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.
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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.
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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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Over the last two weeks I’ve been intensely involved in the final stages of preparations for the annual New England Conservatory Preparatory School Contemporary Music Festival, other known as Today’s Youth Perform Today’s Music, which happens this coming Saturday and Sunday. My friend and colleague John Ziarko and I started the festival almost twenty years ago because we figured that the best way to get kids to like new music was to get them to play it, working on it in a serious way with people who understood and believed in it. I have to say that experience seems to have borne out the truth of that assumption. Every year we have a featured composer; over the years these have included Milton Babbitt, Michael Finnissy, Judith Weir, Chen Yi, Alvin Singleton, Yehudi Wyner, Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, Steven Hartke, Sebastian Currier, Donald Martino, Robert Helps, Peter Maxwell Davies, Nico Muhly, and Ralph Farris (an NEC Prep School alum) and Ethel, not in that order. The degree to which kids are excited by the fact that they’re meeting and having dealings with the composer who wrote music that they’ve learned and how much it means to them, is striking, and can’t be exaggerated. Over the years the scope of the festival has expanded to include a composition masterclass and eight concerts over the weekend, and involving several hundred kids.
This year we’re featuring Michael Finnissy again, after about 15 years. Aside from a number of chamber pieces, including an advanced string quartet which I’ve been coaching playing Multiple Forms of Constraint, another advanced piano trio playing In Stiller Nacht, and less advanced groups playing several pieces Michael wrote for the festival, the Advanced Piano Performance Seminar, directed by Angel Rivera, learned all of the Gershwin arrangements, along with My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose, the 3rd of the Verdi Arrangements, and William Billings. Work on all of these started in September, and over the fall the seminar had coaching from Nick Hodges, a champion of Finnissy’s music who was in town to play with the Boston Symphony, and Stephen Olsen. Two of the younger orchestras of the nine in the school, conducted by Adam Grossman and Peter Jarvis, learned East London Heyes and Plain Harmony, respectively. In addition to all the Finnissy, the Intermediate Piano Performance Seminar learned pieces by Larry Bell, Eric Sawyer, Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee, and Joshua Rifkin. There are also pieces by Judith Weir, Tan Dun, Astor Piazzolla, Milton Babbitt, and Mark Summer.
Unfortunately Michael has not been well and he’s not going to be able to come, which presented a problem we’ve never had before–keeping the air from going out of the balloon since the composer wasn’t going to be there. Dealing with this situation led us into realms that were new to us (to me certainly–and I realize that this says more about how behind the curve I/we am/are than how cutting edge it is), which is to say that we had two masterclass coaching sessions with Michael via skype last Saturday (thanks to the invaluable help of parent Francis Fung). Both of those turned out to be very successful and productive, and, apparently, fun for all involved. We won’t be able to do that with the composition masterclass next week, but Martin Amlin, from Boston University, agreed to do it.
One of the other effects of the festival over the years has been a increasing number of kids writing music; and their music is featured strongly. Of the eighty-four pieces on the festival this year, thirty two of them, ranging from piano pieces to string quartets to string orchestra pieces, were written by students in the school, who are either private student of Larry Bell, Alla Cohen, or me, or a member of the Composition Seminar, which I teach, or the Young Composers’ Seminar, taught by Ginny Latts. All of this is very exciting and, if you’re thinking about making it happen, tiring.
