orchestral

Proms 2013: Philip Glass – Symphony No. 10 (UK Première)

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In previous years, some readers will have noticed that there have always been a few Proms premières about which i haven’t written. Jazz-related works, being somewhat removed from my zone of interest and expertise, are ignored, along with re-discovered works from many decades ago (e.g. Britten’s Elegy for strings, receiving its first performance at the end of this month), contemporary cashings-in of earlier music (e.g. Anthony Payne’s latest ‘effort’, a rehash of Vaughan Williams songs being performed next month) and works by cartoon characters (e.g. the concerto ‘by’ Wallace, heard last year). Beyond these omissions, i’ve never overlooked a work for reasons of quality, as some of my less praiseworthy articles will bear witness. But never have i been more tempted to do this than when confronted by Philip Glass‘s latest contribution to the repertoire, his Symphony No. 10, given its UK première at Wednesday’s late night Prom by the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more

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Proms 2013: Colin Matthews – Turning Point (UK Première)

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Having hitherto bewailed the fact that more challenging composers (Finnissy, Lachenmann et al.) are kept at bay from the Proms for decade after decade, last Monday’s new work came from Colin Matthews, a composer almost wildly over-represented at the festival; Matthews’ new work, Turning Point, was the 22nd of his to be featured at the Proms, a statistic that ought to raise even more eyebrows than those accompanying the glaring composer absences. Judging from the programme note, the piece evidently caused Matthews difficulties in knowing how to proceed, leading to him putting the score aside for over a year. The solution seems to have been to turn the work into a diptych, the second panel of which contrasts hugely with the first. Having finally made it to the concert hall, Turning Point was given its first performance in January 2007 by its commissioners, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Monday’s UK première was by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales directed by Thomas Søndergård. Read more

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Proms 2013: John McCabe – Joybox (World Première)

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Last Thursday’s Prom saw the world première of a piece that went through no little trial to be completed. While working on Joybox, with only 40 bars remaining to be composed, John McCabe was struck down with a brain tumour; for many people that would be that, for the time being at least, but McCabe rather impressively slogged on through his subsequent period of treatment to ensure the work was ready on time. Quite apart from anything else, kudos. For inspiration, McCabe turned to an experience at an arcade in Japan, “full of slot machines (one-armed bandits) playing widely different musical jingles, all going on simultaneously but independently. Eventually I seemed to perceive a kind of musical structural pattern to the babel of noise, and this gave me the idea for what I hope is an ‘entertainment’ piece”. This first performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena. Read more

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Proms 2013: Sean Shepherd – Magiya (European Première)

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Just over a week ago, the Proms was introduced to a brand new orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, bringing to an end their inaugural concert tour. Having come via Moscow and St Petersburg with Valery Gergiev at the helm, and with works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich featured in the concert, it was perhaps not surprising that composer Sean Shepherd would find Russia a dominating inspirational force. Shepherd’s new work, Magiya (Russian for ‘magic’), seeks to tap into the spirit of (in the composer’s words) “the great tradition of the Russian overture” as well as its narrative impetus, “a specifically Russian sense of magic … in the stories, folklore and literature (old and new) of the country, a kind that often gets no explanation or justification; a ‘normal’, everyday magic”. Read more

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Proms 2013: Thomas Adès – Totentanz (World Première)

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Hot on the heels of the large-scale work of Helmut Lachenmann’s a few days ago, tonight’s Proms première was even more ambitious, Thomas AdèsTotentanz. Composed for a large orchestra with mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, Adès has set to music a sequence of German verses known as the Lübecker Totentanz, originally composed in 1463 to accompany an artwork created the same year at the Marienkirche in Lübeck by Bernt Notke. Sadly, the artwork was destroyed during World War II, but images of it remain, as do the texts, depicting death interacting with a collection of diverse characters, including a monk, a king, a doctor, a knight, a merchant, a maiden and even the pope, interactions that inevitably result in terrorised laments at the protagonists’ prospect of impending doom (the entire text, in its original Middle Dutch with an accessible English translation, can be read here; a high resolution photo of the wonderful original artwork is available here). Clocking in at just over 30 minutes—considerably less than the inflated estimate of 45 minutes in the Proms guide—Totentanz is the latest in a succession of works that together demonstrate Adès’ innate and enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, and it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn and Simon Keenleyside (who famously portrayed Prospero in Adès’ opera The Tempest) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Read more

