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Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970

By David Toop

Bloomsbury, 330 pp.

 

Even given the relative expanse of a projected two-volume history of improvised music, David Toop has set lofty goals for himself. In volume one, Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970, he discusses a number of musical figures from improvising communities: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Keith Rowe, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy are a small sampling of those who loom large. John Cage is a totemic figure discussed from a variety of angles. Such collectives as AMM, MEV, Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Company, and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza feature prominently as well. In addition, Toop connects improvisation to a panoply of other reference points, musical and otherwise, such as rock, concert music, fine art, film, and literature. Politics and historical events and their influence on musicians is a particularly well-drawn through line.

 

One would be hard pressed to take a strictly chronological approach to reading Into the Maelstrom. A great pleasure is the oftimes improvisatory feel of its labyrinthine passages. In this sense it jubilantly resembles the Edgar Allen Poe story from which it takes its title. No matter how far-flung a new passage may at first seem, Toop finds a way to integrate it into the fabric of the book. For the most part, Maelstrom is confined to the genesis and development of free playing in the decades leading up to 1970. Digressions from this era, such as transcribed later interviews and personal anecdotes, are used to provide a more comprehensive portrait of particular figures and incidents. Nor does Toop eschew discussion of earlier figures. Indeed, his profiles of musicians such as Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Stuff Smith trace a lineage of free playing, or at the very least playing on the cusp of free, that is farther reaching than is often enough acknowledged. Flashbacks and flashforwards are also employed to tease out thematic issues, such as audience responsiveness (or non-responsiveness, and occasionally dangerous hostility), interaction between musicians (with its own degrees of responsiveness and even dangerous hostility), and, especially, issues of freedom, both in musical and political contexts. Thus, Into the Maelstrom allows us a glimpse into an ever-changing landscape of varying interactions, all of which contribute to the development of improvisation. I’m eager to read its companion second volume.

 

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Mikel Rouse’s Metronome project has been in heavy rotation around these parts. His latest album, Take Down, had a five-year long gestation. Given the varied reference points, one can hear why. Two parts sci-fi electronica, one part postmodern amalgam (including field recordings), topped off with Rouse’s surefire vocals: most worthy of investigation.

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The Prom on August 20, presented by The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, opened with the first UK performance of Dérives by Gérard Grisey. It’s hard to believe that it’s taken 42 years for the piece to have been played in the UK, and that it was only the second work of Grisey’s to be played on the Proms. Dérive is scored for two orchestras, one smaller and amplified; the size of the Albert Hall stage made separation and a very clear distinction between the two groups more or less impossible. The work starts with the conceit that the orchestra is tuning (the program notes by Julian Anderson states that Grissey’s intention was to “effect a subtle bridge between what he terms ‘everyday time’ and ‘musical time.’”), but staging it so that it really works seems as though it would also be impossible, since it coincides, as it did on this concert, with the conductor’s arrival on the stage and the attendant applause. Possibly all of that clumsiness was also part of the conception, although that somewhat lessens the subtlety of it . In any case once things get under way there is a prolongation of the tuning A until a loud tutti chord shifts things to Eb, and onto the main agenda of the piece which is the setting up of the overtones of Eb as a base sonority and the glacial slow drifting of the music away from and back to that referent over the almost half hour of its duration. The mesmerizing quality of the piece was faithfully realized with striking concentration and beauty of sound.

A few days later at the Café Otto, Volkov, as a violinist, joined about a half dozen string players and two percussionist for an evening of improvisation. I heard the second half of the evening, which consisted of two blocks, the shaping and pacing of each of which was compelling and satisfying.

The Prom concert on August 24 was presented by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director Marin Alsop. It opened with Kabbalah by Brazilian composer Marlos Nobre. The title, the program note said, “refers to the ancient tradition of Judaic mystical thought and its interpretation through symbols and ciphers, described as a revelation of God’s wisdom to his creations.” The work is a very colorfully orchestrated and rhythmic, with lots and lots of percussion, evocative and, I suppose, mystical, in a way that its title might lead one to expect. The concert also included only the four minute long Prelude of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas brasileiras No. 4. It was too bad they didn’t play the whole piece, since it left the impression that if was felt that a Brazilian orchestra just had to play a piece by the most famous Brazilian composer, but they’d do as little as possible to get by with satisfying that mandate. In fact the piece was quite attractive and I would have been happy to hear more, maybe the entire piece rather than the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances, which ended the concert.

