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.
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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Among the events being commemorated in this year’s Proms season, is the 75th birthday of Arvo Pärt. This celebration kicked off on August 17 with a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, which began with Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, and which followed Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The intention was that the Britten would follow without a break; the program actually said that. But as it turned out, the body language of both the conductor and the orchestra told the audience at the end of the Pärt that something had stopped, and the audience responded with applause, so that particular idea didn’t exactly work.
The Cantus was one of the first works written in Pärt’s tintinabulum style, in which a stepwise melody entwines with and is surrounded by the notes of a triad. It is said that Pärt developed this system (whatever it is) out of his disillusionment with the twelve-tone system (whatever that is). This narrative conforms to the current historiography of post-World War II music which can be summed up, paraphrasing Animal Farm, as “twelve-tone bad–-anything other than twelve-tone good,” which wants to represent “twelve tone music” as a sort of cruel and unnatural Stalinist dictatorship that was out for the complete and crushing domination of the musical world, and oppressed composers and audiences alike with an iron fist, until it was overthrown by a few brave souls, but in this particular case, if not any other, the story is more complicated than that.
Pärt and a number of his contemporaries in the Soviet Union enthusiastically embraced “serialism” as a political statement, so they saw it not as being a means of their intellectual and musical oppression, but in fact just the opposite. “Twelve-tone music” and “serialism” are terms that are hardly ever defined, and they have varieties of meanings even if they are, so it’s always a little hard to know exactly what anybody who says or said they are or were writing twelve-tone or serial music might actually be or have been up to, although it would seem likely that whatever it is or was, it would involve a music which would be heavily chromatic–or chromatic, anyway. In any case, when Pärt turned away from whatever it he was doing that he thought of as serial, he was not signaling some kind of return to or affirmation of a former status quo, but among, other things, moving to an equally, possibly more, subversive political statement, since it involved a language and techniques which evoked religious practices. He was developing a style which was much more pared down and diatonic and whose rhetoric and grammar was, if anything, probably more “modern” by means of its simplicity.
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On Thursday night The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins, performed La navette by James Dillon, giving the work its first UK performance. Born in 1950, Dillon could be described as a ‘New Complexity” composer, along with Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy, Richard Barrett, among others. He has written lots of music, a lot of which has been played on the Proms concerts and other places, and he is celebrated in the UK, where is definitely considered to be an important composer. Although his music is not so well known in the US, he has done a fair amount of teaching there, including at Oberlin and The University of Minnesota, where he is currently on the faculty.
The title of La navette is translated as shuttle, in this case a shuttle used for weaving. This piece, which dates from 2001,was written at the same time as Dillion’s music theater piece Philomela, finished in 2004, and it refers, at least obliquely, to the Greek myth which is the story of the opera. In Ovid’s version of the myth, Philomela is raped by Tereus, the husband of her sister Procne and king of Thrace. To keep Philomela from telling about his crime, Tereus cuts out her tongue. Philomela nonetheless reveals her story by weaving it into a cloth that she sends to Tereus. When Procne discovers what has happened, she kills Tereus’s–and her–son and feeds him to Tereus in revenge. The gods eventual intervene and turn all three of them into birds; Philomela, who becomes the nightingale, has her voice restored in the bird’s song. As Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes in his program note, the reference to the loom’s shuttle evokes dark and violent mythology, but “it also speaks of hope, ingenuity, and resilience: all qualities possessed by Philomela as she passed the shuttle back and forth” to weave the cloth that will tell her story. ” La navette” can also be translated as ‘the commute,’ however, and Dillon also intended to imply a continuous movement from one state of being to another.
La navette is a twenty minute piece for a very large orchestra. It begins with very slow music which is presented in several simultaneous strands. These strands are eventually separated, but together they give at the beginning the impression of luminous, motionless music quietly throbbing. After developing more activity, this music transforms itself into a steady movement (suggesting the back and forth of the loom?), and then into a sort of quietly heavy inexorable thumping (imagine the Sacrificial Dance done quietly and in very slow motion). Although the beat of this section is quite a bit faster, the staticness of the pitches and particularly of the harmony, militates against the perception of increased speed. As in the two other sections, this one builds in volume and density, and finally ends, neither with a bang nor a whimper, but rather in sort of last quiet gasp. Given the amount of stuff going on most of the time, one wouldn’t necessarily expect the texture of La navette to be as transparent or to sound as luminously as it does, or that so many of the details would be so clearly audible. This has not been the case is other of Dillon’s pieces that I’ve heard. The sound of it is always seductively attractive and appealing. In terms of its continuity, I could imagine one thinking that it was hypnotic and I could imagine one thinking that it was slightly tedious after a while; I’m inclined more toward the former view.
This very difficult piece was on a quite long program with other pieces, which, though standard repertory (Sheherazade, the Tschaikovsky Second Symphony, the Lizst First Piano Concerto, and the Mozart Overture to The Impresario–not in that order), were not at all easy; it must have been very tiring for the orchestra. Martyn Brabbins in all the pieces, but especially in the Dillon, where it was especially welcomed, presented lucid, no nonsense, beautiful performances.