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Proms 2013: David Matthews – A Vision of the Sea (World Première)

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Down the road in my old stamping ground of Cheltenham, there’s an art exhibition regularly to be found in the town’s sumptuous Imperial Gardens. The exhibition is for those with an urge to put paintbrush to canvas, resulting in a desultory cluster of dog portraits, depictions of Cotswold stone houses festooned in technicolour flora, landscapes dripping with more water than colour, pastel cloudscapes, a few rash stabs at abstract expressionism and—incongruously, considering the town’s distance from it—paintings of the sea. Perhaps you can see where i’m going with this. There are, admittedly, occasional gems to be found amidst the the borrowed imagination, the second-rate technical skill, the pastiche sensibility and the instinct for superficial gratification, but it’s rare for even these works to escape the pull of their less ambitious companions. Memories of this exhibition came flooding back as i sat through the world première from last night’s Prom, David MatthewsA Vision of the Sea, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. Read more

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Proms 2013: Helmut Lachenmann – Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (UK Première)

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There is, it seems to me, a distinct sense of double-edged sword to the territorial (as opposed to world) premières that feature in each year’s Proms. It’s encouraging, of course, that such fascinating works are introduced to British audiences, but many’s the time one can’t help wondering why on earth they took so long to get here. Last year’s most glaring example was Michael Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which took 35 years to be heard here, while the UK première at last night’s Prom, Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied, entered the world at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in 1980. Nonetheless, it was most definitely worth the wait.

Both aspects of the title are, as one would expect from Lachenmann, far from obvious. As far as the ‘tanzsuite’ (dance suite) is concerned, the work is structured in five broad parts that contain numerous smaller sections (18 in total), many of which are named after well-known dances, although their characters as well as the points where they begin and end are often tough to discern. The ‘Deutschlandlied’, Germany’s national anthem—better known by its original opening line, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”—is even harder to make out, the famous melody barely recognisable at any point in the work. Composed by Joseph Haydn and incorporated into his ‘Emperor’ quartet, Lachenmann has perhaps acknowledged these origins by composing Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied for string quartet and orchestra. For this first UK performance, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Nott, was joined by the Arditti Quartet. Read more

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Proms 2013: Julian Anderson – Harmony (World Première)

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Last night the 2013 Proms season began, as it now always does, with a world première from a mainstream composer. At the outset, i have to admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm for the occasion, due both to the recent track record of the opening night (Turnage and Weir in the last two years, both submitting relatively drab, safe pieces) as well as this year’s choice, Julian Anderson, a composer hardly renowned for much beyond accessible, occasionally quirky humdrummery. Anticipation was hardly heightened by Anderson’s pre-concert remark that there were only two options when writing a concert opener: “one is to write a piece that’s very loud and rather like a fanfare, and the other is to write a quiet and more meditative piece”. Seriously? Read more

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Magnus Lindberg – Era (UK Première)

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One of the more striking premières i’ve caught in recent months took place at the Barbican’s Total Immersion event ‘New from the North’, back in March. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that these events are no longer in the least bit ‘total’ and have come very far from being remotely immersive (bring back long weekends devoted to a single composer); on the other hand, it’s hard to sniff too much when the chosen locale is Nordic. Irrespective of genre, much of the most telling music of recent times has come from the Nordic countries, and the latest orchestral work from Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is just such a piece. Era was commissioned to celebrate the 125th birthday of Amsterdam’s rather wonderful Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Premièred there in January, it was presented at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.

In his programme note, Lindberg talks about specifics, but what comes across most forcefully—and very quickly—is how wholeheartedly the piece embraces the tone poem idiom. It may be tempting to think of most contemporary orchestral music—pithy titles and 10-20 minute durations—as being of that lineage, but for the most part, they’re really not. The tone poem demands a unique kind of dramaturgy, not necessarily programmatic in nature, but such that the clamour of its argument compels an audience into just that kind of headspace. In Era, Lindberg even goes so far as to invoke the spectre of the greatest of all tone poets, Richard Strauss, chiefly in the highly energetic, muscular ebb and flow of the work’s structure, but also in elements of the work’s harmonic language (tonally flirtatious) as well as its orchestration; it’s not hard to hear Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote lurking in the wings. Read more

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Chiyoko Szlavnics – Materia/Immateria (World Première)

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Due to various compositional projects, i’ve not been able to give 5:4 much focus in the last few weeks, but now that i have some breathing space, it’s time to catch up on the more interesting recent premières and new releases.