The Prom on August 21 by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Payare, was as much as anything a celebration of and for the orchestra itself. The only professional orchestra in Northern Ireland, it recently survived a near-death financial crisis which almost brought about its dissolution. The assured, alert, and very beautiful playing throughout the concert was a very eloquent demonstration of how much would have been lost in the avoided demise of the orchestra.

The concert included, along with the Haydn C major Cello Concerto, with Narek Hakhnazaryan, soloist, and the Tschaikovsky Fifth Symphony, the first performance of Wild Flow, a BBC commission, from Piers Hellawell, the English composer who has for quite a while taught at Queen’s University Belfast. As a resident who observed the difficulties of what he called in his program note, “the darkest period” of the Ulster Orchestra’s history close hand, he dedicated Wild Flow to the orchestra and its champions. The work consists of five movements, with a central slow movement, a continually expanding and intensifying chorale inlaid with soloistic wind writing, preceded and followed by two fast movements, all of those with a somewhat aphoristic character. Hellawell described the work in his notes, as offering a zigzag progression of mood and events, and that mercurial quality is what lingers strongly in the memory. The music is admirably distinctive and personal, somewhat quirky, brilliantly and colorfully orchestrated, highly rhythmic, and always engaging and appealing. The performance had a liveliness and verve matching that of the music.

Hakhnazaryan played as an encore to his performance of the Haydn, Lamentatio by Giovanni Sollima, which combined singing, folky dance music, and high class pyrotechnics, all of it impressive as display and interesting to listen to.

All of the Proms concerts are available online for listening at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0741yk1/episodes/player.

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Thomas Adès is a phenominal musician. The depth of his musical intelligence and power of his insight are impossible to miss. They knocks you down, jumps up and down on your chest, and spit in your eye, and it’s enthralling. The performances of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony and the Prokofiev Classical Symphony which began and ended, respectively, the Prom concert on August 15, on which he conducted the Britten Sinfonia, were both dazzling and incredible satisfying as musical experiences. Given all of that, I would very much like to like his music, and I’ve tried, but, to use a phrase in circulation in American politics these days, I’m not there yet. Certainly not with Lieux retrouvés, the work for ‘cello and orchestra, in which he and the orchestra were joined by Steven Isserlis, which received its UK premiere on this concert. Originally written as a ‘cello sonata in 2009, it was orchestrated early in 2016. As one would expect, the musical means brought into play are at the very least impressive, and there’s nothing lacking in its production. But there is a certain sameness to the movements which apparently are meant to be varied, and the profile of the material is a little flat and indistinguishable from one movement to the next, and not terribly distinguished. Even the deliberately ungainly cancan that concludes the work isn’t that much different really from the evocation of mountains (or of mountain climbing, considering the difficulty of it), or even the (visionary?) fields… Francisco Coll’s Four Iberian Miniatures, for violin and orchestra, with Augustin Hadelich as the soloist, also has technique and polish to spare, as well as color, both orchestral and geographical. It’s faultless, and ultimately not as much fun as it tries to be.

The Prom presented on August 16 by the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, included the first London performance of Berceuse for Dresden by Colin Matthews, in which they were joined by ‘cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. The work, which is a sort of one movement ‘cello concerto, was commissioned to commemorate the rebuilding and reconsecration in 2005 of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which had been destroyed by Allied bombing in February or 1945. Its material, both melodic and harmonic, is based on the sounds of the eight bells in the church. The ‘cello plays, almost continually, an impassioned and soaring line, under and around which swirls an increasing animated and accelerating texture which eventually culminates in a recording of the bells themselves. Especially in the Albert Hall, where there were coming from all directions, this was extremely effective and affecting. The Matthews and the Berlioz Overture to King Lear were the first half of a concert which concluded with Das Lier von der Erde by Mahler (whose first movement was presented in a reorchestration by Matthews–trying to keep the orchestra from covering up the tenor; there is some conjecture that Mahler would have done some tinkering with it had he lived to hear the piece). I found myself wondering how bad a performance would have to be before the piece would not have its overwhelming effect. This was a very very fine performance, so there was no finding out about that question this time. The excellent soloists were Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano, and Gregory Kunde, tenor.

