Proms

Proms 2014: Judith Weir – Day Break Shadows Flee (World Première), Zhou Long – Postures (European Première) & John Adams – Saxophone Concerto (UK Première)

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The latest round of Proms premières got one thinking about the relationship between expectation/innovation and engagement. It was Judith Weir‘s new work that got this particular ball rolling around the mind. A composer already at the less adventurous end of the new music spectrum, in recent years her music has increasingly seemed imaginatively torpid, practically treading water. Day Break Shadows Flee, composed for and premièred by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, went to essentially no lengths at all to challenge that assessment. Read more

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Proms 2014: Haukur Tómasson – Magma; Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser (UK Premières)

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Nothing remotely ordinary, it often seems, can come from Scandinavia. This notion was emphatically corroborated at the Proms in the recent pair of UK premières from Iceland’s Haukur Tómasson and Finland’s Jukka Tiensuu. i can’t help wondering whether they succeeded as strongly as they did in part for essentially the same reason, namely that they each embody a remarkable immediacy, even a simplicity. That’s not to say that these are simple pieces—they couldn’t be much farther from it—but there’s an overwhelmingly apparent sense of directness from both composers such that, put crudely, what you hear is precisely what you get. Read more

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Proms 2014: Ayal Adler – Resonating Sounds & Kareem Roustom – Ramal (UK Premières)

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Last week’s visit to the Proms by Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brought first UK performances of works by two composers of Middle Eastern descent. Ayal Adler and Kareem Roustom, born in Jerusalem and Syria respectively, opted for compositional approaches that in some ways could be described as opposite. Adler, coming from a starting point of pure sonics (“an echo, or a reminiscence of sound, lingering after the vast chords slowly fade away”), aimed for an emphatic example of abstraction; by contrast, Roustom’s course was charted via the metrics of pre-Islamic poetry and a concrete intention to “reflect” on the ongoing violence in Roustom’s native land. Both works suffered at the hands of these divergent aims. Read more

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Proms 2014: Brett Dean – Electric Preludes; Bernard Rands – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (UK Premières); Benedict Mason – Meld (World Première)

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New works at the Proms regularly come in the form of concertos, violin and piano continuing to be represented most. The planned performance of Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes (a work i’d been very much looking forward to) on 7 August was unfortunately cancelled due to soloist Leila Josefowicz having just given birth to her third son. However, that disappointment was more than mitigated by its fine replacement, Brett Dean‘s Electric Preludes, also a violin concerto—but for the 6-stringed electric violin, accompanied only by strings—and also receiving its first UK performance. Read more

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Proms 2014: Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (UK Première); Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory; Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’ (World Premières)

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The three Proms premières given at the end of last month make for an interesting comparison, with regard to the relationship between material and intention. There was no little weight being hefted around; Jonathan Dove‘s Gaia Theory aspired to James Lovelock’s hypothesis of the same name, concerning ideas of ‘self regulation’ in the systems that make up our planet, whereas Gabriel Prokofiev‘s Violin Concerto took both its subtitle, ‘1914’, and its narrative from aspects arising from the commemorations of World War I. Heavyweight stuff, then, making Simon Holt‘s inspirational starting point of a mythical god waking from slumber seem almost triflingly trivial by contrast. The results, though, were rather different.
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Proms 2014: John Tavener – Gnōsis & Requiem Fragments (World Premières)

