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Proms 2008: Steven Stucky – Rhapsodies (World Première)

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In seven days’ time, the 2011 Proms season will be upon us, bringing with it a welter of new music. This year’s season promises no fewer than 12 world premières and eight UK premières, plus four ludicrously-titled “London premières”; once again, they’ll all be featured on 5:4, alongside one or two other interesting pieces. While the anticipation mounts, here’s one of the new works premièred in 2008’s Proms season, Rhapsodies by US composer Steven Stucky. It received its first performance on 28 August by the New York Philharmonic (in their first visit to the Proms), directed by Lorin Maazel.

In some ways, Rhapsodies revolves around the woodwind; a solo flute begins the work, hopping restlessly at altitude, its appassionato material gradually accreting with the addition of the rest of the section. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a stylised dawn chorus, lightly punctuated by soft pizzicati and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bells. The cor anglais is the first instrument to be given melodic prominence, provoking energetic interjections from the muted brass, which eventually shift the piece in a slightly different direction, and usher in the upper strings. Throughout all of this, melody is literally everywhere, but the relentless intensity results in a rather delirious kind of texture music, the ear unable to stay focused for more than a couple of moments on any particular line. A little under halfway through, the brass present an idea that holds things back for a while. As this dissipates, the strings finally come to the fore in an extended melody, backed up with spritely woodwind staccati beyond, reinforced by more distant bells. Read more

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The BBC Philharmonic – Music from Blue Velvet & Twin Peaks

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This evening’s concert on BBC Radio 3, given by the BBC Philharmonic from their swanky new home at MediaCity in Salford, was dedicated to film music, hosted by the superlative Mark Kermode. Towards the end of the concert, the orchestra performed three pieces from the films of David Lynch. The first was an arrangement of the Julee Cruise song ‘Mysteries of Love’ (heard in Blue Velvet), in which a solo horn took the vocal line, and it was performed to absolute perfection. Then came Blue Velvet‘s Main Title, which was nice, but has always struck me as a bit of an inconsequential piece. The real highlight, though, was Angelo Badalamenti‘s theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; i’ve already talked about this brilliant piece in my podcast, so i won’t say anything further, except that the BBC Philharmonic’s rendition was outstanding. Read more

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Daniel Kellogg – Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (UK Première)

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Last autumn, on 27 November, at a lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, the renowned Takacs Quartet gave the UK Première of the American composer Daniel Kellogg‘s Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. As that title suggests, the piece draws on material from Schubert’s quartet, specifically the theme used as the basis for the second movement.

It begins with great slowness, presenting a chromatic, descending idea that has a tendency to end in emphatic perfect fifths. It’s a plaintive opening, only gradually hinting at material from Death and the Maiden; Kellogg allows these initial dabs of sonic stuff to slide around like beads of mercury, occasionally meeting and momentarily coalescing into something recognisable—Schubert’s first chord, for example, materialises only to vanish away again immediately. Eventually, the quartet makes an overtly lyrical statement, which becomes the cue for a launch into denser material and more aggressive interplay. There’s a sense here of struggle, of grinding away at something mundane, prosaic, before another abrupt shift, now into a more rhythmically driving section. Skimming the surface, the contours of Schubert’s melody now become apparent, and later, the well-known chord sequence is heard loud and clear, while the music’s grip on tonality wavers disconcertingly. Read more

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Vale of Glamorgan Festival: World Premières by Arvo Pärt and Arlene Sierra

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On 9 September, a concert given at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, was for the most part concerned with the music of Arvo Pärt, featuring a new work commissioned by the festival, In Spe for wind quintet and strings. It’s a short piece, in which the winds take precedence at first: horn, oboe and bassoon take turns stating the work’s fundamental idea. The rest of the work is essentially a series of what E. E. Cummings might have called “nonvariations” on that theme; the melody is draped in constantly changing decoration, the voice moving between registers, inversions and retrogrades adding what little spice there is to be gleaned from Pärt’s agonisingly constricted use of material and harmony. Surprisingly, it all feels terribly technical; while the temptation with so much of Pärt’s music is simply to drift, switched off and blissed out, on the surface, i found myself pulled under during In Spe, staring at what lay beneath; i don’t think this is due purely to the paucity of invention on display in the work; Howard Skempton’s Lento goes round in even more demonstrably regular circles for much of its duration, but there the result is hypnotic and entirely convincing. Somehow, the material here all feels terribly workaday, almost like an exercise; unfortunately, as neither the inner workings nor their surface sheen are that interesting, this militates against In Spe, enfeebling it, even in its brief attempts at more dynamic strength. Arvo Pärt’s fans will be delighted; all the ‘tintinnabuli’ stuff is present and correct, and the piece presents them with absolutely nothing unfamiliar, nothing to think about. Read more

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Proms 2010: Cage, Cardew, Skempton and Feldman

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A few hours after the bizarre final notes of Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4 had faded away, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra came to the Royal Albert Hall to present the Proms with a late-night performance of rather more experimental fare.