Ironically, Michael’s residency at NEC was coordinated with a residency at Boston University–the first time we’ve done anything like this, which involved, as well as his doing a talk and a masterclass, two concerts featuring his music, one on Februrary 8, by the group Time’s Arrow, which I direct, featuring music of Finnissy for unspecified instrumentation, along with two elastic scoring pieces of Percy Grainger and Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for twelve radios by Cage, and another on February 4, featuring Xanthos and the NEC Callathumpian Consort, directed by Stephen Drury. These concerts are going in Michael’s absence as well. So a lot of Finnissy happening in Boston…
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Apart from the usual nightly or more Proms concerts that happen in the Albert Hall, there were two subsidiary series which the BBC presented under the auspices of the Proms at Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square, a chamber music series on Monday afternoons and a Saturday Matinee series. The installment of the latter which happened on the 21st of August was presented by I Fagiolini (an early music vocal ensemble whose director is Robert Hollingworth) and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, with Lawrence Power, violist, and Ian Watson, accordion player, as soloists. The very interesting program paired pieces of early music with modern pieces which were either based on that piece or somehow or other associated with it. After a performance of Flow My Tears by Dowland (which is the version of his Lachrymae tune with words), Power and the Britten Sinfonia played Lacrymae by Britten. Even though the title suggest a connection with the Dowland tune in question, the Britten piece is actually meditative variations on another Dowland song, Can She Excuse (presumably Britten thought Lacrhrymae was a better, more evocative title). After I Fagiolini sang Tristis est anima mea and Moro, lasso, al mio duio by Don Carlo Gesualdo, the Britten Sinfonia played Carlo by Brett Dean. Carlo is a sort of memorial to October 26, 1590, which was the night on which Gesualdo’s unfaithful first wife and her lover were murdered, either, according to legend, by Gesualdo himself, or, at least, certainly at his instigation. It begins with a recording of Moro, lasso, which begins to expand as the orchestra enters, by the addition of bits of other Gesualdo madrigals. Over the course of the intensely dramatic piece, the orchestral music, which is more “modern” and impassioned, completely engulfs the tape of the actual vocal music by Gesualdo.
Betty Olivero began the work which became Neharo’t Neharo’t during the fierce war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006. Moved by the television images of victims, corpses, and mourners on both sides, she wrote a piece which was about laments and mourning. Her work uses the work of professional mourners in various Mediterranean countries, both recorded and transcribed for the instruments, along with music derived from Monteverdi’s Madrigals of Love and War and Orfeo’s lament from Orfeo. The earlier part of the piece involves impassioned, florid melismas exchanged between the viola and accordion soloists, accompanied by two string orchestras, building up, both in texture and volume, to the climax of the piece, which is the moment at which the actual recordings of the mourners are introduced. From that point the work unwinds its intensity. Olivero, in her use of the soloist in contrast to the orchestras, represents the relationship between the individual and the group to which he/she belongs. As the music recedes from the climax, occasional soloists from the orchestra detach themselves from the orchestra portraying the more personalized experience of other individuals in the collective. Neharo’t Neharo’t means Rivers Rivers in Hebrew, evoking rivers of blood and tears that are shed by mourning women in disastrous situations; however Olivero also intended to imply hope, since the root of the Hebrew word ‘nahar’(river) resembles the word ‘nehara’, meaning ‘ray of light.’ The rapturous intensity of Neharo’t Neharo’t was matched by that of the performance, particularly from the soloists, Powers and Watson. It was preceded on the concert by Lamento della ninfa and the end of Act Two of Orfeo by Monteverdi.
On August 23, The Swedish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, gave the first UK performance of their compatriot Albert Schnelzer’s A Freak in Burbank, a tribute to the American director Tim Burton. While composing his work, Schnelzer was reading a biography of Burton; he tried to imagine and evoke Burton’s life in “the pastel-colored suburb” of Burbank,California, where Burton grew up, and to suggest the loneliness and sorrow as well as the manic, moderately destructive playfulness which he felt sure must have characterized Burton’s childhood. The other influence on the work was Haydn, and it in fact has the general outline of the first movement of a Haydn Symphony, beginning with slow music–or at least long notes, initiated by somewhat grotesque flurries of notes and sporadic short twitches, predicting the speed of the fast music that follows. The rollicking fast music is eventually interrupted by plaintive slower music, shimmering with hints of the fast tempo, which morphs into the introduction and is elided with the recapitulation. The climax of the work, almost at its very end, momentarily combines both the musics before ending with a bang. The language of the piece is neo-classical and tonal. Dausgaard and the orchestra performed it with energy and humor, and with obvious enjoyment.
