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Proms 2019: Jonny Greenwood – Horror vacui (World Première)

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Any kind of sound processing – human, mechanical, digital – is a response of some kind: taking a signal, possibly analysing it, before doing something with it or to it. The latest new work at the Proms, Jonny Greenwood‘s Horror vacui, takes this as its starting point and modus operandi. In essence a violin concerto (subtitled “for solo violin and 68 strings”), the music extends the conventional concerto relationship of the one pitted against the many by drawing for inspiration on forms of sound processing, some physical, such as the ‘Palme’ speaker of the Ondes Martenot with its resonant strings, and some electronic, including delay, reverb and stretching. This melding of acoustic and electronic is fundamental to the work as a whole, which seeks to use the former to emulate and transcend the, as Greenwood sees it, limitations of the latter. Another inspirational element comes from the title, referencing kenophobia, the artist’s desire to avoid at all costs empty space. Read more

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae

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This evening’s Prom is titled ‘Bach Night’, and in addition performing several of JSB’s Orchestral Suites the Dunedin Consort will also be giving the world premières of four new works that take their inspiration from some of the Suite’s movements. As an upbeat to that, here are the answers to my pre-première questions from two of the featured composers, Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae. Many thanks to Ailie and Stuart for their responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: John Luther Adams – In the Name of the Earth (European Première); Louis Andriessen – The Only One (UK Première); Freya Waley-Cohen – Naiad (World Première)

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The latest crop of premières at the Proms have encompassed extremes of scale and duration. John Luther AdamsIn the Name of the Earth received its first European performance at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday by no fewer than eight choirs, comprising 700 singers. At a little over three quarters of an hour in duration, it’s by far the longest new work to be heard at the Proms so far. The UK première of Louis Andriessen‘s orchestral song cycle The Only One – lasting a mere 21 minutes – also took place yesterday, and earlier today the shortest of them all, Freya Waley-Cohen‘s 8-minute chamber work Naiad, received its world première at Cadogan Hall. Reflecting on these three pieces together, never has it been more true that size isn’t everything.

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Freya Waley-Cohen

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This afternoon’s Prom, the last of this season’s concerts at Cadogan Hall, features the newly-formed Knussen Chamber Orchestra. Alongside various works by the man himself, there’s also the world première of a short new work by one of Knussen’s former students, Freya Waley-Cohen. In preparation for that, here are her answers to some of my pre-première questions together with the programme note of her piece, Naiad. Many thanks to Freya for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: Jocelyn Pook – You Need to Listen to Us; Alissa Firsova – Red Fox; Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto (World Premières)

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A few weeks back, when critiquing Hans Zimmer’s short work Earth, i almost held back from writing about the piece as it was taking place in a concert for children. i couldn’t help wondering to what extent it was fair to hold up something so intentionally superficial to critical scrutiny. Yet why should music composed with children in mind feel the need to resort to superficiality? Isn’t that making some fairly hefty assumptions about what children can engage with, enjoy and understand? In the case of Zimmer, the question is essentially moot, as Earth didn’t make any concessions at all to the children at the concert – except insofar as literally everything he’s composed in recent years has been an abject concession: to creativity, originality and imagination. Perhaps that suggests his film music makes that same assumption about what adults can engage with, enjoy and understand – indeed, perhaps it compounds its fundamental problems by making this assumption about children and then seeking to treat adults in the same way. But i’m digressing; that’s a discussion for another time; suffice it to say that, at his Proms appearance, Zimmer just sounded like Zimmer, regardless of who happened to be in the room, young or old.

Yet these same questions raised their head again at the Proms last Sunday, at an event called ‘Lost Words’, another concert aimed primarily at children (and/or treating adults like children). The concert was a uniquely bizarre mélange of cloying, alarmist, nostalgic propagandising about the environment, nature and language. It was a performance as difficult to negotiate as it was to stomach, including two world premières, by Jocelyn Pook and Alissa Firsova, performed by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain with the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Jessica Cottis.

