Proms

Proms 2013: Diana Burrell – Blaze; Edward Cowie – Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef (World Premières)

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Last Monday saw a world première at each of the day’s Prom concerts. Having recently returned from Norway myself, the afternoon concert in Cadogan Hall was especially welcome, featuring the Norwegian brass group tenThing, led by Tine Thing Helseth; for them Diana Burrell had composed a new work, Blaze. The evening performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda, including the première of the first work in a new orchestral cycle by Edward Cowie, Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef. Read more

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Proms 2013: Naresh Sohal – The Cosmic Dance (World Première)

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One of the most striking things about several of this year’s Proms commissions is their scale, with three works of over 40 minutes’ duration. Thomas Adès’ Totentanz was the first, and the second—The Cosmic Dance by the Punjab-born British composer Naresh Sohal—received its first performance last Friday by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. Clocking in at a little over 50 minutes, Sohal’s aim, as that title suggests, is creation itself, both the violent act that brought it all into being as well as its subsequent evolution. Read more

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Proms 2013: Philip Glass – Symphony No. 10 (UK Première)

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In previous years, some readers will have noticed that there have always been a few Proms premières about which i haven’t written. Jazz-related works, being somewhat removed from my zone of interest and expertise, are ignored, along with re-discovered works from many decades ago (e.g. Britten’s Elegy for strings, receiving its first performance at the end of this month), contemporary cashings-in of earlier music (e.g. Anthony Payne’s latest ‘effort’, a rehash of Vaughan Williams songs being performed next month) and works by cartoon characters (e.g. the concerto ‘by’ Wallace, heard last year). Beyond these omissions, i’ve never overlooked a work for reasons of quality, as some of my less praiseworthy articles will bear witness. But never have i been more tempted to do this than when confronted by Philip Glass‘s latest contribution to the repertoire, his Symphony No. 10, given its UK première at Wednesday’s late night Prom by the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more

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Proms 2013: Colin Matthews – Turning Point (UK Première)

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Having hitherto bewailed the fact that more challenging composers (Finnissy, Lachenmann et al.) are kept at bay from the Proms for decade after decade, last Monday’s new work came from Colin Matthews, a composer almost wildly over-represented at the festival; Matthews’ new work, Turning Point, was the 22nd of his to be featured at the Proms, a statistic that ought to raise even more eyebrows than those accompanying the glaring composer absences. Judging from the programme note, the piece evidently caused Matthews difficulties in knowing how to proceed, leading to him putting the score aside for over a year. The solution seems to have been to turn the work into a diptych, the second panel of which contrasts hugely with the first. Having finally made it to the concert hall, Turning Point was given its first performance in January 2007 by its commissioners, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Monday’s UK première was by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales directed by Thomas Søndergård. Read more

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Proms 2013: John McCabe – Joybox (World Première)

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Last Thursday’s Prom saw the world première of a piece that went through no little trial to be completed. While working on Joybox, with only 40 bars remaining to be composed, John McCabe was struck down with a brain tumour; for many people that would be that, for the time being at least, but McCabe rather impressively slogged on through his subsequent period of treatment to ensure the work was ready on time. Quite apart from anything else, kudos. For inspiration, McCabe turned to an experience at an arcade in Japan, “full of slot machines (one-armed bandits) playing widely different musical jingles, all going on simultaneously but independently. Eventually I seemed to perceive a kind of musical structural pattern to the babel of noise, and this gave me the idea for what I hope is an ‘entertainment’ piece”. This first performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena. Read more

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Proms 2013: Sean Shepherd – Magiya (European Première)