As well as being interesting, one of the most unlikely premières took place as part of Glasgow’s marvellously leftfield Tectonics festival. Born in Canada, based in Berlin, Chiyoko Szlavnics‘ music is heard extremely rarely in the UK, and i suspect this is more than a little in part due to the nature of her mode of expression. Szlavnics begins each composition with a drawing; they tend to combine aspects that would seem at home in technical drawings—grids, charts, measurements—alongside elements that are more fluid and improvisational (examples can be seen on her website). The drawing is then ‘translated’ into sound, pitches and durations being derived from the way the drawing presents itself on the page. The result is material composed for the most part of slithering individual lines, each moving slowly, sliding up and down, sometimes hovering, over long periods of time. It makes for an aloof, bald aesthetic, sufficiently challenging that it is hardly surprising (although disappointing) that her work isn’t featured in British concerts more often. Read more

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Helen Grime – Near Midnight (World Première)

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At last year’s Proms, Helen Grime’s focus was on the night; her latest orchestral work—the first in her rôle as Associate Composer to the Hallé Orchestra—continues that theme, in part taking its inspiration from a poem by D. H. Lawrence, title ‘Week-night service’, which begins thus:

The five old bells
Are hurrying and eagerly calling,
Imploring, protesting
They know, but clamorously falling
Into gabbling incoherence, never resting,
Like spattering showers from a bursten sky-rocket dropping
In splashes of sound, endlessly, never stopping.

It is to Lawrence’s striking bell-imagery that Grime is most drawn in her work Near Midnight, although less in the guise of obvious peals than in insistent material and a decidedly restless mood. Where both are concerned, i suppose one should dispatch an obvious bugbear at the outset. Writing about Night Songs last August, i described the obvious similarity of some of Grime’s music to that of her teacher, Oliver Knussen, and if anything that comes across even more forcefully in Near Midnight. Various choices of orchestration, the way certain sections of the orchestra interact as well as the treatment of the work’s principal motif all smack so heavily of Knussen that it actually becomes something of a distraction. This doesn’t cause the work to founder, as such, but the episodes where traces of influence are less obvious are so engaging that one only wishes there were more of them. These are to be found in the work’s softer, less focused passages, where the orchestra’s seemingly inescapable urge for chatter—this is a very noisy midnight—is abated. Here, Grime makes things magical by polarising her forces into very high and low registers, such as the section a couple of minutes in, where high flutes sing out over deep rumbling punctuations, as well as the work’s third section, in which slow, meandering violins emerge from an entirely dissipated texture to deliver what Grime calls the work’s “melodic core”. Read more

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Evocative bewilderments of utterance: Kenneth Hesketh – Wunderkammer(konzert)

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Among the recent releases from the NMC Recordings stable i was pleased to see one devoted to the music of Kenneth Hesketh. Ken’s music has intrigued me for some years, and i’ve had the good fortune to conduct one of his works (Fra Duri Scogli) back in 2010. The new NMC disc brings together a cluster of pieces, most of which were composed around five years ago. They include no fewer than three orchestral works, plus a pair of ensemble pieces, focusing on commissions for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Ensemble 10/10, who are the respective performers on the disc.

i think it’s only fair to suggest that Hesketh’s music is an acquired taste, and not because it’s particularly ear- or mind-mangling. On the contrary, one of the characteristics that typifies these five works is their overwhelming clarity, which over time can become a tad relentless, even oppressive. Yet that’s an integral aspect of the multi-faceted charm that is equally typical of this music. When turned in the direction of an archetypal concert-opener, as in A Rhyme for the Season, the orchestral forces are kept firmly in place, embodying the kind of spiky, ants-in-the-pants restlessness that fans of mainstream (i.e. published) British music will find very familiar, yet treated to more than usually enchanting orchestration. Ideas pass at breakneck speed between the sections, and despite its relative functionality, there are some nicely unexpected structural moments that prevent it feeling workaday or staid. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – Plötzlichkeit (UK Première)

