Proms

Proms 2017: Tom Coult – St John’s Dance (World Première)

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And we’re off: the first performance of Tom Coult‘s new orchestral work St John’s Dance got the 2017 Proms season up and running last night, courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. i’ve only really scratched the surface of Coult’s music, having heard two earlier works in the last couple of years, Codex (Homage to Serafini) and Spirit of the Staircase, premièred in 2014 and 2016 respectively. They’re both interesting pieces (i’ll aim to feature them on 5:4 when i get a chance), but the thing that stood out most in them was Coult’s very particular approach to pace and direction. i need to qualify that by saying my initial impression was that, in each case, these aspects seemed a bit off, but returning to them since, i’ve wondered whether in fact Coult actually succeeds in pulling it off through a mixture of audacity and simple unpredictability. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Tom Coult

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Tonight, this year’s Proms season kicks off in earnest, and once again i’ll be reviewing all of the contemporary pieces receiving world or UK premières. As an extra feature this year, i’ve interrogated some of the featured composers with a short series of questions, the answers of which hopefully will provide a little extra insight into each composer and their music, both generally and specifically with regard to the piece being premièred at the Proms. First up is British composer Tom Coult, whose new work St John’s Dance gets the season up and running this evening. Many thanks to Tom for his responses; you can also read the programme note of his piece after the questions. Read more

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Proms 2017: new essay on Sounds Like Now

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The 2017 Proms season is fast approaching, and in anticipation of this i’ve contributed an essay to the July edition of online journal Sounds Like Now. The essay focuses specifically on the way contemporary music has been and continues to be represented at the Proms, exploring a number of themes with which regular readers of 5:4 will be familiar, concerns of both quantity and equality – particularly the representation (or otherwise) of women and the involvement (or otherwise) of electronics – all placed within the context of why the Proms was originally founded.

Sounds Like Now is subscription only, but subscribers can find the essay here.

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John Tavener – Cantus mysticus (UK Première)

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i’ve been exploring the extensive 5:4 archive of recordings of premières recently, listening to both brand new and older works, and was pretty startled to encounter Cantus mysticus, by the late John Tavener. A work for clarinet and soprano soloists with a string orchestra of violins and cellos, it was composed in 2004, first performed the following year at the Cuenca Religious Music Week, in Spain. Three years later it received its UK première at the Proms, and in 2010 its first performance in the USA, but for the last seven years it’s sat dormant. Considering Tavener’s popularity both during his latter years and since his death, this seems strange – particularly as Cantus mysticus lasts only eight minutes – though it possibly has something to do with the very peculiar nature of the piece.

For much of the last two decades of his life, Tavener’s compositional practice was relatively standardised and predictable. If it had anything approximating an evolution, it was more to do with extra-musical than musical concerns, as Tavener shifted somewhat away from the more tangible (i.e. readily explainable) aspects of religious dogma in favour of ‘esoteric metaphysics’. (This evolution would finally move into an intense exploration of human suffering in the wake of Tavener’s own close call with death in 2007.) Personally speaking, this late shift came as something of a relief, though primarily because the particular combination of the abstract and the abstruse embodied within esoteric metaphysics render it far more inert (and that’s really not intended as a euphemism for ‘meaningless’) than Tavener’s more ostentatiously overt theological outlook of earlier years. Put more crudely – though no less accurately – this shift removed some of the unctuous sanctimoniousness of those earlier works, which from an extra-musical perspective, makes them very much more palatable. Read more

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Proms 2017: looking forward

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It’s that time again: today all the details of this year’s Proms season have been revealed. From a contemporary music perspective, there are 15 world premières – from Tom CoultRoderick WilliamsLaurent DuruptJulian AndersonBrian EliasJudith WeirPhilip Glass/Ravi Shankar (i know, just don’t), Michael GordonCheryl Frances-HoadJonathan DoveDaniel SaleebGerald Barry, Hannah KendallCatherine Lamb and Lotta Wennäkoski – and nine European/UK premières – from Harrison BirtwistlePascal DusapinAnders HillborgJames MacMillanMark-Anthony TurnageThomas LarcherAndrea Tarrodi, Erkki-Sven Tüür and Missy Mazzoli. Lots of men in those lists: women composers account for a quarter of the premières, which is an improvement on last year but otherwise not in any way an admirable statistic.