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Proms 2019: Errollyn Wallen – This Frame is Part of the Painting; Joanna Lee – At this man’s hand; Jonathan Dove – We Are One Fire (World Premières)

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Three of the last four world premières at the Proms have been vocal works, two of them for unaccompanied choir, the other for voice and orchestra. One of the choral works, Jonathan Dove‘s We Are One Fire, was commissioned as a birthday present for the 90th anniversary of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Dove turned to playwright Alasdair Middleton for a text that could serve as both a response to and an echo of the sentiment in Schiller’s Ode to Joy, celebrating humanity’s “shared ancestry”. Apparently, Dove wanted to compose “something joyous and tribal, but not using (or copying) any traditional music from another country”. It’s bizarre, then, that what Dove has created is so slavishly generic in its musical language.

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Proms 2019: Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. (World Première)

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A week ago, the Proms saw the world première of a new work by no fewer than 14 composers. Conceived by conductor Martyn Brabbins as a 60th birthday present to himself, the piece is inspired by, and modelled on, the structure and character of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. For this new work, Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B., Brabbins selected a theme (keeping its origin a secret) as the basis for fourteen variations, composed by Dai Fujikura, David Sawer, Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, Iris ter Schiphorst, Brett Dean, Wim Henderickx, Richard Blackford, Harrison Birtwistle, Judith Weir, Gavin Bryars, Kalevi Aho, Anthony Payne and John Pickard. (It’s impossible to ignore how much of a sausage-fest that is, but it’s Brabbins’ party so obviously he calls the shots.) The tempos and approximate durations of Elgar’s original movements are, with a few exceptions, generally retained in Pictured Within, resulting in a composite work that corresponds to the overall shape, nature and inner relationships running throughout the Enigma Variations. Read more

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Joanna Lee

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This afternoon’s Prom moves away from the Royal Albert Hall to Holy Sepulchre church, for a concert given by the BBC Singers. The programme is an all-English selection of works, finishing with the world première of At this man’s hand by Joanna Lee. In anticipation of that, and to provide a bit of background and context to the work, here are her answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Joanna for her responses. Read more

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Summartónar 2019 (Part 2)

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As i previously remarked, one of the most (and one of the only) disappointing things about my first experience of the Faroe Islands’ Summartónar festival was the almost complete lack of music by Faroese composers. The inclusion of Kristian Blak – artistic director of the festival – mitigated that to an extent, and of course i’m conscious of the fact i only attended six says out of more than 90, but i nonetheless came away with a limited sense of what contemporary music in the Faroe Islands is like. During my time there, the emphasis was on an initiative called North Cultitude 6263; begun last year, it seeks to bring together cultural activities from the countries located at the latitudes of 62-63 degrees. The initiative is not simply about showcasing each other’s work, but also to foster collaboration: Ensemble 6263 is a newly-formed group who, performing for the first time at this year’s festival, included players from Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. The plan is to expand this further until all countries around the world at these latitudes are included.

Some of these performers came from the Icelandic ensemble Caput, who gave a concert of their own in Tórshavn’s Nordic House, a much larger and more lavish counterpart to the one in Reykjavik. i’d been highly impressed by Caput when hearing them in action at the Dark Music Days in January, and while their concert on this occasion was a somewhat more relaxed affair (a free lunchtime event), if anything it proved to be even more involving. This was largely due to the choice of repertoire, Caput bringing together a collection of works that all had a tendency to move slowly and meditatively. To this end, the concert was dedicated to three figures who have died in recent times: flautist Manuela Wiesler, and two Icelandic composers whose music book-ended the occasion and brought to it an intense solemnity. Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson‘s Kveðja, which opened the concert, featured episodes of freedom on flute and viola, flying gently out from a steady rhythmic grounding in the harp. It sounded akin to a processional, but one looking steadfastly up at the sky rather than down at the ground. Read more

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Proms 2019: Huw Watkins – The Moon (World Première)

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There are times when it seems the Proms is incapable of commissioning a new work without foisting upon the composer some theme or connection that they are required to incorporate into the piece. The festival’s ongoing theme commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings was brought to bear on yet another new work, Huw WatkinsThe Moon, which received its world première last night. Watkins opted to sidestep notions of spaceflight and technology in favour of something more romantic, turning to 19th and 20th century poetry about the moon, by Shelley, Whitman and Larkin, for inspiration.