Prior to the Albert Hall concert, the Royal Scottish Academy MusicLab, presented a composer portrait of Dillon’s Music across the street at the RCM. Zone (..de azul), for a fairly large ensemble, a relatively recent piece is a mellifluous, shimmering, and (as Adrew McGregor described it during the event) iridescent piece. ….Once Upon a Time, which Dillon described as his Opus One (everything earlier having been withdrawn, and therefore is being remembered as in a story) is for the same instrumental combination as Varese’s Octandre, and, in fact, demonstrates, in its textures and the shaping of its instrumental lines, Dillon’s great admiration for Varese. Between those two pieces, both of which got slam bang performances, conducted by Jessica Cottis, were two gently contemplative piano pieces, Dragonfly and Charm played by the excellent pianist Ed Cohen.
Both these concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player) for a week after the concert.
The slice of the Proms which I’m getting this summer seems less of full of twentieth and twenty-first century music than usual. Works of Gunther Schuller, Simon Holt, Harrison Birtwistle, Stockhausen, Colin Matthews, Luke Bedford, Brett Dean, Oliver Knussen, (late) Stravinsky, George Benjamin, Stephen Montague, Takamitsu, and Julian Anderson were done before I got here and music by Judith Weir, Bayan Northcott, Brian Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey, James MacMillan, Tansy Davies, and Jonathan Dove will be on after I leave. But there’s still plenty happening while I’m around.
On Friday night, August 13, the BBC Philharmonic and Gianandrea Noseda, on a program with otherwise pretty standard pieces (Verdi Forza de Destino overture, Bruch Concerto, Schumann Fourth Symphony), performed Partita by Dallapiccola. Written in 1930 to 1933, before Dallapiccola started writing 12-tone music, it is larger, both in terms of it’s length (twenty seven minutes) and it’s orchestration (triple winds, alto and tenor saxophone, lots of brass, two harps, piano, organ, lots of percussion, and strings) than one usually thinks about Dallapiccola’s works being. There are four movements, the last being a setting with soprano of a Latin poem, ‘The Lullaby of the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ Although the music certainly gets big and loud at places, particularly in the third movement, much of it has the delicacy, mellifluousness, and transparency
that characterize his better known pieces. In fact, it’s elegant and sonorously seductive music, especially the last movement, in which Sarah Tynan was the rapt soloist.
Two days earlier the concert by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Thomas Dausgaard began each half with choral pieces by Ligeti, sung by the Danish National Concert Choir and the Danish National Vocal Ensemble. The first featured Night and Morning, early pieces setting epigrammatic poems by the Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres describing, in fact, night and morning. These pieces were among the last that Ligeti wrote before he left Hungary for the west in 1956, which means that stylistically they would have been at least marginally acceptable under the constraints of the communist government of the time. The liveliness and skillfulness of the choral writing demonstrated how completely Ligeti had mastered traditional compositional techniques. Lux Aeterna, possibly Ligeti’s most famous work, which was written in 1966 and balanced those pieces on the second half of the concert, demonstrated the lengths to which his imagination and mastery were able to take those same techniques when he got the chance.
The concert concluded with Music of the Spheres by Rued Langgaard, which can possibly best be described as being the damdest piece. Langgaard is, apparently, one of the most important Danish composers of the first part of the twentieth century. Written in 1918, when Langgaard was 25 years old, it consists of about 35 minutes of texture of various density, register, and orchestration without any traditional elements such as harmony, melody, or bass, in one continuous span comprising many shorter sections. It is, in the words of Malcolm MacDonald in the program note “an apocalyptic religious meditation which simultaneously evokes the vastness of space, the wonder of nature and the destructive power of the sun and all its kindred stars,” scored for a soprano soloist (who is hardly noticed in all the traffic), a larger double chorus, and a large orchestra including a ‘glissando piano’, organ, and much percussion. Music of the Spheres could be considered either as being extraordinarily prescient and visionary in predicting certain musical styles of the future (both Ligeti micropolyphony and certain kinds of minimalsim) or as being extraordinarily incompetent, and is probably some combination of both. Still is had some kind of compelling continuity and certain moments were very striking, most memorably so a stretch for a solo wind and four sets of timpiani, which were eventually going full blast and the two times when an second smaller orchestra, hidden in the gallery of the Albert Hall, started playing very different music (or at least very different notes) (that kind of thing works really well in the Albert Hall). It sure was peculiar, and I’m not sure how “good” I think it is, but I didn’t mind hearing it as it was going on, and I wouldn’t be terribly unhappy at the prospect hearing it again sometime in the future if it were to ever cross my path again, although I don’t think I’d ever seek it (or any of Langgaard’s other music, of which, apparently, there are great quantities). The performers played with absolutely blinding conviction and dedication. It was clear that one was never going to hear a stronger or more eloquent advocacy of the piece.