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In the wake of John Tavener‘s death in November last year, more mainstream music festivals have been rather tripping over themselves to offer posthumous tributes; the Cheltenham Festival devoted two concerts to his music last month, and the Proms has done likewise, including the world premières of two of Tavener’s last compositions, Gnōsis and Requiem Fragments. It makes sense to consider them together as, not surprisingly, they operate and speak with a markedly similar manner and tone of voice. Gnōsis, scored for solo mezzo-soprano, alto flute, percussion and strings, sets not so much a text as a small collection of words drawn from three religious traditions, Hindu (‘sat’ = ‘being’, ‘chit’ = ‘consciousness’, ‘ānanda’ = ‘bliss’), Christian (‘Jesu’ = ‘Jesus’) and Islam (‘lā ilāha illā-llāhu’ = ‘there is no god but God’). Requiem Fragments, for SATB choir, 2 trombones and string quartet, incorporates a few passages from the familiar requiem mass alongside a similar selection of words, in this case all Hindu: ‘Brahma’ (the god of creation), ‘ātma’ (the supreme reality/self), ‘Manikarnika’ (a renowned site for cremations) and ‘Mahapralaya’ (referencing a final absorption of everything back into the universe). Read more

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Proms 2014: Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace (European Première)

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Religion is for many the place where peace meets its end, falling at the hands of inharmonious ideologies in the hearts and minds of their most violent advocates. On the one hand, the claim that religion—one or many—is directly to blame for most of the innumerable wars and conflicts that have dogged and continue to dominate civilisation is debatable, yet the claim that religion is often directly associated with their respective protagonists’ motivations is unquestionable. All of which may or may not have been on the mind of Roxanna Panufnik, whose new work Three Paths to Peace received its European première at the Proms a couple of weeks ago, appropriately performed by the World Orchestra for Peace, but embarrassingly directed on this occasion by one of modern conflict’s least strenuous opponents, Valery Gergiev. Read more

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Proms 2014: Qigang Chen – Joie éternelle (UK Première)

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The first of this year’s Proms premières came from Chinese composer Qigang Chen, with a new trumpet concerto for Alison Balsom. Inspirationally, the title of the work, Joie éternelle, stems from an acknowledged act of nostalgia on Chen’s part, referencing a melody of the same name from the Kunqu operatic version of The Peony Pavilion, a work Chen heard in his youth. He describes the melody as “delicate and graceful, yet [it] also has an unyielding, instantly identifiable character […] Subsequent encounters with the tune as an adult have thus evoked childhood memories”. However, that title, Joie éternelle, gains additional resonance when one considers that Chen was the last composer ever to study with Olivier Messiaen (Chen’s activities have been split between China and France ever since), and Chen perhaps acknowledges something of this by remarking how the melody’s name has “a quasi-religious connotation”. The work was premièred by Balsom with the China Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Long Yu, in Beijing at the start of July, and it was they who gave this first UK performance at the Proms. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: György Ligeti – Poème symphonique

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A couple of days ago marked the eighth anniversary of the death of Hungarian composer György Ligeti. To mark the event, and also begin a new occasional series on 5:4, i’d like to take a brief look back at one of the more enigmatic works of Ligeti’s career. Poème symphonique was composed in 1962, and is as much a piece of performance art as a musical composition. The performance specification is relatively straightforward: 100 mechanical metronomes are required, operated by 10 players, each metronome fully wound and set to its own tempo; all 100 are then released and allowed to tick freely until their mechanisms wind down. and that’s it, except your problems begin immediately, procuring and assembling 100 metronomes at one time and place being the most obvious. Not entirely surprisingly, the first performance triggered a fair amount of controversy, being as it was part of an official reception at the closing event of the 1963 Gaudeamus Courses and Concerts of New Music, in Hilversum, the Netherlands, an event involving local dignitaries and which was to be televised the following day. During the performance, protests broke out, and the broadcast never took place. Read more

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Proms 2014: looking forward

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It’s back! This afternoon (at precisely 2pm, following a brief period of something not entirely unlike hype) the Proms 2014 season was revealed. Having pored over the details, what it promises in the way of new music is characterised as much by safety as it is by generosity. Discounting the concessions to jazz and pop as well as the sextet of ‘London premières’—not premières in any meaningful sense of the word—there are 22 works hitherto unheard on these shores, nine of which are first performances. But overall, it has to be said some of the choices demonstrate strikingly narrow-minded thinking, including many composers whose work has been featured at the Proms numerous times already. Furthermore, the durations afforded to new music are noticeably shorter than in recent seasons; no contemporary piece this year will ask more than half an hour of your time. Read more

