Proms

Proms 2012: Gavin Higgins – Der Aufstand & Gavin Bryars – After the Underworlds (World Premières)

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Almost two weeks ago, the Royal Albert Hall was filled with the timbrally distinctive strains of Great Britain’s National Youth Wind Orchestra and National Youth Brass Band. From a new music perspective, the concert seemed dominated by pairs: two orchestras and two conductors (James Gourlay and Bramwell Tovey), performing world premières from a brace of Gavins; and despite having discrete inspirations, these two new pieces sat extremely well together—indeed, they seemed to explore aspects of the same essential idea, but from very different moments. Read more

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Proms 2012: Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2, Harrison Birtwistle – Gigue Machine (UK Premières) & Brian Elias – Electra Mourns (World Première)

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Last weekend’s Proms Matinee was the concert i had been most eagerly awaiting in this year’s season, featuring as it did some of my favourite composers and three premières. Back in April i opined that this concert “may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season”; i think that prediction was pretty close to the mark. Read more

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Proms 2012: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 7 (UK Première)

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Despite the understandable reluctance on the part of contemporary composers to use the word, there’s nothing quite like seeing ‘symphony’ on a concert programme to get one’s blood and expectations pumping. When the composer in question is Per Nørgård, as it was last week at the Proms, then the excitement factor ramps up even further. Composed over a period of three years, Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony was given its UK première by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds; it’s a decade since the first UK performance of Nørgård’s last symphony (also at the Proms), and considering the aftermath—audiences and critics very sharply divided in response to what is an admittedly hard-going work—one can imagine a fair few people came to this concert with more than usually clenched teeth. Read more

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Proms 2012: Richard Dubugnon – Battlefield Concerto (UK Première)

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Concertos are a regular feature among the new works heard at the Proms, but it’s rare to hear one for two pianos; Richard Dubugnon’s Battlefield Concerto, composed for those most characterful and quirky of siblings, Katia and Marielle Labèque, was therefore a refreshing break from the norm. It was given its first UK performance a little over a week ago by the Labèques with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Semyon Bychkov. Read more

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Proms 2012: James MacMillan – Credo (World Première)

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Wednesday’s Prom concert featured a new work from James MacMillan, a setting of the Creed from the liturgy of the Mass. Composers rarely set the Creed to music, not, i think, simply because it’s such a long and convoluted text (although it is, and this may also in part account for the dearth of contemporary Te Deums). What makes the Creed so different from the rest of the liturgy is its shift of emphasis away from God, focusing instead on oneself. “I believe” are its opening words, and all that follows embeds that personal belief into each of the facets that form the firmament of the Christian faith. So maybe its deep, direct expression of something so personal as faith may cause both composers and audiences to shy away from it. That’s a concert hall thesis; within the context of the actual liturgy, the same situation arguably arises as much from the fact it’s best to allow these words to come from the congregation rather than just the choir. But this Creed is a concert work; and that fact alone is perhaps cause for some celebration. Read more

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Proms 2012: Thea Musgrave – Loch Ness – a Postcard from Scotland (World Première)

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The Proms weekend devoted to youth orchestras concluded with that of Scotland, and fittingly the concert’s new work came from Edinburgh-born Thea Musgrave. She extended the theme further, choosing for her subject that most evocative of places, Loch Ness, known the world over for the mythological leviathan once purported to inhabit its depths. Read more

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Proms 2012: Bob Chilcott – The Angry Planet (World Première)

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The most ambitious of this year’s Proms premières took place yesterday afternoon: Bob Chilcott‘s 45-minute ‘environmental cantata’ The Angry Planet. Teaming up with poet Charles Bennett, Chilcott’s work was performed by the vast combined forces of three children’s choirs (from the London boroughs of Harrow, Kensington, and Chelsea and Westminster) alongside the BBC Singers, the Bach Choir and the National Youth Choir, plus soprano Laurie Ashworth—no fewer than 540 singers in all. The work falls into four movements, each of which contains several anthems; overall, the words move from dusk to dawn, exploring themes associated with environmental damage. Read more

