Archive for the “Proms” Category

One of the most appealing and satisfying things about the Proms is the way that they support and showcase British composers. There are a number of commissions each year (a Proms commission is a sort of right of passage moment for up and coming composers), and not first performances of recent works as well. It is very surprising, and a just cause for sorrow and consternation, then, that the Proms Matinee on August 11 at Cadogan Hall, given by Britten Sinfonia, with soloists Nicolas Hodges, Susan Bickley, and Nicholas Daniel, conducted by Clark Rundell, was the occasion of the first Proms performance in twenty-four years of any music of Michael Finnissy. Finnissy, as well as being one of the most vital and interesting composers alive, is undoubtedly one of the major figures of British music, as a teacher as well as a composer, and the absence of his music from the Proms for so long, let alone his not having received a Proms commission, over all that time is simple inexplicable, as well as being sad for all of us who have lost by such an omission.

The Finnissy work included on this particular concert was the 36-year-old Second Piano Concerto, with Nicolas Hodges as soloist. One of the usual memes having to do with the concerto, that it is a piece opposing the soloist as the one against the many in the orchestra is not exactly operative in this case. First of all the band is a small one, strings and two flutes, and rather than opposing the solo part, they pick out and highlight details in the stream of the work’s continuity which is entirely in the almost ceaseless piano part. Finnissy’s music is often thought of as fearsome, and it can be extremely difficult to play (not that you could tell that from Hodges’s beautiful and lucid performance), but the sound of it, when it’s done well, as it was here, is downright beguiling–gossamer and shimmering, and its continuity, a sort of stream of consciousness, clear and convincing, and easy to follow. It is to be hoped that it won’t be another 24 years before there’s more Finnissy on the Proms.

Hodges also presented the UK Premier of Harrision Birtwistle’s Gigue Machine for solo piano. Making the difficulties and complications (and they are considerable) obvious is one of the points of this piece, which is an exploration and deconstruction of the rhythms and phrasings of the old dance form, and they were presented and dispatched both compositionally by Birtwistle and pianistically by Hodges, with flair and aplomb, and obvious relish. Read the rest of this entry »

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The 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 »

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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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Yes, it’s Proms season again here in the UK/GB (see link for the differences.) The “worlds greatest music festival” kicks off on Friday and I thought I would put together a vaguely ‘contemporary’ programme for those so inclined.

Included are composers who are still alive regardless of ‘style’, and a few 20th century composers I thought relevant (excuse my subjective and rather fuzzy criteria; Stravinsky and Bartók are included for instance, Debussy, Ravel and Shostakovich are not; feel free to berate me in the comments section.)

All the concerts listed will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be archived a week or so later on their website (for seven days only).  Also, the BBC normally broadcasts quite a few live on TV (usually on BBC 2); these will be archived on their ‘iPlayer‘ but unfortunately this is not accessible by those outside the UK (if you are not a native get your British friends to set their VCRs or whatever newfangled device people are using these days).

If you fancy making a personal appearance, most of the concerts will be on at the Royal Albert Hall in London with those from the ‘Proms Chamber Music’ series occurring at Cadogan Hall in Chelsea (listed below with the prefix ‘PCM’, Chelsea is also in London if you didn’t already know.) The festival runs from Friday the 17th of July to Saturday the 12th of September.

If you are visiting from outside the UK this might be a good year given how weak the pound is currently (against the US Dollar and the Euro at least.) To buy tickets and to check availability please visit the Royal Albert Hall’s tickets page.

Rather than list each Prom I thought composers in alphabetical order might be more helpful (taken from this page on the BBC site where you can access the full list, including Debussy, Ravel and Shostakovich et al), please click on the links to each piece to get more information about the specific concert.

A couple I am looking forward to are Prom 63 featuring two Xenakis pieces (Aïs and Nomos Gamma) and Prom 65 featuring Ligetis Atmospheres and Schoenbergs Five Orchestral Pieces (in it’s 100th year) conducted by Jonathan Nott. Also it will interesting to see/hear some of the pieces by younger composers I have never heard anything from before such as Anna Meredith, whose piece Left Light is premiered at Prom 32 and Ben Foskett whose From Trumpet has its first outing at Prom 24.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the list… [EDIT: I’ve now added a link to a Google calendar with the dates and details of all the Proms in the list plus a few more I think, thanks very much to Jamie Bullock for putting it together.]

