orchestral

Proms 2012: Charlotte Bray – At the Speed of Stillness (World Première)

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Perhaps one of the more highly anticipated premières at this year’s Proms was Charlotte Bray‘s At the Speed of Stillness, which received its first performance last night by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder. Bray’s name has been growing in significance particularly in the last year or so; her inclusion on the LES’s 2011 list of most influential people in classical music was undoubtedly a combination of hyperbole and optimism, but this new work goes a long way towards consolidating Bray’s position as one of our most engaging composers. Her inspiration picks over a number of concepts arising from a line in a poem by Dora Maar (Picasso’s famous muse), “the hummingbird motionless as a star”. This led Bray to consider paradoxical notions of simultaneous movement and stillness, either (or both) of which may be merely ostensible. These starting ideas—so much simpler than the needlessly highfalutin concepts with which so many composers festoon their work—translate well into sound and, most importantly, can be easily grasped as the music plays out. Read more

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Proms 2012: Fung Lam – Endless Forms (World Première)

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The latest work to be premièred at the Proms was Endless Forms, by a composer new to me, Fung Lam, born in Hong Kong but based in the UK for the last fifteen years. It was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, who had replaced an indisposed Jiří Bělohlávek at short notice.

Inspiration for the piece comes from the closing sentence of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species:

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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Proms 2012: Kaija Saariaho – Laterna magica (UK Première)

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The first UK performance of Kaija Saariaho‘s 2008 work Laterna magica took place at tonight’s Prom concert in decidedly sumptuous company, Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Four Last Songs on one side, Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony on the other. It was a superbly-judged juxtaposition; while Saariaho’s music occupies places hard to define, nonetheless there’s often a kind of restrained opulence (i hope that’s not too strong a word) as well, lending her work a sensibility that one could almost describe as ‘Romantic’. Read more

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Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Jonathan Harvey – Weltethos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Jonathan Harvey‘s large-scale new work for choir and orchestra, Weltethos, was given its first UK performance. The opening event of Birmingham’s London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when one considers the legacy and reputation of Harvey together with the combined forces of over 300 performers—the CBSO joined by their full choral complement of Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus, plus two conductors (Edward Gardner and Michael Seal) and a speaker in the form of renowned actor Samuel West—in a work of 80 minutes’ duration, it’s hardly surprising that the superlatives and hyperbole had started to fly before even a note had been sounded. Expectations could hardly have been greater, nor hopes higher. To my amazement, they were all emphatically quashed.

Weltethos certainly doesn’t fail in terms of scope or ambition, setting a lengthy text by theologian Hans Küng that seeks to draw on common values from six of the world’s great faiths and philosophies, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Speaking of these values, Küng says that “[they] need not be invented anew, but people need to be made aware of them again; they must be lived out and handed on.” Yet the problems with Weltethos begin right here. The six values—1) humanity, 2) the so-called ‘golden rule’, that we don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want done to us, 3) non-violence, 4) justice, 5) truth and 6) love—are all deeply significant and important aspects of our interactions one with another, but Küng frames them in such a pallid, dry way that they feel entirely theoretical, one step removed from anything approaching genuine emotion and feeling. Brief paragraphs from each religion’s sacred texts are used to allude to the six values, but in a flat, narrative fashion that seems entirely self-defeating; surely Küng was aiming at a kind of moral/ethical rally cry, but what he’s produced is as motivating as a party political broadcast. Read more

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Thomas Adès – Polaris (UK Première)

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At the Barbican this evening, Thomas Adès‘ latest orchestral work, Polaris, was given its UK première by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert. It’s fortunate indeed that Adès has left behind the ludicrously lavish plaudits that were rained down on him in a ceaseless golden shower throughout the mid- to late-1990s. For a time, Adès could seemingly do no wrong, irrespective of what some might describe as a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. However, both then and since i’ve almost invariably found myself impressed by the endeavour even if the achievement isn’t quite so convincing (i’m excluding Brahms; no-one should have composed that particular bit of doggerel). The recurring spanner in the works, it seems to me, is Adès’ penchant for playing intricate compositional games with himself; hardly problematic in itself, far from it, but one can’t help feeling the music often ends up being convoluted in an unhelpful way, obfuscating the clarity with which Adès clearly wants to communicate his ideas; put another way, his compositions often seem to be emotive or beautiful despite themselves.

