Proms

Proms 2016: looking forward (but not much)

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i’ve recently returned from a trip to Tallinn to experience some of the annual Estonian Music Days (my reviews can be read over on Bachtrack). In a bit of spare time one afternoon, i finally got around to examining the forthcoming Proms season, and i don’t think it’s entirely due to the fact i was in the midst of a genuinely bold, experimental festival that, from the perspective of new music, Proms 2016 seems so poor bordering on lamentable. In terms of quantity, contemporary music – always a tertiary concern at the Proms after 1) established repertoire and 2) the increasingly desperate need to appear ‘trendy’ – isn’t represented too badly, with 52 works scattered throughout the season (only six of which are by women composers), including 13 world and 10 UK premières. But the choices, particularly in the case of the world premières, are appallingly predictable and narrow-minded, and the less said about the decision to perform Steve Reich in Peckham’s Bold Tendencies car park the better, as it may be an all-time low for the Proms, clearly trying to imitate LCMF. It’s hard to believe the decision-makers have a meaningful grip on what’s actually going on in contemporary music; certainly, if this is indicative of David Pickard’s vision for the Proms, that vision is suffering from an extreme case of myopia. Read more

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Proms 2015: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks for all of your votes on this year’s Proms premières. Having closed the polls yesterday, i’ve crunched the numbers a few different ways and here’s a summary of what you, my esteemed readers, had to say about this year’s offerings.
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Proms 2015: Eleanor Alberga – Arise, Athena! (World Première)

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New music at the Proms, and the season itself, came to an end at yesterday’s Last Night, with the world première of Jamaican-born composer Eleanor Alberga’s brief concert-opener Arise, Athena!, performed by the BBC Symphony Chorus with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop. According to the composer, the piece (ahem) arose from a desire to have a female theme, Alberga drawing on the Greek goddess Athena for inspiration, citing her connection (among many others) to “wisdom and the Arts”.
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Proms 2015: B. Tommy Andersson – Pan; Guy Barker – The Lanterne of Light (World Premières)

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Homage, allusion and evocation have all been heavily foregrounded in many of this year’s Proms premières, and the most recent pair are in no way an exception. Swedish composer B. Tommy Andersson has turned to the Greek god Pan for inspiration in his eponymous latest work for organ and orchestra (not, according to Andersson, a concerto) while British Jazz musician Guy Barker has turned to an early 15th century tract classifying the seven deadly sins as the basis for his new trumpet concerto The Lanterne of Light. Read more

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Proms 2015: Christian Mason – Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand (UK Première)

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One of the smaller Proms premières, Christian Mason‘s Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand was commissioned as a part of this year’s 90th birthday celebrations for Pierre Boulez. Fittingly, its world première was given by Boulez’s very own Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Lucerne Festival; its first UK performance at the Proms, a few days later, was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Thierry Fischer. Mason describes the work as having a twofold connection to Boulez, first in terms of the work’s engagement with twin perspectives, focusing on both intricate detail and broader structural durations (the title derives from this, drawing on the opening line of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand”), as well as the use of crotales, involving all 15 players, a reference to Mason’s recollections of Boulez’s orchestral work Le Visage nuptial.
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Proms 2015: Anders Hillborg – Beast Sampler (UK Première); Raymond Yiu – Symphony; Alissa Firsova – Bergen’s Bonfire (World Premières)

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

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Proms 2015: Michael Finnissy – Janne (World Première)

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

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If there’s one thing that pretty much all of the new works at the Proms tend to suffer a lack of, it’s humility; that’s not to suggest this is down to their respective composers (in most cases), but the act of presenting a première usually finds itself festooned in generous quantities of hype and hullabaloo, which only occasionally turn out to be justified. So Singaporean composer Bertram Wee‘s new work Dithryambs, premièred by Evelyn Glennie last Monday at Cadogan Hall, therefore came as a welcome and very refreshing exception to this razzmatazztic norm. Composed for the relatively unfamiliar aluphone—a clattersome instrument made (as the name implies) from aluminium, resembling B-movie flying saucers, arranged like a set of crotales and sounding like a cross between bells and car hubcaps—Dithyrambs is essentially a study, seeking to tease out and have fun with a variety of facets yet without overstaying its welcome.
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Proms 2015: Jonathan Newman – Blow It Up, Start Again; Eric Whitacre – Deep Field (European Premières)

