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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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In England the last Monday in August is a Bank Holiday, and is more or less equivalent to Labor Day in the U.S. in being the last holiday of the summer. The Proms for August Bank Holiday Monday usually has a matinee, and the whole day usually has a more populist, is not popular- music, slant (the evening concert this year was devoted to the singer Michael Ball and was a concert of Broadway-type songs). The afternoon concert, billed as a family concert and presumably intended to be especially appealing to children, was the occasion of the first performance of The Water Diviners Tale, a sort of opera, (sorry, “a dramatic musical piece for people of all ages”), by Rachel Portman, with a libretto by poet Owen Sheers. Portman is a successful composer for movies who has provided music for, among others, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Emma, The Cider House Rules, Beloved, The Joy Luck Club, Miss Pottter, The Manchurian Candidate, Marvin’s Room, Benny & Joon, and Chocolat; her opera on Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and has been taken up by a number of other companies, including the New York City Opera.

The Water Diviner’s Tale came about as the result of Portman’s work with BBC television producer Fiona Morris on a broadcast of The Little Prince. Wanting to do another large work which would involve a lot of children and have “some relevance to their lives;” they decided to focus it on the environment, specifically on climate change. The work became the focus for an American Idol-like process (undocumented or, at least, broadcast, at least as yet), called BBC New Talent Search which led to the selection of the group of 40 children, ages 11-16, from all over the UK, who constituted the ensemble of “lost children,” performing with professional adult singers, six youth choirs, and the BBC Concert Orchestra., conducted by David Charles Abell. This is one of several educational outreach programs associated with the Proms, one of the others being a series of BBC Proms Composer Labs and “Inspire”, a BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composers Competition, that led to a concert featuring ten high school composers on August 17 at Cadogan Hall.

In The Water Diviner’s Tale, a large number of children, lost as a result of a cataclysmic storm which has separated them from their homes and parents, encounter a man wearing a sort of bathrobe and turban and carrying a staff (in this case the sonorous actor Nonso Anozie), who tells them that their individual cries for help will never be heard (the fact that they are already en masse and singing as a chorus seems not to matter) and encourages them to join together as a group so that their parents can find them. They begin to ask the Water Diviner how this catastrophe has occurred, and he, surprisingly, assumes personal responsibility for it. This has something to do with his inability to alter the world’s habits of energy consumption, which he has tried to effect by following and telling stories of water. The children tell the Diviner that they will listen to his stories, at which point he puts them in a deep sleep and summons up a Weather Forecaster, who cheerfully, in her chipper “Elegy for All that Shall be Lost,” predicts the worst for the world and tells the Diviner that he is too late to change any thing about it by telling his stories; she also adds that if nothing changes (something that she’s already said is impossible), the children with him will also be lost (presumably in some larger sense than that they are already separated from their homes and parents). The Water Diviner, newly aware of the importance of his task, brings the children out of their trance and tells his story, which is about a young boy who was seduced by the siren song of oil, coal, and gas (represented by the adult singers) concerning their amazing benefits. The boy’s ability to hear this song attracts unsavory scientists and businessmen who sing their own siren songs about how they can put these fuels to use. These songs overpower the “Song of Natural Harmony,” with which the section began. Eventually the boy begins to hear reports of the ill effects of his cooperation with coal, oil, and gas, and he travels the globe to hear the stories of drought, flood, and disaster. It turns out that the Water Diviner is that boy. The children ask him if he thinks it is too late to change the future, and he says it isn’t (even though he’s already be assured by the Weather Forecaster that it is). He then summons up the Weather Forecaster again, but she is unable to detail all that will be lost this time, somehow as a result of the promises of the children to do better than the Diviner has done. They all promise to change things and everybody leaves, happy and unlifted. The fact that they still are separated from their homes and families has somehow ceased to be a problem; it certainly isn’t mentioned any more. (To quote Anna Russell: “I’m not just making this up, you know.”)

The music for The Water Diviner’s Tale is efficient and skillful and, in a way, effective, but it is the sort of generalized effectiveness of movie music, it’s all background. There is never any musical portrayal of any character (despite the fact that there’s a sort of chirpy xylophone figure associated with the Weather Forecaster and a sort of menacing, dinosaur-like, low sort of awkward galumphing motive associated with the siren song of oil, coal, and gas), never any sort of specific or individualized emotion, and never any particularly clear way in which the action, such as it is, could be thought to be either effected or realized by its relationship to the music.

Writing music aimed at children is a tricky undertaking. I found myself comparing The Water Diviner’s Tale to other works intended to have a special interest to children and involving young performers: works such as The Little Sweep, the 150th Psalm, and Noye’s Fludde by Britten (Noye’s Fludde is one of my favorite pieces of Britten’s, and seems to me to be his most successful stage work), or Cinderella, The Two Fiddlers, Kirkwall Shopping Songs, and a whole raft of other small stage pieces (the only one of that group I’ve seen is Dinosaur At Large) by Peter Maxwell Davies, or, even Amahl and the Night Visitors. All of those pieces have a much stronger and clearer dramatic effect, which is manifested IN THE MUSIC. The part of the “message” of The Water Diviner’s Tale that has something to do with collective responsibility and the importance of individuals working together is, in a way, closer to that of The Second Hurricane by Copland, which has nicer music, but is also impeded by the less than completely sure stage sense of its librettist and composer. The piece which Portman’s is closest to, maybe, is the Ballad of Americans by Earl Robinson and John LaTouche, although that piece isn’t staged and even it isn’t quite as hamfisted with making it’s point. The performers in the Portman, especially the lost children and the youth choirs, were absolutely first rate and sounded great. The end of the piece seemed to have been extremely uplifting. The audience when it was over went wild. Like all Proms concerts, this can be heard online at

The Arcola Theatre in Hackney has become a major fringe venue in London; this summer they have been presenting a series of operatic performances, curated by Andrew Steggall and Mehmet Ergen and produced by Michael Harris, called Arcola Opera: Grimeborn. On August 22 they staged the first act of Pierre, a work in progress based on Melville, by Richard Beaudoin, The production was directed by Steggal and the “orchestra,” in this case the very excellent pianist Constantine Finehouse, was conducted by Christopher Ward. Although this might be said to be a workshopping of the piece, the simple, effective, and completely polished production did not seem in any way unfinished or tentative, and the singing, by Joseph Kaiser, Annete Dasch, Rachael Nicholls, and Abby Fischer, was uniformly fantastically wonderful. The music for Pierre is carefully considered and masterly in its composition. The vocal writing was effective, and the word setting just about perfect; one could always understand just about all of the words. The weaknesses are that it takes a while into the act before one can quite figure out what might be going on and that there is a certain sameness of quality and tempo. Since voices can’t be that much different in speed and quality if the composer seriously wants them to present the words clearly, differences in tempo and character need to be very clearly articulated in the accompaniment. Still, it would be hard to imagine a more sympathetic or polished realization of Beaudoin’s work on the project up to now; it made me eager to see and hear the whole opera when it’s finished.

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