That Prom was followed by a late night concert given by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, of music by Bach (three of the motets) and works of Arvo Pärt: Nunc dimittis, from 2001 and Triodion, written in 1998, the latter getting its first performance at the Proms. Pärt’s music and its particularly personal sound are both well known, and, for many good reasons, admired. The pieces on this Prom offered no new information about that, merely confirming it. One could not wish for better performances, either of the Bach or the Pärt.

The main business on the Prom on August 17, presented by The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with Martha Argerich as soloist, was music by Lizst (Piano Concerto No. 1) and Wagner (several orchestra excerpts), all of which received magisterial and moving performances. That was all preceded by Con Brio: Concert Overture by Jörg Widmann, with which there was very little connection, either thematically or in character. Widmann was one of five composers commissioned by Mariss Jansons to write pieces “reflecting on” specific Beethoven symphonies; his particular task was to deal with Symphonies 8 and 7. The connection in fact seemed a little tenuous, but the piece was lively and engaging, elegantly and very effectively orchestrated, and thoroughly professional in every way, with near-quotes and maybe even quotes here and there from the works being reflected on. I was reminded of what Virgil Thomson wrote once about the Egmont Overture: it was the perfect hors d’oeuvre: nobody’s appetite was harmed by it and nobody missed much by missing it. That seemed to be exactly the spirit in which it was offered here. This was the first performance on the Proms of the revised version; the original version had been played in the 2009 Proms. The playing of it was in every way beyond reproach.

On August 19 the BBC Symphony Orchestra, along with the BBC Singers, and a cast featuring soprano Karita Mattila, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, present a concert performance of The Makropulos Affair by Leoš Janáček. An opera about the effects and costs of excellence and the diva who goes through three hundred years and innumerable lovers and admirers while obtaining it, the opera is captivating and full of wonderful music, and, over the course of its three acts builds a dramatic and music trajectory that is increasingly intense and ultimately overwhelming. Presumably the unique texture and particular rhythmic quality of Janáček’s music is related to that of the Czech language, but they’re noticeable here, especially for the role they play in driving the span of the piece. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid and compelling performance of the opera, even staged, than this one. Matilla, who was at the center of it all, was spell binding.

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haroldbuddOn August 21, 2016 the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at Whittier College was the venue for a much-anticipated appearance by the distinguished composer Harold Budd. A fine Sunday crowd filled the auditorium, with many coming from a considerable distance to be part of this rare event. Mr. Budd was joined by Bradford Ellis and Veda Hille and the concert consisted of a single piece, Aurora Teardrops, that extended for 75 minutes. Prior to the beginning of the concert, a video of some California desert scenes by Jane Maru was projected on a large screen above the stage.

Harold Budd and Bradford Ellis arrived on stage and seated themselves behind separate keyboard/synthesizers while Ms. Hille took her place seated in front of a music stand and a boom microphone. The opening video complimented the music perfectly, which began with pure electronic sine tone, soon joined by a another in harmony. A series of cool, sustained pitches followed, creating a thin, ethereal feel – like looking at the stars in the clear desert night. There was no beat to the music and only a very slow-moving melody, but it cast a precise sense of distance and isolation, yet was absent of any trace of melancholy. After some minutes of this Veda Hille began the poetic narration with the words “Sundown, dark and dreamy…” capturing the mood exactly. The words were distinct and clearly heard above the soft background, like distant mountains in the desert etched against a gauzy blue sky.