On the first half of Tuesday evening’s concert by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin and Ingo Metmacher Nachstück from Der ferne Klang (1903-1910) by Franz Shrecker and the Violin Concerto of 1937 by Korngold (with Leonidas Kavkos as the soloist) were shown to be pieces of enormous refinement, skill, and beauty, made with great mastery; then on the second half the Mahler Seventh Symphony, that wonderful and thrilling piece of chamber music for 150 players, showed itself to be the primary image and the real thing, an exhilarating and overwhelming masterpiece.
All of these performances are available for listening at the BBC iPlayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player) for seven days after the performance. (Since they get rebroadcast, and those are also available for seven days, they’re actually available for a rather longer time.)
The Prom concert on August 24, by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Valery Gergiev, opened with Nagasaki by Alfred Schnittke, his graduation piece from the Moscow Conservatory. In this piece for chorus, solo mezzo-soprano, and large orchestra (including a theremin), Schnittke set texts reflecting on the devastation of the Japanese city by the atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War by Anatoly Sofronov, described in Calum MacDonald’s program notes as “the official Soviet propaganda poet”, along with poems by two Japanese poets, Eisaku Yoneda and Shimazaki Tōson.
Although the piece was accepted by the Moscow Conservatory, its finale was considered by the Soviet Composers Union as not optimistic enough (probably only a Soviet bureaucrat could demand from a piece about the aftermath of a nuclear attack); Schnittke was accused of having succumbed to”Expressionism” and “forgetting the principles of Realism in music.” Schnittke rewrote the finale, using additional text by his friend Gerogy Fere, and it was approved for performance, which is received in 1959. It was not performed again in Schnittke’s lifetime.
Since it is basically a student piece and from the 50’s, it is probably not surprising that Nagasaki has none of the extreme modernist and post-modernist“funny business” which one thinks about as being characteristic of Schnittke’s music. It’s a rather straight-forward, very strong, very accomplished, very effective piece, showing the influence of Shostakovich. The first movement, which seems a little as though it might be the beginning of the St. Matthew Passion as arranged by Shostakovich, lingers strongly in this listener’s memory.
The second half of the concert was the Eighth Symphony of Dimitri Shostakovich. It is so easy to think about Shostakovich only in terms of his being some kind of political football, that it is often a surprise to come in contact with a piece that, due to an absence of a sexy back story and simply by its sheer quality, makes you realize just what a good composer he was–especially what a brilliant orchestrator. It’s full of striking material and endlessly inventive orchestration, but also very sure in its construction, with a very tight dramatic trajectory. The quieter philosophical last movement and particularly the long gentle coda, with its very light texture featuring a series of instrumental solos accompanied with strikingly unexpected combinations of instruments, is especially memorable. Its hard to imagine either of these pieces receiving better performances than Gergiev and the LSO gave them. Read the rest of this entry »
In celebration of Louis Andriessen’s seventieth birthday, the first UK performance of his The Hague Hacking was scheduled for the Prom concert on August 17. The piece was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and first performed with that orchestra by the pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque and Esa-Pekka Salonen, who were the performers for the Proms, playing this time with the Philharmonia Orchestra. There were several sources, or perhaps references embedded in The Hague Hacking: the piano parts make use at the beginning and subsequently in the piece of the notes of the beginning of the Lizst Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which Andriessen knew not so much from knowing the piece itself as from knowing its use in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, The Cat Concerto (Warner Brothers used the Lizst in a similar way in a fairly well known Bugs Bunny cartoon, Rhapsody Rabbitt); the work also uses a Dutch “sing-along ballad” about The Hague, O, O, The Hague (Andriessen suggested in an interview that the text of this song is vulgar), whose notes are presented first at lengths which render it unrecognizable, but on subsequent reappearances faster, finally, apparently, at the end of the work, at its original speed; in addition the work’s Dutch title, Haags Hakkûh, makes allusion to the slang name (the second word of the title) for what we are told in Robert Adlington’s program note is a “a distinctive kind of dance, characterized by quick ‘chopping’ foot movements, that emerged in Dutch nightclubs in the 1990’s.
All of these allusions are very subtle, however. If one knows they’re there, the notes of the Lizst are recognizable, but if one wasn’t looking for them they could easily be missed. The surface of the piece is full of fairly rapidly zig-zagging hocketing notes in rhythms that one could see coming from some kind of house music, but since the bass is fairly consistently in long notes, certainly not suggesting any kind of dance music, the sense that there’s some kind of clubby dance music going on is absent. O, O, the Hague not being a particularly well known tune, outside of Holland anyway, a non-Dutch listener has to take its presence there on faith. What one hears if one isn’t worrying about all these subtle allusions is an engaging, mostly slow, rather monumental work with very active surface texture, although not as lively as all the preliminary information suggested. The orchestration is forcefully sonorous and bell-like and the piece makes an impressive sound.
The concert also included three dances from El amor brujo by De Falla, and two works of Ravel, the Mother Goose ballet (the movements from the original four hand piece, which Ravel turned into a ballet, changing their order and adding music, mostly short interludes connecting the movements, and Bolero. The performance of Mother Goose was astounding and unforgettable due to beauty of the playing, particularly of the winds, and its great subtlety. Read the rest of this entry »