Thomas Adès is a phenominal musician. The depth of his musical intelligence and power of his insight are impossible to miss. They knocks you down, jumps up and down on your chest, and spit in your eye, and it’s enthralling. The performances of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony and the Prokofiev Classical Symphony which began and ended, respectively, the Prom concert on August 15, on which he conducted the Britten Sinfonia, were both dazzling and incredible satisfying as musical experiences. Given all of that, I would very much like to like his music, and I’ve tried, but, to use a phrase in circulation in American politics these days, I’m not there yet. Certainly not with Lieux retrouvés, the work for ‘cello and orchestra, in which he and the orchestra were joined by Steven Isserlis, which received its UK premiere on this concert. Originally written as a ‘cello sonata in 2009, it was orchestrated early in 2016. As one would expect, the musical means brought into play are at the very least impressive, and there’s nothing lacking in its production. But there is a certain sameness to the movements which apparently are meant to be varied, and the profile of the material is a little flat and indistinguishable from one movement to the next, and not terribly distinguished. Even the deliberately ungainly cancan that concludes the work isn’t that much different really from the evocation of mountains (or of mountain climbing, considering the difficulty of it), or even the (visionary?) fields… Francisco Coll’s Four Iberian Miniatures, for violin and orchestra, with Augustin Hadelich as the soloist, also has technique and polish to spare, as well as color, both orchestral and geographical. It’s faultless, and ultimately not as much fun as it tries to be.
The Prom presented on August 16 by the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, included the first London performance of Berceuse for Dresden by Colin Matthews, in which they were joined by ‘cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. The work, which is a sort of one movement ‘cello concerto, was commissioned to commemorate the rebuilding and reconsecration in 2005 of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which had been destroyed by Allied bombing in February or 1945. Its material, both melodic and harmonic, is based on the sounds of the eight bells in the church. The ‘cello plays, almost continually, an impassioned and soaring line, under and around which swirls an increasing animated and accelerating texture which eventually culminates in a recording of the bells themselves. Especially in the Albert Hall, where there were coming from all directions, this was extremely effective and affecting. The Matthews and the Berlioz Overture to King Lear were the first half of a concert which concluded with Das Lier von der Erde by Mahler (whose first movement was presented in a reorchestration by Matthews–trying to keep the orchestra from covering up the tenor; there is some conjecture that Mahler would have done some tinkering with it had he lived to hear the piece). I found myself wondering how bad a performance would have to be before the piece would not have its overwhelming effect. This was a very very fine performance, so there was no finding out about that question this time. The excellent soloists were Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano, and Gregory Kunde, tenor.
That Prom was followed by a late night concert given by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, of music by Bach (three of the motets) and works of Arvo Pärt: Nunc dimittis, from 2001 and Triodion, written in 1998, the latter getting its first performance at the Proms. Pärt’s music and its particularly personal sound are both well known, and, for many good reasons, admired. The pieces on this Prom offered no new information about that, merely confirming it. One could not wish for better performances, either of the Bach or the Pärt.
The main business on the Prom on August 17, presented by The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with Martha Argerich as soloist, was music by Lizst (Piano Concerto No. 1) and Wagner (several orchestra excerpts), all of which received magisterial and moving performances. That was all preceded by Con Brio: Concert Overture by Jörg Widmann, with which there was very little connection, either thematically or in character. Widmann was one of five composers commissioned by Mariss Jansons to write pieces “reflecting on” specific Beethoven symphonies; his particular task was to deal with Symphonies 8 and 7. The connection in fact seemed a little tenuous, but the piece was lively and engaging, elegantly and very effectively orchestrated, and thoroughly professional in every way, with near-quotes and maybe even quotes here and there from the works being reflected on. I was reminded of what Virgil Thomson wrote once about the Egmont Overture: it was the perfect hors d’oeuvre: nobody’s appetite was harmed by it and nobody missed much by missing it. That seemed to be exactly the spirit in which it was offered here. This was the first performance on the Proms of the revised version; the original version had been played in the 2009 Proms. The playing of it was in every way beyond reproach.
On August 19 the BBC Symphony Orchestra, along with the BBC Singers, and a cast featuring soprano Karita Mattila, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, present a concert performance of The Makropulos Affair by Leoš Janáček. An opera about the effects and costs of excellence and the diva who goes through three hundred years and innumerable lovers and admirers while obtaining it, the opera is captivating and full of wonderful music, and, over the course of its three acts builds a dramatic and music trajectory that is increasingly intense and ultimately overwhelming. Presumably the unique texture and particular rhythmic quality of Janáček’s music is related to that of the Czech language, but they’re noticeable here, especially for the role they play in driving the span of the piece. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid and compelling performance of the opera, even staged, than this one. Matilla, who was at the center of it all, was spell binding.
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Every year the BBC in conjunction with the Proms holds a competition for composers aged 12 through 18 as part of their larger music education program Inspire. Each concert performance of the winning pieces has always had a slightly different format, but has tended over the years towards less talk and more music. It has gradually come to include only the winning works and not those which were “highly commended.” The concerts in many past years have been at the Royal College of Music, but the 2016 concert, on August 15, was in the theater at Broadcasting House. Since it only included the six winning compositions, it was quite short, in fact less than an hour long. All of the performances, by members of the Aurora Orchestra, whose conductor is Nicolas Collon, were thoroughly prepared, sympathetically presented, and elegantly and enthusiastically executed. Of the pieces, Morgan Overton’s Two Boys, a setting of a Walt Whitman poem for two baritones, two horns, and two violas, made the strongest impression on this listener. The baritones, always singing together in a style evoking medieval vocal music, or maybe earlier vocal music as filtered through late Stravinsky, were complemented (rather than accompanied) by continuous dialog and commentary by the two instrumental units (pairs of horns and violas), each of which played its own distinctive strand of music. Both Shoshanah Siever‘s Les nuances de la lumière, for solo violin, and James Chan’s Litany, for a small string group, were impressively well written for the instruments but left the impression of not completely finishing the span of the argument of the piece. Jack Robinson’s Hound Hunter, written when he was ten (he is now twelve), for flute, bassoon, and ‘cello, realized a scenario involving the exploits of a group of wolves with a brisk vividness and no time (or notes) wasted. Sam Rudd-Jones’s Angry, for a fourteen piece chamber orchestra, realized its title in a work demonstrating considerable command of instrumental writing and formal control. Alex Jones’s Sensim mutationem for two pianos explored extremes of texture and means of gradually moving from one to the other. All of the works were impressive both in the clarity of their conceptions and in the strength of the realization of them.
On August 9, the concert presented by the BBC Philharmonic and their chief conductor Juanjo Mena began with a work by Mark Simpson, a winner of earlier BBC young composer competitions as well as BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. Israfel, written in 2014, is a depiction of the Islamic angel of the trumpet, particularly as described by Edgar Allan Poe: “…whose heart-strings are a lute, and how has the sweetest voice of all of God’s creatures…”The most immediate, most strongly remembered, for me anyway, aspect of Israel, which last about twelve minutes, is the expertness and clarity of its orchestral sound. The piece is clear and convincing in the arc of its development, and possibly a little prolix in its thematic ideas.