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On Aug 9 The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by David Atherton, presented the first performance of …onyt agoraf y drws…(…unless I open the door…) by Welsh composer Guto Puw. The title of the piece refers to a Welsh saga in which, after suffering heavy losses in a battle with the Irish, and the death and beheading of Bedndigeidfran, his men, having been enchanted, return to Harlech and feast happily for seven years entertained by the singing of Rhiannon’s birds and cheerfully conversing with Bendigeidfran’s severed head, without any recollection of their past troubles. Eventually they move on to a hall in Pembrokeshire, where they continue partying happily for another 80 years, never in any of this time either aging nor remembering the past. The hall has three doors at its end, and they are told that they should not open the third door. When they eventually and inevitably succumb to temptation and open the door, they are flooded with all the tragic memories which their enchantment has spared them, except with even greater intensity and greater sorrow.

The strength of Puw’s piece, which depicts the partying and the aftermath of the opening of the third door, is in its orchestration and its writing for instruments, which is masterly and colorful. The beginning music is bustling and cheerful, featuring the piccolo alluding to Rhiannon’s birds and the gradual emergence of a Welsh foksong (‘Machynlleth’); Puw uses sustained chords trading off between various sections of the orchestra in the midst of the general bustle to suggest time’s standing still. Although this first section is involved with the opening of the first two doors, it doesn’t actually depict those two openings, only the general party atmosphere during that time. There is a moment depicting the opening of the third door, but the sense of any change in the emotional atmosphere in its aftermath is almost completely lacking. Puw’s program note claims greater chromaticism at this point, but it is only slightly more so than formerly, and doesn’t read as any kind of real change. An Irish reel thrown into the texture may be supposed to allude to the enemy that defeated the Welsh in the battle, but the whole tenor of things is just as jolly as ever, so one misses a sense of any dire consequences from the opening of the third door. It may be that Puw was worried about being too vulgarly pictorial, but, in fact, for this listener vulgar pictorialism, especially at that point, was just what the piece could have used more of.

The Puw was followed by the Walton Viola Concerto in a very fine performance, with Lawrence Power as the soloist, and the Rakhmaninov Symphonic Dances, played about as well as one could ever hope to hear them played. Although both of those pieces are quite high grade stuff, they both leave me a little cold. In the case of the Walton this makes me a little sad, since I generally like his music and I’ve often tried to like it, but it always seems to me to be a little aimless and featureless, lacking in color and nice tunes. The concert on August 16th with the Bergen Philaharmonic, conducted by Andrew Litton, presented Walton’s First Symphony, one of his very best pieces, which is full of color of all sorts, tuneful, and tightly and impressively made, particularly in its incessantly abrasive scherzo and its intensely sad slow movement. In a performance as good as this one was, it’s completely thrilling.

The Prom concert on August 7 began with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20, the intensely dramatic and mostly pessimistic piece, with each of its movements referring to a section of the requiem mass, which, bizarrely enough, Britten had thought, in 1939, was just thing to satisfy a commission from the Japanese government to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire. (In the event, the Japanese rejected the piece on religious grounds, and added that it didn’t sufficiently ‘express felicitations’ for the event.) Although in three movements, the work is really in one very tightly constructed span, starting with a slow lamenting march, moving through a relentless and ferocious ‘Dance of Death’ scherzo, and ending with a serene peaceful apotheosis of the material of the first two movements. The completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony, by Derek Cooke and others, which followed, is, of course, not exactly the piece, but rather a very fully fleshed out version of Mahler’s sketches for the work as he left them when he died (described by David Mattews, who was one the people responsible for the realization, as having been in ‘a complex state of incompleteness’), suggesting what the piece might have been like had he finished it. Mahler’s sketches included a full score of the first movement, a ‘full score sketch’ of the second, a full score for the beginning of the third movement, followed by a short score, and an indication of ‘da capo’ for the first section, and short scores for the fourth and fifth movements. Although in many places the texture is very thin (one line) there are no gaps in its continuity, so the length and scope of the piece is fairly clear, even if many of the details are not worked out, so the realization consists of filling out textures and, in certain places, of making decisions about orchestrations. The Mahler is probably a little less complete in its realization of what the piece might have been like than is the Mozart Requiem, and a little more so than the Bartok Viola Concerto. The performances of both of these two works, by BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, were somewhat understated, if not downright bland. It would have been good in each case to have had a more urgent sense of the drama of the work, since both have plenty of drama. I found particularly bothersome in the Mahler, the modern almost complete avoidance of portimento in the strings, even when it was indicated in the score and the music cried out for it.

Proms concerts are available on line for listening at

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