UK

Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff: John Pickard – Symphony No. 5 (World Première)

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It’s not often that, partway through an orchestral concert, i find myself imagining i’m a German paraglider. But that’s precisely how i felt yesterday evening in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, during the world première of the Fifth Symphony by Bristol-based composer John Pickard. Not just any paraglider: Ewa Wiśnierska, who in 2007 famously became trapped between two thunderstorms, and subsequently found herself in an airborne hell, subjected to an almighty battering that lasted 3½ hours, during which she was propelled to an altitude of almost 10 kilometres, well above the height of Mount Everest. Pickard’s symphony lasted a mere 30 minutes, but it still gave me more than just an inkling of what Ms. Wiśnierska must have experienced.

The piece found itself in curious company, preceded by a pair of works that, although by no means as ferocious, were in their own ways just as animalistic. That’s not an adjective one tends to hear applied to Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, but ever since i was first subjected to the piece as an unsuspecting sixth-former, it’s always seemed entirely appropriate. Elgar’s cello cuts one of the most pathetic protagonists in the entirety of music; it whines like a bitch, squeals like a pig, bleats like a forlorn little lamb. People loftily proclaim all this to be ‘valedictory’, but this is an animal that deserves — needs — to be put out of its misery post-haste. But no, the orchestra unthinkingly, deplorably, allows it to ramble on incessantly for half an hour, offering superficially sombre utterances of sympathetic regret. After almost a century of farcical, fawning, flattering, fulsome, false adulation, it’s high time the Cello Concerto was called out for the ugly, moping piece of dilapidated dirge-tripe that it is. Soloist Alban Gerhardt presumably did his best to find some humanity in it, but it was hard to tell among the precarious intonation and lack of melodic connectivity emerging from his instrument (not exclusive to Elgar, they also blighted his encore). Before this abject travesty had come William Walton‘s Johannesburg Festival Overture, a work causing one to reflect that, prior to the emergence (and dominance) of Benjamin Britten, Walton sounds like the only British composer who actually seemed to enjoy himself. The tales of being sent tapes of African music for “inspiration” are at best a conceit; the piece is seven minutes of complete and utter Walton, a triumph of joy, vivid and jarring colouration and melodic and structural misdirection, all delayed resolutions, false cadences and madcap maracas. An unbelievably wonderful bestial romp, delivered to perfection by the BBC NOW with conductor Martyn Brabbins looking as though he might start dancing at any moment. Read more

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Proms 2015: Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5 (European Première) & James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (World Première)

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At the start of last week, the Proms saw important premières from two veterans of new music, Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Both composers have a demonstrative relationship with music from earlier times, producing work that often seeks to find a comfortable marriage of old and new, looking back and forth simultaneously. The titles of both pieces bear some witness to this too, ostensibly bald, functional titles yet which carry centuries’ worth of connotation and legacy. Read more

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Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Jonathan Harvey – Weltethos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Jonathan Harvey‘s large-scale new work for choir and orchestra, Weltethos, was given its first UK performance. The opening event of Birmingham’s London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when one considers the legacy and reputation of Harvey together with the combined forces of over 300 performers—the CBSO joined by their full choral complement of Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus, plus two conductors (Edward Gardner and Michael Seal) and a speaker in the form of renowned actor Samuel West—in a work of 80 minutes’ duration, it’s hardly surprising that the superlatives and hyperbole had started to fly before even a note had been sounded. Expectations could hardly have been greater, nor hopes higher. To my amazement, they were all emphatically quashed.

Weltethos certainly doesn’t fail in terms of scope or ambition, setting a lengthy text by theologian Hans Küng that seeks to draw on common values from six of the world’s great faiths and philosophies, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Speaking of these values, Küng says that “[they] need not be invented anew, but people need to be made aware of them again; they must be lived out and handed on.” Yet the problems with Weltethos begin right here. The six values—1) humanity, 2) the so-called ‘golden rule’, that we don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want done to us, 3) non-violence, 4) justice, 5) truth and 6) love—are all deeply significant and important aspects of our interactions one with another, but Küng frames them in such a pallid, dry way that they feel entirely theoretical, one step removed from anything approaching genuine emotion and feeling. Brief paragraphs from each religion’s sacred texts are used to allude to the six values, but in a flat, narrative fashion that seems entirely self-defeating; surely Küng was aiming at a kind of moral/ethical rally cry, but what he’s produced is as motivating as a party political broadcast. Read more

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Marc Yeats – sturzstrom (World Première)

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Two weeks ago, i was fortunate to be in the cool gloom of Beer Quarry Caves, a man-made cave network on the east coast of Devon. The caves themselves—resulting from two millennia of mining, beginning with the Romans—are fascinating enough, but i was there for something almost as remarkable, the world première of sturzstrom, the latest composition by Marc Yeats. Marc’s output is almost mind-bogglingly relentless, and he brings a highly infectious enthusiasm to every project he undertakes. This particular venture was no exception, the first in a series of four commissions under the umbrella title ‘Coastal Voices’, a choral project that “aims to give a new voice to the coastline”; Marc’s response was to create what he calls “a landslide event for voices”:

the work attempts to depict landmass movement and geological process as found along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Naturally, this depiction is not a scientific reconstruction of these processes in sound; rather, an imaginative response to these forces as perceived by the composer and amplified by the individual contributions of the performers. […] The successions of strata are documented through sound in the piece and these culminate in an imaginary journey along the coast, travelling west to east, before the landslide event occurs, setting the scene as it were for the catastrophic landslide (blockslide) that occurred at Blindon on Christmas Eve, 1839.