Which brings us back to tonight, and to Polaris. Perhaps it’s just me, but from the opening minutes of the piece it all felt rather disconcerting; in a primarily American commission, Adès has, it seems, felt the need to draw on the kind of compositional mannerisms intimately associated with that country. From the overtly minimalistic material that both begins and permeates the work, to the quasi-tonal textural configurations that form a backdrop to much of the development, Polaris seems to project a ‘foreign’ tone of voice (both geographically and personally), not entirely at odds with Adès’ other work, but not necessarily in keeping with it either. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 8. Introitus

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As éileadh sguaibe reaches its conclusion, the electronics seem to catch hold of the percussion; however, a glance at the score of Nine Rivers‘ eighth piece, Introitus, reveals that it is, in fact, its own tape part overlapping the final minute of éileadh. Having been more-or-less dormant for the last 20 minutes of the cycle, electronics now start to return to the importance they had in La coupure. At this stage, the penultimate work brings with it a palpable sense of the end being in sight, although i suspect this is a natural concomitant of Nine Rivers‘ epic scale rather than anything (yet) in the music explicitly heralding or even implicitly hinting at its conclusion. Introitus is scored for 12 strings (to some extent timbrally mirroring the second work, L’ECRAN parfum) plus both live electronics and also tape. In his very lengthy programme note, Dillon characterises the relationship of those components as “a palimpsest of three superposed layers […] interdependent strata [that] function not simply to perform a coherent unity [or] a symbiosis but cite their own deconstruction. Introitus within the context of Nine Rivers may be viewed as an estuary (L. æstuare, to surge, foam as the tide), a tidal delirium opened up by the employment of computer technology”. Completed in 1990, Introitus was composed for the 65th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and was premièred in May of that year by the Ensemble Intercontemperain conducted by Peter Eötvös, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The tape and electronic parts were realised next door at IRCAM, who also commissioned the work. This time, the relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre is this one:

I have seen sidereal archipelagos! and islands
Whose delirious skies are open to the sea-wanderer:
–Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself,
Million golden birds, O future Vigor?
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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Proms 2011: Anders Hillborg – Cold Heat (UK Première)

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Monday evening’s Prom brought one of the pieces i’ve most been looking forward to hear in this year’s season, the first London performance of Cold Heat by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. Few composers in recent times have revivified the Straussian idea of the symphonic poem more effectively than Hillborg, although his approach avoids overtly programmatic ideas. Hillborg prefers more abstract but no less evocative subject matter, and this train of compositional thought is continued through the fifteen minutes of Cold Heat, which was performed by one of the groups who commissioned the work, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, directed by David Zinman. Read more

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Proms 2011: Jonny Greenwood/Robert Ziegler – Norwegian Wood – Suite & Purcell/Joby Talbot – Chacony in G minor (World Premières)

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The most recent premières at this year’s Proms have been a pair of arrangements, the first, a suite formed by Robert Ziegler from Jonny Greenwood‘s score to the film Norwegian Wood, the second, a new rendition of Henry Purcell‘s Chacony in G minor, by Joby Talbot.

Greenwood’s music was performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra (with which he is Composer in Association), at last Friday’s Prom dedicated to film music. The augeries were ambivalent; hitherto in this concert, despite apparent energy in spades, the orchestra had proved itself lacklustre and even scrappy under Keith Lockhart’s direction. A notable casualty was John Williams’ Star Wars music, the opening of which was a mistimed disgrace, while the rest became a bombastic showy affair far, far away from the raw power of the original. On the other hand, the quieter music seemed to suit everyone much better, which boded well for Greenwood’s restrained, even reticent soundtrack. It’s not accurate to describe this Suite as an ‘arrangement’; Robert Ziegler, the original conductor of Greenwood’s score (and also for his music for the film There Will Be Blood), has simply extracted three movements to form this Suite: ‘もう少し自分のこと、きちんとしたいの’ (‘I want to get a little better’), ‘草原、風、雑木林’ (The Meadow, the Wind, the Trees’) and ‘直子が死んだ’ (‘Naoko Died’). Ziegler’s own contribution seems to be limited to a small extension of the opening material in the first movement; beyond that, any additional tweaks are too subtle to be noticeable. Read more

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Proms 2011: Pascal Dusapin – Morning in Long Island (UK Première)

