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In Live From Golgotha by Gore Vidal, St. Timothy — who is an old man, and by that time the keeper of the story of the early church — is visited by time travelers from the future who try to persuade him to change his story. When he refuses, they simply travel further back in time and change the events. At one point Timothy is perplexed because he thinks he remembers what happened but he isn’t sure, which isn’t surprising since the actually events and, consequentially, events after those events, have been changed. His past — what he remembers — is different from what is now the actual past, and the present is also changing as the time travelers from the future continue to change the past. At least that’s how I remember it, but the specific details are not so important.

When I read the book I was struck by the fact that such a complex time situation was not problematic in what was essentially popular fiction, whereas some similar complexity of the perception of time in a piece of music would probably mark it as being a hopelessly esoteric and certainly inaccessible. I’m not sure why it is that that’s the case, but it came to mind during the late night Prom concert of music by Philip Glass. Richard Taruskin points out, in The Oxford History of Music that one of the main purposes of the early minimalists was to make sure that there was no hidden form in their music, that everything was audible and perceptible on the surface. This obviously gets a ways from a certain sort of pretentiousness and from some arcane justification of music that isn’t very much fun to listen to, or just plain doesn’t make sense, but it can also give works written that way a certain kind of flatness, and give the sense that the continuity of a piece is, in the words of one of the characters in The History Boys, “just one fucking thing after another.”

The program for the August 12 Proms, presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, with Gidon Kremer as soloist, consisted of two works of Philip Glass: his Violin Concerto and his 7th Symphony (“A Toltec Symphony”) . The Violin Concerto, written in 1987 for Paul Zukofsky, is one of Glass’s most popular pieces. It has three movements, fast, slow, fast, with a slower coda. Although Glass was quoted in the program notes as saying that he was trying to write a piece that his father, who loved all the major violin concertos, would like, it is, in the manner of Glass’s music, not melodic or thematic but rather based on shorts riffs which are developed, mainly through repetition. The second, in fact, is a baroque-y ground piece, with a clear line (melody, if you like) which is repeated many times. It is impossible to miss the masterly quality of the work or to be impressed by it. Its orchestration is striking and masterly; the violin is never covered by the orchestra. The first movement especially is haunting and its ending is very beautiful. I found myself before it was over wishing that there was a little more to listen to. One shouldn’t judge a piece by criteria that are not operative for its language and methodology, but it’s hard to imagine by what standards the second movement wouldn’t be too long. Read the rest of this entry »

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The BBC Proms is ongoing until the end of this week, the traditional Last Night at the Proms being on Saturday night.   For me it all ended about a week and a half ago, but there are a number of things still to report on.

The Proms on August 19, given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, which was a collaboration between the BBC and IRCAM, featured the music of Jonathan Harvey, a long time associate of IRCAM.  It included the first performance of Speakings, a major work of Harvey’s which had been commissioned by the BBC, IRCAM, and Radio France and which was also the final product of a three-year association between Harvey and the orchestra.  The concert was in three parts, divided by two intermissions, each one of which consisted of a relatively brief piece for tape or electronics, followed by a larger scale instrumental work.   The first contained Harvey’s Tombeau de Messiaen for piano and digital audio tape, followed by Messiaen’s Concert á quatre, the second Harvey’s Mortuos plango, vivos voco for eight channel tape, followed by Speakings for orchestra and live electronics, and the third Varèse’s Poème électronique for magnetic tape and Déserts for fifteen wind instrument, percussion and magnetic tape.
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One of the threads of this year’s Proms is a survey of the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his death.   On August 26, which was the actual date of his death, the survey climaxed with an all-Vaughan Williams concert by the BBC Symphony, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.   The first work on the concert, the justly celebrated Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; its performance, although maybe not exactly peremptory, was certainly restrained and cool, rather than as impassioned as one might have wished it to be.    It was followed by the ballet score Job, with whose performance one could not argue.   My own feeling about Job is that even though there is much very beautiful music in it, it is a little looser in construction and maybe a little more general in expression that the tightly constructed and closely argued symphonies, and that this is a, for lack of a better word, weakness in the piece.