The moon landings took place half a century ago, but listening to The Moon you’d be forgiven for thinking it was composed when notions of getting to the moon were still but a pipedream, yet to make it even to a drawing board. While not exactly pastiche, there’s an overt (even ersatz) early 20th century vibe permeating a great deal of the work. Clean, basic, straightforward, undemanding, every idea outlined in the musical equivalent of black marker pen; even before a few minutes have passed, it all sounds incredibly timid and tired. Watkins’ musical language has always tended towards the conservative, but i’m not sure it’s ever been articulated so overtly as here.

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Proms 2019: Hans Zimmer – Earth; Alexia Sloane – Earthward (World Premières)

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The most significant love-hate musical relationship of my life has been – and continues to be – with film scores. Few idioms have the power to elevate, charm, horrify, astonish and amaze us more while at the same time displaying the irresistible propensity to eschew all originality and imagination in favour of the most derivative bluster and cheese. For me, the epicentre of this love-hate relationship has for many years been centred on Hans Zimmer. He’s someone whose work i’ve appreciated and enjoyed in the past: i think True Romance was the first time i really took notice of his work, and what he did for Inception is hard to beat. But his most recent work – especially his collaborations with director Christopher Nolan, each film of which Zimmer has emphatically marred – has been an ever more reductionist descent into some of the most unoriginal, flaccid, bombastic and manipulative histrionics ever created: musica generica, made all the more horrendous to experience due to its inherent terror of ever falling silent. It’s not just nature, it seems, that abhors a vacuum; Zimmer has clearly convinced himself that if the noises he’s generating (yes: generating, not composing) stop for even a moment, then all hope of maintaining the film’s impetus is lost.

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Alexia Sloane

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This afternoon’s Prom is the first of the festival’s usual parallel strand taking place at Cadogan Hall. Primarily featuring early choral music performed by vocal group VOCES8, the concert also includes the first performance of Earthward by British composer Alexia Sloane. As an introduction to the piece, and to Sloane’s work in general, here are their answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme for the piece. Many thanks to Alexia for their responses. Read more

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St Mary’s Church, Penzance: Kevos – Old Kings in Exile

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Last weekend i made a pilgrimage to the far south-west of England to catch the latest concert given by (as far as i can tell) Cornwall’s one and only contemporary music ensemble, Kevos. The title of the concert, named after one of the works being performed, Old Kings in Exile, gave me pause to consider the somewhat exiled nature of Kevos themselves, located so very far from the usual locations we more readily associate with new music.

Directed by Patrick Bailey, on this occasion they presented five works, including a world première. It’s worth saying that, as he had the last time i saw Kevos in action, Bailey gave a short introduction to each piece, and they could hardly have been more perfect: enthusiastic and explanatory without in any way over-simplifying things for the sake of the audience; they really left you wanting to hear what was to come. That being said, not everything in the programme entirely lived up to Bailey’s keen words. Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s Grazioso!, though entertaining, seemed to exhaust its ideas relatively quickly. As such, there was the strange sensation that it was almost a piece in the style of Turnage rather than an authentic original, but it was nice to hear the irony of its title expressed in such a relentless way, like an exaggerated rendition of some much more mellow existing music, pushed here to extremes. Castles in the Air by young composer Oren Velasquez Hirtenstein was supposedly a memorial to Oliver Knussen, but it was difficult to engage with it on anything beyond an intellectual level. It’s perhaps revealing that Hirtenstein’s programme note commented on his having “cracked the code to one of Knussen’s favoured compositional devices”; what we heard sounded very much like the product of code-breaking: cool, calculated and methodical, but without any significant warmth or emotional depth that one might expect from a piece written in memoriam. Read more

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 2)