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The music of Pascal Dusapin is being featured twice at this year’s Proms. The first piece, Morning in Long Island, was given its UK première yesterday evening, by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, directed by Myung-Whun Chung. It’s not exactly the kind of appellation one would immediately associate with Dusapin, who usually prefers to title his works with succinct, single words. His allusive title refers to a morning, over 20 years ago, when Dusapin found himself on a beach, and was captivated by the movement of nature around him (not a million miles away from the moment of inspiration that led to James Dillon’s Zone (… de azul)). Morning in Long Island is structured in three movements, which continue without a break, and together with the large orchestra Dusapin has included an additional brass trio of horn, trumpet and trombone. Read more

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Proms 2011: Havergal Brian – Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’

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Rarely have i felt the need to prepare so thoroughly before a concert as i did prior to yesterday evening’s Prom performance of Havergal Brian‘s Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’. Books were re-read, CDs were re-listened to, and i even re-visited the writings of John Ruskin, who wrote with such authority about the nature of Gothic. The enterprise felt similar to the preparations for a lengthy trek over difficult and taxing terrain, but such is the nature of the musical landscape of Brian’s symphony. At the outset, i suppose, one must tackle the elephant in the room. Except, of course, it’s nothing of the kind; for weeks on end, one commentator after another has been getting in an excited lather at the size of the Gothic Symphony. “Gosh, it needs over 1,000 players” they coo; “Wow, it’s the longest symphony ever written”, they gush, as though mere scale was somehow a laudable trait or even an end in itself. Brian’s not alone in suffering from such witless gigantophilia; Sorabji, too, is seemingly forever spoken of in terms of the size of his output. Even Tom Service, the BBC’s boy scout-in-residence, could hardly remain still in his seat at yesterday’s performance, positively whooping with delight at the sheer colossality of it all. Some deep breaths and chill pills are clearly called for. Read more

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Proms 2011: Judith Weir – Stars, Night, Music and Light (World Première)

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The 2011 Proms season commenced this evening with the world première of a new work from Judith Weir. Evocatively titled Stars, Night, Music and Light, Weir has drawn on three lines of text from the sixth stanza of George Herbert‘s poem ‘Man’, a poem that echoes the sentiments of Psalm 8, celebrating humankind as the apogee and centrepiece of God’s creation. Herbert’s lines are wonderfully deep, even a touch abstruse at times, but Weir’s sliver of text is beautifully simple, as is the music she’s composed for the occasion. Read more

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Barbican, London: Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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Gary Carpenter – Fred & Ginger (World Première)

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Radio 3 has featured a glut of premières recently, from a mixture of established and less well-known names. One such new name (to me, at least) is Gary Carpenter, whose new orchestral piece Fred and Ginger received its first performance on 17 February, broadcast a week later. A little over five minutes in duration, the work draws its inspiration from the characters of the title, Astaire and Rogers—or, more specifically, the ambivalent nature of their relationship in front of (elegant; suave) and away from (argumentative; turbulent) the camera.

It doesn’t start terribly promisingly; the opening gestures suggest the generic, empty kind of material that litters many contemporary scores (particularly those affiliated with Faber). But it quickly becomes evident that there’s more going on here than mere posturing: rhythmic convulsions that already hint at something dance-like; sustained tones that may or may not aspire to melody; spasmodic eruptions—initiated by the timpani—that are clearly going to be problematic as things continue. Despite seeming to be present merely to disrupt things, the percussion actually provide the impetus for a greater sense of both stability and direction, laying down the gauntlet, so to speak, by preparing a clear, consistent pulse. Before things really swing, however, the sharp angular shapes cast by the orchestra gradually assume a more lyrical demeanour—first on the strings, later on a trombone—and the work finally attains the epithets conductor Daniel Harding asserted beforehand, “wit and charm and elegance”. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8 (UK Première), Concerto Grosso No. 2 & (K)ein Sommernachtstraum

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The fifth and final concert featured in this Schnittke Week was broadcast on 15 January 2001, and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eri Klaas. The first part of the concert opened with something of an oddity: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, composed for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth in 1993. It takes a healthy chunk of Grieg’s music as its starting point, but despite the energy of Schnittke’s variations on this theme, there’s never a cogent sense of quite what he’s trying to do—or, indeed, why. The two composers’ voices stay stubbornly separate, merely juxtaposed, never unified; all of which may be the point, but Schnittke makes that point so much better in other pieces.