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A principal thread running through much of Brian Ferneyhough’s music is one that plays with notions of linear narrative. It has been present as far back as the Sonatas for String Quartet, composed in 1967, which intercuts two entirely separate materials, one strictly serial, the other intuitive. Incipits (1996)—drawing inspiration from Italo Calvino’s book ‘If on a winter’s night a Traveller’—sidestepped narrative completely through an examination of ways a composition can be started, and we’ve already seen how Exordium employs a radically abstracted example of this, providing an anthology of fragments from which the listener is left to derive their own kind of narrative. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – La terre est un homme

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Featured Artists, Thematic series | 4 Comments

This week sees the 70th birthday of one of the UK’s most significant composers, Brian Ferneyhough. For nearly fifty years, his music has been thrilling and discombobulating audiences in not entirely equal measure, pursuing his compositional goals with ruthless, painstaking rigour. As has long been the case with its most interesting and challenging composers, Ferneyhough’s music has never been strongly welcomed or well-received in the UK, and even the Barbican’s Total Immersion day devoted to him in 2011 essentially only comprised two concerts—to be admired of course, but not exactly an immersion, suggesting little has changed in terms of home-grown appreciation.

His music is to some extent a progression from the integral serialism arrived at by Stockhausen and Boulez in the 1950s, but only in terms of organisational precision; his work is not concerned with—indeed, is often wildly opposed to—the kind of balance that serialism seeks to explore. Multiple layers and an element of refraction—aspects of something heard in different ways from different angles, only slowly grasped, if at all—dominate the way his music presents itself. That makes it something of a formidable force from a listening perspective, and Ferneyhough himself has on numerous occasions spoken of the way he seeks to position the music always a bit ‘beyond’ the listener, inviting what he calls a kind of “meta-listening” (a term that raises more questions than it answers). Whether his music is any more ‘beyond’ an audience than many other composers’ work is debatable and in any case subjective, but regardless, one can never fail to be aware that there is very much more transpiring in a work by Ferneyhough than is immediately obvious.

The swiftest of glances at any of his scores underlines that fact; his use of notation is uniquely dense and florid, comprising the most intricately complex filigree. This aspect of his work has long proved to be the most controversial, provoking a rather tiring series of diatribes and apologias—almost always closed arguments, reinforcing existing prejudices—for the convolutions of Ferneyhough’s notational demeanour. This historically lopsided focus on the appearance of Ferneyhough’s music has no doubt been exacerbated by the lack of both available recordings and regular concert performances (my own first contact, in the mid-1990s, was almost entirely via his scores, for this very reason), a situation that has not drastically improved over the years. So as the composer approaches his 70th year, much still needs to be done. Whether 2013 will bring any efforts towards a more enlightened appraisal, or even an in-depth retrospective, remains to be seen. One can at least hope; and to that end this week on 5:4 is a celebration of Brian Ferneyhough’s music. Read more

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In Memoriam: Jonathan Harvey – Messages (World Première)

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To find myself writing the words “In Memoriam” for the third time in as many months is deeply saddening, all the more so as the loss of Jonathan Harvey, who died two days ago aged 73, is one that feels particularly acute here in the UK. Whether Harvey was our ‘best’ composer is hardly relevant, but he was surely one of our deepest, with a passion and insight into sacred thought and action that made him entirely unique, and not just within the British Isles. In fact, the mystical tension that operated within himself – irresistibly intermingling an urge to the radically new with an instinct for age-old numinosity – is perhaps the most fascinating and engaging aspect of his oeuvre, manifesting itself in practically everything he composed. For a long time i’ve been wanting to devote some serious attention on 5:4 to Harvey’s music, but for now i’ll make do with this, the first performance of one of his more recent large-scale works, Messages. It’s from a concert in March 2008 given by the Berlin Radio Choir and Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Oslo Sinfonietta

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Following a collection of strangers down a bleak back street to a gloomy factory and then passing through a makeshift entrance labelled ‘The Blending Shed’ might sound like the makings of a nightmare, but this was the way in which i found myself at Bates Mill, for yesterday evening’s concert given by the Oslo Sinfonietta. What constitutes a sign? What do words and gestures really signify? How do we interpret them, and when we have, how might others respond? These questions occupied both of the works featured in the concert, which were each receiving their UK première.

