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Proms 2015: Cheryl Frances-Hoad – From the Beginning of the World (World Première)

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Relatively few of the Proms premières include vocal elements, which makes Cheryl-Frances Hoad‘s new work From the Beginning of the World, first performed last Monday, a very welcome exception to the norm. Initially billed as ‘Homage to Tallis’, her piece was nestled amidst a concert otherwise dedicated entirely to the great man’s music, a context that throws down a pretty substantial gauntlet. For inspiration, Frances-Hoad turned to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s detailed account of the “great comet” visible across Europe in 1577. Insodoing, she is appealing both to an innate sense of wonder as well as to more polemical ends, setting words with connotations pertaining as much to present-day resource-depletion and asinine political shenanigans as to 16th century shock and awe. Read more

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Proms 2015: Gary Carpenter – Dadaville (World Première)

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Right, let’s get (belatedly) cracking. For a few years, the annual Proms season began with a première, which was nice but reduced the piece (or, at least, reduced composers’ aspirations) to a mere curtain-raiser. Gary Carpenter‘s Dadaville, which received its first performance in the opening Proms concert last week, did not begin the concert (that task fell to Nielsen), but the piece would in fact have worked wonderfully well as a concert-opening overture, but one with considerable chops and ambition. Read more

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Christopher Fox – Topophony (World Première)

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Back to Tectonics, and to one of the most beautiful new orchestral scores i’ve encountered in recent times. Christopher Fox‘s Topophony, for orchestra and up to three optional soloists (but not a concerto), operates in such a way that the conductor ensures that every beat is a different length. Beats are not of over-arching sonic importance, though, as the music speaks through slow, meditative swatches of instrumental colour, comprising textures of protracted, shifting pitches with a variety of surface articulations. These are often fascinating, conjuring up motors, the noise of something caught in bicycle spokes, the bell of an alarm clock: unpitched occasional worryings that become a delicate counterpoint to the rest of the orchestra which, apart from some moments when deep throbs threaten to overwhelm, comes across by contrast as rather distant (in both senses of the word). Read more

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Mica Levi – Greezy (World Première)

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Having referred to the cinematic qualities of some recent premières, it’s interesting now to turn to a composer whose music does not sound conventionally cinematic, yet who has become well-known in recent times for a film score. Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin is a remarkable piece of work, simultaneously alienating (literally) and human, and emotionally-speaking both aloof and raw. Mica Levi‘s score was justifiably lauded for the way it not only integrated so seamlessly into Glazer’s unique world, but gave that world a particular tone of voice. Including it in my Best Albums of 2014 list, i commented how “[n]either sound nor structure are forced but instead play out in their own time frame, switching between the aural equivalents of vacant stares and creeping insect-like tremors and twitches. Music that embraces a very new notion of beauty.” The same can be said of her new work Greezy, premièred a couple of months ago in the first of two ‘Spectrum Of Sound’ concerts given by the London Sinfonietta. Read more

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Mark Simpson – Israfel (World Première)

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Another composer with somewhat filmic leanings is Mark Simpson, heard to good effect in his latest orchestral piece, Israfel, premièred last month at the City Halls in Glasgow. Simpson’s piece reminded me how long it had been since i’d revisited my well-thumbed copy of the works of Edgar Allan Poe; in his eponymous poem, Poe depicts Israfel—the Islamic “angel of the trumpet”—as an apogee of expressive potency and poetic inspiration, causing the very universe to quieten:

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
‘Whose heart-strings are a lute;’
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell)
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.