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Proms 2013: Anna Clyne – Masquerade (World Première)

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All good things etc., and this year it fell to composer Anna Clyne—and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop—to get underway the biggest party-masquerading-as-a-concert of them all, the Last Night of the Proms. In calling her short work Masquerade, Clyne is presumably alluding chiefly to the carnival atmosphere of a masquerade ball, an atmosphere to which her music went some way to living up to. Read more

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Proms 2013: Peter Eötvös – DoReMi (UK Première)

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The penultimate première of this year’s Proms almost didn’t happen last Thursday, when two of the trio of percussionists failed to turn up, resulting in seven or eight rather tense minutes while presumably a host of minions dashed about behind the scenes attempting to find and drag them onstage. It falls to these three players to begin DoReMi, the second violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, so their eventual arrival was met with a generous round of applause as well as, one imagines, some hefty sighs of relief. Eötvös composed the work for Midori, the title being a pun (of sorts) on her name, in addition to its obvious reference to the notes C, D and E (in solfège); she was joined by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Read more

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Proms 2013: Charlotte Seither – Language of Leaving (World Première)

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What is this “I”: is it my physical presence, is it the temporality in which I stand and pass away, is there an independence of my thoughts from that which I am, or is my entire being merely a fiction of me myself?

This metaphysical conundrum is the starting point for Language of Leaving by the German composer Charlotte Seither, given its world première at the Proms last Wednesday by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers conducted by Josep Pons. It’s a question as circular as it is taxing, subjective and strange, and Seither’s gambit is to seek a way into it via speculative music, avoiding a direct mode of expression in favour of a large tapestry of weird, fantastical sonics, equal parts humanistic, supernatural and magical. Setting a text would be impossible in a context such as this, so Seither instead uses words by Francesco de Lemene in the most oblique and intangible way, reducing them to a collection of hints, glimpses and afterthoughts. Read more

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Proms 2013: Param Vir – Cave of Luminous Mind (World Première)

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Last Wednesday’s world première of Param Vir‘s new Proms commission, Cave of Luminous Mind, gave particular pause for thought in light of its position in the season. Twice recently we have been presented by works from composers of Indian descent (Nishat Khan and Naresh Sohal), works seeking at least in part to acknowledge the disjunct traditions of east and west, yet both composers seemed compelled not to seek a deep synthesis, but to contrive a weak symbiosis by diluting their respective sources of inspiration and tribute. Aside from these works, just once has the (holy) ghost of religion raised its head in this year’s new music (from Sofia Gubaidulina), and then in violently apocalyptic fashion. Which brings us to Cave of Luminous Mind, another of Param Vir’s works in which “Tibetan Buddhism is once again a source of inspiration […] inspired by the meditational journey towards enlightenment of the Tibetan saint Milarepa”, and which is dedicated to contemporary music’s most radical of spiritual seekers, Jonathan Harvey. On its own terms as well as in light of these preceding works, Cave of Luminous Mind was already thought-provoking even before the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Sakari Oramo, had played a single note. Read more

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Proms 2013: John Woolrich / Tansy Davies – Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms matinee focused on a work created 60 years ago to mark the Queen’s coronation. Instigated by Benjamin Britten, he and five other composers each wrote a variation for string orchestra based on the Irish tune ‘Sellenger’s Round’; titled Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, the complete suite was given its first performance in June 1953 in a concert marking the coronation at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. For last Saturday’s Proms performance, given by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Watkins, the suite was expanded with two additional variations, composed by John Woolrich and Tansy Davies. Read more

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Proms 2013: Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto (World Première) & Gerald Barry – No other people. (UK Première)

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Prophets, visionaries, seers, they’re an acquired taste, are they not? Often they get relegated to an idealistic niche characterised as “head in the clouds”—yet a more careful survey reveals that most luminaries are among the most earthly-wise and practical of people. This difficult-to-digest paradox coloured much of the music at yesterday’s late night Prom, which, alongside Feldman’s timeless Coptic Light, featured the UK première of Gerald Barry‘s 2009 work No other people. and the first performance of Frederic Rzewski‘s new Piano Concerto, performed by the composer with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. Read more

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Proms 2013: Sofia Gubaidulina – The Rider on the White Horse (UK Première)

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The beauty and diversity of nature has been a recurring theme in this year’s new music at the Proms, whereas religious sentiment has been entirely absent—until, that is, last Tuesday’s performance of Sofia Gubaidulina‘s The Rider on the White Horse. Culled and reworked from her 2002 oratorio St John Easter (which, with its counterpart St John Passion, comprise Gubaidulina’s magnum opus), the work draws on imagery from the most vivid and strange book of the Bible, the Revelation to John. Read more

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Proms 2013: Nishat Khan/Pete Stacey – The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1) (World Première)

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It’s interesting to be considering the next Proms première in the wake of having seen, last night, Bollywood’s latest blockbuster offering, Chennai Express. Bollywood’s glory—and at its best, that is definitely the right word—is in its uniquely convoluted appropriation and reinvention of western tropes, served in a form that, to western eyes, is as charming as it is (at times) utterly bewildering and comic. Its supreme success and effectiveness are surely due to the fact that it is the best kind of cultural fusion, built upon twin—and, more importantly, equal—foundations. A benchmark worth bearing in mind when turning to The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1), the new vehicle for renowned sitarist Nishat Khan, performed on Monday by him with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by David Atherton. Immediately, it must be stressed that to describe this piece as being ‘by’ Nishat Khan is to bend the truth intolerably. Welsh composer and music therapist Pete Stacey was commissioned by the BBC to “develop and orchestrate” Khan’s ideas, as Stacey explains: “As well as our meetings I would receive recordings. These were the melodies that Nishat wanted to use, and I spent many months developing these single lines into full orchestral pieces.” As collaborations go, looking at the concerto as a whole, Stacey’s contribution arguably outweighs that of Khan, which makes it all the more disingenuous that Stacey’s name should be entirely absent from all of the Proms’ promotional materials. Having said that, perhaps it’s all to to the good, as The Gate of the Moon is a work far more worthy of blame than praise. Read more

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Proms 2013: Harrison Birtwistle – The Moth Requiem (UK Première)

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On the one hand, the BBC’s decision not to provide online programme notes in any form for this year’s Prom concerts is as hard to understand as it is unequivocally idiotic. On the other hand, it forces listeners to engage with music on its own terms, without the cosy couch of propaganda provided by the composer or one of their flock. In the case of Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest work, The Moth Requiem, given its first UK performance at Cadogan Hall yesterday, not even the audience was given programme notes(!), but perhaps it was just as well. In his pre-performance talk, Birtwistle spoke at length about the disappearance of cherished things and people, in addition to citing his own (as he sees it) looming demise. A melancholy theme indeed, but Birtwistle positively bristled at the prospect of writing something “soppy”, all but suggesting that the only decent way to confront such painful loss was via anger. Sadness was implied, but conspicuous by its absence; if we are to take the composer at face value, The Moth Requiem, adopting the names of extinct moths as a metaphor for loss, has anger as the central characteristic of its mode of expression. Read more

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Proms 2013: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Frieze (World Première)

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It’s rare for the Proms not to feature music by Mark-Anthony Turnage (he’s only been absent from five of the last twenty seasons), and this year’s commission comes from the Royal Philharmonic Society, requesting a work to sit alongside their most famous commission, the climactically hysterical behemoth that is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When pieces begin in such a way as this, it’s always interesting to see how the composer squirms and wriggles around the legacy to which they have been connected; in Turnage’s case, there have been somewhat mixed messages emerging, Turnage expressing both love and dismay at the Beethoven. Read more

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