Every year’s Proms has several thematic threads, often celebrating anniversaries and birthdays. This year, no exception, had a large number of performances commemorating the centennials of the births of Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutoslawski, and a bunch of them occurred during the slice of the Proms that I was around for. In the concerts in the Albert Hall Britten was represented by Les Illuminations, performed by Ian Bostridge and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Harding, in their concert on August 20. Les Illuminations sets poems of Rimbaud, a poet whose work was introduced to Britten by W. H. Auden; Britten began it with settings of two poems for Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, and she sang them at the Queen’s Hall under Henry Wood. Later that year Britten added settings of seven more poems, connected by the refrain “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” [I alone have the key to this savage parade.] Wyss was the soloist for the first complete performance in 1940 in London, but by 1941 the work had become the property of Peter Pears, who sang the first American performance with the CBS Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Britten. Ian Bostridge has become a major performer of a lot of the music that Britten wrote for Pears. He delivered a performance on this concert with a good deal of confidence, even swagger, which is appropriate for this piece. This listener has never warmed up to Les Illumination, or, for that matter, to Bostridge as a performer of Britten’s music, and this performance didn’t change anything. The concert began with a brief fanfare, derived from his oratorio The Mask of Time, by Michael Tippett, which was followed by his Concerto for Double String Orchestra, his earliest work. Britten and Tippet were contemporaries and friends; when the first recording of the piece was made, during the Second World War, while Tippett was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Britten was the co-producer. Read the rest of this entry »
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The late night Prom presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov on the 19th of August is the kind that is guaranteed to draw an audience whose interest and enthusiasm is in inverse proportion to its size. I think there used to be more of them, but it’s hard to be sure. John White, born in 1936, is a rather legendary figure of one wing of the British avant garde, associated with composers such as Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars, Howard Skepton, Roger Smalley, and Dave Smith, as well as Michael Finnissy. He is best known for his piano sonatas, of which there at least 200. People who know his music are devoted to it, but it rarely gets played. This performance of his Chord-Breaking Machine from 1971 was the first one I’ve encountered. The piece involves short rhythmic patters repeated at different rates in the winds and strings, while the brass sustain the harmonies produced thereby, against conflicting rhythmic patters in the percussion. The process as set up blurs the edges of the boundaries of the movement in time from one harmony and the next. It’s really an early minimalist process piece dating from a time before the genre had been conclusively named. This was a very good example of it, with lots of energy, and it was enjoyable and interesting, although it seemed a bit short. Read the rest of this entry »
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On the Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall on Monday, August 12, the women of the BBC Singers, along with flute player Philippa Davies and harpists Lucy Wakeford, Helen Tunstall, and Hugh Webb, of the Nash Ensemble conducted by Nicholas Kok, performed the UK premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Moth Requiem. During the short interview before the performance, Birwistle said that as a young man he had had an interest in natural history, and was particularly interested in moths. Moths, he said, have a bad reputation because “they eat your cashmere,” going on to say that of the more than a thousand species of moths, only two eat cashmere. He sees the moths as emblematic of thing which are disappearing, both in the world, and in his life. “A lot of people seem to be going from my life,” he said, “and soon I’ll be going.” He wanted to write a piece which dealt with that, but he didn’t want to write anything morbid or sugary; he wanted it to have some idea of the anger he feels about it all.
Like Ravel in Daphnis and Chloe and Vaughan Williams in Flos Campi, Birtwistle uses the chorus instrumentally. Unlike those other composers, he gives them words to sings, although making it clear from the beginning that the perception of those words is not the point. The text of The Moth Requiem is the Latin names of twelve extinct species of moths, along with a poem by Robin Blaser, who Read the rest of this entry »
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Mark Anthony Turnage’s Frieze, performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, on August 11, and Nashit Kahn’s The Gate of the Moon, a concerto for sitar and orchestra, performed by Kahn himself with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by David Antherton, on August 12, both raise the question of how one in a new piece can meaningfully reference other music. Turnage’s work was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society to celebrate the organization’s bicentennial and to be on the same program with their most famous and, probably, greatest commission, the Beethoven Ninth Symphony; this shorter work which is clearly modeled on the Beethoven in its general layout, is a sort of gloss in his own language on the older one. Kahn’s Concerto joins an orchestra of western instruments and a single Indian one and aims at joining their indigenous musical languages in a meaningful way as well. Read the rest of this entry »
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Tuesday night’s Prom concert, by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds, included, as part of a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, Edmund Rubbra’s Ode to the Queen, performed regally by Susan Bickley. Rubbra’s music is close to being completely unknown now, but in its day was rather successful; in 1961 on the Third Program, what is now BBC Radio 3, there were more of his pieces played than works of Berg, Copland, Ives, Janacek, Messiaen, or Tippett, according to the program notes for this concert. That all was changed by William Glock, who, apparently, when he took over as comptroller of the BBC, decreed that no more of Rubbra’s music would be played, and that had its effects on the possibilities for the music’s dissemination. I have to say that absolutely nothing about Ode to the Queen seemed to indicate that that was a bad move. Occasional pieces are usually not the best indication of a composer’s music, but although somewhere in all of Rubbra’s music (and there seems to be lots of it) there must be something to support Adrian Boult’s remark, quoted in the program, that Rubbra “goes on creating masterpieces,” this wasn’t it. The program started with Walton’s march Orb and Sceptre, which was written for the coronation; which seems to me to be far less successful than Crown Imperial, the march he wrote for the previous coronation.
The program also included another work which ran afoul of stylistic fashion, the Symphony in F#, Op. 40, of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. By the time Korngold finished his symphony and it was played, in 1952, he had already been more or less forced by events
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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 »
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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 »
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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 »
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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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