Aside from these, John Adams‘ 70th birthday year is being marked with five performances throughout the season (none of them premières, which is surprising, but in its own way a relief), there’s an event both titled and celebrating “The ‘Godlike Genius’ of Scott Walker” (a title that i fully endorse), the London Contemporary Orchestra will be teaming up with Actress for an evening of improvised who-knows-what alongside Exaudi, and there’s a sprinkling of recent works from, among others, Mark Simpson (a chance for London finally to hear The Immortal), David Sawer, Francisco Coll, Thomas Adès, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Louis Andriessen, Kate Whitley, Wolfgang Rihm and Rebecca Saunders. Another list with a lot of men.

The full run-down of contemporary music featured in this year’s Proms season is shown below (**=world première, *=European/UK première); the number of the concert – or the venue, when outside the Royal Albert Hall; PCM = Proms Chamber Music – is shown in square brackets, and clicking on the date will take you to the relevant page on the BBC website. i leave it up to you to decide whether the title of this blog post is accurate. Read more

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Proms 2016: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who expressed your views on this year’s Proms premières, it’s always fascinating to compare my own responses with those of so many others, particularly when we disagree! Since closing the polls a few days ago, i’ve fed the results (938 votes) into what has become by now quite a clever little spreadsheet—and voilà, here’s a summary of how you all voted.


Worst New Work

Lera Auerbach – The Infant Minstrel and his Peculiar Menagerie

i must admit i’ve wondered whether my own negative reaction to this piece was somewhat churlish considering how much fun Auerbach is evidently aiming it to be. Further reflections haven’t changed my mind, however—if anything, they’ve reinforced it—and the majority of you clearly felt similarly. To quote from my review: “doggerel masquerading as playful pastiche”; certainly a worthy (if that’s the right word) piece to be judged the worst of this year’s premières.

Runners Up

Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes
Helen Grime – Two Eardley Pictures

Yes, i can see where you’re coming from. While Auerbach’s was, to my mind, the only really egregious example of barrel-bottom-scraping, Lindberg’s was almost an unimpressive. His work in recent years seems to exhibit a kind of laziness, relying on well-worn tropes, that’s disappointing considering how impressive have been some examples of his earlier output. In this particular instance, the Beethoven red herring gives it even less credit. Grime’s music clearly needs an overhaul, pure and simple. It’s limited in scope, tautological and superficial, which is all the more frustrating considering there are moments in the Two Eardley Pictures when one detects something altogether more engagingly nebulous lurking beneath that ultra-crystal clear surface.


Best New Work

Reinbert de Leeuw – Der nächtliche Wanderer

Not my own personal favourite, but a work i enjoyed very much. i still think it’s a risk, de Leeuw extending this lengthy nocturnal meditation to a duration of almost 50 minutes, but i still think he gets away with it (just), avoiding clichés and norms in favour of an ambiguous, spontaneous narrative that’s often strikingly vivid (i can never get that dog’s barking out of my head).

Runners Up

Jörg Widmann – Armonica
Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto

For me, these were the real highlights. i love the mixture of simplicity and complexity that permeates Widmann’s luscious soundworld. It’s a tension that allows one to enjoy the work on a number of levels of engagement; i certainly find more in it each time i hear it. Berkeley’s concerto has, i hope, proved to those who needed convincing that he’s not simply one of the old guard, but a composer simultaneously looking back and forward, embracing the best of both worlds. Beyond this, it’s extremely refreshing to witness a composer being so emotionally raw, a quality that seems to have become alien (or, at best, rationalised) in most contemporary music circles. His concerto ranks among the very best new works that the Proms has heard in recent years.