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Just over a week ago, the Proms was introduced to a brand new orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, bringing to an end their inaugural concert tour. Having come via Moscow and St Petersburg with Valery Gergiev at the helm, and with works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich featured in the concert, it was perhaps not surprising that composer Sean Shepherd would find Russia a dominating inspirational force. Shepherd’s new work, Magiya (Russian for ‘magic’), seeks to tap into the spirit of (in the composer’s words) “the great tradition of the Russian overture” as well as its narrative impetus, “a specifically Russian sense of magic … in the stories, folklore and literature (old and new) of the country, a kind that often gets no explanation or justification; a ‘normal’, everyday magic”. Read more

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Proms 2013: Thomas Adès – Totentanz (World Première)

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Hot on the heels of the large-scale work of Helmut Lachenmann’s a few days ago, tonight’s Proms première was even more ambitious, Thomas AdèsTotentanz. Composed for a large orchestra with mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, Adès has set to music a sequence of German verses known as the Lübecker Totentanz, originally composed in 1463 to accompany an artwork created the same year at the Marienkirche in Lübeck by Bernt Notke. Sadly, the artwork was destroyed during World War II, but images of it remain, as do the texts, depicting death interacting with a collection of diverse characters, including a monk, a king, a doctor, a knight, a merchant, a maiden and even the pope, interactions that inevitably result in terrorised laments at the protagonists’ prospect of impending doom (the entire text, in its original Middle Dutch with an accessible English translation, can be read here; a high resolution photo of the wonderful original artwork is available here). Clocking in at just over 30 minutes—considerably less than the inflated estimate of 45 minutes in the Proms guide—Totentanz is the latest in a succession of works that together demonstrate Adès’ innate and enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, and it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn and Simon Keenleyside (who famously portrayed Prospero in Adès’ opera The Tempest) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Read more

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Proms 2013: David Matthews – A Vision of the Sea (World Première)

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Down the road in my old stamping ground of Cheltenham, there’s an art exhibition regularly to be found in the town’s sumptuous Imperial Gardens. The exhibition is for those with an urge to put paintbrush to canvas, resulting in a desultory cluster of dog portraits, depictions of Cotswold stone houses festooned in technicolour flora, landscapes dripping with more water than colour, pastel cloudscapes, a few rash stabs at abstract expressionism and—incongruously, considering the town’s distance from it—paintings of the sea. Perhaps you can see where i’m going with this. There are, admittedly, occasional gems to be found amidst the the borrowed imagination, the second-rate technical skill, the pastiche sensibility and the instinct for superficial gratification, but it’s rare for even these works to escape the pull of their less ambitious companions. Memories of this exhibition came flooding back as i sat through the world première from last night’s Prom, David MatthewsA Vision of the Sea, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. Read more

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Proms 2013: Helmut Lachenmann – Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (UK Première)

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There is, it seems to me, a distinct sense of double-edged sword to the territorial (as opposed to world) premières that feature in each year’s Proms. It’s encouraging, of course, that such fascinating works are introduced to British audiences, but many’s the time one can’t help wondering why on earth they took so long to get here. Last year’s most glaring example was Michael Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which took 35 years to be heard here, while the UK première at last night’s Prom, Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied, entered the world at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in 1980. Nonetheless, it was most definitely worth the wait.

Both aspects of the title are, as one would expect from Lachenmann, far from obvious. As far as the ‘tanzsuite’ (dance suite) is concerned, the work is structured in five broad parts that contain numerous smaller sections (18 in total), many of which are named after well-known dances, although their characters as well as the points where they begin and end are often tough to discern. The ‘Deutschlandlied’, Germany’s national anthem—better known by its original opening line, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”—is even harder to make out, the famous melody barely recognisable at any point in the work. Composed by Joseph Haydn and incorporated into his ‘Emperor’ quartet, Lachenmann has perhaps acknowledged these origins by composing Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied for string quartet and orchestra. For this first UK performance, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Nott, was joined by the Arditti Quartet.