Ignas KrunglevičiusGradients is founded on a bizarre exchange initiated by two Cornell PhD students: a conversation between two online chatbots, their addled, artificially intelligent dialogue forming Krunglevičius’ libretto. The piece didn’t feel promising at first, comprising a series of sliding overlapping lines on and around the same pitch, dripping with dissonance, while four singers (members of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) uttered a related sequence of open-mouthed ululations. So far, so meh. Read more

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In Memoriam: Hans Werner Henze – Symphony No. 5

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Yesterday brought the very sad news that the composer Hans Werner Henze has died. It’s not for me to attempt an obituary—i only know a little of Henze’s life, and have only really scratched the surface of his considerable output—but by way of a small tribute, here’s a performance of his Symphony No. 5. Henze’s ten symphonies vary greatly in their scope, scale and instrumentation, and the Fifth is one of his most concise, lasting around 15 minutes. Henze composed the symphony in 1962, a year after he had relocated to the Marino region of Italy (Henze left Germany for good in the early 1950s, revolted by its politics and homophobia). The nearby city of Rome was his primary inspiration; Henze described the symphony as dealing with “dramatic portrayals of sensual conflicts and joys prompted by the sensuous happiness of 20th century Rome, its people, its countryside and surroundings, and even by its somewhat harder dialect in comparison to that of Naples where I previously lived”. Read more

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Tōru Takemitsu – From me flows what you call time (UK Première)

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It was on this day, in 1930, that one of my favourite composers, the great Tōru Takemitsu, was born. So to mark what would have been his 82nd birthday, here’s one of his most spectacular orchestral works, the wonderfully-named From me flows what you call time. The title is taken from a poem by the Japanese poet Makoto Ooka, titled “Clear Blue Water”:

Summer trip to Switzerland:
in our bellies, sausages
eaten on the Zermatt terrace,
foot of the Matterhorn,
slowly turns into
heat: 1000 calories each.

As we climb up and up
the Furka Pass, my eyes
suddenly are perforated
by a billion particles
of heavenly blue:
across the valley a giant
mountain rampart:
The Glacier.

Swinging up its snow-
crowned sky-blue fist,
that ancient water spirit
shouts:

“From me
flows
what you
call Time.”

Down from that colossal
mass of shining ice
flows the majestic
River Rhone.

The piece is in part inspired by the Tibetan idea of the wind horse, an allegorical conception of the human soul, familiar to many in the well-known associated sequence of five coloured flags, representative of the elements: fire (red), water (blue), earth (yellow), sky (white) and wind (green). Takemitsu makes the number five significant; the work’s principal theme is essentially a five-note motif, and in addition to the orchestra he writes for a five-piece percussion ensemble. Percussion, in fact, dominates the piece, decked out with a plethora of exotic bells, chimes, gongs, singing bowls and drums to the point that it could almost be described as a percussion concerto. Nonetheless, though, the 30-minute work displays Takemitsu’s typically fine instrumental homogeneity, every instrument seemingly directed towards a common objective, albeit an objective that is often both nebulous and fluid. Takemitsu’s penchant for strolling around gardens when contemplating new compositions makes itself felt as much in this piece as in so many of his others, moving to and between a large number of ‘scenes’ or ‘vistas’, moments when his exquisite textural vagueness abruptly coalesces into something tangible. Read more

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Proms 2012: Mark Simpson – sparks (World Première)

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Last Night, almost two months after it began, the 2012 Proms season closed with its traditional cross between a concert and a piss-up. A relatively new addition to its arcane traditions is beginning proceedings with the première of a new work, and this year the mantle fell to Mark Simpson. One can hardly relish his task, composing something to kick-start what’s effectively a party, but his chosen title, sparks, suggested Simpson had sized up the context pretty well. It was given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. Read more

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Proms 2012: Helen Grime – Night Songs (World Première)

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Partway through last Saturday’s Proms world première of Night Songs, the new work from Helen Grime, conductor Oliver Knussen dropped his glasses. To listen to the performance, one would hardly have noticed; yet, at the end, Knussen announced the mishap to the audience and remarked how he thought it had gone well, “but I’d just like to play it again to make sure”—and thus, Night Songs was immediately given a second world première. Quite apart from the graciousness of that act, it makes one wonder why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often anyway; on the very rare occasions when i’ve been at a concert where a new work has been played twice (usually in each half of the concert, not immediately afterwards), it has always proved to be an extremely valuable experience, benefiting the piece immeasurably and sometimes drastically altering one’s first impressions. Concert planners: take note. Read more

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