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Proms 2017: Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove & Daniel Saleeb – Chorale Preludes (World Premières)

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As will have been clear from my 38th mixtape back in April, my love affair with the organ has been a long and significant one. It’s an instrument that often gets overlooked in the world of contemporary music, so a definite plus of this year’s Proms season has been the opportunity to hear three new works for the instrument. They come courtesy of organist William Whitehead, who has been curating the Orgelbüchlein Project, commissioning composers to complete Bach’s Little Organ Book, which was originally planned to span the entire liturgical year, but Bach only finished 46 of the intended 164 chorale preludes. The newest additions to the project are by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove and Daniel Saleeb, and were premièred by Whitehead at the Royal Albert Hall last Sunday. Read more

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Proms 2017: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hibiki (European première)

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The music of Mark-Anthony Turnage has been on my mind quite a bit of late. i’ve been revisiting my aged CD of his seminal work Three Screaming Popes, released 25 years ago, which was also the first piece of Turnage’s i ever heard performed live, during my undergrad days in Birmingham. Thanks to Simon Rattle, during that time there were lots of opportunities to hear Turnage’s music, and the abiding impression i got was of a composer committed first and foremost to lyricism. Of a smoky, earthy hue, to be sure, and at times downright caustic in nature, but equally capable of astonishing tenderness and beauty. Borrowing liberally from blues and jazz, and often characterised with improvisatory élan, Turnage – i still mean early Turnage – made us re-think what melody was, in a way that was simultaneously rooted in layers of compositional tradition and performance practice yet so fresh and pungent as to be shocking (literally; i can still vividly remember the shock i felt in those long-ago concerts).

These qualities have hardly deserted Turnage over the years, though there are times when it’s seemed he’s more interested in rhythm than melody, particularly in two of his demonstrably less successful Proms premières, Hammered Out and Canon Fever. That path seems to lead Turnage only to empty bombast and pastiche, whereas when his lyrical side predominates – as in the recent string quartet Contusion, and even more in his wondrous 2012 orchestral work Speranza – the results are overwhelmingly powerful. This is also what we find in Turnage’s Hibiki, which received its first European performance at the Proms a little over a week ago. Hibiki was commissioned by Tokyo’s Suntory Hall to mark their 30th anniversary. Turnage conceived the work as “a consolation following loss” in the wake of the disastrous tsunami that struck the country after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, causing enormous damage and meltdowns at three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Read more

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Proms 2017: Judith Weir – In the Land of Uz (World Première)

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As i mentioned in my recent essay for Sounds Like Now, the statistics for contemporary music by women at the 2017 Proms concerts are lamentable: four-fifths of the new music heard this year is by men. Judith Weir is therefore something of an exception – doubly so, as not only is she fortunate enough to be included, but also her new piece In the Land of Uz is one of the longest new works to be heard this year, lasting nearly 40 minutes. So from this perspective, there’s an asymmetrical mix of cheering and booing to be made.

The same goes for the piece itself. Weir has turned to one of the more well-known Old Testament parables, the account of the life of Job, a man whom God happily allows to be horrendously abused by Satan, robbing him of everything, his health, his house and his family. While from a moral perspective this is all repugnant in the extreme, the story exhibits some interest in Job’s response, in which he comes to despise his existence but holds back from either accepting he has done anything to deserve this treatment, or from blaming God for his misfortunes (which, in the circumstances, would hardly have been unreasonable, or indeed unfair). You can take your pick whether Job’s convictions and endurance are deluded or admirable, but either way it’s a cornerstone of theodicy, and his emphatic reply “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” has become one of the most famous statements of stoic acceptance in the history of literature. Whereupon, with his life reduced to nothing, and having repudiated the arguments from friends who proffer suggestions as to the causes of his situation, Job is rewarded with a motherlode from God, restoring him to an even better situation than before all this sadistic nonsense began – though the Bible says nothing of the emotional trauma that would inevitably endure for the rest of Job’s (very long) life. The end justifies the means, i guess; another cornerstone of Christian belief and practice over the centuries. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Cheryl Frances-Hoad