The second half of the concert consisted of Serenade to Music, a short work setting an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice written to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the conducting career of Henry Wood, the founder of the Proms, and the Ninth Symphony.   Serenade to Music was performed, as it was originally intended, by sixteen singers.   It seems to me to be a just about perfect piece, and the performance was beautiful.  The Ninth Symphony is a remarkable work.  It holds a place in Vaughan Williams output somewhat analogous to that of the Requiem Canticles in Stravinsky’s; procedures and material from all earlier periods of his career appear, but both refined and, due to their different contexts, transformed into something new but with enormous added depth and expressive resonance.  Each of the movements is the product of an extraordinarily original concept.   In the first sonata form movement, a tune played by the clarinet accompanied by the harp, followed by a short trio for the clarinets, introduces the second theme; at the beginning of the recapitulation the clarinet tune returns played by the violin, leading directly to the second theme with a descant added on the flugel horn. From that point the events of the recapitulation proceeds in reverse order to that of the exposition, ending with the music for three saxophones that began the movement.    In the second movement a solo line is alternated with a sort of court march which causes the line to fray and proliferate parts, leading to lyrical music for the full orchestra.    The third movement is almost a mini-concerto for the saxophones, starting with perky soloistic lines accompanied by the snare drum and other percussion; that music develops into a fugue which is followed by a chorale that accelerates into very lively cascading music in close harmony that could have come from Duke Ellington and then dissolves, leaving only the ghosts of the accompaniment on the snare drum.   The last movement is a complex two part form which begins quietly and contrapuntally and become a passacaglia somewhat like the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, but with more intensity.   The whole work has a quality of intense urgency. Read the rest of this entry »

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Carter, Messiaen, StockhausenAmong the focuses of the Proms this summer are the centennials of Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen and the eightieth birthday of Karlheinz Stockhausen (due to his death in 2007, the celebration of his birthday was fused with a commemoration of his life’s work). Although the first night concert included the first performance of a Proms commission from Carter, the piano piece Caténaires, he is only represented by three other works, the Oboe Concerto, Night Fantasies, and Soundings, as opposed to eighteen works of Messiaen, several of them, including the opera St. Francis of Assisi, to be played on September 7, major works of considerable length. The Stockhausen celebration included a Stockhausen day on August 2, which included performances of Gruppen and Stimmung, among other pieces, as well as a performance of Punkte on August 22, which was his actual birthday.

Carter’s Soundings, which received its first UK performance on August 18 on a concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, was written in 2005 as a present for Daniel Barenboim when he left the post of music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Since Carter’s intention was to celebrate Barenboim as a musician who regularly directs performances of Mozart piano concertos in which he is also the soloist, he cast the work for piano and orchestra intending that the piano soloist would also be the conductor. It goes without saying that the rhythmic and ensemble difficulty of Carter’s music is greater that that of Mozart’s, making the realization of the idea of a conductor playing along with the orchestra a challenge. Although there are certainly ways that could have been devised to deal with this problem, Carter chose to side step it altogether by, basically, never having the piano and orchestra play together. The piece begins with a piano solo, there is a short interjection by the orchestra, the piano plays a little bit again, then there’s a long stretch of orchestra music; there is a very brief exchange of single notes on the piano (the notes, D and Bb, being, of course, Barenboim’s initials–in fact, D is also the first note of the piece, and Bb the last), and then the piece ends with a piano solo. In a performance where the soloist and the conductor were the same, the skimpiness of the interaction might not be so noticeable, but in this performance where the piano, moved off to the side of the orchestra, was played by Nicholas Hodges and the conductor was Illan Volkov, it was not only noticeable, but a little strange and unsatisfying. I have to admit that I found myself wondering if Carter charges by the minute for his commissions, and how much he got paid for this one.

Although Carter’s program notes didn’t explain the title, I assume that it probably refers to the practice of using sounds and echos to measure underwater distances. In this case bursts of fast notes, usually in the winds, are answered by sustained notes, usually in the strings, outlining the boundaries of the registers used. Carter is a master, and in Soundings, as in all his other music, both the instrumental lines, which are always wrought in a masterly fashion, and the unfolding of the music through time, are always skillful and elegant. There’s no question of it being anything other than first rate music. However, it is clear that the piece is, to say the least, not one of Carter’s most important or profound works. Virgil Thomson’s comment on the Beethoven Irish folk song arrangements seemed applicable here: it’s like getting a letter from somebody who can really write, about nothing in particular. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Prom Concert on August 10, given by the BBC Symphony, conducted by Edward Gardner, included two first performances, both of them commissioned by the BBC for this season of the Proms.  These were among the 13 first performances and 7 UK first performances on the Proms this season.