It was followed by the UK Première of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8, composed in 1994, and the last symphony he was able to complete before his death four years later. The first movement (Moderato, as ever) is an exercise in obsession. An extremely uncomfortable melody, angular in the extreme, starts in the horns, is passed to the strings, to the trombones, back to the horns, and so on and so on. Delivered above unwavering pedals, Schnittke grips tenaciously to this melody, transposing it but never daring to alter it; the effect becomes hypnotic, enhanced in the background by the pedals evolving into increasingly dense clusters. First harpsichord and then celesta present an alternate idea, a simple rising and falling line, its intervals expanding and contracting, which becomes the new focus of attention; but ‘focus’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the more this new idea is heard, the more turgid and unclear it becomes. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Cello Concerto No. 2 & Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4)

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Today’s featured Alfred Schnittke concert was broadcast on 14 January 2001, and comprised two monumental pieces, the Cello Concerto No. 2, with Torleif Thedéen taking the solo role, and the dual-named Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4); Vassily Sinaisky directs the BBC Philharmonic. More than the others, this recording has suffered the effects of time (and, possibly, previous attempts at cleanup); there’s some crackle audible in the performances as well as the speech, and to add insult to injury, on the original recording (made on cassette) i neglected to use Dolby. So—despite my best efforts—my apologies for the sound quality, although the performances are so good that (for the most part) they transcend these problems.

Completed in 1990, Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 is a work that dives into high lyricism at the outset, the cello’s opening gambit pitched towards the top of its compass, followed by an extensive meditation at the opposite end of the pitch spectrum, ushering in a loud declamatory statement from the orchestra; throughout this short opening movement (Moderato), the orchestra’s role is restricted to punctuating the ends of the cello’s lengthy meanderings. While it seems as though the soloist is going to stay ponderous for some time, the second movement (Allegro) abruptly establishes a tempo, and a fairly brisk one at that. The orchestra gets excited once again, but falls back almost as quickly as before; only the brass engage with the cello, although from a distance. Things continue in this vein for a while, until a more pointillistic idea initiates more assertion in the orchestra, seemingly placing their notes in the momentary gaps left by the soloist. They construct a curious waltz that fizzles immediately into a strangely sparse string chorale, in which a flexatone can just be heard. Aggression breaks out; it’s clear this is an orchestra profoundly irritated at being sidelined, and they seem to form packs that assault the soloist from all directions; for the cello’s part, its material, ever in flux, is thus instantly forgettable and yet projects itself as though each and every leaping note was agonisingly important. At the movement’s crashing final beat, one is left breathless and wondering where things stand; in this performance, there’s a significant pause at this point, which adds to the drama. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 6, Monologue, String Trio & Concerto for Three

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Day three of my celebration of the music of Alfred Schnittke features music from a concert focusing on works involving solo strings, broadcast on 14 January 2001. Taking centre stage are soloists Ula Ulijona (viola), Marta Sudraba (cello), and the great violinist Gidon Kremer; they’re joined by the London Sinfonietta, directed by Eri Klass. In addition, there’s a fascinating survey by Gerard McBurney of Schnittke’s relationship with the Concerto Grosso form; apologies for the sound quality in these sections, which have become rather crackly for some reason.

Schnittke’s sixth Concerto Grosso is also his last, composed in 1993, and it’s a short work, the three movements lasting under a quarter of an hour. After a momentary—rather angry—pondering from the piano, the short first movement lets loose into a non-stop Allegro; far from taking a neo-continuo role, the piano’s relationship to the strings is more like that of a concerto, with distinct echoes of Shostakovich at times. Structurally, it’s highly formal, almost the entire movement repeated in its entirety before a wildly exuberant coda. The central Adagio is a duet for piano and solo violin, very simple at first, although this only goes to highlight an apparent discomfort between the two instruments. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 1, Fragments (World Première) & Symphony No. 4

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The second concert being featured in this week of music by Alfred Schnittke comprised two of his major compositions plus the world première of a work unfinished at his death. It took place on 13 January 2001, and was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