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The lack of ostentation in most of the music at this year’s Only Connect festival was perhaps nowhere more conspicuous than in a concert last Saturday devoted to French composer Pascale Criton. Performed by violinist Silvia Tarozzi, cellist Deborah Walker and singers Stine Janvin Joh, Signe Irene Stangborli Time and Liv Runesdatter (members of vocal group Song Circus), the concert featured three works of Criton’s. Two of them were solos, and they highlighted just how elusive is the nature of Criton’s material. In Circle Process, the whole nature of playing the violin wasn’t simply stripped back to its essentials, but sublimated and abstracted, Tarozzi primarily concerned with varying forms of friction, the by-product of scuffing and scraping her instrument. From such pitchless (non-)fundamentals, the piece opened out into a complex semi-focused pitch that, while never really deviating, was nonetheless permanently unstable. Only towards the work’s end did Tarozzi become more demonstrative, but even then her wild gestures were a litany of seemingly static harmonics that soon receded back to the pitchless place from whence they began. The process was somewhat reversed in Chaoscaccia, Walker’s cello setting out in a network of dancing ricochets and groaning pitches that occasionally moved close to forming unisons. Criton undermined the boldness of this opening by pushing the material back into nebulous, abstract territory, Walker giving convoluted articulation to harmonics that, again, were fundamentally static. The work’s conclusion was uncanny, a sequence of crescendos from nothing, each abruptly silenced, as if an unseen presence were directly intervening to cancel things out. Read more

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 1)

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There’s something absolutely right about the bringing together of Norway’s Only Connect – a festival that, as its name implies, encourages one to question (inter)connections between ostensibly disparate musics – with Tectonics, Ilan Volkov’s peripatetic festival the name of which evokes fundamental, underlying bedrocks that continually meet, connect and rupture. Taking place last week in the city of Stavanger, in the south-west of Norway, it’s only the second time the two festivals have conjoined, and the results were often appropriately volatile. That being said, one of the things that struck me powerfully during the festival – and this echoes my experience of Only Connect last year – was its almost complete lack of ostentation. The impacts it made were frequent and deep, but there was rarely an overt sense that this is what was actively being sought by the composers and performers. i’ve long felt that a certain kind of nonchalance – by which i mean the avoidance (or at least, the disguising) of obvious signs of audience direction or manipulation – is essential to the most powerful musical experiences, and at Only Connect that was its prevailing character, and i’ve no doubt this was a major factor in making those impacts as deep as they were. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 4)

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Aside from the chamber concerts, by far the most dominant force at this year’s World Music Days in Estonia was choral music. i’ve written before of my admiration of Estonia’s choral tradition – both the standard of its choirs (including, in my view, two of the very best in the world, Vox Clamantis and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) and the approach to choral writing by many of its composers, new and old – but this year, as with everything else, the concerts did not primarily feature home-grown works but were filled with music from around the globe. When the conjunction of text, music and choir is as its best, something genuinely magical can happen. Unsurprisingly, the festival had its share of pieces aspiring to that magic: some succeeded, many more failed, but a few clearly deemed it unnecessary to work for, or in any way earn, that magic, expecting it simply to happen on command. Two of the most glaring examples occurred in back-to-back concerts during the opening weekend, on Saturday evening. Estonian Peeter Vähi and Belgian Wim Henderickx both evidently believed that all it took was the throwing together of a few quasi-religious words, tropes, and mannerisms with a can-do evangelical attitude in order to directly summon up the numinous. Hardly: in the case of Vähi’s Siberian Trinity Mantra (a world première) it felt surprising, considering its purportedly earnest Buddhist underpinnings (explained at great length in a tl;dr programme note) how massively self-important and self-indulgent it was; Henderickx’s Blossomings. Three Prayers for a Better World was equally off-putting and fatuous, a simplistic blend of pseudo-‘holy’ blather so cheap and shallow it sounded like some kind of infernal Sven Grünberg / Eric Whitacre mash-up. Both works were lazy, pious and nauseating. Read more

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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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