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

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

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

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

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Proms 2015: Luca Francesconi – Duende – The Dark Notes (UK Première)

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The concerto form is a popular one for new works at the Proms, and the most recent, Luca Francesconi‘s Duende – The Dark Notes (originally intended for the 2014 Proms), has, i think, set the bar higher than any of the last few years. ‘Duende’ is a somewhat complex Spanish term implying aspects of heightened emotional response to artistic stimulus, which the work’s soloist, violinist Leila Josefowicz, summarises as a “hypnotic, demonic zone in which a performer loses themselves in the feeling and emotion and in the physicality of what they’re doing […] and it can also be angelic”. To tap into this, and also partly to obviate the pitfall of rehashing conventions, Francesconi has sought to revert “back to primal matter […] something which is hidden energy; [an] unknown, uncharted land which is within each one of us, beyond originality”. Read more

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Proms 2015: Betsy Jolas – Wanderlied (UK Première), Shiori Usui – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. & Joanna Lee – Hammer of Solitude (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms Matinee concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Franck Ollu, featured several world and UK premières, which together gave one pause for thought with regard to the relationship between surface materials and their deeper impulsion. Their respective points of inspirational departure were extremely varied, encompassing a peripatetic storytelling cellist, an examination of a parasitic fungus and an intense miniature song-cycle.
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Proms 2015: HK Gruber – into the open …; Hugh Wood – An Epithalamion, or Mariage Song (World Premières)

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Proms premières come in all shapes and sizes, and last week’s new works from HK Gruber and Hugh Wood were larger and more aspirational specimens. Scale and stature are different things, though, and despite their respective composers’ demonstrative ambition (and experience, composing veterans both), each of these pieces were hobbled by considerations that would have been less problematic in smaller-scale forms. Read more

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Proms 2015: Cheryl Frances-Hoad – From the Beginning of the World (World Première)

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Relatively few of the Proms premières include vocal elements, which makes Cheryl-Frances Hoad‘s new work From the Beginning of the World, first performed last Monday, a very welcome exception to the norm. Initially billed as ‘Homage to Tallis’, her piece was nestled amidst a concert otherwise dedicated entirely to the great man’s music, a context that throws down a pretty substantial gauntlet. For inspiration, Frances-Hoad turned to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s detailed account of the “great comet” visible across Europe in 1577. Insodoing, she is appealing both to an innate sense of wonder as well as to more polemical ends, setting words with connotations pertaining as much to present-day resource-depletion and asinine political shenanigans as to 16th century shock and awe. Read more

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Proms 2015: Gary Carpenter – Dadaville (World Première)

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

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Proms 2015: looking forward

Posted on by 5:4 in Announcements, Festivals | 4 Comments

It’s that time again; the 2015 Proms season has today been unveiled, and once again offers more than a few treats for lovers of new music. That’s putting it extremely mildly; in truth, the amount of contemporary music in this year’s concerts is actually rather jaw-dropping, with no fewer than 20 world premières, plus a host of European and UK first performances and a healthy additional cluster of recent works. Having been temporarily usurped in 2014, the tradition of a world première in the opening concert has been restored, the honour this time falling to Gary Carpenter, whose new work Dadaville i would expect to provide something more meaty than the ephemeral offerings of the last few years. Encouragingly, a third of the first performances are works by women composers, including a Tallis homage from Cheryl Frances-Hoad, ensemble pieces by Shiori Usui and Birmingham Conservatoire alumnus Joanna Lee, a piano concerto from Anna Meredith, something Nordic-inspired from Alissa Firsova, and new orchestral works by Tansy Davies and Eleanor Alberga, whose Arise, Athena! will kickstart the Last Night.  Read more

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Proms 2014: the premières – how you voted

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Having closed the 5:4 polls last week, it’s time once again to assess how you voted on each of the 21 premières at this year’s Proms. Having pulled around and crunched the numbers from various angles, here’s a brief summary of what emerged.


