UK

Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Tom Coult

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Tonight, this year’s Proms season kicks off in earnest, and once again i’ll be reviewing all of the contemporary pieces receiving world or UK premières. As an extra feature this year, i’ve interrogated some of the featured composers with a short series of questions, the answers of which hopefully will provide a little extra insight into each composer and their music, both generally and specifically with regard to the piece being premièred at the Proms. First up is British composer Tom Coult, whose new work St John’s Dance gets the season up and running this evening. Many thanks to Tom for his responses; you can also read the programme note of his piece after the questions. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Tenebrae

Posted on by 5:4 in Cheltenham Music Festival, Concerts | 2 Comments

What is it with British contemporary choral music? i found myself asking that question constantly during the fourteen minutes of Footsteps, the work that opened last night’s Cheltenham Music Festival concert in Tewkesbury Abbey, given by the vocal ensemble Tenebrae. It perhaps goes without saying that one makes a double set of allowances when considering contemporary music for choirs. Within British life and culture, such music is focused almost entirely within the realm of religious services. If you’re thinking the next step of this argument is to stress how such choirs are invariably amateur, and therefore unable to handle the more imaginative machinations of contemporary musical thought and practice, then (up to a point) i don’t really believe this to be true. Speaking as one who has both participated within and directed choirs, the religious faithful of the British Isles are among the most culturally conservative people i have ever encountered, for whom dissonances are iniquities to be temporarily endured until the resolution that will – must! – surely come.

This, as far as i’m concerned, is the primary allowance that one is forced to make when considering British contemporary choral music. Much of it can be regarded as functional, and as such needs primarily to please the people for whom it functions. i’ve said this before, quite a while back now, but tuning into any weekly broadcast of choral evensong on Radio 3 is to travel back in time and step into the aural equivalent of a museum, music trapped in aspic, and this is for the most part no less true when contemporary music is included. The amateur aspect is the secondary allowance one usually has to make, but this obviously doesn’t apply when the music is written for choirs of a high standard, such as Tenebrae. But wouldn’t it be nice if composers of this stuff could challenge the necessity of these allowances, reach a little further and employ some of that spirit of adventurous, unafraid, fundamental questioning of the conventional way of doing things that supposedly underpins – indeed, inaugurated – the very faith for which their music is being written? After all, institutions, if they progress at all, do so at a pace that—well, to call it glacial would be a compliment (just look at the Church of England’s ongoing inability to accommodate, let alone accept, gay people in their midst). So what is it with British contemporary choral music? What on earth are their composers so afraid of? Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Love Songs

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 19 Comments

Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Jack Sheen – Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze (World Première)

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Today being the solstice, i’m marking the first day of summer with a small seasonal work by UK composer and conductor Jack Sheen. Sheen was one of the three winners of the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers’ Competition in 2011, and his piece Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze was composed the following year. It utilises a relatively small ensemble – cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass, led by a solo alto flute – to highly impressionistic ends, resulting in a kind of contemporary re-imagining of the soundworld of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Sheen’s piece inhabits precisely the same kind of lush, balmy atmosphere that typifies the Debussy, and what it (understandably) lacks in post-romanticism is instead represented with an impressively heady quality that sounds as though it might just swoon at any moment. An idea accompaniment for the sweltering heatwave Britain is currently enjoying. Read more

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James Gardner – Ten Bells for Turning Forty (World Première)

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Delving into the very deepest recesses of the 5:4 archive, another première performance i’ve been enjoying recently is by British-born, New Zealand-based composer James Gardner. His Ten Bells for Turning Forty for clarinet and percussion dates as far back as 2001, composed as a 40th birthday present for clarinettist Andrew Sparling, who with Julian Warburton gave the first performance the following year at a concert by Ensemble Exposé (remember them?) as part of the Cutting Edge weekend given at the BMIC (remember that?).

The way the piece is performed brings to mind another work for clarinet, Boulez’ Domaines, involving an unspecified order in which fragments of music are to be played. Unlike Domaines, not all of the material needs to be performed; from a total of 22 fragments, the clarinettist selects ten (chosen according to Gardner’s carefully prescribed rules) that are then almost entirely left up to the player to determine their order. The content of these fragments varies wildly (one of them is shown below; it occurs in the performance at 0:46) and choice of clarinet(s) is left up to the performer too, though they’re encouraged to use several “to increase timbral variety”. The percussionist uses tubular bells and three drums, small, medium and large, and their part, also comprising ten fragments, is not indeterminate but performed according to a fixed, specified order. The clarinettist is also instructed to perform at up to four different positions, selected “via chance operations of the player’s devising”. Read more

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John Tavener – Cantus mysticus (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Proms | 1 Comment

i’ve been exploring the extensive 5:4 archive of recordings of premières recently, listening to both brand new and older works, and was pretty startled to encounter Cantus mysticus, by the late John Tavener. A work for clarinet and soprano soloists with a string orchestra of violins and cellos, it was composed in 2004, first performed the following year at the Cuenca Religious Music Week, in Spain. Three years later it received its UK première at the Proms, and in 2010 its first performance in the USA, but for the last seven years it’s sat dormant. Considering Tavener’s popularity both during his latter years and since his death, this seems strange – particularly as Cantus mysticus lasts only eight minutes – though it possibly has something to do with the very peculiar nature of the piece.

For much of the last two decades of his life, Tavener’s compositional practice was relatively standardised and predictable. If it had anything approximating an evolution, it was more to do with extra-musical than musical concerns, as Tavener shifted somewhat away from the more tangible (i.e. readily explainable) aspects of religious dogma in favour of ‘esoteric metaphysics’. (This evolution would finally move into an intense exploration of human suffering in the wake of Tavener’s own close call with death in 2007.) Personally speaking, this late shift came as something of a relief, though primarily because the particular combination of the abstract and the abstruse embodied within esoteric metaphysics render it far more inert (and that’s really not intended as a euphemism for ‘meaningless’) than Tavener’s more ostentatiously overt theological outlook of earlier years. Put more crudely – though no less accurately – this shift removed some of the unctuous sanctimoniousness of those earlier works, which from an extra-musical perspective, makes them very much more palatable. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Witten Days for New Chamber Music), Germany’s annual three-day blow out celebrating the newest iterations of the idiom. It was my first experience of the festival, and i have to say my initial impressions were overwhelmingly positive. The definition of ‘chamber music’ is treated with considerable flexibility, ranging from solo pieces to works for moderately large chamber orchestras, and the presentation and performance standard of the concerts – not surprisingly, considering its reputation – were never less than outstanding, staged in superb venues, showcasing some of the finest contemporary music specialists in the world. As for the music, which was hugely varied, for the most part the same could be said of the featured composers. For the most part. Read more

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