UK

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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Proms 2010: James Dillon – La navette (UK Première)

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As far back as 1988, in his seminal essay on what was, at the time, laughingly called ‘the New Complexity’, Richard Toop described the Scottish composer James Dillon—even within that narrow niche—as an ‘outsider’. Over two decades on, in Dillon’s sixtieth year, little as changed; he remains relatively unknown within the UK, but one imagines this hardly troubles him very greatly; in the pre-performance interview snippet, Dillon comments on how “my references [are] very much not the kind of obsessions that seem to be peculiar to Britain in particular…”. Having heard already in this year’s Proms a fair smattering of the kind of ‘obsessions’ that do occupy the British mainstream, it took no more than a few seconds of Dillon’s La navette (given its UK Première last Thursday) to become aware just how different is the kind of musical language with which he speaks. His is a musical world seemingly without limits, certainly without borders; Dillon’s fascination with all manner of worldwide customs and philosophies informs his work from its conception to its surface. Read more

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Proms 2010: Huw Watkins – Violin Concerto (World Première)

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Tuesday 17 August’s Proms concert brought the world première of Huw WatkinsViolin Concerto, the second new violin concerto heard this season. The opening movement sets a commanding tone, its fast tempo instigated by the solo violin, surrounded by pointillistic contributions from winds and upper strings, firmly drummed in place with massive bass thuds. In no time at all, the soloist seemingly accelarates… only for everything to stop abruptly, and a brief lyrical interlude ensues. Gradually, the initial mood is re-established—although not the pace, which has been seemingly blunted somewhat by the interlude. Large, looming melodic suggestions are put forward by the strings, but the violin seems quite happy to ignore them all, dancing on their surface and into another lyrical excursion; for all its romanticism, Watkins is leaving no doubt as to who wears the pants in this relationship. And this is swiftly confirmed as the violin emerges from its episode into a manic burst of notes that gets the orchestra very excited (they clearly just want to bang a lot in this movement)… whereupon, once again, all is stopped even more demonstrably than before; this violin is something of a tease, is it not? Read more

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