Donald Martino told me once that he had written an article refuting Boulez’s article on the death of Schoenberg. Although the details of that are at this point hazy to me, I clearly remember what he said the title of the article was: Fancy French Composing. That title has come to be for me a term descriptive of a certain kind of music, and most of the music of Henri Dutilleux which I’ve encountered falls into that category. “Tout un monde lointain…” for ‘cello and orchestra, for which ‘cellist Johannes Moser joined Mena and the BBC Philharmonic, certainly does. There’s no denying the skill of the orchestral writing, the sensitivity to the sound of everything, the subtlety and delicacy of the conception, and the superiority and soigné quality of it in every aspect, and all of it in the same ways all the time. But it all still leaves me unmoved, a little irritated, and a little bored. I am perfectly willing to admit this is more a failure of mine than of the music. (Big of me, I know.)
Before the performance of the Elgar first Symphony which ended the concert, the orchestra added a performance of Sir Charles his Pavan by Peter Maxwell Davies as a tribute to the composer who died in March and who had been Composer/Conductor of the orchestra for ten years. The piece was really a sort of double commemoration; Davies grew up in Salford, a metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester, where the BBC Philharmonic has its home. Groves was conductor of the orchestra (which was formerly called the BBC Northern Orchestra) which first recognized the fourteen years old Davies as a composer, and he conducted the first recording of Davies’s Second Taverner Fantasia, his first major orchestral work. Sir Charles his Pavan, based on a tune Davies had written when he was twelve, was written as a memorial work for Grove when he died in 1992. The piece is short and concise and direct, with an especially beautiful ending.
The concert on August 10, presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakai Oramo, opened with another Dutilleux work, continuing with the Proms commemoration of the composer’s centennial. Timbres, espace, mouvement, written in 1978 for thee inaugural concert of Mstislav Rostropovich, and revised in 1990, and having something to do with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, is altogether something other than Fancy French Compositing. Scored for a larger orchestra without violins or violas, it inhabits a vivid and luxuriant sound world with considerable forward motion. After an opening glittering slowish movement pushing with some urgency to its conclusion, there is a very striking second movement (which was added in the 1990 revision) which is a sort of cadenza for the ‘cello section, featuring a texture of many separate lines–and highlighting the different effect that that kind of texture has in strings as opposed to winds–there is a concluding precipitously fast movement. The brilliant timbral quality or the whole work, and most especially the contrast between the second movement and the beginning of the third and how one moves into the other, have persisted strongly in this listener’s memory.
The Dutilleux was followed by Busking by H.K. Gruber, written in 2007 for the trumpet player Håkan Hardenberger, who was the soloist here. The trumpet is joined by banjo and accordion in a sort of concertino group contrasted to the accompanying string orchestra,. It is that sort of street band quality in the instrumentation, that presumably is alluded to by the title, and which gives the piece its unique sound. Each of the three movements has a different and distinctive character which is emphasized by the use of different trumpets–E-flat trumpet for the ‘bear dance’ first movement, flugelhorn for the more sombre slow movement, and C trumpet for the folky finale. It may be that the instrumentation of Busking alone evokes Kurt Weil or there may be a certain quality reminiscent of Weil in the notes, but he certainly comes to mind.
The August 11 Prom, presented by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, featured, along with the Bartok Dance Suite and The Dvorak Seventh Symphony, the first performance of Malcolm Hayes’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Tai Murray. Hayes’s program note says that the work is “about creating space,” and he cites Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and certain aspects of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (“not its powerhouse virtuoso idiom”) as works he had in mind when writing the piece, as well as the landscape of the Scottish Outer Hebrides (..”a northern-latitude drama of summer light and winter darkness, unfolding in an Atlantic landscape of low hills(with the higher mountains of Harris nearly to the south), inlets winding deep inland from the open sea, huge shifting and re-forming cloudscapes, and immense surrounding distances.”) This sense of landscape is in fact immediately evoked in the concerto’s opening, after an extended unaccompanied solo with very long quietly slow moving low notes under a alternately leisurely singing and delicately skittering violin part. That character is maintained consistently throughout the 25 minutes of the single movement work, and it is extremely appealing. After a while one wished for some fast music, and there not being any is the weakest aspect of the piece. All the same I was happy to have heard it, and I would be glad to hear it again. Tai Murray’s playing was resplendent and eloquent.
All of these concert can be heard online, along with all the other Proms concerts, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0741yk1/episodes/player
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Peter Maxwell Davies died about two months ago. I started writing this the week that Max died, but was unable to finish it before now.
I met Max Davies in 1973 at Tanglewood. I had graduated from New England Conservatory in the spring. I had failed to get into any graduate school, which was a sort of minor scandal at NEC. Gunther Schuller was president of the conservatory and also ran Tanglewood, so I got into Tangelwood as the booby prize. Max was the big composer who was there most of the summer. When we met I showed him my music and told him my sad story. Later when I had gone with David Koblitz to see him at the house in Lee where he was staying, he told me with a great deal of urgency, “You need to get out of the country as soon as possible. London is good. You should go to London.” I called my teacher Mac Peyton to see what he thought about that, and he said I should get some guarantee from Max about studying with him if I did go. When I asked Max he said, “I don’t teach, but if it’ll help you you can say you’re studying with me.” So I went. It’s not at all exaggerating things to say that Max changed my life.
Max was at the time thirty-nine years old. Eight Songs for a Mad King had been played for the first time four years before. He had just recently written The Hymn to St. Magnus, which was his first big piece connected to Orkney, which he had only recently moved to (while maintaining, at the time, houses in England). The Devils and The Boyfriend, the movies of Ken Russell for which he had written the music, had both been released two years earlier. I have on the bulletin board next to my computer a snapshot somebody took of Max in the composers’ class. In that picture he has a bushy hair cut and is wearing a white tee shirt and striped pants, he’s standing with his hands turned forward. He might be playing the jester in a production of Taverner, his opera which had been staged at Covent Garden a year earlier. In person he was almost always in motion, almost as though he was a dancer, and his eyes were always flashing.
People often talk about a sort of twelve-tone, or at least modernist, anti-tonal (whatever that means) orthodoxy holding sway at that time in a way that I don’t exactly recognize from my experience, or at least from my memories, but, even so, Max’s willingness to concern himself with and incorporate into his music popular elements like Foxtrots (something very much on his mind and in his conversation at the time) as well as very old elements like isorhythms and plainsong (which he also talked about a lot) was striking and refreshing and seemed very much in contrast to the sort of world view of what music could be and what kind of serious music could be written that I had come to be accustomed to, even at a not very ideological place like NEC. The power and greatness of his music and his musical mind were also inescapable and enthralling.