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Proms 2013: Julian Anderson – Harmony (World Première)

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Last night the 2013 Proms season began, as it now always does, with a world première from a mainstream composer. At the outset, i have to admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm for the occasion, due both to the recent track record of the opening night (Turnage and Weir in the last two years, both submitting relatively drab, safe pieces) as well as this year’s choice, Julian Anderson, a composer hardly renowned for much beyond accessible, occasionally quirky humdrummery. Anticipation was hardly heightened by Anderson’s pre-concert remark that there were only two options when writing a concert opener: “one is to write a piece that’s very loud and rather like a fanfare, and the other is to write a quiet and more meditative piece”. Seriously? Read more

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Proms 2013: looking forward

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

This year’s Proms programme was unveiled today, and it makes for a typically interesting, if somewhat unadventurous, prospect. Both the season and the assortment of world premières will be kicked off, as usual, with a safe, mainstream choice, Julian Anderson. As for the rest, it’s impressive to see how large-scale some of these new works are going to be, with Thomas Adès, Naresh Sohal and Nishat Khan each contributing pieces touted to be of at least 40 minutes’ duration. The prospect of a new commission from Frederic Rzewski is rather mouth-watering too, as is a brace of new variations from John Woolrich and Tansy Davies, expanding the set originally composed in 1952 by Britten, Berkeley, Tippett and others. Like last year, the UK premières are in some ways more exciting, particularly those by Helmut Lachenmann, Stockhausen, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Eötvös. Inevitably, it’s not a season devoid of potential humdrummery—works from both Colin and David Matthews, Philip Glass, Diana Burrell and George Lloyd may well present the wrong kind of challenge—but hopefully the season’s damp squibs will once again pale beside its triumphs.

The season starts on Friday 12 July; all of the information you might want or need can be found here. Good, bad or indifferent, i’ll be covering all of the premières on 5:4—be there or be Philip Glass.

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Simon Holt – Two movements for string quartet

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My Lent string quartet series continues with a most unusual work from Simon Holt. Its title, Two movements for string quartet, seems uncharacteristically abstract for Holt, but its content is rooted in the evocative imagery of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (the piece is, in fact, the second in Holt’s five-part ‘a ribbon of time’ cycle inspired by Dickinson’s work). The poem in question is ‘Dying’, composed in 1863, a sombre text made all the more troubling by Dickinson’s characteristic use of dashes, turning the text into a fraught sequence of breathless utterances.

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

This breathless quality is brought to bear on Holt’s first movement, titled ‘Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz’. The music is drawn from an opening solo on the viola that begins rapidly but loses momentum quickly, eventually stopping. It then relaunches with the rest of the quartet, and it’s this pattern of behaviour—quick commencements that founder; intense, rapid material becoming light and sporadic—that pervades the entire movement. At times there’s an onomatopoeic quality, the instruments overlapping and nuzzling each other, creating buzz-like clashes. As it progresses, the material feels more deliberate, jutting, pointed, as though rudely carved in the air. Lumbering tuttis eventually come to dominate, but the quieter passages are more striking, particularly a curious episode halfway through, when the music falls into a slow, gentle rocking (to be echoed later). This, together with the heavy conclusion, the quartet petering out and sagging, shivering, onto their final chords, go a long way to capturing the unsettling atmosphere of Dickinson’s text. Read more

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Tōru Takemitsu – From me flows what you call time (UK Première)

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It was on this day, in 1930, that one of my favourite composers, the great Tōru Takemitsu, was born. So to mark what would have been his 82nd birthday, here’s one of his most spectacular orchestral works, the wonderfully-named From me flows what you call time. The title is taken from a poem by the Japanese poet Makoto Ooka, titled “Clear Blue Water”:

Summer trip to Switzerland:
in our bellies, sausages
eaten on the Zermatt terrace,
foot of the Matterhorn,
slowly turns into
heat: 1000 calories each.

As we climb up and up
the Furka Pass, my eyes
suddenly are perforated
by a billion particles
of heavenly blue:
across the valley a giant
mountain rampart:
The Glacier.