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 1. East 11th St NY 10003

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Having spent last week in the company of some ‘contemporary epics’, and with today being the composer’s 61st birthday, it seems an appropriate time to explore one of the most ambitious compositional endeavours of the contemporary age: James Dillon‘s Nine Rivers. i can’t be the only person for whom Nine Rivers had almost assumed the status of legend. i first read about it in the mid-1990s, in Richard Toop’s article “Four Facets of the ‘New Complexity”, published in Contact way back in 1988. The first work in the cycle was completed as long ago as 1982; over the years i often wondered if Dillon would ever complete the cycle, and one can only imagine there may well have been times when the composer himself wondered the same. Then again, in conversation with Toop Dillon admitted to “a personal problem I have about being incredibly lazy”, going on to explain his method for kick-starting the creative process, beginning with technical considerations, calculations, instrument ranges and characters and so on. “Lazy” hardly seems the right epithet for the composer of a 3-hour cycle of music, although perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised that it took until the year 2000—a period of 18 years—for all nine compositions to be completed. The fact that it then took a further decade for the first complete performance of Nine Rivers is less understandable, and betrays the fact that, despite being one the UK’s most innovative and thought-provoking composers, Dillon continues to receive a feeble amount of respect and recognition on his native shores. Cries of “’twas ever thus” are simply not good enough, and only highlight even more brightly the cultural myopia and intellectual moribundity that has dogged the UK (by which i mean England (by which i mean London)) for as long as i can remember. Nonetheless, apathy towards Dillon has extended north of the border, the most notoriously toxic example being that of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who failed so utterly in their shoddy, philistinic butchering of Dillon’s Via Sacra in 2005 that the BBC refused to allow the recording to be broadcast. Dillon was quoted as being “left with an overwhelming feeling of sadness”; it was surprising he didn’t just punch conductor Alexander Lazarev’s lights out. Thankfully, last year’s world première of Nine Rivers—which took place in Scotland, in Dillon’s home city, at the Glasgow City Halls—fell to performers of infinitely superior ability and outlook: members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, and the one-man percussive marvel that is Steven Schick, who shared conducting duties with Jessica Cottis. All told, Nine Rivers lasts just a smidge over three hours, and while many of the constituent pieces follow each other without a pause, i hope i’ll be forgiven for breaking that continuity and exploring the cycle over the next nine days. Read more

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Duncan Ward – Who Is Mr Grobe? (World Première)

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The second première in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” concert series was a work for viola d’amore and harpsichord, Who is Mr Grobe? by Duncan Ward, given its first performance last November by Catherine Mackintosh and Christopher Bucknall. Ward’s piece grew out of the apparent ‘mystery’ surrounding another piece in the concert programme, a Partita that may or may not have been composed by one Mr Grobe. The composer’s description of the work both whets the appetite—the use of figured bass in a new piece is a splendid idea—and also blunts it, when Ward speaks with glee about “new techniques” that are, of course, hardly as ‘new’ as he claims. Ward’s stated intention is to treat the duo as equals, promoting the harpsichord from being in an accompaniment role. Read more

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Purcell Room, London: Tim Benjamin and Francis Poulenc

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Last Thursday i journeyed to London for a small-scale concert at the Purcell Room. On paper, the concert was being given by the ensemble Radius, but in practice only the pianist was present, supporting a quartet of singers. i’ll admit to being disappointed about that; i’ve not encountered Radius before, so it was frustrating to come away still having not encountered them. Two pieces were performed: Poulenc’s one-act opera La Voix Humaine preceded by the UK première of a new work by Radius’ director Tim Benjamin titled Le Gâteau d’Anniversaire.

Benjamin’s work can’t, in any accurate sense, be called an opera, comprising a single scene of barely 30 minutes’ duration. What Benjamin has produced, in fact, is akin more to a dramatic scena, except that it’s intended to be funny, so i guess we should rightly call it a dramatic scena buffa (or something like that). What unfolds is a dream sequence in which the protagonist, Louis, a baker by trade, receives visions from a pair of women who, at length, coax, encourage and downright insist that the reluctant Louis disregard bread-making for a time and bake them a cake. In the epilogue, Louis is awakened by his sisters, only to be reminded it’s their birthday, and that he’d agreed to provide his services to mark the occasion; no resistance from Louis this time, and the preparations begin. That’s it; except that Tim Benjamin’s lengthy programme note expounds the notion that the work is a “theatrical investigation” into “the oppression of, and liberation from, accepted convention and custom” as well as “the power of the subconscious to influence the conscious self through the medium of dreams”. Read more

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