One of the things i’ve particularly come to admire in Simpson’s music is the way he’s able to pack a lot of drama into relatively short periods of time, without sacrificing coherence. And that’s certainly the case with Israfel too, which covers a fair amount of ground in just 12 minutes. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Void (World Première)

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To bring my Lent Series to an end, i’ve chosen a work rather fitting to the general atmosphere of Easter Eve, Rebecca SaundersVoid, for two percussionists and chamber orchestra. Saunders was recently awarded the 2015 Mauricio Kagel Music Prize, for composers who, among other things, “are forever in search of new forms of artistic expression and explore new aspects of musical reception”; it’s a description that aptly summarises Saunders’ music in general, and Void in particular. The work bears a few familiar hallmarks, beginning with a typically allusive single-word title, allusions that once again find the beginnings of their articulation in the writings of Samuel Beckett. On this occasion, Saunders’ inspiration comes from the last of Beckett’s tortuous Texts for Nothing; the text doesn’t actually include the word ‘void’, although it would seem to be an implicit omnipresence behind the breathless monologue, which, in reference to a ‘voice’, bears resonances with Saunders’ earlier work, not least her 2006 ensemble work a visible trace:

A trace, it wants to leave a trace, yes, like air leaves among the leaves, among the grass, among the sand, it’s with that it would make a life, but soon it will be the end, it won’t be long now, there won’t be any life, there won’t have been any life, there will be silence, the air quite still that trembled once an instant, the tiny flurry of dust quite settled.

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Patrick Nunn – Fata Morgana

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The next concerto in my Lent series is another involving solo cello, Fata Morgana by British composer Patrick Nunn. Composed in 2007, this short work—for cello, chamber ensemble and live electronics—takes its title primarily from the character of Morgan le Fay (known among many other names as Fata Morgana), who in Arthurian legend was a shape-shifting enchantress. The term is also used for a particular type of mirage effect, where objects at sea, visible just above the horizon, become significantly transformed due to the effects of light bending through thermal layers of air. The cello’s character throughout is or aspires to be melodic, and its role is emphatically in the foreground as an instigator of ideas. It emerges, at altitude, out of a strange and complex opening chord, whereupon its material is immediately resonated and expanded by the electronics. Despite calling it an instigator, there’s a somewhat pensive quality to the cello’s behaviour, placing notes and melodic gestures cautiously; this contrasts with the tendency of both the ensemble and the electronics, which feel highly sensitive to the cello’s slightest sounds, extending them while growing in intensity and pace all the time. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: James Dillon – Physis (World Première)

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To conclude my revisiting of HCMF 2014 for the time being, i have to feature something by the festival’s Composer-in-Residence, James Dillon. There’s much to choose from, but the single work that made the strongest impact on me was Physis, receiving its world première. i’ve said a little about the work’s background (dating back over 10 years) as well as the way Dillon culled one part of the piece in my original review, but here’s Dillon’s statement in full:

In the process of preparing Physis I & II with the orchestra I took the radical decision to cut ‘Part I’ from the score, this was done for purely musical reasons. The two parts of Physis were always intended to work as independent scores anyway, nevertheless taking the decision to cut the work was not taken lightly. The history of Physis is an unusual one, written as it was nine years ago and never performed at the time it seems destined to maintain a strange position in my work. In taking the decision to withdraw ‘Part I’, I have also decided that this part of the score would remain withdrawn.

In a subsequent interview, though, Dillon cited insufficient rehearsal time as a factor for cutting Physis I (not exactly a “purely musical reason”), and also clarified that the piece was not so much “never performed” as not actually completed on time. The complete truth is no doubt to be found in and among these various ‘facts’. Read more

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New releases: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Markus Reuter, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Arditti Quartet, Eric Craven, Audiobulb, Zbigniew Karkowski, Nordvargr, Stockhausen