And in case you’re interested, among the remaining premières, it was Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow that left most of you supremely indifferent, another verdict with which i can readily agree. Once again, i tip my critical hat to the acuity of your discernment.

As i said before the season began, i had been tempted not to bother reviewing this year’s new works, due to the timidity of the selected composers, and while it’s turned out to be more interesting than i’d feared, there’s no doubt at all that the Proms seems to have barely a clue about contemporary music. One of its worst offences, which i’ve probably mentioned every year, is its singular lack of interest in/awareness of electroacoustic music, expanding instrumental groups with electronics. It seems the Proms believes you’re either entirely acoustic and therefore classical, or you use electronics and you’re therefore pop. i couldn’t give a monkey’s about the Proms’ insistence on including pop-related concerts—that’s even less of a crime than clapping between movements (which isn’t and never has been a crime anyway, so shush)—but their ignorant failure to explore what contemporary composers are doing to integrate acoustic and electronic composition is as embarrassing as it is shameful. Proms director David Pickard seriously needs to up his game.

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Proms 2016: Tom Harrold – Raze (World Première)

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Quite apart from the manifold inherent issues with which the occasion has long been afflicted, the Last Night of the Proms hasn’t exactly acquitted itself with particular brilliance as far its annual opening world premières are concerned. Consider the last few years’ efforts from Eleanor Alberga, Gavin Higgins, Anna Clyne, Peter Maxwell Davies and Jonathan Dove, and you’re looking at a list of bland, lowest-common-denominator fripperies bound for oblivion. Mark Simpson’s splendid work sparks, from the 2012 season, is a lone exception to this, and so it’s nice that it now has a worthy companion in the form of this year’s offering, Raze, from Scottish composer Tom Harrold, performed with a seat-of-the-pants ferocity by the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble with members from the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Read more

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Proms 2016: Paul Desenne – Hipnosis mariposa (UK Première)

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Continuing the idea i mentioned before about the Proms premières becoming more delicate and simple, Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne, in a homage to late singer Simón Díaz, has drawn on one of Díaz’s children’s songs, ‘El Becerrito’, about a cow called Butterfly who has a calf (also known as ‘La vaca Mariposa’; words here), as the basis for his work Hipnosis mariposa. Read more

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Proms 2016: Julian Anderson – Incantesimi (UK Première)

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As the end of the Proms draws nigh, the new works seem to have been taking on an increasing delicacy. And, to a large extent, simplicity, Julian Anderson‘s Incantesimi taking inspiration from the orrery, a mechanical reproduction of the the solar system, showing the position and motion of its planets and moons.

Anderson’s Incantesimi, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle (for whom it was written; they gave the first performance in Berlin in June), doesn’t so much emulate an orrery as allude to its machinations. To that end, while there isn’t a convincing sense of recurring, concentric ideas (despite the programme note’s claims), there are clearly differentiated ideas at play; furthermore, although these ideas aren’t particularly interesting in themselves, the way Anderson juxtaposes them is far more engaging, and it’s at this level of what one can imagine Messiaen calling a ‘counterpoint of personnages’ that Incantesimi works strongest. The most prevalent idea is a never-ending line on the cor anglais, which makes its way over and under everything else. Much of this “everything else” is, in contrast to a great deal of Anderson’s previous work, pleasantly ambiguous, occupying a dark and mysterious soundscape launched from a rather fantastic opening, slow, low and laden with contrabassoon and double bass growls.