On August 25, Leif Ove Andsnes and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra gave the UK Premiere of La mattina (Piano Concerto No. 2) by Bent Sørensen. There were several sources which suggested elements of the work: After a performance by Andsnes of the Mozart 17th Piano Concert in Vienna, he and Sørensen went to a piano-bar where late at night Andsnes played a Busoni transcription of a Bach Chorale Prelude. Sørensen described the music as being ‘something from the abyss that floats upwards and in the end became a halo over our heads,’ and that experience provided the germ of the idea for the scenario as well as the character of the music of the work. The first of the work’s five movements begin with dark hued, quietly slow moving music low in the piano which is in the manner of the Bach-Busoni Chorale Prelude. It is surrounded, shadowed, if you like, by wisps of music in the orchestra, played at the very edge of inaudibility, which gradually becomes more present, leading without a break into the luminous, high scurrying music of the second movement, which enfolds the piano, playing fragments of music, whose occasional breaks leave shimmering motionless remnants of the orchestra’s music. The increasing intensity of the music leads first to a flurry of guitar-like pizzicatos, and soon after to the sound of claves, played by members of the orchestra. The slow third movement expands the register and enriches the range of timbre of the orchestra, even as musical argument intensifies, followed by a claves-accompanied cadenza. The more tentative fourth movement, where the piano plays in alternation with the orchestra, portraying a sort of sunrise, leads to the vigorous Presto finale, whose music and texture are radiantly Mozartian, which eventually spirals up into oblivion. The most immediately striking aspect of this work, as is the case with all of Bent Sørensen’s music that I have heard, is the delicately and carefully, one might well say ‘exquisitely,’ heard sound of it, which is instantly arresting. The subtle and compelling construction and argument of the work becomes clearer over its progress from beginning to end. Andsnes and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, who had played brilliantly the other works on the concert, by Mozart (Haffner Symphony and C minor Piano Concerto) and Greig (Holberg Suite), without a conductor (and, in the Grieg, by memory), were conducted in the Sørensen by Per Kristian Skalstad. That performance was enthralling.
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The Prom concert on August 20, by The Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, began with The Foundry (1927) by Alexander Mosolov. This is a four minute bit of Russian avant-garde constructivism, portraying in the most realistic way possible with an orchestra…well, a foundry. It was first performed in Lenningrad in 1927 at a concert celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The Foundry was originally intended to be the first of four movements or music for a ballet, which was never produced, to be called Steel. The other movements, which have been lost, were called ‘In Prison,’ ‘At the Ball,’ and ‘In the Street.’ It became celebrated and much performed in the US and Europe in its day. Henry Wood performed it on Proms concerts seven times between 1931 and 1940. It makes a hell of a jolly industrial racket; the best moments were the two times when the eight horn players stood and blared out a unison ‘tune’ over the general din, the second time to the accompaniment of one of the percussionists whacking away at a metal sheet.
The concert of August 17, which began with the Pärt Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, included the first performance of Huw Watkins’ Violin Concerto, a BBC Proms commission, played by Alina Ibragimova, with the BBC Symphony, conducted by Edward Gardner. Watkins, who is a professor of composition at the Royal College of Music, is at least as well known as a pianist (and he is a formidable one) as he is a composer. In the composer portrait concert which preceded the Prom, he played his Four Inventions for piano, joined one group of students from the RCM in performing his Sad Steps for piano and string sextet, and conducted another group in a performance of Gig, a seven minute work for the same combination as the Ravel Introduction and Allegro.
The Concerto starts with a sort of bang which generates a lot of energy. The soloist alternates playing agitated arpeggiated music which helps to contribute to the maintenance of this energy and longer lyrical lines which float on top of it. The first movement of the piece is the composing out of the gradual unwinding of the activity generated by its beginning, and finally unfolds itself into the second (the three movements are clearly meant to proceed without a break; it was unfortunate for its effect that the performers chose to make fairly long breaks between them), which is a gently rocking song-like piece. The third movement, not completely successfully, it seemed to me, was intended to regain the energy of the first and carry it further before ending once again with a quiet coda representing its final conclusive dissipation, making all three movements one span. The Concerto, like all of the pieces on the composer portrait, was tonal, with lucid harmony and transparent textures and was thoughtfully made and appealing. As an encore, Ms. Ibragimova, who is a champion of Watkins’s music, played the last movement of his Partita for solo violin, which is an attractive, energetic, and snappy piece.
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