The concert began with perhaps Schnittke’s most-performed work, the Concerto Grosso No. 1. Opening movement ‘Preludio’ begins on prepared piano, gently clattering its way through a nursery rhyme-type melody. It’s answered with a hocketed idea in the solo violins, rocking back and forth on adjacent semitones (one can see already where this may be going: clusters a-go-go), while the lower strings form a backdrop of sustained harmonics. There’s a brief soloistic flourish in the violins, the violas slither down their strings to a bottom pedal note, the harpsichord teases its keyboard, and a gorgeous second idea begins. Above a glacial viola chord, a violin solo explores a melody at the bottom of its register; it’s not specified in the score, but in this performance Clio Gould opts to play near the bridge, making the line effectively fragile, and causing some delicious overtones to appear at the edges. A duet is formed, and the harpsichord re-announces the nursery tune; a curt, loud response in all the strings (tutti for the first time), brings the movement to an end, the violins’ hocketing idea now widened from a semitone to sevenths and ninths. You’d be forgiven for thinking a composer like Vivaldi had a hand in the second movement. Titled ‘Toccata’, it’s a diabolical parody of Vivaldi, overstuffed with ridiculously strict and stretto canons, Schnittke at his most caustically comical. Read more

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Magnus Lindberg – Al largo (UK Première)

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A little over a week ago, on 13 October, came the first UK performance of Magnus Lindberg‘s new orchestral work, Al largo, given by the London Philarmonic Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. The title is an interesting one; as well as suggesting the musical term, associated with considerable slowness, the expression in fact refers to “being offshore, specifically referring to the moment when you reach the open sea and you don’t see the coast anymore, and what is before you is vast” (from Lindberg’s programme note).

The opening is all grand fanfares, dominated by the heavy brass (but nicely flecked with muted trumpets), out of which emerges a music in search of its own momentum. Bass drums make leaden stabs at something pulse-like, the rest of the orchestra respond with an inchoate morass of melodic tendrils; with Lindberg’s title in mind—and without wishing to get too Donald Tovey about it—this opening episode is highly suggestive of a boat slowly gathering speed. The grandiosity of the moment isn’t over-stated, however; Lindberg treads carefully through the momentous triads and imposing bass pedals, peppering the texture with softer woodwind flourishes, introducing a rapid chromatic motif that will become important later. After a short time it becomes clear that a pulse—at least, a clearly delineated one—isn’t a prerequisite for momentum, and the music charts a new path, one made particularly vibrant by the strings’ lush chords. Read more

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Vale of Glamorgan Festival: World Premières by Arvo Pärt and Arlene Sierra

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On 9 September, a concert given at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, was for the most part concerned with the music of Arvo Pärt, featuring a new work commissioned by the festival, In Spe for wind quintet and strings. It’s a short piece, in which the winds take precedence at first: horn, oboe and bassoon take turns stating the work’s fundamental idea. The rest of the work is essentially a series of what E. E. Cummings might have called “nonvariations” on that theme; the melody is draped in constantly changing decoration, the voice moving between registers, inversions and retrogrades adding what little spice there is to be gleaned from Pärt’s agonisingly constricted use of material and harmony. Surprisingly, it all feels terribly technical; while the temptation with so much of Pärt’s music is simply to drift, switched off and blissed out, on the surface, i found myself pulled under during In Spe, staring at what lay beneath; i don’t think this is due purely to the paucity of invention on display in the work; Howard Skempton’s Lento goes round in even more demonstrably regular circles for much of its duration, but there the result is hypnotic and entirely convincing. Somehow, the material here all feels terribly workaday, almost like an exercise; unfortunately, as neither the inner workings nor their surface sheen are that interesting, this militates against In Spe, enfeebling it, even in its brief attempts at more dynamic strength. Arvo Pärt’s fans will be delighted; all the ‘tintinnabuli’ stuff is present and correct, and the piece presents them with absolutely nothing unfamiliar, nothing to think about. Read more

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Proms 2010: Martin Matalon – Lignes de fuite (UK Première)

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On Thursday evening, the Proms was treated to the UK Première of Argentinian composer Martin Matalon‘s Lignes de fuite (“Lines of convergence”), tackled with obvious relish by the splendid BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

The work opens, appropriately, with a single static line, passed between the horns, gradually coloured and fragranced by the percussion and woodwind; it’s a captivating introduction, pregnant with potential. Matalon doesn’t take any time whipping his material into shape, however; the music is positively marshalled around the orchestra. Special attention is given to the brass, who deal with their passages with brusque efficiency, while the strings (aided by celesta) strike more elegant poses, their lines almost coyly twirling their way upward. The structure is given space and more interesting shape by brief episodes where everything momentarily stops, a chance for everyone to get their bearings before launching off somewhere new. Read more

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