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

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

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

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

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Proms 2012: Charlotte Bray – At the Speed of Stillness (World Première)

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Perhaps one of the more highly anticipated premières at this year’s Proms was Charlotte Bray‘s At the Speed of Stillness, which received its first performance last night by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder. Bray’s name has been growing in significance particularly in the last year or so; her inclusion on the LES’s 2011 list of most influential people in classical music was undoubtedly a combination of hyperbole and optimism, but this new work goes a long way towards consolidating Bray’s position as one of our most engaging composers. Her inspiration picks over a number of concepts arising from a line in a poem by Dora Maar (Picasso’s famous muse), “the hummingbird motionless as a star”. This led Bray to consider paradoxical notions of simultaneous movement and stillness, either (or both) of which may be merely ostensible. These starting ideas—so much simpler than the needlessly highfalutin concepts with which so many composers festoon their work—translate well into sound and, most importantly, can be easily grasped as the music plays out. Read more

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Proms 2012: Nicole Lizée – The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop (Fibre-Optic Flowers) (World Première)

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Yesterday’s late evening Prom with the Kronos Quartet technically contained two premières, although one of them hardly qualified. Jacob Garchik’s string quartet arrangement of ‘La sidounak sayyada’, by the great Syrian pop enigma Omar Souleyman, systematically undermined the fundamentals that make Souleyman’s music so weirdly irresistible. Kronos executed the music with their usual dollop-and-a-half of energy, but going through the motions simply wasn’t enough; without Souleyman himself in the spotlight, it just sounded hollow and forced. i’ve included the music for the sake of completeness—but do yourself a favour and listen to the original. Read more

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Proms 2012: Julian Philips – Sorowfull Songes (World Première)

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Yesterday afternoon saw the first new work to be featured in the Proms Chamber Music series. Sorowfull Songes is a small choral song cycle by English composer Julian Philips, setting five texts by the great Thomas Wyatt. Don’t be fooled by the title, though, as there’s nothing remotely Dowlandesque about either the words or the music; both Wyatt and Philips treat the subject matter with a glint in their otherwise doleful eye. Read more

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Proms 2012: Fung Lam – Endless Forms (World Première)

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The latest work to be premièred at the Proms was Endless Forms, by a composer new to me, Fung Lam, born in Hong Kong but based in the UK for the last fifteen years. It was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, who had replaced an indisposed Jiří Bělohlávek at short notice.

Inspiration for the piece comes from the closing sentence of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species:

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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Proms 2012: Kaija Saariaho – Laterna magica (UK Première)

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The first UK performance of Kaija Saariaho‘s 2008 work Laterna magica took place at tonight’s Prom concert in decidedly sumptuous company, Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Four Last Songs on one side, Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony on the other. It was a superbly-judged juxtaposition; while Saariaho’s music occupies places hard to define, nonetheless there’s often a kind of restrained opulence (i hope that’s not too strong a word) as well, lending her work a sensibility that one could almost describe as ‘Romantic’. Read more

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Proms 2012: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Canon Fever (World Première)

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The 2012 Proms season was launched this evening with the world première of a new work from Mark-Anthony Turnage. Titled Canon Fever, the piece is an unabashed concert-opener, as Turnage explains:

What constitutes a good concert opener? […] The music is irreverent; it doesn’t behave itself, it wakes the audience up. I hate well-behaved fanfares, the sort with clever little harmonic sidesteps and neat academic counterpoint. Give me messy, give me dirty. […] I wanted [Canon Fever] to be virtuosic but also slightly tongue-in-cheek and, hopefully, fizzy. […] I wanted to pack a lot in but not be too careful, so I let it spew out all over the place; there is a cascade of notes that fill up to breaking point. I could have been perverse and added metal scaffolding (brake drums and old-style hunting horns) but I wanted something useful, something that could be played by any orchestra, anywhere. (from an article in yesterday’s Guardian)

