valedictory’, but this is an animal that deserves — needs — to be put out of its misery post-haste. But no, the orchestra unthinkingly, deplorably, allows it to ramble on incessantly for half an hour, offering superficially sombre utterances of sympathetic regret. After almost a century of farcical, fawning, flattering, fulsome, false adulation, it’s high time the Cello Concerto was called out for the ugly, moping piece of dilapidated dirge-tripe that it is. Soloist Alban Gerhardt presumably did his best to find some humanity in it, but it was hard to tell among the precarious intonation and lack of melodic connectivity emerging from his instrument (not exclusive to Elgar, they also blighted his encore). Before this abject travesty had come William Walton‘s Johannesburg Festival Overture, a work causing one to reflect that, prior to the emergence (and dominance) of Benjamin Britten, Walton sounds like the only British composer who actually seemed to enjoy himself. The tales of being sent tapes of African music for “inspiration” are at best a conceit; the piece is seven minutes of complete and utter Walton, a triumph of joy, vivid and jarring colouration and melodic and structural misdirection, all delayed resolutions, false cadences and madcap maracas. An unbelievably wonderful bestial romp, delivered to perfection by the BBC NOW with conductor Martyn Brabbins looking as though he might start dancing at any moment. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Offshore

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To conclude my Lent Series celebrating the work of Michael Finnissy, i’m turning to the composer’s first orchestral score, Offshore, written 40 years ago in 1976. It was composed in the aftermath of a traumatic relationship break-up, which no doubt accounts for a lot of things, not least the work’s title and particularly its surprisingly strange general demeanour. Offshore can prove disarmingly difficult to connect with on a first listening (i can recall my own initial attempt, which was an almost complete failure), in no small part due to the way that Finnissy works with the orchestra by fragmenting it into a collection of distinct sonic entities, united by gestural, behavioural, timbral and registral characteristics. Read more

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Anna Clyne – The Seamstress (UK Première)

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The annual 5:4 Lent Series is almost upon us, but in the meantime one of the more striking premières i’ve heard recently is a new work for violin and orchestra from US-based British composer Anna Clyne. The work’s title, The Seamstress, comes from W. B. Yeats’ eponymous poem (see below), where a song is made into a coat “Covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies”; the garment is subsequently robbed, yet the songmaker rather sanguinely concludes “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” Clyne’s song takes the form of what she calls an “imaginary one-act ballet”, with five distinct movements, the last recapitulating the first. The temptation would be to describe it as a violin concerto, but in many ways it really isn’t; the solo violin is by no means more important or significant than the orchestra at all times, indeed for much of the piece there’s a strong sense of duet, with the soloist frequently yielding centre-stage. All the same, the violin certainly acts in ways that could be called catalytic, instigating ideas and often leading the way elaborating them. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Hèctor Parra – L’absència (UK Première)

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HCMF’s 2013 Spanish composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra was represented at last year’s festival in an orchestral work, L’absència, receiving its first UK performance. At only 7½ minutes long, and eschewing heavy brass, it’s tempting to describe L’absència as small-scale, yet it’s a piece that sounds convincingly bigger than it really is. That’s just one of many ambiguities and paradoxes fundamental to the work’s character, consistently flirting and teasing in such a way as to render moot most definitive statements one might make about it.

It is, in a nutshell, hard to pin down. Initially—unsurprising considering its modest duration—Parra seems to get cracking with his material briskly, a gruff beginning suddenly hinting at a lyrical underbelly, instead becoming tense before a cluster of heavy swells erupt practically from nowhere. All in under 90 seconds. If anything, though, this complex opening actually indicates the fundamentally deceptive nature of L’absència, which for the most part makes its case slowly, despite appearances. Read more

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Proms 2015: Anders Hillborg – Beast Sampler (UK Première); Raymond Yiu – Symphony; Alissa Firsova – Bergen’s Bonfire (World Premières)

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The latest spate of Proms premières have made for an interesting contrast in terms of abstract versus concrete ideas. At the former end of the continuum—where else would you find him?—was Anders Hillborg and his latest orchestral piece Beast Sampler; at the latter end was Raymond Yiu‘s Symphony, a large-scale work for countertenor and orchestra; somewhere in between was Bergen’s Bonfire, a new symphonic poem from Alissa Firsova. Read more

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Proms 2015: Michael Finnissy – Janne (World Première)

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Three years ago i remarked how the performance of Michael Finnissy‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 was only the composer’s second appearance at the Proms, opining that “one can only hope he will be much better represented in years to come; he is truly one of our best”. It’s therefore wonderful that Finnissy has been commissioned for this year’s Proms season, producing a work that forges a connection of sorts with Sibelius, whose music occupied the rest of the concert. Titled after Sibelius’ affectionate nickname, Janne is somewhat special in Finnissy’s output, as it is only the ninth time that he has written for orchestra, a curious fact in itself for a composer whose worklist currently comprises in excess of 320 pieces. Having hitherto flitted between large and chamber-size orchestras, for Janne Finnissy has utilised the same modest forces used by Sibelius in the brace of symphonies (numbers 3 and 4) performed either side of it.
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Proms 2015: Jonathan Newman – Blow It Up, Start Again; Eric Whitacre – Deep Field (European Premières)

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Composers say one thing; their music does something else. It’s nice when the two fit together, or at least fall broadly into the same conceptual and/or aesthetic ballpark. But they don’t always. Not by a long chalk.
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Proms 2015: Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5 (European Première); James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (World Première)

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At the start of last week, the Proms saw important premières from two veterans of new music, Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Both composers have a demonstrative relationship with music from earlier times, producing work that often seeks to find a comfortable marriage of old and new, looking back and forth simultaneously. The titles of both pieces bear some witness to this too, ostensibly bald, functional titles yet which carry centuries’ worth of connotation and legacy. Read more

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Proms 2015: Luke Bedford – Instability; Anna Meredith – Smatter Hauler (World Premières)

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Stability, progression, continuity, predictability, coherence: these concepts jostle, intermingle and regularly find themselves redefined in a lot of new music. And in two recent Proms premières, they felt overtly prominent, Luke Bedford‘s Instability and Anna Meredith‘s Smatter Hauler. This prominence was partly deliberate and partly due to the extreme contrasts these pieces exhibited. In the case of Meredith’s piece, given its world première by the Aurora Orchestra (who, it should be pointed out, performed from memory—if only more orchestras would be up for this), the stated aim was associated with musical ideas being ‘stolen’ by different groups of instruments (the title being a reference to Victorian handkerchief thieves, mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes novel). An interesting aim, yet in practice the aural result was a simple gradual yielding between centres of distinct behavioural activity, like slowly shifting one’s gaze from group to group. In more imaginative hands, it might have proved effective; but here, the predictability in the work’s systemic approach combined with materials woefully in want of a cogent, compelling idea, simply led to a dull descent into increasingly blank forms of inarticulate bludgeoning. Rarely has a creative vacuum made so much empty noise. Read more

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Proms 2015: Gary Carpenter – Dadaville (World Première)

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Right, let’s get (belatedly) cracking. For a few years, the annual Proms season began with a première, which was nice but reduced the piece (or, at least, reduced composers’ aspirations) to a mere curtain-raiser. Gary Carpenter‘s Dadaville, which received its first performance in the opening Proms concert last week, did not begin the concert (that task fell to Nielsen), but the piece would in fact have worked wonderfully well as a concert-opening overture, but one with considerable chops and ambition. Read more

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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 (with the orchestral cellos) 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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