As it turned out I did do something which amounted to studying with Max. I lived in England for two years, and I saw him about once a month the first year and once every other month the second. A lot of those times I would go to the restored mill that Max had in Dorset and stayed a day or two, during the course of which I would show him what I was writing and get feed back. We also talked a lot, obviously. I can’t imagine the amount of foolishness Max had to listen to, which he treated seriously and with a lot of patience. I also went to lots of rehearsals of his–I remember particularly one where he was conducting St. Thomas Wake with one of the London orchestras at the Cecil Sharp House, very shortly after I was first in London, and a Fires of London rehearsal at the Craxtons’ which was prior to their recording The Hymn to St. Magnus. I also went to lots of performances of Max and the Fires. I went to hear them do The Hymn to St. Magnus at the Aldeburgh festival, not being able to sleep the night before due to excitement. A performance that Colin Davies conducted of Worldes Blisse in the Festival Hall also stands out in my memory.
At the end of the two years I was in England I was a student in Max’s composition class at Dartington Summer School. The course was two weeks; the first week was devoted to analysis. We looked at the Sibelius Seventh Symphony (I was amazed that we were looking at the music of composer who, in my training at NEC, was either ignored or despised) and Max’s Second Taverner Fantasia. Everybody in the class also presented their music, and Max’s comments, which usually included some kind of on the spot compositional exercise that had been prompted by some issue with the piece being presented, were deeply insightful and exciting. The second week of the course The Fires was in residence and each of us wrote a piece that week in which we conducted the Fires. Every night there was a concert, and that year these included the Lindsay Quartet playing Tippett quartets, and the Composers Quartet playing the absolutely brand new Carter Third Quartet, with Carter himself being there. There was also a lot of time in the pub with the other members of the class, including Philip Grange, now one of my best friends, who had just finished high school and who, like me, was there for the first time. The whole experience was thrilling. I was back at Dartington for a number of summers–I can’t remember exactly how many. When William Glock stepped down as director of Dartington, Max became director. He continued teaching, but in a more limited way. One summer there was joint course with Tony Payne, whose wife Jane Manning was also on hand teaching voice classes. That summer Max taught, with Hans Keller, an absolutely thrilling and never to be forgotten analysis class. The first week was on the Mozart G major String Quartet K. 387, the second the Schoenberg Second Quartet. At their concert at end of the first week the Endellion Quartet played the Mozart, and at the end of the second Jane and the Chillingirian Quartet played the Schoenberg. The sense of excitement that built over a week of serious analysis and discussion, mostly by Max and Keller, leading to actually hearing the piece, in each case brilliantly performed, at the end was something that I will never forget. I also still remember vividly insights from both Max and Keller, and moments from the class. One particularly when Hans Keller said that every composer’s first quartet has too many notes, “including yours,” he said to Max, who agreed. One summer there was a joint composers and conductors class with Max and John Carewe, who at the time was conducting the Fires.
I obviously kept in touch with Max aside from Dartington. On election day in 1976, I drove to Poughkeepsie to hear a concert by the Fires on tour. When I saw Max there he told me that he’d just finished an hour long piece called Symphony, a startling development at the time. I went to New York to hear a rehearsal of Stone Litany (for some reason I don’t remember I couldn’t stay for the performance) as part of the New York Philharmonic’s New Romanticism festival, whenever it was. I went to two of the Magnus Festivals in Orkney, (among several visits to Orkney) and heard first performances there of Into the Labyrinth and the Violin Concerto –now the first Violin Concerto–(with Isaac Stern as soloist and Andre Previn conductor–which had the feel of being about the most important thing that had happened in Orkney since the murder of St. Magnus), and a wonderful and hair raising performance by Max and the Royal Philharmonic, I think, of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, which they had apparently rehearsed for fifteen minutes. Max was also in Boston several times. In 1983 he came for a concert of his music and mine (done several times) on which Mary Sego and I did the first American performances of The Yellow Cake Review, staged by Peter Sellers (Richard Dyer, probably accurately, described my playing as ‘wan,’ and pointed out how gracious Max was to agree to have his music played with mine and that it was to my music’s disadvantage). Max was also the Fromm composer at Harvard one term (I don’t remember the year, but I do remember that he came almost immediately after the first performance of the Third Symphony), and he was also in Boston several years later to conduct the Boston Symphony in his Second Strathcylde Concerto and works of Mozart. The last time he was in Boston was for the NEC Preparatory School Contemporary Music Festival in which he was the featured composer. On one of the concerts he conducted students in his Renaissance Scottish Dances. He told me after that concert that he decided he wouldn’t do any conducting at all after that. Whether or not that was actually the last time he conducted I can’t be sure.
The last time I saw Max was at a concert in a church in Yorkshire, part of the North York Moors Chamber Music Festival in August of 2014. The concert, which was quite long, included Max’s Sixth Naxos Quartet. It was Max’s 80th birthday year, and I had seen him several time in London around Proms concerts which had pieces of his. Max had been very seriously ill with leukemia not too long before that, but he seemed quite healthy and, at that concert, very rested and very happy with the performance of his quartet. That happy memory is commemorated by a photo of Max, Philip Grange, and me taken after the concert.
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One of the major threads of the programming of the 2015 Proms concerts was the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez. This commemoration is both testimony to the importance of Boulez to the music of the second half of the twentieth century, and also to his importance in the history of the BBC and to the Proms. The Prom on August 12 situated a major work of Boulez, Figures – Doubles – Prismes in the context of two of his musical forebears, Ravel and Stravinsky. On August 26, in the concert which was the Proms debut of the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden, another major work of Boulez’s, was presented alongside an important work of his contemporary György Ligeti. “…explosante-fixe….” began as short work (a page of musical notation with several pages of written instructions) which was part of a memorial tribute to Stravinsky organized by the magazine Tempo. The notes of this fragment gravitated to the note E♭, Stravinsky’s musical initial (S=E♭). Boulez produced various expansions of this original material for different ensembles, each version, like the original, called “…explosante-fixe…” and involving live electronics, but each seems to have been unsatisfactory to the composer due to technological difficulties. This “…explosante-fixe…”, which is a sort of concerto for flute, two ‘shadow’ flutes, and a chamber orchestra, with electronics, written between 1991 and 1993 (after further technological advancements), is not exactly a final version of the work, since the plan for the piece was that a relatively simple statement of the material, “Originel,” ending with an E♭, would be arrived at after moving through a cycle of seven “Transitoires,” which in turn were mediated by electronic “Interstitiels.” The present version has only two Transitoires (VII and V). One might be grateful, though, for this, since as it is the work is thirty-four minutes long; and at that length the constantly changing glittering texture and the shimmering instrumental writing remains continually fresh and beguiling. The performance, by soloist Sophie Cherrier, with shadow flutists Dagmar Becker and Anne Romeis, and a subset of the orchestra, the SWR Experimental Studio, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, was ebullient and aurally seductive and thrilling, and was altogether completely satisfying.
