orchestral

Proms 2012: Elaine Agnew – Dark Hedges (World Première)

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Yesterday afternoon’s Prom brought the first performance of Dark Hedges, by the Northern Irish composer Elaine Agnew. It was given by the combined forces of the Ulster Youth Orchestra of Northern Island and the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by JoAnna Falletta, with a solo flute part played by housewives’ favourite, James Galway. Before speaking of the piece itself, it’s worth highlighting the performance, which demonstrated in startlingly vivid fashion the skill and musicianship that young players bring to new music; their playing throughout was deeply impressive. Read more

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Proms 2012: Rued Langgaard – Symphony No. 11 ‘Ixion’ & Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – Incontri (UK Premières)

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In a change to the planned schedule (due to Benedict Mason not having finished his new work meld), last Saturday’s Prom featured two UK premières, both by composers rarely heard on these shores. Difficult pieces—but for different reasons—they were given marvellously lucid performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Read more

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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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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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