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Peter Maxwell Davies – Symphony No. 9

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Though it lasts only 23 minutes, is cast in a single movement and was described by its composer as being “very modest”, Peter Maxwell DaviesSymphony No. 9 is a seriously substantial, thought-provoking work. Composed in 2012, those of a more republican persuasion might be put off by it being dedicated to “Her Majesty the Queen, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee”, but the symphony is about as far from being strewn with bunting as it’s possible to get. It seems to me that the work is, in fact, focused on Britain, and in a way that will always offer food for thought, but which at the present time in particular, with the lamentable, seemingly never-ending wranglings over Brexit potentially reaching their denouement in the coming days, provides a whole lot more to contemplate and consider.

The symphony portrays an entity, a body, represented by the orchestra, that is essentially at war with itself. Max presents this civil war – made to sound deliberately militaristic from the outset – in the first part of the work (though nominally in a single movement, it is structured in two large, connected parts), and while it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that the cause of the conflict stems from the brass, the reality is more subtle: they just happen to be the loudest and most demonstrative group. In truth, pretty much every section of the orchestra is a distinct faction making no meaningful attempt to integrate with or accommodate the others. At best, there’s a certain amount of ‘listening’ going on, though increasingly the wind, strings and brass all tend to talk over each other, trying to shout each other down and occasionally hurling abstract insults. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII (World Première)

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Fanfares are strange things. Short, loud and flamboyant, like hearing an introduction being given by the world’s biggest extrovert. Back in the days when i flirted with being a percussionist, my role in fanfares seemed to amount to little more than providing brief, barely-controlled crashes and bangs at carefully-coordinated moments; and as a composer, the one time i’ve written one was when my then-fiancée asked me to compose the music to accompany her walking down the aisle at our wedding. Up to a point, convention took over: there weren’t any bangs or crashes (being for two trumpets and organ, only an accident could have caused them) but they remain 90 of the most overblown seconds i’ve ever created.

Yet – maybe that’s exactly what a fanfare should be, maybe that’s the point of them. It’s conceivable that fanfares provide a kind of pre-concert equivalent of the post-concert applause: a huge burst of cacophony that cleanses the palate and clears the air in readiness for what is about to follow. ‘Twas ever thus, perhaps, though ’twill not always be the case, and Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest addition to this particular genre certainly goes beyond standard issue bombast. A work for wind, brass and percussion composed to herald the start of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2018/19 concert series, Donum Simoni MMXVIII is, at its title translates, a gift for the orchestra’s conductor, Simon Rattle.

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Murmurs

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Since the appointment of Stephan Meier as artistic director in 2016, it’s been good to see Birmingham Contemporary Music Group starting to move beyond the relative safety that typified its mainstream-centric vision in preceding years. The group’s most recent concert, last Thursday, featured two British works alongside music by composers from Asia. However, far from being yet another example of ‘east meets west’ (a staple contemporary music cliché), on this occasion the two didn’t so much ‘meet’ as east tried to sound a bit like west, while west remained essentially indifferent to any and all notions of geography.

Not that South Korean Donghoon Shin, BCMG’s current Apprentice Composer in Residence, should in any way be deliberately aiming to make his music sound archetypally ‘eastern’, but it was interesting how much of his new work for sheng and ensemble, Anecdote, seemed actively to be avoiding it. The second of its three movements was the kind of anonymous, generic, crash-bang romp that could have been written by pretty much any average UK mainstream composer, though the presence of the sheng – performed, as ever on such occasions, by Wu Wei – did at least detract from its otherwise overfamiliar gestural palette. The piece was more engaging in its outer movements; the opening, in particular, was seriously lovely, full of delicate colours, while the final movement utilised the sheng best of all by blending it properly with the rest of the ensemble, integrating to articulate a slow, solemn music that, at its close, became beguilingly ghostly. Read more

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National Maritime Museum, London: Hollie Harding – Melting, Shifting, Liquid World (World Première)

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Contemporary music taking place in unconventional places and spaces has to a large extent become the new normal, as has the concomitant tendency for composers to mould their creativity into site-specific works. A striking example of this took place last Saturday at the National Maritime Museum in London, for the first performances of Hollie Harding‘s Melting, Shifting, Liquid World. Harding is currently a PhD student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire – just a hop and a skip up the road from the museum – and her research is concerned with, among other things, “investigating space and action – movement – as elements of composition”.