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It’s a while since i’ve had a chance to survey new releases, so there’s quite a few that are overdue being highlighted. Some of them appeared on my recent Best Albums of the Year list, such as Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Aerial, out on Deutsche Grammophon. As i’ve mentioned in my previous articles about Þorvaldsdóttir’s work, her overtly elemental music thrives in establishing environments where elements of certainty are both undermined and consolidated. Orchestral work Aeriality is a superbly lucid example of this, a work that seemingly keeps trying to reset itself via strong intervals like octaves, fourths and fifths, which are repeatedly overrun and infiltrated by tendrils of material, leading to fascinating passages of grey, almost blank obfuscation (a Þorvaldsdóttir fingerprint). Much of her work explores this friction between clarity and obscurity, variously weighted, and most of the works heard here begin shrouded in abstraction. But what’s so very refreshing about this is the absence of clichéd value associations: clarity here is no more positive a thing than its opposite. The interest, and it is considerable, lies in the juxtapositions and steady evolutions between states, a connotative mirror—if one wishes to see it as such—of Þorvaldsdóttir’s Icelandic heritage but just as much a liberated celebration of the primordial plasticity of sound. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Howard Skempton – Oculus (World Première)

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One of the smallest works receiving their first performance at HCMF 2014 was Howard Skempton‘s two-minute Oculus, for solo piano. Despite such brevity, it’s a beguiling curiosity of a piece; indeed, ‘Skemptonian’ might be a good adjective for music that is weird, amusing and a bit baffling all in equal measure, as Oculus is. Which is not to say it’s incomprehensible; although Skempton speaks of using two major and minor chords (thereby employing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale – an oblique reference to the work’s dedicatee, Christian Wolff, a fan of Webern’s music), that seems from a listening perspective a bit of a red herring—or perhaps a MacGuffin. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols: Carl Rütti – In this season of the year (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

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This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.

The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year.  Read more

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Richard Barrett – Opening of the Mouth (UK Première)

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To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.
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John Woolrich – In the Mirrors of Asleep

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A recurring aspect in most of the death-related pieces i’ve recently explored is ambiguity, and that’s even more the case in John Woolrich‘s short work for five players, In the Mirrors of Asleep, composed in 2007. i hope Woolrich won’t take it amiss when i say that what i find most telling is the music’s inconsistent sense of direction and diffuse emotional sensibility. In this context, those are attributes that transcend their inherent uncertainty and speak just as clearly (if not more so) than via direct statement. In essence, the ensemble—comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano—betrays a thoroughly mixed psychological habitat. There’s radiance to be found, at the start, and at the fringes of various subsequent materials, particularly the music’s tendency (one of several) to express itself through slow melodic movement. These passages allude more than they emote, but that’s mainly because they aren’t afforded the opportunity to fully expound (or wallow in) their heavyweight sentiments. Woolrich breaks them off, often with spritely episodes of light, staccato counterpoint that fall into concentric patterns like multiple ticking clocks. Read more

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David Sawer – Flesh and Blood (World Première)

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For Remembrance Day, i’ve chosen a new work from David Sawer that engages with death and loss in a poignant but surprisingly passionate way. Flesh and Blood is a 25-minute dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, setting a text by playwright Howard Barker. Although not staged, the soloists do wear costumes and assume the roles of a soldier and his mother, the two of them exploring aspects of memory and resignation in the face of the Soldier’s imminent, permanent, separation and loss. That’s one way of looking at it, although the nature of the situation is nicely enigmatic; parts of the piece could just as well be taking place in absentia, within the Mother’s imagination, either in the wake of the news no parent wants to hear or with understandable dread at its fatalistic inevitability. Read more

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Gabriel Jackson – Justorum animæ

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The aspect of death explored in Gabriel Jackson‘s short choral work Justorum animæ is on the peace it brings to the souls of the departed, a fitting theme for today, being All Souls’ Day. The Latin text is drawn from the offertory from yesterday’s liturgies for All Saints’ Day, originating in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, and like so many texts (and human acts) that grapple with death, it is primarily focused on the living, seeking to bring some reassurance to we who are left behind. Their souls, we are told, “are in the hand of God”, and while the second line seems a bit confusing—how can they not be touched by “the torment of death” when they are patently dead?—the overriding message that no more harm can come to them is self-evidently true.