Michael BerkeleyMichael Berkeley’s Slow Dawn is a revision and reorchestration of a work written three years ago for wind band, which had been commissioned by the British conductor and horn player Tim Reynish as a memorial piece for his son William.   Berkeley intended it as a depiction of dawn in Wales where he lives, and follows the deliberate and inexorable tread of the sun from the first hints of light through its early appearance with to its full presence with stabbing rays of daylight.   This sunrise is a long way from Daphnis and Chloe (or, for that matter, from Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise, which preceded this piece on this program).  Here the focus is on the tread of ‘the kind old sun’ (as Berkeley says, quoting Wilfred Owen) in its endless recurrence and its complete disregard for more transient human concerns. Starting with deliberate slow dirge rhythm in the percussion, which recurs periodically over the its course, the tonalish work builds, via lines which are increasingly quicker and more agitated, over a dense, very closely spaced harmonic texture to a violently rhythmic climax; it leaves a dramatic and satisfying impression.

Stuart MacRaeGaudete by Scottish composer Stuart MacRae is an almost half hour long piece for soprano and large orchestra, setting poems from the book of the same name by Ted Hughes.   The piece begins with very arresting ferociously clattering music for the full orchestra which gradually clears to reveal the soprano singing stratospherically high without words.   All of this is very effective and it all lands with something of a thud as soon as attention is turned to words, when the voice part, along with everything else, becomes labored and constricted, in terms of both rhythm and tempo.

This actually seemed to me to set the pattern for the piece, with instrumental music in what might be described as a high modernist style, managed in a very dramatically effective and masterly way, is cut short and undercut by vocal writing which is much less skillful, much less effective, and as a result, tends to come off much more as merely dealing in cliches of that same high modernist style, with endless jagged lines covering enormous registral stretches in jerky rhythms.  At one point, when the text says “He never stops trying to dance, trying to sing,” when the singer launches into long melissmas of a sort of new music yodelling, one could imagine that the idea was to depict the failed effort described by the words, but the music is so much like all the rest of the voice part that it’s not possible to be completely sure whether that might be the composer’s intentions.   It wasn’t clear to me exactly what the subject matter of the Hughes, as represented by the texts used or as discussed at some length in MacRae’s program notes, might be (and further rereading after the fact didn’t make things any clearer).

As the piece progressed I began to wish that MacRae had simply written a completely instrumental piece, somewhat shorter, that evoked whatever it was we were supposed to get out of the texts, and left the words out altogether.   Had he done that, and had that meant leaving out the soprano (as opposed to having a wordless voice part, which could have been very effective), on the other hand, it would have been a loss, since it would have meant not having heard the really wonderful singing of Susanne Andersson, who always sang beautifully, and managed to make practically all the words comprehensible, despite all the obstacles MacRae had put in her path. Read the rest of this entry »

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The BBC marked the beginning day of the Beijing Olympics by offering the first performance of Olympic Fire, commissioned for the occasion from Chen Yi. All of Chen’s music uses Western modernist practices to evoke her native culture, but Olympic Fire deals even more directly in Chinese materials, using folksongs both from the predominant Han Chinese and from minority Chinese ethnic groups as well (Chen keeps to the Chinese government party line by considering Tibetans among those Chinese ethnic minorities), and imitating the sounds of Chinese instruments, particularly the lusheng (described by Chen as a “mouth pipe-organ”).  Olympic Fire begins with enormous energy and unrelenting febrile motion and considerable instrumental brilliance featuring the brass and the xylophone.  The initial ebullient activity continues for quite a while, to be interrupted by a slightly slower high ostinato music with a less thick texture, evoking bird calls and still featuring the xylophone, which turns out to be an accompaniment to longer lyrical tunes in the lower registers.

The opening celebratory activity is eventually regained, with the layering of different musics over a repeated rhythmic figures. The music goes driving headlong into a furiously explosive timpani cadenza which leads to a roaring ending.  The performance, by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, matched the exuberance of the music. Read the rest of this entry »

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George Benjamin, at age 48, is one of the grand old men of British music.  Considering a succession starting with Britten, and continuing with Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades, and including Benjamin, one might consider that the tradition of rather young grand old men, all of them very fine performers as well as seriously talented and accomplished composers is a grand old British one.  Benjamin is a really good conductor, and the BBC Symphony orchestra clearly respected him and worked hard for and with him.  On Wednesday night the main event was one of his first big attention-getting pieces, and his first work for orchestra, written when he was 19, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, which was being played for the third time at the Proms.  Read the rest of this entry »

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I have a vague recollection of an article in the Sunday Times sometime in July of one of the last ten or so years which compared the decline of twelve-tone music (or maybe atonality or maybe modernism in general, but I think it was twelve-tone music) to the fall of the Soviet Union. I wonder if anybody remembers it and can possible cite its date and author.