They began with one of John Cage‘s most important early works, the percussion sextet First Construction (in Metal). The word ‘construction’ couldn’t be more apt; Cage really went to town on the structure of the work, all of it based around the proportions 4 : 3 : 2 : 3 : 4. Composed in 1939, it would be another decade before Cage would begin his written dialogue with Boulez, but such scrupulous, numerically-based structures foreshadow what would become central to the French composer’s own compositional preoccupations. For all their intricacy, however, First Construction‘s structuralisations are not particularly audible, not that this militates against the work in any significant way. The instrumentation is so colourful, their deployment so brash and fanciful, that it’s simply a non-stop joy to behold, moving from passages of mechanised regularity to more rhythmically obscure material, where the pulse is harder to perceive. What’s most striking, though, is how fresh it continues to sound: 71 years young. Read more

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Proms 2010: Stephen Montague – Wilful Chants (World Première) plus Takemitsu

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A world première from Stephen Montague is always an exciting prospect; while hardly an avant-garde figure, he’s highly unpredictable, and one imagines neither the BBC nor the audience could have envisaged what Montague would ultimately present them with in his new work Wilful Chants, given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Chorus with London Brass and O Duo, on 8 August. The work states its intentions immediately, opening with a hectic maelstrom of vocal sounds including half-whispered words, rolled ‘r’s, loud chanting, glissandos, whistles, guttural grunts and the like. The cumulative effect, driven along by a brisk pulse, is entrancing, even hypnotic, the ear constantly pulled left and right, by no means making out the filigree of details (which is hardly the point), but simply trying to hold on for the ride. A climax is reached, and things shift into pitched territory, the brass making uncanny, muted oscillations that suddenly bloom as a dark chorale, into which the choir is swiftly drawn, although remaining in the middleground at this point. A more simplistic chorale follows, sounding distinctly eastern-European; the occasionally half-heard brass oscillations keep things from becoming too conventional or familiar, however, and as the resultant high point appears to be becoming all too generic, it pulls itself apart before getting too portentous, dissolving in a new plethora of noises, accompanied by percussive clatterings. And in no time at all, the conventional trappings are long forgotten as merry mayhem breaks out everywhere, the two elements—noise and song—wonderfully blended in a thrilling street party of a finale. Read more

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Celer – Brittle, Fountain Glider, Poulaine

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My admiration for the music of Celer has grown seemingly exponentially since my first encounter with their work last year, in the form of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann (subsequently highly-placed in my Best Albums of 2008). The retrospective/obituary that i wrote back in July was a first attempt to say something meaningful about their illustrious output, although i was and remain acutely aware that it barely scratched the surface. In the three months that have passed since that fateful time, as many full-length albums have been released, with yet more announced and coming soon.

All three assume Celer’s most demanding shape, lengthy solitary tracks, the first of which, Brittle, is the longest of all, its single span lasting over 74 minutes. Its title is complemented by the track’s title of ‘Eustress’, a word that embodies the opposite of ‘distress’, referring to forms of stress from which we obtain positive effects. A short essay accompanies the CD, explicating Celer’s intentions in bringing these two evocative words, ‘brittle’ and ‘eustress’ together. And it’s extremely tempting, reading the words that refer to their aim “to demonstrate a feeling of continuation through what sometimes seems like a fragile existence”, immediately to draw connections to Dani Baquet-Long’s sudden death; but this music was obviously made before her passing, and while at the moment it cannot fail to be heard in the wake of that tragedy, it would be a facile mistake to allow that to obfuscate the music contained in Brittle, still less to define it. Celer’s music has sufficient depth and substance to stand on its own two feet, without the need for imposed emotional crutches, despite how keen one may be to impose them; i prefer to allow the music to communicate on its own terms. Read more

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