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This afternoon’s Prom concert, titled Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’ past and present, affords the opportunity to hear no fewer than three world premières, each of them short works continuing the Germanic tradition of the chorale prelude, reworking hymn tunes. One of the composers featured is Cheryl Frances-Hoad, and as preparation for her take on one of the most renowned Lutheran hymns, ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott‘, here are her answers to my pre-première questions along with her programme note. Many thanks to Cheryl for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Brian Elias – Cello Concerto (World Première)

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Around a month ago, i bumped into Brian Elias at the Cheltenham Music Festival, and we had a brief chat about his forthcoming Cello Concerto, premièred a couple of nights ago at the Proms. As i mentioned in my article with his pre-première questions, he expressed some reservations about including the programme note, worried that it might make people listen too analytically, trying to hear the structure rather than simply listening to the piece on its own terms. i encouraged him not to worry about this, and to trust that it would ultimately enhance the listening experience rather than distract or detract from it.

i’m still convinced that that was correct, though my own reaction to the piece, in light of that programme note, has proved interesting. Though i knew the essence of what it said, i’d forgotten the specifics, and ultimately opted not to re-read the note prior to listening. But as the Cello Concerto‘s half-hour duration slowly unfolded, the knowledge that Elias had created the piece using a carefully-managed structure, plus the fact that i’ve very much enjoyed his earlier work, began to make me more and more confused. Far from the programme note acting as a spoiler, try as i might i simply couldn’t – and still can’t – get my head around the piece. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Brian Elias

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This evening’s Prom concert includes the world première of the new Cello Concerto by India-born, British composer Brian Elias. It’s five years since his music was last heard at the Proms, when his powerful scena Electra Mourns (setting Sophocles) received its first performance, and tonight is Elias’ fourth appearance at the Proms. Although composed for Natalie Clein, due to her being unwell she’s been replaced for the world première by Leonard Elschenbroich, who’ll no doubt do a sterling job, but it’s far from an ideal situation for a first performance. Apropos, Clein has released a statement:

Brian Elias’ piece has been in my heart, mind and fingers for almost two years and I am devastated to have to withdraw from this wonderful Prom. But the piece will speak and sing beyond its dedicatee and I will truly be in the hall in spirit with Leonard, Brian, Ryan and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and all who hear its first (but not last!) outing!

In anticipation of this evening, here are Brian Elias’ answers to my pre-première questions, followed by the detailed programme note for the piece – which Brian mentioned to me recently some listeners may prefer to read after the performance. Many thanks to Brian for his responses and to Sam Wilcock at Music Sales. Read more

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Proms 2017: James MacMillan – A European Requiem (European Première)

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James MacMillan’s latest religious blockbuster, A European Requiem, was given its first performance in Europe at the Proms a couple of days ago. The piece is a little over a year old (premièred in July 2016 in Oregon), and although its concert hall life has taken place in the midst of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU, it was of course composed prior to the onset of that madness. MacMillan has therefore been in the unfortunate position of having to stress that his work is not in any way a response to the UK’s ongoing political inanities. Instead, his concern is very much more generalised, not to say vague; he speaks of the piece looking back to the requiems of Brahms, Fauré and Verdi, and if it responds to anything specific, it’s to Roger Scruton’s book The Uses of Pessimism. Whether or not MacMillan believes ‘Europe’ (however that term is defined) to be ‘dead’ (ditto) he doesn’t say, though he evidently holds the view that it has lost something, which he describes as a “culture of mercy and forgiveness”.

Is there any compelling proof that Europeans are less merciful and forgiving than they were in past generations? Is this a malaise not suffered beyond the bounds of Europe? Regardless of these questions, there are rather more pressing concerns to grapple with in A European Requiem, before one even makes it to any potential subtext and its implications. Read more

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