The work’s different ideas tend to have distinct timbral/registral qualities, enabling the piece to play with notions of density and stratification; every now and then this results in a compressed pile-up, in due course answered by more separated, sparser material. Anderson’s use of the orchestra has some nice moments of novelty, particularly a very strong episode a little over halfway through, where vast amounts of wind and gesture are met with what sound like car-size hailstones falling from on high, interspersed with brief glimpses of high string fragility. What all this amounts to is hard to say; it may not be terribly profound, but beneath its shifting surface details, the piece does have some depth. And while Incantesimi as a whole isn’t exactly memorable (though moments like i’ve just described certainly are), yet the looser approach to structure, allowing the piece to feel relatively mobile and spontaneous, is demonstrably effective. It would be nice to hear what happens if Anderson loosens the reins still further.


HAVE YOUR SAY

Julian Anderson – Incantesimi
  • Loved it! (24%, 8 Votes)
  • Liked it (36%, 12 Votes)
  • Meh (27%, 9 Votes)
  • Disliked it (12%, 4 Votes)
  • Hated it! (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 33

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Programme Note

I hear a special quality in the way the Berlin Philharmonic colours slow music. I also think Sir Simon Rattle has a wonderful way of carrying and characterising long lines. There’s rhythm and flow. So I decided to write something showing off that. In Incantesimi, I use five musical ideas that orbit each other in ever differing relationships, somewhat like planets in an orrery. The cor anglais plays a special role with recurring solo lines. The work is an eight-minute span of time on the outside, but it gives a sense of being much more expansive, which is an illusion only music can give.

—Julian Anderson

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Proms 2016: Thomas Larcher – Symphony No. 2 ‘Kenotaph’ (UK Première), Sally Beamish – Merula perpetua; Bayan Northcott – Concerto for Orchestra (World Premières)

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Following on from Emily Howard’s Torus, two further Proms premières have continued the relationship with the orchestral concerto archetype: Bayan Northcott’s Concerto for Orchestra and Thomas Larcher‘s Symphony No. 2, which began life as one but developed in a different direction. Larcher’s symphony was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank, but far from being celebratory, the piece, dourly subtitled ‘Cenotaph‘, is bound up in thoughts and feelings instilled by the ongoing refugee crisis. Although not programmatic, Larcher has used the symphony to compose an ‘outcry’ at the sense of helplessness he felt. Read more

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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: Georg Friedrich Haas – Open Spaces II, Gérard Grisey – Dérives (UK Premières), Mica Levi – Signal Before War; David Sawer – April \ March (World Premières)

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Finally. Five weeks into this year’s season, the Proms at last finds its way, Red Riding Hood-like, away from the safe, well-trodden path into the unfamiliar terrain of the avant-garde. Twice, in fact; first thanks to the London Sinfonietta, whose afternoon concert at Camden’s Roundhouse last Saturday (there’s presumably a clause somewhere prohibiting anything too radical from being performed within the Royal Albert Hall), conducted by Andrew Gourlay, presented new works by Georg Friedrich Haas, Mica Levi and David Sawer alongside, among other things, Ligeti’s great classic Ramifications. And later that evening, Ilan Volkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra brought Gérard Grisey’s Dérives to these shores. Quite a day! Read more

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Proms 2016: Malcolm Hayes – Violin Concerto; Huw Watkins – Cello Concerto; Charlotte Bray – Falling in the Fire (World Premières)

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Three Proms, three world premières, three concertos, one for violin, two for cello, all lasting around 25 minutes. The similarities between them go little deeper than these most basic facts, though, each occupied with a very particular soundworld, aesthetic, and relationship between soloist and orchestra. The results were similarly mixed. 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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Proms 2016: Jörg Widmann – Armonica; Reinbert de Leeuw – Der nächtliche Wanderer (UK Premières)

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The latest pair of premières at the Proms have shared a leaning towards, not abstraction exactly, but a kind of elusive vagueness that seeks more to hint and evoke rather than aiming at direct statement. Both, however, got there via quite specific starting points. Dutch composer Reinbert de Leeuw turned to Hölderlin for both the title and the environment of his new large-scale orchestral work Der nächtliche Wanderer. At nearly 50 minutes’ duration, it’s one of the longest contemporary works to be featured at the Proms in a while, although the extent to which de Leeuw justified this duration is debatable. Its primary objective is to create an immersive nocturnal soundscape, theatrical and even rather frightening. To this end, the work’s opening gambit is very effective, featuring the recorded sounds of a distant barking dog segueing into a lengthy prelude where low tam-tams and bells form the backdrop to a small repeating motif from a lone viola, answered by rising/falling phrases from divided strings. Read more