“…explosante-fixe..” was set along side of Ligeti’s Lontano, a work for huge orchestra, which, using more or less the same micropolyphonic techniques that in his earlier iconic orchestral masterwork Atmosphéres produced clustery sound masses, evokes the textures and ethos of late nineteenth century orchestral music. Ligeti said that as he was writing Lontano he had in mind some lines from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,”
“…The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn…”,
and as Stephen Johnson wrote in his program note, the work has several moments when it seems that a window is flung open, revealing a startlingly new vista, with yet another vista in turn opening up, continuing into infinity. The orchestra and Roth, just about perfectly realized the beauty and poetry of this work, following it with one of the most important works of one of the most important influences on Ligeti, the Bartok Concerto for orchestra.
The BBC Proms Matinee on August 29, presented by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Thierry Fischer, offered three other important works of Boulez’s, this time situating them with works of younger composers following in his wake, Helen Grime and Christian Mason. The concert opened with Memoriale, an intermediate version of “…explosante-fixe…”. Boulez was working on developing the work at IRCAM with the flautist Lawrence Beauregard during the early 1980s, but Beauregard’s untimely death in 1985 at the age of 28 caused Boulez to suspend his work, after writing Memoriale in his memory. The seven minute long piece is a meditative flute solo (played in this performance by Michael Cox) surrounded by a quietly and elegantly whirring instrumental texture. The clarinetist Mark van de Wiel performed Domaines, an unaccompanied solo work which is possibly the signal product of Boulez’s interest in controlled chance. The work consists of six ‘cahiers,’ or pages, which can be played in any order, which are then followed by six ’mirroirs’, mirror versions of the original ‘cahiers’, which can also be played in any order; each of the cahiers and mirroirs contains six fragments whose order can be varied in a particular way. Eventually, like “…explosante-fixe…” Domaine was expanded by the addition of six additional instrumental sections for from one to six instruments. This rather dazzling solo virtuoso piece received a completely dazzling performance.
The concert concluded with Éclats/Multiples, yet another, in principle, unfinished work consisting of, at the moment, an approximately ten minute long piece for fifteen players, featuring the contrast of instruments whose sound is hard, unchanging, bright, and clanging, and produced percussively, with those whose sound can be prolonged, and whose continuity and speed of figuration can be decided, within certain bounds, by the performers, followed by an approximately seventeen minute long piece for twenty five players (adding nine violas and a bassett clarinet), expanding, darkening, and prolonging the more sustained music from the first part. The performance of the work was vivid, fluent, eloquent, and engaging, and was a suitably spectacular ending for the concert and for the Proms’s birthday celebrations.
Between the works of Boulez were works of composers who, having been born about sixty years later than he was, might be considered part of his progeny. Both Helen Grime and Christian Mason have worked with Boulez and both attested in discussions with Tom Service before the performances of their pieces, proudly and happily claimed to have been profoundly influenced by him, particularly by his ear and mind for detail. Helen Grime’s A Cold Spring, for ten players, is in three movements: a prelude featuring fluttering parts for two clarinets, a serious singing movement featuring a solo horn, and a concluding much more dramatic movement in which the clarinets reappear as featured players. It is concisely and elegantly made and attractively orchestrated. Christian Mason’s Open to Infinity: a Grain of Sand, which was commissioned jointly by the BBC and the Lucern Festival, received it’s UK premiere. Its three movements, played without a break, spurred on by the Blake poem referenced in its title, explore the relationship between the material of the work and the larger parts and, in turn, the whole which it generates. It begins with a rather static, chordal movement, followed by agitated and rhythmically active music, which develops a dramatic trajectory, and ends with slower contemplative music which evolves into a sort of slow motion struggle towards its end. All of this arises from and fades back into the sound of the crotales which all fourteen of the performers play in addition to their other instruments. The pacing of the work and the drawing out of the arc of its argument is masterly and compelling. The playing of the members of the London Sinfonietta throughout the concert was a demonstration of how to bring all this very difficult music to vivid life.
All of these performances are available on the BBC iplayer.
(August 26: http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/emdc8g#b06709hk ;
August 29: http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e4pxj5#b067x658 ;
or the individual pieces can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pcr1d )
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Raymond Yiu’s Symphony, a sort of Mahlerian song-cycle, which received its first performance on the Prom on August 25 by counter-tenor Andrew Watts and the BBC Symphony conducted by Edward Gardner, is a big piece, ambitiously conceived and handsomely realized. It is some indication of its success that most of the criticism one might have of the piece have to do with appealing aspects of it which one wants more of. It is well timed and beautifully orchestrated and consistently engaging, and, in its final moments particularly beautiful and rather moving, and it very successfully sustains an arc of 26 minutes length. There is some indirection about the relationship of its texts to each other and to the ostensible subject of the whole, which is AIDS. Exactly what about AIDS is a little hard to determine–one ends up with having to say that it has something to do with AIDS, but without being able to say exactly what. The introductory first movement’s Whitman text proclaims strong music that celebrates victors and “conquer’d and slain” alike. The second, instrumental scherzo’s title ‘Strong With Cadence Multiply Song” is a line from Basil Bunting (which the program notes says was significant for the whole work, somehow, but it’s hard to tell exactly how, since we were never given it, or an explanation for its significance), the third movement sets a poem by Cavafy which invokes “beloved sensation,” aka sex, presumably. The fourth and longest movement sets a poem by Thom Gunn describing an encounter of the poet with two other men in a gay bar, combining thoughts and deeds of death and the sexual, and drugs. The final serene movement, setting Donne, celebrates the triumph of love and fidelity over destruction and decay. So the texts highlight different aspects of the subject, as it were throwing light on it from different angles at the periphery , without having a single sustained argument. There are evocations in the second and fourth movements of pop music of the seventies. Whether the fourth movement could really be said to be a “seventies-style disco song”, as Yiu described it, is debatable, but it probably comes close enough; it is in this movement that the use of the counter-tenor to reference such falsetto pop singers as Barry Gibb, Jackie Jackson, and Sylvester is most apparent. For this listener, as strong as the piece is, it would have been even more successful and more moving had it had more grit in it–a little more harshness now and then in the sound–and greater harmonic intensity in its climatic moments. The implications of the treatment of the texts at the beginning–with the singer’s stuttering drawing out of the sibliants of the words “song” and “strong” which are juggled momentaily, were never realized, since that manner of treating text is abandoned for a more traditional, and very masterly, manner of setting the words. But the reservations one might have are small in view of the work’s achievement and of the mastery involved in its execution. Both Andrew Watts’s singing and the orchestras playing was direct and vivid and had clearly been prepared with great dedication. Yiu’s Symphony was preceded on the program by Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, another serious and highly accomplished work by a composer who was around thirty. The second half included the Nielsen Flute Concerto, with Emily Benon, soloist, and the Janáček Sinfonietta, both of which were played with considerable elegance and charm. The whole concert was a great pleasure.