Swinging up its snow-
crowned sky-blue fist,
that ancient water spirit
shouts:

“From me
flows
what you
call Time.”

Down from that colossal
mass of shining ice
flows the majestic
River Rhone.

The piece is in part inspired by the Tibetan idea of the wind horse, an allegorical conception of the human soul, familiar to many in the well-known associated sequence of five coloured flags, representative of the elements: fire (red), water (blue), earth (yellow), sky (white) and wind (green). Takemitsu makes the number five significant; the work’s principal theme is essentially a five-note motif, and in addition to the orchestra he writes for a five-piece percussion ensemble. Percussion, in fact, dominates the piece, decked out with a plethora of exotic bells, chimes, gongs, singing bowls and drums to the point that it could almost be described as a percussion concerto. Nonetheless, though, the 30-minute work displays Takemitsu’s typically fine instrumental homogeneity, every instrument seemingly directed towards a common objective, albeit an objective that is often both nebulous and fluid. Takemitsu’s penchant for strolling around gardens when contemplating new compositions makes itself felt as much in this piece as in so many of his others, moving to and between a large number of ‘scenes’ or ‘vistas’, moments when his exquisite textural vagueness abruptly coalesces into something tangible. Read more

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Proms 2012: the premières – how you voted

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Two weeks have passed since the Proms 2012 season came to an end, so today i’ve closed the polls for each of the works premièred this year. This was the first year that i included polls, and in total 615 votes were cast; thanks to all of you who took part. i’ve taken a careful look at the results, and they make for interesting reading; here’s a summary of how you voted.


Worst New Work

Bob Chilcott – The Angry Planet

69% of readers reacted negatively to this piece, rising to 85% if we include those who could muster only a “meh” in response. It’s understandable really; Bob Chilcott’s considerable abilities did him no favours in this vapid anthology of sentiment. The work’s message—both in terms of words and music—is stale and unconvincing, barely rising to the level of a mere divertissement. It’s hard to tell whether composer and librettist were trying too hard or not hard enough, but either way, it falls woefully short of its elevated aspirations.

Runners up

Eric Whitacre – Higher, Faster, Stronger
Elaine Agnew – Dark Hedges

Eric Whitacre’s full-fat musical confectionary has a proven tendency to distract listeners from its inadequacies, so i was surprised to see that so many 5:4 readers shared my view about his Olympic tie-in new work. 62% of you didn’t like it, and who can blame you? It looked for a while as though Elaine Agnew’s piece would be voted the worst new work, but it rallied some last-minute support that pushed it into third place. Clearly i wasn’t the only one exasperated by its incessant need for percussive novelty, which turned the piece into an irritating slice of bombast, entirely at odds with its evocative inspiration.


Best New Work

Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 7

Per Nørgård’s newest symphony received an overwhelming 91% positive response, which makes for an interesting contrast to the reception of his Sixth Symphony—performed at the Proms ten years ago—which seemed to bamboozle both audiences and critics alike. All the same, Nørgård’s Symphony No. 7 is by no means an ‘easy’ listen (“beautiful and bewildering in equal measure” as i wrote in my review), so it’s heart-warming to see such an uncompromising work meet with such a positive response.

Runners up

Mark Simpson – sparks
Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2

Mark Simpson’s reputation has been given a significant boost by coming up trumps with his Last Night work, which managed to be intricate and unusual while remaining immediate and accessible. Michael Finnissy’s music—so rarely heard in the UK—was both a deeply refreshing experience and also something of a revelation, making abundantly clear just how similar so many British composers sound these days. Finnissy, as he always has, stands alone, sounding absolutely unique. i’ll reassert what i wrote in my review, the hope that Finnissy’s music will be heard much more often on these shores in future, particularly at the Proms.