Worst New Work

Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace

Yes, exactly. Hands up who thinks that cheap imitations of sounds and gestures from assorted religions will, when idly thrown together, suddenly make everyone realise how silly they’ve been with their endless conflicts and all just get along? Oh put your hand down, Roxanna, you’re just being stupid.

Runners Up

Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory
Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise
Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’

It’s easy to sympathise with the first two of these; neither Dove nor Ranjbaran even approximated an original thought in their respective works—and Dove’s offering is particularly egregious as it masquerades under a phony veneer of nobility, claiming with utter futility to be ‘about’ the theory of its title, a bare-faced lie that would deserve some righteous anger if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious. As for the Prokofiev, i’m still in two minds about it; it’s certainly hobbled by those weak first two movements, but there was some powerful stuff in the latter two.


Best New Work

Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes

For me, it was a toss-up between the Holt and Jörg Widmann’s Teufel Amor (which narrowly missed out on being a runner up), so this is a result well worth endorsing. On the one hand, there’s a sense that Simon Holt has had more than his fair share of performance opportunities at the Proms—yet, the consistency of his wonderful compositional imagination makes one feel a bit churlish for mentioning it.

Runners Up

Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser
John Tavener – Requiem Fragments
Haukur Tómasson – Magma

A good year for the Scandinavians! Magma was a sensation of free-form but entirely organic material, while Voice verser brought a delirious sense of unhinged expressivity rarely heard at the Proms. As for the Tavener, my preference would have been for Gnōsis; but maybe you heard something in the Requiem Fragments that i didn’t, or were at least more convinced by its jump-cut approach to religious text and sentiment.


Thanks to all of you who voted, it’s fascinating for me to see how you react to these pieces. Opinions seemed less polarised than in previous years, with more works meriting ‘Meh’ votes—for what it’s worth, the piece towards which you felt most indifferent was Judith Weir’s Day Break Shadows Flee, and who can blame you? Perhaps that overall response suggests a certain dissatisfaction with the quality of this year’s premières, and if it does, then i can only agree; there were some undeniably fabulous new works, but what the Proms seems to be crying out for is a revivified engagement with new music that’s rooted in a genuine sense of intrepid exploration: bold, ingenious and daring. The BBC have conclusively proved this year how much they lack this quality; one can only hope that the opposite turns out to be true of the new director of the Proms, whomever that may be.

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Proms 2014: Gavin Higgins – Velocity (World Première)

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In terms of volume, the Last Night of the Proms ensures the festival ends with a bang rather than a whimper. In terms of musical imagination, originality, provocation and insight, however, the reverse has long been the case, and the event today does little more than put the shit in shitfaced. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the premières commissioned to jump-start this party-cum-concert have for the most part become little more than functional bursts of effervescent froth, limp spurts of aural ejaculate that seek to tick the box of contemporary relevance before sagging back into its usual back-slapping melée of moribundity. Read more

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Proms 2014: Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise (European Première) & Jörg Widmann – Flûte en suite & Teufel Amor (UK Premières)

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Despite BBC Television’s astonishingly stupid recent efforts to reinforce this myopic dogma, new music does not and never has existed in a hermetically sealed, separate space, set apart from the entirety of music that has gone before it. Composers might sometimes wish it did (echoing Beckett’s “All that goes before forget”), but it’s a moot point; audiences—especially Proms audiences—cannot fail to approach contemporary music saturated with the knowledge and memories of a myriad earlier musical experiences, classical or otherwise. Excising new works from the BBC’s television broadcasts of Proms concerts isn’t merely a craven act of crowd-pleasing complaisance, treating music as little more than an emollient unction with which one can unthinkingly unwind, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the interconnected nature and context of the entirety of music. Composers squirm when you ask them about influences, but they’re there, sometimes very obviously so, and two of the most recent Proms premières, from Behzad Ranjbaran & Jörg Widmann, could hardly have made their earlier points of inspiration more clear.
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