The Prom on August 27, presented by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, contained two first performances. The first, preSage by Ørjan Matre, although billed as a world premier, was actually a second version of a piece originally commissioned by the Oslo Philharmonic to both commemorate the centennial of The Rite of Spring and to mark Vasily Petrenko’s becoming the orchestra’s Principal Conductor. Based on material derived from the section of the ballet called ‘The Sage,’ Matre’s work is a sort of expansion over twelve minutes of a split second before the beginning of that music, with some hints of reminisces of other places in the ballet also included. The recognizability of the material makes this effect possible. The music, which throbs and shimmers and rings many changes of instrumental color while evoking that moment of the ballet, is appealing and engaging, and would be even a little more so were it a little shorter, but it still doesn’t outstay its welcome. I would be happy to hear it again, and to hear more of Matre’s music.
The second premiere on the concert was of Bergen’s Bonfire by Alissa Firsova. Firsova is the child of two Russian composers who defected from the Soviet Union to the UK in 1991, and she grew up and was trained in England, where she has a career both as a composer and pianist. Bergen’s Bonfire is a depiction of an apocalyptic dream of the composer’s. Her retelling of the dream in her note, involving Norse mythology and the end of the old world and the birth of a new, doesn’t actually include anything about a bonfire, so the reason for the title is a little unclear. The work is about ten minutes long, in three sections, the first describing the Twilight of the Gods, with themes for the sun, the moon, and the stars; the second depicts the composer’s walk around Mount Floyen, one of the mountains surrounding Berger, and the third shows a new age of peace and happiness and is based on a piece the composer wrote when she was eight years old. The beginning of the work is very strong and compelling (and is much stronger than any of the music included in the Composer Portrait concert of her music which had been given earlier in the afternoon), and all goes well for a while, until the third section arrives. At that point things start to go badly wrong. For one thing it’s much longer than it should be in relationship to the first two sections, but in addition it slides into a music of simply astounding banality, which would make a second or third tier Hollywood composer of the 30s or 40s blush. One can believe that it was written by a precocious eight year old. Sometimes when you’re presented with somebody’s ideas of the sublime and utopian it can be like having them share their dreams or their sexual fantasies with you–just a little too much information which, when you’ve received it, you’d rather they hadn’t shared it with you to begin with, and which you can’t unhear.
The concert concluded with a remarkably wonderful performance of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, which had enormous clarity and nuance, rock solid ensemble and rhythm, and enormous drama and character. It was moving and memorable.
Concurrent with the Proms, the BBC sponsors various workshops and events for pre-college composers under the general title of Inspire. I observed on August 21 an impressive Inspire session run by Paul Griffiths (this is not the musicologist and writer on modern music–this Paul Griffiths is a composer, improviser, and “music educationalist” on the faculty of the Guildhall School of Music) which dealt with collaborative composition. Led by Griffiths and assisting professional musicians, about two dozen performing composers created over the morning a joint composition. There is also every year a competition with a concert of the winning works. For the last several years the concert has been presented by the Aurora Orchestra and its music director and principal conductor, Nicholas Collon. This summer’s concert happened in the afternoon of August 28. The format is never quite the same: there is a varying amount of talking (over the years this has been, mercifully, reduced), and the number of works played changes. Past concerts have presented work by the winners and the highly commended composers. This year’s concert only included the five winning works, which were Fantasia for Strings by Matthew Kelley (b.1999), Mechanical Passion by Tammas Slater (b.2000), After Death by Toby Hession (b,1997), The Complications of Life in an Enclosed Space by Daniel Penney (1999) and Like the Wind by Finnlay Stafford (b.1998). All of the works were lively and interesting and were performed with serious care and understanding by the excellent performers. It seemed short; one wanted to hear at least some of works the ten highly commended composers as well.
These concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer: Yiu:http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06708yz (the whole concert, the Yiu only at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030rzhk), the Matre and Firsova: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06709tq (the whole concert; Matre only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030yxs6, Firsova only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030z9md).
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One of the major themes of this year’s Proms is the commemoration of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius. The Proms on August 12 and 13 were programmed to put Boulez into a context, offering his music alongside that of his predecessors Ravel, Stravinsky, and Messiaen. The Proms concerts on August 15, 16 and 17, featuring all of the Sibelius symphonies in order over three evenings, additionally projected Sibelius’s influence forward: the only music on those three evenings not by Sibelius was the first performance of a BBC commission from Michael Finnissy.
Sibelius is a composer who would seem not to be neglected, however at the same time that his music is “popular” and certain pieces of his are performed fairly often, he doesn’t often seem to be recognized as an modernist whose methods of dealing with musical materials and building musical structures are just as novel as a number of his younger contemporaries, such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Janacek, and Bartok. His seven symphonies are probably his most important works. Hearing them all together, one after another, the consistency of them, both in terms of language and quality, is striking. The performances, on August 15 by the BBC Scottish Symphony, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, on August 16 by the same orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, and on August 17 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, were all of a very high level, although the playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony was really memorable for the sheer beauty of its sound and the continuous presence of a certain kind of music making which one might describe as loving. In addition to the Symphonies, the first concert included the tone poem Finlandia and the second included the Violin Concerto, with Julian Rachlin as soloist.
Michael Finnissy is undoubtedly one of the major living British composers, which makes the few number of times that pieces of his have been included on the Proms something of a mystery, especially when one considers other composers whose pieces have been programmed many more times and regularly; this piece was the third work of his to be scheduled on Proms concerts. He described Janne, the title being a diminutive of Siblius’s first name, as “an imaginary portrait of Sibelius or, more exactly, a portrait of his music and its sources.” Finnissy described the work as a set of variations (“or variant explorations”) on a bit of a tune from the Finnish folk epic, the Kalevala. In fact those variations underlie a profuse fantasia of “foreign elements”, allusions to music of other composers who influenced Sibelius, Tschaikovsky and Bruckner, and “the flotsom and jetsam of 20th-century musical history (such as Futurism, Impressionism, new simplicity, new complexity)”. The variations, which surface from time to time featuring solos and small concertino groups–a single bassoon, then three horns, then viola, and later oboe and ‘cello, then a solo violin–provide a grounding structure, which along with an extraordinarily compelling harmonic trajectory, give a clear and sure progress through the span of the piece. It is striking that, while Janne, which very strongly evokes Sibelus’s language and methodology, is in a number of ways a much more conventional work, and much more conventionally skillful, dazzlingly so, than one might expect from Finnissy, it is at the same time completely personal and identifiable as the work of its composer, in its evoking and estranging of its elements, and it’s starkly contrasting “plain and more ornate, even conflicted, surfaces”. It is wonderfully convincing and satisfying, and it is just beautiful.
All of these concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player) . The Finnissy is also available separately in a special section of new music on the Proms (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pcr1d).