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Proms 2012: looking forward

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Having largely ignored the hype and hullabaloo surrounding the launch of this year’s Proms season, my concert guide arrived this morning and so i’ve finally taken a proper look at what lies ahead; it promises to be an interesting and, at times, exciting experience. Once again the season will begin with a new work, this time by Mark-Anthony Turnage, and i for one can only hope he’s not been listening to any R‘n’B lately. Beyond this, the number of world premières is considerable, and i’ll be particularly looking forward to those by Benedict Mason, Charlotte Bray, Elaine Agnew, Bob Chilcott, and Simon Bainbridge; new works by Fung Lam, Julian Philips, Nicole Lizée, Thea Musgrave, James MacMillan, Tim Garland, Brian Elias, Gavin Higgins, Gavin Bryars, Helen Grime, Eric Whitacre and Mark Simpson will also be receiving their first performances. A diverse list indeed, but it’s the UK premières i’m more excited about, especially the works by Kaija Saariaho, Per Nørgård, Harrison Birtwistle, Olga Neuwirth and Michael Finnissy. In fact, the concert featuring Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, given by the Britten Sinfonia and also including the Birtwistle and Elias premières, plus Brian Ferneyhough’s Prometheus, may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season.

As usual, all these premières will be featured on 5:4, but aside from the new pieces Daniel Barenboim will be presenting six works by Pierre Boulez during the first half of the season (as a curious counterpart to his Beethoven symphony series), and the centenary of John Cage’s birth will be marked with a large-scale concert in his honour, including that most excellent of choirs, EXAUDI. Having pulled out all the stops last year in resurrecting Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, Proms director Roger Wright has gone even further this year with performances of two of the largest works ever written, BerliozRequiem and Schoenberg‘s ravishing Gurrelieder (the cost of this year’s season must be truly eye-watering).

So, lots to look forward to, and it all kicks off on 13 July.

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Proms 2011: Peter Maxwell Davies – Musica benevolens (World Première)

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The 2011 Proms season began with a première, and the last night began with one too, a concert-raiser from Master of the Queen’s Music Peter Maxwell Davies titled Musica benevolens, the title of which tips the hat at the work’s commissioners, the Musicians Benevolent Fund. It was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the BBC Symphony Chorus, joined by the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Household Division, all conducted by Edward Gardner. The concert programme indicated Max’s piece would last 4 minutes; one can only wish that had been the case. Read more

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Proms 2011: Harrison Birtwistle – Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (UK Première)

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As already noted, this year’s Proms season has seen an abundance of new concertos, the last and most substantial of which was given its UK première on 7 September: the Concerto for Violin & Orchestra by Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle wrote the work for soloist Christian Tetzlaff, who gave the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra earlier in the year; on this occasion he was joined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson. Read more

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Proms 2011: Thierry Escaich – Evocation III (UK Première)

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Thierry Escaich‘s recital on 4 September brought to a close the contribution of the organ to the new music at this year’s Proms (preceded by Michael Berkeley’s Organ Concerto and Stephen Farr’s recital at the start of the season). Escaich’s programme included much familiar fare—Reger, Franck, Liszt—in addition to an example of the rather tiresome party favourite beloved of so many organists these days, improvisations “in the style of” other composers. Fran(c)kly, this kind of escapade does no-one any favours, and Escaich was on much more certain and meaningful ground in the UK première of his own Evocation III, a short work based on the 16th century Lutheran chorale, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ (“Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles”). Read more

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Proms 2011: Michael Berkeley – Organ Concerto

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The Prom concert on the evening of 3 September included a performance of Michael Berkeley‘s rarely-heard Organ Concerto, performed by David Goode with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. There are few British composers who seem to be so centrally connected to the world of music than Michael Berkeley. Son of Lennox, godson of Britten, Berkeley is arguably best known to many through his broadcasting work on television and radio, although as a composer he’s charted an interesting, if at times, quizzical path. The reason i mention the sense of interconnection projected from Berkeley’s cultural persona is because it’s often struck me that his compositional voice doesn’t so much bubble up from within, but appears to be forged from notions, ideas, mannerisms and traits from a plethora of other composers. That’s not intended as a negative criticism at all; on the contrary, in his best music, Berkeley, far from being a ‘stylistic magpie’, comes across as a sort of æsthetic impresario, in the process generating something quite unique irrespective of the apparently disparate nature of its sources. Read more

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