Jackson’s music embraces the soothing thrust of the words, setting them almost like a lullaby, lilting phrases atop soft, oscillating diatonic chords that appropriately defy a sense of cadential finality. Read more

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Proms 2014: Judith Weir – Day Break Shadows Flee (World Première), Zhou Long – Postures (European Première) & John Adams – Saxophone Concerto (UK Première)

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The latest round of Proms premières got one thinking about the relationship between expectation/innovation and engagement. It was Judith Weir‘s new work that got this particular ball rolling around the mind. A composer already at the less adventurous end of the new music spectrum, in recent years her music has increasingly seemed imaginatively torpid, practically treading water. Day Break Shadows Flee, composed for and premièred by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, went to essentially no lengths at all to challenge that assessment. Read more

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Proms 2014: Brett Dean – Electric Preludes; Bernard Rands – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (UK Premières); Benedict Mason – Meld (World Première)

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New works at the Proms regularly come in the form of concertos, violin and piano continuing to be represented most. The planned performance of Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes (a work i’d been very much looking forward to) on 7 August was unfortunately cancelled due to soloist Leila Josefowicz having just given birth to her third son. However, that disappointment was more than mitigated by its fine replacement, Brett Dean‘s Electric Preludes, also a violin concerto—but for the 6-stringed electric violin, accompanied only by strings—and also receiving its first UK performance. Read more

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Proms 2014: Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (UK Première); Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory; Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’ (World Premières)

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The three Proms premières given at the end of last month make for an interesting comparison, with regard to the relationship between material and intention. There was no little weight being hefted around; Jonathan Dove‘s Gaia Theory aspired to James Lovelock’s hypothesis of the same name, concerning ideas of ‘self regulation’ in the systems that make up our planet, whereas Gabriel Prokofiev‘s Violin Concerto took both its subtitle, ‘1914’, and its narrative from aspects arising from the commemorations of World War I. Heavyweight stuff, then, making Simon Holt‘s inspirational starting point of a mythical god waking from slumber seem almost triflingly trivial by contrast. The results, though, were rather different.
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Proms 2014: John Tavener – Gnōsis & Requiem Fragments (World Premières)

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In the wake of John Tavener‘s death in November last year, more mainstream music festivals have been rather tripping over themselves to offer posthumous tributes; the Cheltenham Festival devoted two concerts to his music last month, and the Proms has done likewise, including the world premières of two of Tavener’s last compositions, Gnōsis and Requiem Fragments. It makes sense to consider them together as, not surprisingly, they operate and speak with a markedly similar manner and tone of voice. Gnōsis, scored for solo mezzo-soprano, alto flute, percussion and strings, sets not so much a text as a small collection of words drawn from three religious traditions, Hindu (‘sat’ = ‘being’, ‘chit’ = ‘consciousness’, ‘ānanda’ = ‘bliss’), Christian (‘Jesu’ = ‘Jesus’) and Islam (‘lā ilāha illā-llāhu’ = ‘there is no god but God’). Requiem Fragments, for SATB choir, 2 trombones and string quartet, incorporates a few passages from the familiar requiem mass alongside a similar selection of words, in this case all Hindu: ‘Brahma’ (the god of creation), ‘ātma’ (the supreme reality/self), ‘Manikarnika’ (a renowned site for cremations) and ‘Mahapralaya’ (referencing a final absorption of everything back into the universe). Read more

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Proms 2014: Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace (European Première)

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Religion is for many the place where peace meets its end, falling at the hands of inharmonious ideologies in the hearts and minds of their most violent advocates. On the one hand, the claim that religion—one or many—is directly to blame for most of the innumerable wars and conflicts that have dogged and continue to dominate civilisation is debatable, yet the claim that religion is often directly associated with their respective protagonists’ motivations is unquestionable. All of which may or may not have been on the mind of Roxanna Panufnik, whose new work Three Paths to Peace received its European première at the Proms a couple of weeks ago, appropriately performed by the World Orchestra for Peace, but embarrassingly directed on this occasion by one of modern conflict’s least strenuous opponents, Valery Gergiev. Read more

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