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As well as being one of the major figures in the music of the second half of the twentieth century, Pierre Boulez has had a long and important relationship with the BBC and with the Proms, so it is not surprising that the celebration of his 90th birthday would be one of the prominent strands of the programming of this year’s Proms season. The Proms concerts on August 12 and 13 presented the first performance at the Proms of a major orchestral work of Boulez’s and placed it in a context of musical and orchestral tradition in which it stands.
Figures-Doubles-Prismes, written in 1957-8, and revised in the later 1960s, is a product of the heyday of post World War II European zero-hour modernism, but it is also, more personally, Boulez’s response to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, whose first performance he had participated in as one of the three conductors. Like Gruppen, Boulez’s work is for three orchestral groups, but deployed on one platform rather than spatially around the audience. As its title implies, the work’s constructive methodology involves a series of ideas of varying lengths which are presented (figure), varied (double), and extended and refracted in various ways (prisme), whose various statements and progresses are cross cut and proliferate over and through the three instrumental units. The result is a kaleidoscopic succession of textures of greatly varying densities and a wide array of different orchestral sonorities, many of which are strikingly and beautifully calculated, presented in a state of harmonic stasis. The command of all these elements and the brilliance of the orchestral writing is fearsome and impressive. The performance by The BBC Symmphony, which looked very cramped on the stage of the Albert Hall, conducted by François-Xavier Roth. was a model of clarity and probably got the right combination of beauty of sound and emotional coolness.
The August 12 concert made the connection between Boulez’s music and that of the second generation before him, Stravinsky and Ravel, which, if it wasn’t important to his compositional career (and I think it was), was certainly a major aspect of his career as a conductor. The most explicit connection was represented by Boulez’s orchestration of Ravel’s Frontisipice, a very short (two minute long) piece which Ravel wrote in 1918 as a frontispiece to the publication of an extract of S. P. 503: Le poème du Vardar by the Italian poet Ricciotto Canudo which concerned the author’s experiences during the First World War (S. P. 503 was the postal code of Canudo’s unit). Ravel’s score of the work is on five staves; it seems to have been intended for two pianos, five hands, or possibly for pianola. Boulez, in one of his Domaine Musical concerts in 1954, presented what is thought to be the first public performance of the piece; he later orchestrated it for a small orchestra in 1987, and then for full orchestra twenty years later. This concert also included Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand, played with enormous brilliance and beauty by Marc-André Hamelin (he also played very beautifully, with both hands, as an encore Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau). The concert ended with the complete Firebird ballet of Stravinsky. As a whole The Firebird has a good number of stretches of brilliant orchestration of not much of musical interest, but in the bits that ended up in the suites there’s a lot of power, and certain places, most especially the beginning of the finale, are down right thrilling. This performance realized all of its virtues.
The Proms of August 13, presented by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena, included a major work of Boulez’s teacher Olivier Messiaen, The Taurangalîla Symphony. It’s hard to know where to start in describing or discussing Taurangalîla. It’s excessive and completely over the top and it’s brilliant in its orchestral writing and it’s quite long (75 minutes, according to the program) and it has a lot of the vigor and liveliness of complete tastelessness (although taste is not any kind of valid standard for judging it) and it’s very complex rhythmically and musically inventive. It’s also very static harmonically (once again, no valid standard–it’s probably part of its appeal). It’s one of those pieces that convinces me that Messiaen had no sense of humor whatsoever. The performance of this ecstatically excessive piece was completely go for broke and it was very effective, although somehow less fun that I’ve found other performances of the piece I’ve heard to be. The playing of the pianist, Steven Osbourne, was always gorgeous–with lots of color and always with very very beautiful sound. From where I was sitting, since her back was to me, and the speakers of the instrument faced in some other direction, I don’t think I every heard much of Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, who played the Ondes Martinot, ostensibly the other solo instrument. I did seem to notice (or at least get the impression), though, that everything the OndesMartenot does is doubled somewhere in the orchestra.
This program began with John Foulds Three Mantras. There was, of course, no connection between Foulds and Boulez, but it was connected thematically with Sanskit/Hindu elements of the Messiaen. Foulds lived from 1880 to 1939, making him part of the same generation as Holst (who also had a lot of interest in Hindu religious philosophy) and Vaughan Williams. The Mantras, apparently part of an unrealized projected ‘Sanskrit opera’, Avatara, were written between 1919 and 1930. They call for a large orchestra, including a wordless female chorus, and sound a little something like parts of The Planets. Iin terms of the orchestral writing, the Mantras are pretty impressive. Although it was less interesting, at least to me, than Holst’s music usually is, it was still not at all uninteresting or unpleasant to listen to, and I was glad to have run across them, even if I probably won’t go out of my way to hear them more.
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On August 27, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, in its first appearance at the Proms, included, along with Debussy’s La Mer and the Tschaikovsky Sixth Symphony, Šu, a concerto for Sheng and orchestra by their compatriot Unsuk Chin, with soloist Wu Wei. The sound of the sheng, which is ethereal, if not down right ineffable, dominates the work. Not only does the soloist plays almost continually throughout the work, but the orchestra’s music grows out of the music of the sheng, expanding and amplifying it. Šu, whose title comes from the name of the ancient Egyptian god of air, begins with high motionless clusters of notes, which expand and move downward in register, developing tremors and vibrations as the work progresses. The whirring motion of these slowly moving harmonies eventually develops into genuinely fast music and then a short sort of thumping dance-like section, which evaporates, leaving reminisces of the beginning, literally echoed by instruments in the back of the hall (or in the case of the Albert Hall, from somewhere in the upper tier of the boxes). The delicacy and beauty of the sound of Šu and the profound mastery of the instrumental writing is remarkable and the impression of the work lasts long in this listener’s memory. Ms. Chin apparently had avoiding writing for Asian instruments until she encountered Wu Wei’s playing, and one can easily understand why the encounter changed her mind. His playing combines overwhelmingly virtuoso playing with irresistibly compelling musical expressiveness. I’ve been trying not to use the word “astounding,” to describe it, but…
On August 20, The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, presented a concert which largely had a Spanish connection, albeit in a rather roundabout way. The concert began with the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, set in Seville, and its second half consisted of pieces by Ravel which are contributions, as the program said, to the rich repertoire of Spanish music by Frenchmen, Rhapsodie espagnole, Alborad del gracioso, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Boléro. The orchestra’s playing in all of this music was elegant, stylish, polished, and just about perfect. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this concert, and more closely allied with the goals of the enterprise which the orchestra is, though, was the bulk of its first half, which included works by the Israeli composer Ayal Adler and the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom, both receiving their first UK performances. Adler’s Resonating Sounds presents, across its two movements, the first slower and the second faster and more intense, different realizations of the image evoked by its title: sometimes simple echoes of loud and forcefully jabbing chords, and alternatively immense motionless and rather ominous clusters succeeded by lightly swirling and shimmering textures of micro-polyphony. The title of Roustom’s work, Ramal, is the name of the pre-Islamic arabic poetic metre on which its rhythm is based. The irregular and jagged rhythm underlies a driving and intensely dramatic music which occupies the bulk of the work’s durations is occasionally broken by slower uneasy brooding moments. Although not overtly programmatic, Roustom intended it to suggest “the unsettled state of the world, specifically the devastating current situation in Syria.” Both of these pieces received intensely vivid and rhythmically vibrant performances on the same level as those of the Ravel pieces that followed.
