Proms2012

Blasts from the Past: György Ligeti – Poème symphonique

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Blasts from the Past | 1 Comment

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

Tags: , , , ,

Proms 2012: the premières – how you voted

Posted on by 5:4 in Comment, Festivals, Premières | 3 Comments

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Proms 2012: Mark Simpson – sparks (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , , , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

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

Tags: , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

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

Tags: , , , , , ,

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

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

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

Tags: , , , , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

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

Tags: , , , , ,

Proms 2012: James MacMillan – Credo (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 2 Comments

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

Tags: , , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

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

Tags: , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

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

Tags: , , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

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

Tags: , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

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

Tags: , , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , , ,