Maybe the BBC didn’t pull out all the stops to celebrate the John Cage centennial, but they did pull out quite a lot of them. August 17 was Cage day at the Proms. In addition to a mammoth-length concert mostly of his music in the evening presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (who only the night before was playing an all Vaughan Williams concert–more about that later) and the chorus Exaudi along with conductor Ilan Volkov and a cast of almost thousands, including such super-stars of the avant garde as Joan La Barbara, John Tillbury, Aki Takahashi, and Christian Wolff, they staged earlier in the afternoon a “Music Walk.” The Music Walk involved guided group walks around the area of South Kensington in the general vicinity of the Albert Hall, where along the way ten composers and sound artists, some in collaboration, including Alwynne Pritchard, Ian Dearen and David Sheppard, Dai Fujikura, John Woolrich, David Sawyer, Tansy Davies and Rolf Watlin, Claudia Molitor, Alvin Curran, Jose Cutler, and Judith Weir were present for playings over mp3 players of their music at specific sites.
Periodically one met groups of people carrying placards with pictures of Cage or of mushrooms. The composers were at their assigned sites holding placards which said “I am…(whoever they were);” in some cases — that of Dai Fujikura, for instance, who seemed to be having a picnic with his family — they were just present, in others there were other non musical elements which involved the composers: Alvin Curran sat on a platform in the loading dock of the Albert Hall seeming to be having a sort of television interview with somebody, which we didn’t hear because we were listening to his piece; David Sawyer had a skit in which he was dismembered and presented at the end in a bag; Joe Cutler swept the street in front of the Royal College of Music while somebody threw crumpled-up pages of his score down at him from one of the rooms in the College, and so on. There were several groups, none of which visited every site; the group I was in heard/saw Curran, Fujikura, Sawyer, Cutler, and Weir. All of the groups converged at the Serpentine Gallery for Weir’s music, which accompanied a model of the Albert Hall floating in the pond in front of the building. After that the composers led everybody in a march back to the Albert Hall and the main concert.
The concert itself was, as I said, a massive affair. Since it had not been clear to me that it was going to be about four hours long, I had made plans for later and as a result, wasn’t able to hear the second half of the concert, which included the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, Branches, But what about the noise of crumpling paper..., and a quartet improvised by David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, Keith Rowe, and Christian Wolff. I was very sorry not to have heard the Concerto. Read the rest of this entry »
On August 13 the violist Lawrence Power and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, presented the first UK performance of Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Songs… an Amphigory. The title of the work is a reference to the book of the same title by Ulrich Baer, which is a discussion of the varying responses of artists, as exemplified by the poets Baudelaire and Celan, both to the shocks of everyday modern life and to catastrophic historical events: works reflecting desperate seriousness or antic playfulness, but also sometimes combining the two, producing works which are amphigories (defined by the OED as “a nonsensical burlesque composition”).
Neuwirth’s work combines a serious, if not tragic, expressive quality, with a great stylistic variety, ranging from severe, albeit serene, modernity to a what Paul Griffiths in his program note described as “a landscape of brightly colored tonal debris,” somewhat in the manner of the third movement of the Berio Sinfonia, but consisting of generalized material rather than quotations of specific works. The title of the second movement refers to Sadko, the hero of the Russian epic, but the other movement titles, the first “Wanderer,” and the third “..sank to the bottom of the sea…)–“ (the fourth and fifth movements don’t have titles) may imply that the whole work has something to do with that legend. The writing for the instruments, both the soloist and the orchestra, is imaginative and effective, and the balancing of the soloist with the orchestra is controlled in a masterful fashion (including the moments where the orchestra overwhelming the viola seems to be the point).
The whole work is always engaging and powerfully compelling. Neuwirth is yet another composer whose music I have encountered for the first time; this piece makes me want to seek out more of it. The performance of the Neuwirth by Powers and the orchestra was magisterial. The concert also included a performance of the first suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and a magnificent and moving performance of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the most appealing and satisfying things about the Proms is the way that they support and showcase British composers. There are a number of commissions each year (a Proms commission is a sort of right of passage moment for up and coming composers), and not first performances of recent works as well. It is very surprising, and a just cause for sorrow and consternation, then, that the Proms Matinee on August 11 at Cadogan Hall, given by Britten Sinfonia, with soloists Nicolas Hodges, Susan Bickley, and Nicholas Daniel, conducted by Clark Rundell, was the occasion of the first Proms performance in twenty-four years of any music of Michael Finnissy. Finnissy, as well as being one of the most vital and interesting composers alive, is undoubtedly one of the major figures of British music, as a teacher as well as a composer, and the absence of his music from the Proms for so long, let alone his not having received a Proms commission, over all that time is simple inexplicable, as well as being sad for all of us who have lost by such an omission.
The Finnissy work included on this particular concert was the 36-year-old Second Piano Concerto, with Nicolas Hodges as soloist. One of the usual memes having to do with the concerto, that it is a piece opposing the soloist as the one against the many in the orchestra is not exactly operative in this case. First of all the band is a small one, strings and two flutes, and rather than opposing the solo part, they pick out and highlight details in the stream of the work’s continuity which is entirely in the almost ceaseless piano part. Finnissy’s music is often thought of as fearsome, and it can be extremely difficult to play (not that you could tell that from Hodges’s beautiful and lucid performance), but the sound of it, when it’s done well, as it was here, is downright beguiling–gossamer and shimmering, and its continuity, a sort of stream of consciousness, clear and convincing, and easy to follow. It is to be hoped that it won’t be another 24 years before there’s more Finnissy on the Proms.
Hodges also presented the UK Premier of Harrision Birtwistle’s Gigue Machine for solo piano. Making the difficulties and complications (and they are considerable) obvious is one of the points of this piece, which is an exploration and deconstruction of the rhythms and phrasings of the old dance form, and they were presented and dispatched both compositionally by Birtwistle and pianistically by Hodges, with flair and aplomb, and obvious relish. Read the rest of this entry »
The BBC Proms is massive and rich festival with lots of moving parts. What one makes of any one season largely depends on which slice of it one happens to experience. My slice this year, of which this is the first installment, is pretty rich with recent music.
I haven’t heard much of James MacMillan’s music before now, and what I have heard I haven’t cared much for, so I was curious about his Credo, which was on the August 7 Prom presented by the BBC Philharmonic, along with the Manchester Chamber Choir, the Northern Sinfonia Chorus, and the Rashly Singers, conducted by Gang Men. Credo turns out to be a specific rather than a general title, since the piece is a setting of the creed oUf the mass, for chorus with a large orchestra. Nowadays, since the liturgical practice is for the congregation to sing (or say) the creed, a composer writing mass settings for liturgical use, as MacMillan has done several times, would not have dealt with setting the creed, as MacMillan hasn’t, until with this piece, whose length and scope, as well as its forces, by intention, make it unsuitable for liturgical use.
Virgil Thomson used to say that unlike the other parts of the mass, which are all hymns of one kind or another, the creed is a contract, with lots of fine print; that quality of the text, along with its length, often set it apart from the other parts in most mass settings both in terms of its character and of the style of text setting . MacMillan’s division of the text into three sections highlighting the way that the Trinitarian aspect of Christian belief are reflected in the structure of the text of the creed is unusual and insightful.
Credo itself is somewhat frustrating and disappointing. In many ways it reflects MacMillan’s impressive compositional mastery: its writing for the chorus is idiomatic and effective, and it’s orchestration is brilliant. On the other hand it doesn’t go beyond the initial insight into the text to get, as Thomson would say, right into it, to make the structure and movement of the music on either the local of global level, reflect the movement and meaning of the words and meld them into an indivisible whole. The individual moments, all of which are skillfully wrought, somehow, at least for me, remain a series of disconnected events, rather than related parts of a organic argument. Although MacMillan’s notes describe the piece as being festive, it all seemed a little grim and uncelebratory. I should add that, given that the concert started with the most curiously static, however beautifully played, performance of the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde I’d ever experienced, it is certainly possible that another conductor might have given Credo a greater sense of motion and connection. Read the rest of this entry »
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On August 22, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Barry Douglas, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, presented the first performance of Kevin Volans’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which was a BBC Commission. Volans is quite proud of his method of composition, which he refers to as ‘anti-conceptual.’ What he means by this is that he does not think about what a piece will do until he starts it, and every day he starts at the point he stopped the day before, without reordering anything; he doesn’t say whether or not he revises. One assumes not. This is a little like a practice of Virgil Thomson’s, which he referred to as ‘the discipline of spontaneity;’ Thomson, I think, mainly did it in his portraits, which were two- or three-minute-long pieces done in one sitting (and sometime revised later). In Volans case it’s probably more like an extreme reaction against what is often called ‘pre-composition,’ and therefore, a lot of modernists practices (and probably a lot of stuff done by minimalists who do process music as well), and, for me, anyway, it doesn’t work so well in a piece that’s twenty minutes long. In the case of this piece, one is left with a feeling of a sort of flat and haphazard continuity which could be described in the words of one of the characters in The History Boys by Alan Bennet, who says that history is ‘just one fucking thing after another.’ In fact the sound of the piece is polished and attractive and arresting, full of nice, and, mostly, interesting music; it just goes on a little too long some of the time, and, no surprise, its progress seems sort of random and unconsidered. The performance was also polished, colorful, attractive, and arresting.
A few days earlier, August 18, Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley, joined by Christof Dienz, Luka Jukart, Martin Brandlmayr, Thomas Larcher, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov gave the first performance of Larcher’s Concerto for Violin, ‘Cello, and Orchestra. The orchestra for the piece includes a concertino group of electric zither, accordion, percussion, and prepared piano which provides a good deal of instrumental color in the work, and the function of the orchestra seemed to be that of a sort of amplifier for the smaller group, taking up the music and expanding on it both in terms of material and of decibels. On top of this, the violin and ‘cello often spun longer singing lines and sometimes shorter more agitated ‘riffs’ which were largely arpeggios. These were repeatedly the same in term both of the shape and the range of the lines, and the sameness of the solo parts left a sense of frustrating lack of motion and progress and formal staticness which I think was not intended. There are two movements, the first more expansive and varied, tempo wise, at least, and the second shorter and more restrained, with the solo parts some what chorale like, and suggesting a more traditionally tonal language. The work was both intriguing and appealing, and at the same time, due to the sameness of the shape of the main lines, somewhat frustrating. The performance was lively, concentrated, and serious and had a heartfelt quality.
On August 23 Leonidas Kavkos and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, performed L’arbe des songes by Henri Dutilleux, a violin concerto which was written in 1980 for Isaac Stern. The work is in four movements, but there are also three interludes after the first three movements, all of them played without a break. The beginnings of the interludes are marked by a sort of gamelan-like music which Dutilleux referred to as ‘tinkling’ bells, played by tubular bells, vibraphone, piano/celesta, harp, and crotales. Perhaps the most striking parts are the first movement which features long singing lines in the violin, the third movement, in which the violin is joined in a lyric duet by the oboe d’amore, and the third interlude which is a free sort of tuning up episode in the orchestra. The whole work is very singing, atmospheric, and full of beautiful instrumental textures and colors. It seemed to me to be the best of the Dutilleux pieces that I’ve heard.
On the next night the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, conducted by Colin Davis, performed the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. Probably the most important work of his early American years, the Symphony is one work which its composer, who otherwise was insistent that music was powerless to express anything at all, was eager to present as a depiction of war time tensions. He said that there were sections related to sequences in documentary films about scorched-earth tactics in the Sino-Japanese War and to newsreels and documentaries of goose-stepping soldiers, etc. It is certainly a muscular piece full of lots of rhythmic energy, harmonic propulsion, and a sort of cinematographic sweep. Little of this was realized in this performance, which was rhythmically slack and, in terms of its formal shaping, apparently completely clueless. Elliott Carter wrote of hearing Stravinsky play at gatherings of Boulanger’s students in Paris; he said that Stravinsky seemed to play every note with an intense rhythmic energy and intention, making each one a special ‘Stravinsky’ note. That was exactly the quality that was completely lacking here.
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On the August 21 Prom concert The City of London Sinfonia, with Ian Bostridge, tenor, and Roderick Williams, baritone, conducted by Stephen Layton, presented he first performance of Colin Matthews’s No Man’s Land, which had been commissioned by the Boltini (Family) Trust to commemorate the group’s fortieth anniversary. The commission was offered to Matthews by the founder of the Sinfonia, Richard Hickock, three days before his sudden death in November, 2008, and the work is dedicated to his memory. In planning what to write Matthews’s thoughts turned toward the First World War. He has been obsessed with the war for a long while. His interest is not just that of a history buff, however; one of his grandfathers died on the Somme. The text, written at Matthew’s request by Christopher Reid, whose children’s verses he had set in his work Alphabicycle Order in 2007, is a sequence of poems representing the conversation of the ghosts of two soldiers of the First World War.
The First World War has an evocative power for the British that it does not have for Americans, who tend to find much more inspiration from either the American Civil War, which seems to be still connected in a powerful way to American thinking about government and every day life, or The Second World War, in which Americans can find a representation of themselves in the world that conforms to their preferred self-image. Aside from the closeness that all the British, and their parents and grandparents, had and have to both of the world wars, there is a great fund of British artistic models concerned with “The Great War,” most prominently the poets of the war, such as Rupert Brooke, Seigfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, and Wilfred Owen; the influence of the Britten War Requiem, with its connection to Owen, especially on composers of Matthews’s generation, is also considerable.
No Man’s Land is a dialog between Captain Gifford and Sargeant Slack, the tenor and baritone soloists, respectively, whose bodies have been left hanging on barbed wire in the no man’s land between the two front lines. The first part of their conversation is concerned with the details of life (and death) in the trenches; in the second, after telling of a bar where wine and women were available, Gifford relates a dream about the official attitude of the expendability of soldiers, Slack sings a lullaby, and the two particular soldiers recede into the mass of soldiers. The text for their conversation is full of songs, which Matthews has set in many cases with parodies of music of the period, including marches, hymns, and pub and music hall songs, both comic and sentimental. He has also included ‘documentary’ music, recordings from the time: some scraps of marches, and Edna Thorton singing a song entitled ‘Your King and Country Need You.” No Man’s Land’s orchestra consists of double woodwinds, pairs of horns and trumpets, percussion, keyboard (playing celesta and an out of tune upright piano), and strings, divided into three violin parts, and two parts of each of the other instruments.
It may be that there is supposed to be a class element depicted in the setting as a means or characterization. It is Sargeant Slack who sings the songs which are most clearly parodies of music hall songs. Roderick Williams sang those songs with a sort of working class accent, although since he didn’t apply this otherwise it’s a little unclear what the intention was. Slack’s songs are accompanied by the out of tune piano. Gifford’s songs are in a much more modern music style, and are accompanied by music which is rather like the music that accompanies the Owen poems in the War Requiem. Even the song of Gifford’s that in this context would seem to cry out for a parodistic setting, the one about the bar where soldiers could find wine and women, in which Slack joins in, is given a less vernacular treatment, and, rather than being accompanied by the piano, are accompanied by fancy violin music. The use of vernacular elements, which has it effect, certainly, seems not to be particularly strongly connected to the other music thematically. It is also not so clear what, other than the immediate effect, is gained by playing the recordings of music of the period in the two short stretches where they appear, rather than incorporating the music into the texture in some other way. At one point where reference is made to a mouth organ, there is a striking a masterly invocation of that sound of the harmonica by strings. It might be that some similar treatment of the rest of the vernacular elements might have been more rather than less effective. Nonetheless, No Man’s Land is an ambitious, masterly, effective and affecting work, whose seriousness and sincerity is beyond questioning, and the mastery of its composer is also clear and unquestionable.
The rest of the concert consisted of Britten’s Variations of a Theme of Frank Bridge, for strings, and the Mozart Requiem. All the Proms concerts can be heard on the Proms website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms) for a week after the performance.
On Four Saturdays in August and September, the BBC Proms has been presenting Saturday matinee concerts in Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square. On August 20, The London Sinfonietta, the BBC Singers, soloists Andrew Watts, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, and Nicolas Hodges, conducted by David Atherton, performed works of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, along with the first performance of a work commissioned by the BBC from Georges Aperghis. Davies’s Il rozzo martello (The Crude Hammer), written for the BBC Singers in 1997sets a sonnet by Michaelangelo, preceded by a stanza from Dante’s Paradiso (II-127-132) and followed by an prose annotation of it by its author. All three of the texts focus on the image of the hammer of the smith and of the sculptor as a metaphor for artistic creation and further for the divine shaping of the universe. (Whether it was intentional that the title is more or less the same as that of Le Marteau San Maître, whose text also deals with artistic creation, is an open question). After an introduction in which each of the voice sections enters in turn with long phrases accumulating into chords, Davies sets both of the first two quatrains of the sonnet in turn with homophonic music which is then repeated with a elaborate and floridly melismatic descant sung by soloists. The sestet returns to the initial homophonic texture enriched with more voices. The concluding annotation is given an almost patter setting, with a concluding broad phrase repeating the opening line of the Dante. In certain respects the work represents a fusion of the style and tonal language of Davies’s more recent, Naxos quartet, music with that of some of his earliest choral music written for students at the Cirencester Grammar School.
Georges Aperghis, a Greek composer who now lives in France, is known for his involvement in experimental theater, being the founder of the theater company ATEM (Atelier Théâtre et Musique) in Paris. The title of Aperghis’s concerto for piano and chamber orchestra, Champ-Contrechamp, means Shot-Reverse Shot, which is a technical term from film editing dealing with editing film of two people, shot at different times and in different places, so that they appear to be having a conversation. The piece is a handsome sounding whirling and shimmering dialog of great surface activity between the piano and the orchestra which builds to a climax and then rather quickly unwinds to a sparse slow coda for the soloist.
Birtwistle’s Angel Fighter, written for the 2010 Leipzig Bachfest, sets a text by Stephen Plaice which dramatizes the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. The work begins with accusations of Jacob by his conscience (represented by the chorus) as he is dividing his livestock and tribe in anticipation of a confrontation with his brother Essau, whose birthright he stole. In answer to Jacob’s call for a sign from Yahweh, an angel appears, singing in Enochian, the universal language of men, lost in the Great Flood. The angel descends and speaks to Jacob in his own language. In order to prove to the doubting Jacob that he is real, the angel insists that they fight, and Jacob, against all odds, prevails against him. As the night is ending the angel threatens to kill Jacob if he does not let him go, which Jacob refuses to do unless the angel blesses him. Having received the angel’s blessing, Jacob, now Israel, asks his name, which the Angel refuses to give. As the angel disappears, the work ends with blessings in Hebrew.
Angel Fighter is constantly at a very high level of dramatic intensity, which is relaxed only briefly close to the end when the angel sings an aria about his refusal to give his name. This is accompanied only by harp and English horn, and it is also the only instance of any lessening of the work’s textural density, which is otherwise remarkably full and intricately detailed and constant. Despite its density the instrumental writing is calculated so that it does not in any way obscure the vocal writing, which is highly florid and effective, and in turn set so that its delivery of all the words is always completely clear (well the English–I can’t speak to the setting of the Enochian).
A week earlier, the Sinfonietta, conducted by Nicholas Collon, presented a program featuring music by Richard Rodney Bennett, whose 75th birthday the Proms is commemorating. The concert opened with Dream Dancing, which is scored for the collective instrumentation of the late Debussy Sonatas. Debussy projected six sonatas, but had only finished three of them before he died. The three finished have relatively straightforward instrumentation (‘cello and piano; violin and piano,; flute, viola, and harp); the fourth was intended to be for oboe, horn, and harpsichord, and the fifth for clarinet, trumpet, bassoon, and piano. I had never heard of an instrumentation for the sixth before, but the commentary at this concert seemed to say that the sixth was supposed to be for the entire complement, as this piece is. Dream Dancing is in two movements, lasting about 16 minutes. The music is fluent and elegant and expressive in a sort of general way, as film music would need to be.
Henri Dutilleux was represented by his Les citations, a short piece for oboe with harpsichord, double bass, and percussion. It is also in two movements, the first features a long oboe solo line with its spaces at first filled in and amplified by unpitched percussion, but is gradually joined by the other instruments, which offer a quietly accelerating background In the second movement, which is based on material from a piece by Jean Alain, and from music from Janequin which Alain quoted in a work of his, the activity is more equally distributed among the players. The performance of this work was extremely polished; the playing of oboist Gareth Hulse and double bassist Enno Senft was particularly beautiful. The Romanza by Elizabeth Maconchy for viola and chamber orchestra feature Paul Silverthorne. It is a clearly and convincingly shaped work whose texture is a little murky and clumsy.
The concert concluded with Bennett’s Jazz Calendar which was commissioned by the BBC in 1963 as a concert piece, but which became best known through a ballet which Kenneth MacMillan made to it. Bennett characterized Jazz Calendar, whose seven movements depict the characteristics claimed by the famous nursery rhyme for children born on the different days of the week (“Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace, etc.), as being completely a jazz piece, rather than some kind of third stream classical piece. It’s scoring is for a small jazz band, and it is something of a tribute to Gil Evans. The piece is a complete charmer and it got a fabulous performance.
All these concerts can be heard on the Proms website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms) for a week after the performance.
The logic according to which the Copland Fanfare for the Common Man and the Barber Adagio for Strings make good companion pieces on a concert for Arnold Bax’s Second Symphony and the Bartok Second Piano Concerto eludes me. When you add that that’s just the first two thirds of a concert which also includes the Prokofiev Fourth Symphony, it gets even more curious. That was, however, the content of the Proms concert presented on August 16 by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Litton. Fanfare for the Common Man is the sort of piece that could be described as Virgil Thomson said about another piece: it’s the perfect hors d’oeuvre: nobody’s appetite was ever hurt by it and nobody ever missed much by missing it; he might have added, in this case, that nobody’s budget was ever broken by rehearsing it. Whatever the merits of the music, and they’re considerable, its title is its big selling point; Copland had good reason to be grateful to Henry Wallace, who coined the phrase, or least brought it to political prominence.
The Barber Adagio has developed a reputation as the saddest music ever and an official mourning piece and just about anything other than a really good and well made piece of music. Andrew Litton, fortunately, didn’t treat it like funeral music; his performance was not overly lush and it moved and had shape. The Bartok, whose soloist was Yuja Wang, had lots of vigor and pep.
The big piece on the concert was the Bax Symphony. One (this one, anyway) hears Bax’s name a lot more often than one hears his music. The Second Symphony is generally in the same sound world as Vaughan Williams, but with a more motoric, driving, maybe even harsh, quality. The agitated quality of this particular work is apparently part of its being a product of his relationship with Harriet Cohen, a pianist who is nowadays known mainly as the dedicatee of the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms of Bartok, but was considerable player and a champion of modern British music, and, apparently, a handful personally. (Glenda Jackson’s last work as an actress, incidentally, was playing Cohen in a short movie by Ken Russell about Bax; this comes to mind as a result of reading in the program that Russell had sponsored the recording of Bax’s symphonies.) The symphony itself is continually interesting and compelling, and well worth hearing.
The Prokofiev Fourth Symphony was commissioned by Serge Koussevtizky for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony (along with a bunch of other pieces, including Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms); it’s first version was rather short and consisted of big chunks (directly, apparently) of his ballet The Prodigal Son: either because he was under the gun to get it finished or because he was unhappy with the size of the commissioning fee. In 1947 he revised the work, making it longer, and, presumably, attempting to increase its quotient of socialist realism (which didn’t help him much in the terror the Soviet government unleashed on composers in 1948). The revised version of the piece is about forty minutes long. Its orchestration is brilliant and effective. The first movement, after a lyric introduction, has some manic, almost comic, and appealing music which keeps coming back. I think the Bax is a better piece. Read the rest of this entry »
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On Wednesday August 10, the Proms celebrated the upcoming 75th birthday of Steve Reich with a late night concert of his music performed by Ensemble Modern, Synergy Vocals, Mats Bergström, and Reich himself. In its early days, when it was first getting to be known, minimalism was perceived (and, often, presented) in negatives: it was generally supposed to be about what its composers and their fans didn’t like and were reacting against (did that make it reactionary?) They were tired of dissonant, “ugly,” chromatic music (surely this applied as much to Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornett Coleman, and Captain Beefheart as to Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter), but also of music whose alleged structure could be hard to perceive on the surface of the music and whose harmonic motion and direction was unclear. They were also interested in certain non-western rhythmic practices (an interest they shared with people like Carter). The negatives didn’t need to be stressed, of course, since there were and are plenty of positives. In Reich’s case it includes the diatonic purity of the notes and the clear and compelling trajectory of the harmony. It also includes the use of material as carefully and expertly designed and constructed as that of the Bach Inventions, that carefully considered and skillfully realized construction being required in order for those complex pieces to work as well as they do.
The program began with Reich and Rainer Römer performing Clapping Music, one or his most elegant and effective pieces. It is the clearest and simplest example of his early practice of phasing and certainly a demonstration of Reich’s early insistence that one had to be able to perceive the structure of a piece in real time as it was progressing. A rhythm is superimposed on itself, but shifted one beat at each repetition until it rotates around to its original position in “the bar.” My recollection is that each stage of the process of the piece is supposed to be done twelve times, but in this performance it was fewer and not always the same number of repetitions. For me the truncation caused it to lose some of its effect.
As Reich’s music developed greater complexity it of necessity lost the clarity of immediate perceptibility of structure which he had required early on. Paul Griffiths’s program note mentioned Reich’s citing of the music of Perotin as relation of his, but in Perotin’s music one hears the cantus not as a tune but as a series of drones whose exact lengths and their relationship one to another are imperceptible. The structure of the other two works on the concert were, therefore, much less easily followed than was that of Clapping Music. In the various Counterpoint pieces a solo instrument picks out of a complex canonic texture (which could be either recorded or performed by a number of the same instruments live) resultant lines; by now there are several of these for various instruments, including flute, clarinet, and ‘cello.. Mats Bergström (using the recorded option) performed the one entitled Electric Counterpoint, for electic guitar, which Reich wrote in 1987 for Pat Matheny with great aplomb.
The big work on the concert was Music for 18 Musicians, written by Reich in 1974 and 76 for an early major concert of his work at Town Hall in New York, marking a milestone both in his development as a composer and his general acceptance as a major figure. Reich’s music is very difficult and requires great care, concentration, and seriousness in preparation, especially when, as in this piece, it has to be done without a conductor. During his early years, Reich refused to publish the music and kept very tight control over who was allowed to play it in order to avoid bad performances. This performance (which actually involved 19 players on the stage) had high style and great ease, and was very exciting and effective, as any good realization of such exciting music would be. Whether it exactly sounded like a ‘joy machine,’ which is how Paul Griffiths program note described it, is an open question. The very large audience received all of the performances on the concert with unalloyed enthusiasm.
On the August 9th Prom, The BBC National Orchestra of Wales with clarinetist Robert Plane and Philippe Schartz playing flugel horn, conducted by Fançois-Xavier Roth, presented the first London performance of Centauromachy by the orchestra’s Composer-in-Association, Simon Holt. The title refers to the mythical creatures, the centaurs, which had the torso of man combined with the hindquarters of a horse. Holt’s work, which is a concerto for clarinet and flugel horn, is concerned with evoking various aspects of the stories about the centaurs rather than depicting those stories in some sort of narrative form. The first movement, which is for the soloists unaccompanied (conducted in this performance), suggests the two natures of the creatures: wise and intelligent, but also impulsive and lustful. The second, portraying Chiron, the wisest and kindest of the centaurs, in a state of dreaming, continues the dialog of the soloists against the backdrop of the orchestra. The third, representing a centaur glimpsed through trees, presents the soloists playing contrasting parts in varying tempi laid over a recurring series of chords of irregular lengths in the orchestra, rhythmically independent of them. The fourth movement evokes the legendary battle between the centaurs and their cousins the Lapiths after their drunken misbehavior at a Lapith wedding. The final movement is elegy for Chiron, whose sacrifice of his life for that of Prometheus allowed humans the use of fire. Holt’s music is always expert and attractive, always compelling, and always effectively written for the instruments. Although it is supposed to have different movements and contrasting characteristics (a slow movement–the third–and a fast climactic one–the fourth, for instance) it seems really to be one more or less continuous piece, albeit with some breaks, in the same tempo, and to have throughout the same undifferentiated affect.
The Holt was preceded on the concert by two pieces by Frank Bridge (mostly known as Benjamin Britten’s teacher), the seventieth anniversary of whose death is being commemorated by performances of several of his works on this year’s Proms season. Enter Spring, an ebullient single movement which begins with a sort of mosaic of fragmentary melodic figures that coalesce over the duration of the piece into longer, more continuous phrases, is colorfully orchestrated and lilting. Blow Out, You Bugles, written in 1918 in the aftermath of the first world war, for tenor and orchestra, sets a sonnet of Rupert Brooke (who had died in the war), solemnly and a little in the patriotic manner of Elgar; to be the work of a pacifist, it is perhaps surprisingly triumphalist. Ben Johnson, the tenor soloist, sang beautifully. The following night’s Prom, by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Vassily Sinaisky, also included a work of Bridge, his last, the Overture ‘Rebus’ of 1940. It also offered Gustav Holsts’s Invocation for ‘cello and orchestra, in which Juilian Lloyd Webber was the soloist. It is a highly effective piece which somehow got put aside after its first few performances in 1911 and remained unpublished and unperformed until recently.
All these concerts can be heard on the Proms website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms) for a week after the performance.
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There was a certain amount of preliminary drama in the few days before the first performances of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on March 3 through 5, during the course of which James Levine, who has been plagued by a series of health problems for several years and who had canceled the preceding concert due to illness, first announced that he was unable to participate in any of remaining concerts of the current season, and then, a day later, due to those recurring health problems, resigned as the orchestra’s music director, leaving considerable doubt about how the remainder of the season’s programming might be changed and who might be conducting the orchestra in those concerts. The program containing the Birtwistle remained as planned, with Marcelo Lehninger, one of the BSO’s assistant conductors. Although Mr. Lehninger’s abilities are certainly considerable, the extremely high level of playing in the whole concert was probably attributable as much to the presence of Christian Tetzlarff, who played in all the works on the concert, which included, as well as the Birtwistle, Mozart’s Rondo in C, K. 373 and the Bartok Concerto No. 2.
Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto is in one movement, lasting about twenty-five minutes. Its intense dramatic quality is not as a result of movement or of development but of what Birtwistle called endless exposition, the continual tension caused by the rotation of fixed and unchanging highly characterized musical identities, which is a quality his music has always shared with that of Varese. The part of the solo violin which is almost constant throughout the work has an intense and almost delirious vocal quality, which seems new in his instrumental music. Over the course of the work the soloist is joined with the first flute, the piccolo, a solo ‘cello, the oboe, and the bassoon, respectively, in a series of duets which Birtwistle describes as “a way of focusing the dialog.” Although the orchestra is large, there is always considerable registral space left for the violin, as a result of which there is, in a way that it remarkable, never any problem with balance between the soloist and the orchestra; in fact the texture is extraordinarily transparent throughout, despite its considerable complexity. The concerto is profoundly beauty and its drama is deeply satisfying, and the performance of Tetzlaff, Lehninger, and the orchestra was majesterial.
The American tuba virtuoso Harvey Phillips devoted his life to teaching and encouraging younger tuba players, promoting the tuba as an instruments, and especially to expanding the repertory for the instrument. Phillips had a long and close association with Gunther Schuller, as a free lance musician in New York in the 1950′s and 60′s, and as part of the administrative team at the New England Conservatory during the early years when Schuller was president of that institution, and their friendship continued when Phillips became a professor at Indiana University, where he taught from 1971 to 1994. Schuller wrote one of his best works, the Capriccio for tuba and chamber orchestra for Phillips in 1969, and before he died in 2010, after he had already stopped playing the tuba, Phillips asked Schuller to write another work for tuba and orchestra. Schuller’s Second Tuba Concerto, which was given its first performance by Mike Roylance, the tuba player of the Boston Symphony, with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, on February 15, then, as well as being a major addition to the tuba repertory, is a testament to Schuller’s respect, admiration, and affection for a dear friend, personified by his instrument.
Schuller’s career as an orchestral and jazz musician and a virtuoso horn player as well as an active conductor or all sorts of music has given him an encyclopedic knowledge of the orchestra, and he employs the full panoply of possibilities to highlight all the virtues of the tuba as a solo instrument, demonstrating its enormous range and its agility and flexibility in every register, as well as its ability as a lyric, expressive instrument, capable of long singing phrases. Since balance with the orchestra is not a problem with the tuba, Schuller did not need to clear out a registral space for the instrument. Instead he filled the orchestra’s ranks with other extraordinarily low instruments, contrabassoon, contrabass clarinet, as well as other low brass, including another tuba, and he revels in the neighborhood made possible by such scoring: the beginning of the first movement featured the soloist accompanied by five double basses, and there are duets with the soloist and other low wind instruments, including, in the last movement, a climactic duet cadenza for the soloist and the orchestral tuba.
In the day Schuller was a proud twelve-tone composer, albeit one who mixed up serialism with jazz, both written and improvised, producing music known by the name he coined for it, third stream. In these post-modern times he has moved away both from serialism and to some extent from jazz, to a more mild, generally modernist language. The four movements of the concerto, arranged in a slow-fast-slow-fast order partake of this later style with, especially in the third movement, a sort of aria for the tuba with Bartokian shadings, handsome results. The last movement, which begins with a slow introduction with ominous qualities, leading to an intensely energetic fast movement, manages to include, seamlessly, a relatively lengthy quotation from the Capriccio. Roylance’s performance of this genial appealing work was sovereign; the poise and polish of his playing was matched by that of the orchestra. At 85, Schuller seems to be hardly at all slowed down by age. Not only did he conduct the entire concert by the BU orchestra, which also contained the Prelude to The Creation by Haydn, and the Brahms Fourth Symphony, two hours before the concert he was across town at the New England Conservatory, introducing a performance of his second String Quartet by the Boromeo Quartet.
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