On the ninth of August, the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder, included, along with performances of works of Berlioz, Elgar, and Beethoven, the first London performance of Near Midnight by Helen Grimes. In a mood suggested by a poem of D. H. Lawrence, Near Midnight consists of an initial assertive clanging music whose echoes dominate and roll through the succeeding three sections, finally dying out at its end. The piece is thoroughly expertly written and orchestrated with spit and polish, in a thoroughly British manner heavily indebted to and reminiscent of Britten and Knussen.
Late in the afternoon of August 20, preceding the concert of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, performed works written by the winners and the highly commended contestants of the BBC’s Inspire competition for pre-college composers, chosen by a panel of judges including composers Stuart MacRae, Anna Meredith, Martin Suckling, Fraser Trainer, Judith Weir,and Radio 3 Editor Jeremy Evans. The pieces were written for ensembles ranging from duos (La Trahison des Images, for ‘cello and piano, by Harry Castle, and Dithyramb, for bassoon and piano, by Mattew Kitteringham) to chamber orchestra (Mirror, Mirror by Matthew Jackson, Study in Anarchy by Rob Durnin, and Dis-pulsed by Harry Johnstone), with other varied instrumentation in between (Two Cells, for flute, oboe, and bassoon, by Nathaniel Coxon, Underneath for vocals and beat boxer, by Anna Disley-Simpson, The Unteachable Lesson for string quartet, by Edward Percival, Furu Ike Ya? For timpani and tape by Electra Perivolaris, and Two of Three Pieces for pierrot ensemble and percussion by Thomas Carling). There was also one family affair, since among the winners were Pilgrimage, for harp and two percussionists, by Thomas Sparkes, and The Throstle, for soprano, flute, cello, and piano by his older sister Sophie Sparkes, which set a text by their father, Edward Sparkes. The works were given serious and respectful attention and highly polished and eloquent performances. The concert also included the first performance of Darkened Dreams, commissioned by the BBC from Tom Harrold, an alumnus of the Inspire program and a current graduate student at the Royal Northern College of Music. The work, for instruments with a tape part whose source sounds were submitted by listeners of Radio 4’s PM program; it was in fact broadcast immediately on Radio 4. The other performances were recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3, along with works by Jacob Davies, Tammas Slater, Toby Hession, and Kieran Timbrell, which were recorded for the broadcast, but not performed on this concert.
That broadcast, along with the other concerts can be heard at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ programmes/b007v097/episodes/player
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The birthdays of Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies, both of whom turn 80 in 2014, is one of the major focuses of this year’s Proms. Each has a complete Proms Portrait matinee concerts in Cadogan Hall dedicated to their music on August 30 (Davies) and September 6 (Birtwistle), and Davies’s birthday, on September 8, is marked with a late night Prom in the Albert Hall. Unfortunately I will not be around for any of those concerts, but I have heard other concerts marking the birthdays.
On August 9, in Cadogan Hall on a Saturday matinee concert combined the birthday strand with another theme of this summer’s Proms, presenting orchestras new to the festival and from far afield. The Lapland Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds, presented a concert which included Birtwistle’s Endless Parade, with Håkan Hardenberger as the trumpet solo, and Davies’s Sinfonia. The Birtwistle, for trumpet with vibraphone and strings, written in 1987 for Hardenberger, was intended by Birtwistle, who had, he said in the short discussion before the performance, cubism on his mind, as a study in discontinuity, cross cutting six kinds of music, with different tempi, figuration, and textures, in disconnected and apparently illogical ways. Birtwistle also apparently had Stan Kenton on his mind, and there is from time to time a sort of whiff of jazziness in the music, although that may be as much an effect of the sound of the vibraphone as the actual notes.
The Davies Sinfonia was written in 1962, after he had studied in Italy with Petrassi, but before he had gone to Princeton to study with Sessions and before he had begun work on Taverner, the central work of his early career. It was written under the influence of the Monteverdi Vespers and makes use of procedures from that work. The work is in Davies’s earlier, post-Webernesque Euoprean modernist style, but nonetheless has in it the beginnings of the isorythmic cantus firmus procedures that one recognizes in slightly later and possibly more characteristic piece such as Antechrist.
Both of these works received very strong, very strongly characterized, and highly persuasive performances. The concert began with a Symphony by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and also offered, between the Birtwistle and Davies, Honegger’s Pastorale d’été, and ended with Rakastava by Sibelius, a very beautiful piece for strings and percussion, of whose existence prior to this concert I had been completely unaware.
Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic on August 14 in Proms concert at Albert Hall that featured Davies’s Fifth Symphony, along with works of Sibelius (Finlandia and the Second Symphony) and Frank Bridge (Oration for ‘cello and orchestra, with Leonard Elschenbroich as the soloist). Written in 1994, when Davies performing career had moved from working with The Fires of London to conducting orchestras, mainly the BBC Philharmonic and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Symphony is in one movement and reflects Davies’s involvement at the time with the Sibelius Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, which had figured in his repertory. The Symphony which at first seems to be in discontinuous shards, consists of the braiding of a fast music with increasing intensity and emphaticness and an equally impassioned and forward moving slow music with a motionless music providing moments of stasis in the overall progress, which in certain respects resembles the arc of the Sibelius Seventh Symphony. It is a highly dramatic piece and it received a very dramatic and impassioned, although somewhat under-shaped performance. This Prom was preceded by a Composer Portrait concert at the Royal College of Music in which Davies talked to Andrew McGregor about his chamber works Antechrist, Runes from a Holy Island, and Six Sorano Variants, which were given excellent performances by Musicians of the London Sinfonietta Academy.
Two nights earlier The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, presented the suite from the second act of Davies’s ballet Caroline Mathilde, along with the Violin Concerto of William Walton and more music of Sibelius, The Swan of Tuonela and the Fifth Symphony. Walton’s rather elegant and glamorous concerto is just the sort of piece that one would have written for Heifetz, who, in fact, commissioned it and gave its first performance, and it received a suitably luxurious performance from James Ehnes. Davies’s ballet is about the misadventures and eventual downfall of the title character, the sister of George III of England who, at the age of 15, was married to the Danish king Christian VII and who became the lover of his person physician, with attendant unfortunate personal and political consequences. The music from the ballet is, compared to more austere and abstract works such as the Fifth Symphony, relatively easy listening and depicts fairly clearly the story line of the choreography. The performance mirrored the clarity and sonorous beauty of the orchestral writing.