For Melting, Shifting, Liquid World this basic premise has been shaped by concerns about climate change and ocean pollution. The piece is made up of three distinct elements. The first consists of a string orchestra, the members of which are dispersed throughout the performance space and who at certain points move around it. A solo electric viola is the second element, positioned at the centre of the space and acting to coordinate and cue the string players during the piece. On this occasion those parts were played by soloist Nic Pendlebury and the Trinity Laban String Ensemble. The work is completed by an electronic part heard by the audience through bone-conducting headphones, enabling one to to experience all three elements simultaneously. Use of this type of headphones wasn’t just a clever solution to the question of how to place the audience within three discrete layers of sound and perceive them all clearly and distinctly: spacial and directional sense is lost when sound is conducted in this way, resulting in a peculiarly intimate form of listening in which the sound appears to be materialising inside one’s head as if from nowhere. So the result was an entirely different, much more expansive sense of immersion than one usually experiences. Read more

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Borealis 2019 (Part 2)

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Nearly but not quite everything that took place at this year’s Borealis festival was light years away from the world of conventional concert performances. The most notable exception to this was the first event i attended, at the Nykirken on Friday evening, given by Sjøforsvarets musikkorps, the Norwegian Naval Forces Band, conducted by Ingar Bergby. They presented three works, two by Norwegian composers and the other by British composer James Clapperton. Written in 2012, Clapperton’s Doroga Zhizni was by far the most overtly earnest of the three pieces. A saxophone concerto written as a commemoration of the Siege of Leningrad, it was difficult to know to what extent this considerable layer of baggage helped or hindered the work. Which is not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Though its musical language was staunchly conservative, often channelling post-minimalistic prettiness, the interplay between soloist René Wilk (for whom the work was written) and the band was at times highly dramatic. This was the piece at its best; when Clapperton sought to tap into the emotional heft of his subject the music became a generic kind of insipid ‘In memoriam lite’, pseudo-emotive blather that did its inspiration neither any favours nor sufficient justice. It would perhaps have been best to hear the piece without any knowledge of its supposed backstory; as it was, reconciling what we heard with Clapperton’s aspirations proved all but impossible.

It was also quite difficult to square the notes for Therese B. Ulvo‘s Excavation – which spoke about digging away at the brilliance and beauty of the wind band, causing it to be “stripped down to its bones”, and exploring what remained – with the music itself, but in practice it hardly mattered. The piece threw together various opposites, initially managing to sound simultaneously refined and primitive (distantly evoking something of Stravinsky) and putting equal emphasis on melody and noise. In addition to this, while the band as a whole were generally in consensus about their activities and behaviour, the harmonic nature of the music floated completely freely. Only later did it more demonstratively draw nearer to the implications of its title, ideas becoming ‘stuck’ and being explored at length, almost as if they were being worn down and eroded. The weirdly fanfaric way Excavation developed a fin de siècle quality later on was fascinating and the latter half of the piece in particular was deeply engrossing, ultimately unleashing walls of noise so enormous they practically blew themselves out. Read more

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Naomi Pinnock – The field is woven (World Première)

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The inspiration for Naomi Pinnock‘s 2018 orchestral work The field is woven is a series of paintings from 1979 by Agnes Martin titled The Islands. From a distance, these paintings appear to be squares of off-white blankness, yet on closer inspection details become apparent, in the form of colours and carefully-arranged lines and grids. As in Pinnock’s earlier piece Lines and Spaces, this becomes the basis for music where ostensibly great simplicity belies quantities of underlying complexity.

It’s arguably less meaningful here to talk about formal structure and shape, which seem to be a secondary (perhaps even incidental) consideration, than about the arrangement of ideas. The opening portion of the work, which lasts around five minutes, involves various ‘bands’ of chords slowly juxtaposing and colliding. While they exist outside a harmonically-rooted world, there’s nonetheless a palpable sense of stability: dissonances sound like dissonances and are swiftly ‘resolved’ after appearing, and furthermore the entire music appears to be rocking and pivoting on and around a single, fixed axis. This develops from oscillating into a kind of call and response between sections of the orchestra, the beginning of a dialogue of sorts that toys with the possibility of what plausibly appear to be chord progressions, but this turns out to be an illusion. Instead, the work arrives at a gently undulating hocketing that gradually muddies the clarity of its tonal makeup while increasing the rate of its exchanges. In the bigger scheme of things everything is still moving at a pretty lethargic pace, but within the context of The field is woven this sequence sounds positively hurried. Read more

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James Clarke – Untitled No. 9 (World Première)

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British composer James Clarke‘s output has moved away from having poetic or allusive titles, and for the last 12 or so years his works have either been given a codename indicating the year followed by a letter (e.g. 2013-V) or are simply ‘Untitled’. The fact that the latter are numbered suggests, if not continuity, then at least a putative connection, though the instrumentations of the Untitled works vary widely: a large ensemble (No. 1), piano and orchestra twice (Nos. 2 and 8), solo piano on three occasions (Nos. 3, 5 and 7), voices and string quartet (No. 4) and soprano and five players (No. 6). The latest, Untitled No. 9, composed in 2017, is Clarke’s first to be written solely for orchestra. It’s an episodic and elemental piece, two qualities that are in many ways at odds, the episodic structure indicating organisation and clarity, acting in opposition to the elemental nature suggesting wildness and untempered behaviour. Brought together in Untitled No. 9, the result is unsettling yet beguiling, and in an unexpected way they end up complementing each other. Read more

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