Speaking personally, i broadly agree with how you voted. i think my own favourite of the premières was Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but Charlotte Bray’s At the Speed of Stillness was highly impressive too, and Julian Philips’ Sorowfull Songes—which seems to have fallen off the radar of many listeners and critics—and Brian Elias’ Electra Mourns were both surprisingly powerful works. As for the worst, it’s hard to argue with your results, but i’m still staggered by the ineptitude of Emily Howard’s Calculus of the Central Nervous System; mistakes of that magnitude really ought not to be made in public.

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Proms 2012: Mark Simpson – sparks (World Première)

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Last Night, almost two months after it began, the 2012 Proms season closed with its traditional cross between a concert and a piss-up. A relatively new addition to its arcane traditions is beginning proceedings with the première of a new work, and this year the mantle fell to Mark Simpson. One can hardly relish his task, composing something to kick-start what’s effectively a party, but his chosen title, sparks, suggested Simpson had sized up the context pretty well. Read more

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Proms 2012: Eric Whitacre – Higher, Faster, Stronger; Imogen Heap – The Listening Chair (World Premières)

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Yesterday’s late night Prom focused on the USA’s most popular manufacturer of choral music, Eric Whitacre. Featuring his own choir joining forces with the BBC Singers and ensemblebash, the concert included two world premières, a new work of Whitacre’s own plus an arrangement by him of a new song by the UK’s most brilliantly eclectic chanteuse, Imogen Heap. Read more

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Proms 2012: Helen Grime – Night Songs (World Première)

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Partway through last Saturday’s Proms world première of Night Songs, the new work from Helen Grime, conductor Oliver Knussen dropped his glasses. To listen to the performance, one would hardly have noticed; yet, at the end, Knussen announced the mishap to the audience and remarked how he thought it had gone well, “but I’d just like to play it again to make sure”—and thus, Night Songs was immediately given a second world première. Quite apart from the graciousness of that act, it makes one wonder why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often anyway; on the very rare occasions when i’ve been at a concert where a new work has been played twice (usually in each half of the concert, not immediately afterwards), it has always proved to be an extremely valuable experience, benefiting the piece immeasurably and sometimes drastically altering one’s first impressions. Concert planners: take note. Read more

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Proms 2012: Emily Howard – Calculus of the Central Nervous System (UK Première)

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Last Tuesday saw the first UK performance of Emily Howard‘s Calculus of the Central Nervous System, an orchestral work inspired by the thinking of the English mathematician Ada Lovelace. Premièred at last year’s Wien Modern Festival by the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna, it was performed on this occasion by the CBSO, conducted by Andris Nelsons. Read more

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Proms 2012: Simon Bainbridge – The Garden of Earthly Delights (World Première)

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The final Proms Matinee last Saturday week featured one of the more substantial and aspirational of this season’s new works. Simon Bainbridge has turned for inspiration to one of art’s most well-known and -loved works, Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights (image), seeking to bring it alive as a chamber cantata. Composed for countertenor and mezzo-soprano soli with a modestly sized ensemble and additional chorus, it was given its first performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more

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Proms 2012: Olga Neuwirth – Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory (UK Première)

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i’ve commented before on the number of contemporary concertos that crop up during the Proms, and we were treated to another one from Olga Neuwirth, a 20-minute viola concerto bearing the intriguing title Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory. It was composed in 2009 and premièred that year by its dedicatee Antoine Tamestit; on this occasion, the Philharmonia Orchestra was joined by Lawrence Power, conducted by Susanna Mälkki. Anyone familiar with Neuwirth’s surreal, left-field music won’t be surprised to learn that an amphigory is “a meaningless or nonsensical piece of writing, especially one intended as a parody”. That tongue-in-cheek reference is matched by the more serious first half of the title, which is borrowed from a book that examines “trauma and the experience of modernity” in the writings of Baudelaire and Celan. Neuwirth sees to it that these discrete inspirational forces become incorporated into each other, the work presenting a weird and unsettling amalgam in which fragments from an assortment of earlier musics act as signified elements that regularly cause the uneasy relationship between soloist and orchestra to shift direction. Read more

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