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The biggest shock of the day was reading in the NYTimes Book Review a review by Pankaj Mishra of Coltrane:  The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff, the following sentence:  “Jazz’s turn to the avant-garde and exoticisms of the 1960s now seems as inevitable as the rise of atonal music after the breakup of the stable societies of 19th century Europe.”  These days you’re likely to get stoned if you so much as hint that there was any kind of inevitability in the rise of atonal music (whatever that might be).  Fancy not knowing that “we” all now regard “atonal music” (whatever that might be) not only as not being inevitable, but as being a downright aberration or perversion (if they’re different things).  How did Pankaj Mishra fail to find that out?

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On August 16, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martin Brabbins, presented a late-night concert in honor of Sir John Drummond, former director of the Proms, who died last year. The program consisted of three works which he had commissioned for the Proms: Veni, veni, Emmanuel by James MacMillan, Chantefluers et Chantefables by Witold Lutoslawski, and Panic by Harrison Birtwistle. (I was unfortunately late for the concert and missed the MacMillan.) The Lutoslawski work is a set of nine songs for soprano and a small orchestra, setting poems for children by the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos, whose poems he had used earlier in the cycle Les espace du sommeil, which he had written in 1975 for Fischer-Dieskau. In these songs, the setting of the texts is very straightforward and the imagery of each poem is realized in a equally direct, but strong, way in the sparse orchestration. Solveig Kringelborn, for whom the songs were written, and who gave the first performance at the Proms in 1991, was the soloist. For me this piece, although clearly beyond any kind of criticism, was not as striking as the other vocal works of Lutoslawki’s that I know, particularly Paroles tissees.

Panic by Birtwistle was famously commissioned by Drummond for the Last Night of the Proms in 1995. A hoary tradition, Last Night is essentially a pops concert which traditionally ends with a melange of patriotic British music, in conjunction with a good deal of flag waving and other jingoistic whoopla. The Birtwistle does not fit into that mold, and it caused something of a stir at its first performance. Birtwistle describes the piece, which is for alto saxophone and drums with orchestra, as a dithyramb, which in Classical Greece was a hymn celebrating Dionysus. In this case that means that it goes brawling along at high speed and with wild energy for its entire seventeen minutes’ duration, in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of Coltrane, maybe. The performance, by Martin Robertson and Peter Erskine, was full of suitable momentum and intensity.

The concert on August 20, by the Philharmonia and Christoph von Doknanyi, ended with a fabulous performance of Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok and began with an equally wonderful performance of Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercar from the Musical Offering by Bach. In between was a performance of Overture, Waltz, and Finale from Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades. Powder Her Face, Ades first opera, which is about the scandals associated with the Duchess of Argyll in the 1950’s, is scored for a chamber orchestra of three clarinets, brass trio, piano, harp, accordion, percussion, and string quintet. Earlier this year, Ades arranged this suite for full orchestra, which the Philhamonia performed, with him conducting, at the Aldeburgh Festival. The excerpts that Ades chose for the suite are all concerned with dance music: waltzes, foxtrots, and tangos; and all the music has a certain kind of high style, chicness, and glamor combined with deliberate glitz and tawdriness, all appropriate to its rather sleezy story. This version, with the full panoply of orchestral resources in play, has glamorous sound and a very high class glossy sheen, while maintaining an appropriate touch of the slick and the tawdry . The performance was at the same level as the other two pieces on the concert. Earlier on, there was a ‘composer portrait’ concert which featured Ades in conversation with Andrew McGregor, and excellent performances by members of the Contemporary Consort New Generation Ensemble of the Royal College of Music, directed by Huw Watkins, of arrangements by Ades of Les baricades misterieuses by Francois Couperin and Cardiac Arrest by Madness, along with Court Studies from The Tempest, another arrangement, for clarinet, violin, ‘cello, and piano, this time of music by Ades himself, his second opera.

These concerts can be heard online at

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