Davies’s birthday is also being celebrated by other festivals. The North York Moors Chamber Music Festival in North Yorkshire between August 24 and August 30 features a work by him on each of their concerts. I heard the concert on August 25 in the beautiful Victorian Gothic Church of St. Helen’s and All Saint’s, in Wykeham, in which the Quartetto di Cremona began the concert with the Beethoven Quartet, Op. 74 and ended it with Davies’s 6th Naxos Quartet. In the between another quartet, consisting of Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, Simone Brown, Meghan Cassidy, and Jaimie Walton played the Berg Lyric Suite. The 6th Naxos Quartet is a big, thirty minute long, impassioned piece which interpolates into a fairly traditional four movement layout, two short “arrangements” of plainsong hymns for the third Sunday of Advent and for Christmas Day, the day the piece was finished. All of the performances on this concert were outstanding.
The Proms was also marking the 80th birthday of the British born American composer Bernard Rands with the first UK performance of his Piano Concerto performed by Jonathan Biss and the BBC Scottish Orchestra, conducted by Markus Stenz. The Concerto is an imposing work which presents the soloist as a predominant member of the ensemble rather than, as Paul Conway’s program note said, “a protagonist striving heroically for supremacy over massed accompanying forces.” After a bright and lively first movement, entitled Fantasia, the second and third movements, were not clearly enough differentiated, especially in terms of tempo, as opposed to speed of figuration, to remain as separate impressions on this listeners memory.
On August 17, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Manze presented a concert entitled “Lest We Forget,” to commemorate the centennial of the First World War. The first half consisted of works written by composers who died in the war. The German composer Rudi Stephan (1887-1915), who died in the trenches of Galicia on the eastern front, was represented by Music For Orchestra from 1912, which was steeped in the language of late German romantics particularly Strauss. The Elegy for Strings in memoriam Rupert Brooke (who had himself died in the Navy in the war) by Frederick Kelly (1881-1916), who died in the last phase of the battle of the Somme, reflects more of the language of Debussy. Both of these works were indications of great potential as yet unrealized, especially the Stephan. A much stronger and more personal impression was made by the Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who also died on the Somme. He was a more fully developed composer, and several of his works, including these songs, which he wrote with piano accompaniment, but were performed here in a orchestration by Phillip Brookes, are fairly well known and not infrequently performed. Two of them, Loveliest of Trees, and The Lads In Their Hundreds, are, I think, particularly good. They were sung, more of less perfectly, by the baritone Roderick Williams, with a beautiful sound and perfect British English diction; it is hard to imagine anyone ever doing them better. The concert ended with the Vaughan Williams Third Symphony, written after the war, but formed by his experiences as an ambulance driver in France during the conflict. I was very excited to hear this piece, which I’ve know since I was in high school, but had never heard live. The performance was all that one could wish for. There were a number of other Vaughan Williams pieces on the Prom presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, on August 13: The Overture to the Wasps, The Lark Ascending, and his big ballet (or as he called it ‘a masque for dancing’) Job. These performances were rather less radiant than that of the Symphony, but they did bring to mind what a very good composer Vaughan Williams was, and, especially in pieces like Job, people often don’t remember, a modernist.
All of the Proms concerts can be heard at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player
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Not only is it hard to describe Benedict Mason’s Meld, which was given it’s first performance on the late night Prom given by the Aurora Orchestra and the choral group Chantage, conducted by Nicholas Collon, on August 16, it’s hard even beginning to think about how to describe it. All of the advance notices of the concert were particularly, and unusually, vague about the details of the work, and even the program claimed to be not at liberty to divulge much information about it. In the concert itself, which began with the Mozart 40th Symphony (played from memory) and also included Dobrinka Tabakova’s Spinning a Yarn, a short and very attractive piece for violin and hurdy-gurdy, played (also from memory) from the organ loft by Alexandra Wood and Stevie Wishart, the fact that something was up was indicated by the emptiness of the arena and gallery of the Albert Hall, the domain of the promenaders. One noticed a number of people who are continually there as promenaders in very good seats in the stalls.
Once it was underway it was clear that Meld was going to use all of the Albert Hall, up, down, inside, and out. It began with a mysterious and halting throbbing music coming from some place outside of the hall which turned into a march for a parade of players across the gallery at the top of the hall. Suddenly there were four bass players in the lower tier of boxes, echoing a group of ‘cellos and basses in the gallery, and then, suddenly without one having noticed their getting there at all, the entire upper tier of boxes was filled with pairs of players and singers, who sent volleys of pizzicato notes ricocheting around the hall, succeeded by skittering and scurrying flurries of notes. After a period of time when different kinds of groups with different instrumentation would seem to simply appear in lots of different places, a bevy of horns started moving over the arena area and the stage, and eventually through the audience, followed by other people, playing various percussion instruments, sometimes moving very fast, pursuing, as the poet says, urgent voluntary errands. Then there were some small groups of players in the arena, seemingly menaced (I’m not sure if there’s another word for it) by one or two people wearing some kind of stoles of clacking blocks. The sequence of events is somewhat hazy in the memory, although the events themselves were striking and memorable. During all of this, the music–the actual notes being played–which had a fairly high level of complexity, was always full of detail and held one’s interest.
After a while the delight and excitement about what would happen next began to ebb somewhat, but not so much that anything ever got, for lack of a better word, boring. I found myself, though, wondering about what the shape of the piece being presented in this all enveloping environment and its structural argument might be. I was reminded of a place in the final scene of The Years by Virginia Woolf where one of the characters asks herself whether, if one could get far enough above life, one might be able to see a pattern in it. After a while longer I found myself thinking of another Woolf and wondering if Meld wasn’t a pageant, in some ways like the pageant in Between the Acts, including in its outlining some kind of (unspecified–in the case of the Mason) loosely historical progression. Pageants are a series of more or less static and not necessarily closely connected tableaux whose larger scale succession, thematic in some way, but not plot based, rather than the immediate flow of the individual moments give the work’s structure and continuity. At some points in Meld we seemed to be in fact offered some kind of excerpts of a pageant, in the bit with the clacking stoles, and also in a segment where most of the chorus and some players coalesced in the arena, first rolling balls of some kind and appearing to play some kind of game (cricket?), then formed several small groups doing what appeared to be some kind of folk dancing, and then made one big ring around the perimeter, before forming two groups that then sat for a few moments in seats in opposite sides of the stalls, muttering. At a certain point one began to wonder when and how it was all going to end, and eventually it did, but I can’t remember how, although I think it was more with a whimper than a bang.
There was never any point in this almost hour long work which was not engaging or at which the material, musical or otherwise, seemed anything less than first class. The performance, by 93 players and 49 singers, was astounding–completely committed and assured. They were playing without music, although everybody seemed to have receivers and earphones, and some of them seemed to be wearing cameras, so its hard to know exactly what information they were getting from that. The program listed a person responsible for staging and choreography (Mason), a movement director (Chris Tutor), and two people who did a click-track (Felix Bastian Dreher and Griff Hewis). The work involved in planning and executing the whole effort must have been mammoth, and it was brilliantly accomplished.
The recording of this Prom is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dqbhv.
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