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Proms 2016: Lera Auerbach – The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie (Symphony No. 3) (UK Première)

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Hot on the heels of one new violin concerto at the Proms, here comes another, this time courtesy of Russian-born, US-based composer Lera Auerbach. But no ordinary concerto, as it’s also subtitled a ‘symphony’, her third, and the involvement of a mixed chorus lends it the quality of both a cantata and a song cycle. Auerbach’s great compatriot Alfred Schnittke also used to mix up idioms in just this way, and aspirations towards his sort of wry take on things (though definitely not his soundworld; more about that in a moment) can be felt in the core of the piece, which goes by the grand title of The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie. The titular minstrel is a role taken on by the solo violin, acting as a peripatetic storyteller, given a literal voice by the chorus. The work’s eight songs are also written by Auerbach, closely modelled on familiar tropes of nonsense rhyme calling to mind Edward Lear, Spike Milligan, Lewis Carroll and even Dr. Seuss.

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Proms 2016: Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto (World Première)

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Violin Concertos are a regular feature among the new works premièred at the Proms, and the first of this year’s came from Michael Berkeley, given by violinist Chloë Hanslip with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. Berkeley’s work remains somewhat underappreciated in the UK, despite his prevalence over the years on TV and radio, maybe because he’s viewed as a traditionalist. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is, i think, more subtle. First of all, Berkeley is abundantly open to new ideas, and his support for the music of other composers has been considerable (his tenure directing the Cheltenham Music Festival, where every concert included a contemporary work, is one of the steepest apogees in its history). As far as Berkeley himself is concerned, his work thrives on a balance between a soundworld broadly steeped in richly complex definitions of consonance, from which he is prepared to depart as and when necessity dictates. Aesthetically speaking, Berkeley always makes this tension a comfortable one, in the sense that he is clearly at ease going where he likes (and as such, makes an interesting contrast with James MacMillan, whose work often sounds ill at ease balancing its inherent tendency to convention with extrinsically imposed urges towards modernism). His new Violin Concerto arguably embraces and makes a feature of that tension more than ever before. Read more

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Proms 2016: Anthony Payne – Of Land, Sea and Sky (World Première)

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There were paradoxes at play throughout Anthony Payne‘s new work for choir and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky, given its première at last night’s Prom by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Andrew Davis. Well, paradoxes is one word for them: inconsistencies and/or anachronisms would be another equally accurate way of putting it. First is the matter of old and new. Aesthetically speaking, Payne’s musical language emanates from the 20th century, a mash-up of idiomatic traits from the likes of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton and, occasionally, Britten, all of whom made their presence felt in this piece. 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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Proms 2016: Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 3 ‘Jesus Messiah, save us!’

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Just when you’ve concluded the Proms are little more than schmoozing, emollience, accessibility and tradition, along comes Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with Galina Ustvolskaya‘s Symphony No. 3. Regarded superficially—and, tragically, this is the way the majority of commentators regard her work—Ustvolskaya’s music is the antithesis of comfort. She eschews most of the conventions of western art music, typically bringing together unusual groupings of instruments (often timbrally and registrally incongruous) which articulate themselves from within the strictures of an utmost rigid rhythmic grid. Again regarded superficially, she is the ostensible apogee of the cool, aloof, unemotional, detached composer. Which leaves the question of why four of her five symphonies, as well as the three ‘Compositions’ (together covering a period from 1970 to 1990, the last 20 years of her composing life), should be subtitled with overt religious quotations, extended to recited texts in the symphonies. Is it irony? mischief? sacrilege?

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