The specific and concrete nature of the spoken verse added a sense of balance and structure to the free-form flow of the music. The poetry, written by Mr. Budd, continued in sections of a few minutes each, followed by an interlude where only the music was heard. Each segment of poetry sketched out a short vignette of a reminiscence – of living and loving in an earlier time – as if the composer was looking back on his life in a dream. The music was constant in character, though never tiresome, and framed the spoken memories with a warm glow. All of this was in accord with the insightful description of Budd’s music given in the program notes: “Like a number of Californian composers of his generation he has an interest in the more meditative forms of music, in the idea of a controlled musical environment, and in a sense of non-doctrinaire spirituality.” Ms. Hille occasionally sang a few words or hummed along with the music, adding an intimacy to the spoken verse.

The most touching poetry dealt with the relationship between Budd and his significant other. These sections are filled with a longing for a deeper connection – perhaps like the relationship a composer has with his art – but a relationship that is unattainable with another human. There is no sense of resentment in this, but rather a sadness in the realization that even the closest human relationships can only be conducted at a certain distance. In “So many centuries and I still think of you…” the feeling becomes even more poignant, reflecting loss, and deep bass tones are heard at intervals giving a darker and more profound color to the music. Towards the end of the piece “In tears and tatters” seemed to cry out with emptiness and longing, cementing the strongly empathetic connection with the audience, who remained completely engaged throughout. At the quiet conclusion of the work there was a prolonged silence, followed by a standing ovation.

As the performers returned for a well-deserved curtain call, Shane Cadman, manager of the Shannon Center described the complicated series of events that brought this concert to the stage. Mr. Budd had withdrawn from performing and composing, but was prevailed upon by his son to complete the poetry and music of Aurora Teardrops. With Cadman’s help this was realized in Southern California at Whittier College, despite a number of setbacks and postponements. Aurora Teardrops touches a common emotional chord in all of us, from a perspective that only a man of Harold Budd’s age and experience can provide. We are indeed fortunate that he has made the effort to bring this extraordinary work to us.

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The Locrian Players present music from the past decade. The repertoire that their curators find is always a fascinating listen and often includes several premieres. Check them out (for free) on Friday.

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Friday, August 26 at 8PM

  • Derek Bermel A Short History of the Universe
  • Martin Suckling Visiones after Goya**
  • Elliott Carter Figment IV
  • Royden Tze Starscape***
  • Jonathan Dawe Silent like the Snow
  • Julian Grant Know Thy Kings and Queens
  • Louis Conti Ohne Heimath

* World Premiere ** U.S. Premiere *** New York Premiere

10th Floor Performance Space, Riverside Church

Free Event

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Photo: Armen Elliott

Photo: Armen Elliott

To celebrate this year’s fiftieth anniversary season, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart charged International Contemporary Ensemble with performing fifty new pieces over the course of the festival. Numbers 45-49 were presented at Merkin Hall on Tuesday, August 23rd. The fiftieth, music by Tyshawn Sorey celebrating Joséphine Baker, was slated for the 24th.

 

Tuesday’s program consisted entirely of concertos. In some cases, the composers used the term rather loosely, creating amorphously constructed entities rather than the formally distinct works one might expect in the genre. Nearly all were longer than their advertised times: starting at 7:30 PM, the first half alone was ninety minutes. At the concert’s conclusion, we dashed out the door for our train at a few minutes before ten. This loquacity did not always show the works in their best possible lights: all of the composers created fascinating sound worlds, but some tightening of construction would have served several of them well. Karina Canellakis, a prominent young conductor and violinist with an impressive pedigree in both areas, assuredly led ICE. With elegant gestures, she assumed a calming presence amid the maelstroms of complexity being wrought onstage.

 

The entire program was reordered, but the audience was guided through the changes by brief remarks from the stage by flutist Claire Chase and each of the composers (all four were present — a rare treat). The best piece on the program was also presented first. Marcos Balter’s Violin Concerto displayed formal clarity, abundant virtuosity, and a fascinating use of small percussion instruments (played by the ever nimble Nathan Davis). Violinist David Bowlin played one cascade after another of high harmonics and multi-stops with scintillating aplomb.

 

In Anthony Cheung’s Assumed Roles, violist Maiya Papach was given a more challenging set-up in which to operate. An unorthodox ensemble grouping, which included several instruments that played in or near the viola’s register and an electric guitar, meant that Cheung had to be judicious in his choice of demeanor for the soloist. He decided to have Papach vacillate between “roles,” working with the ensemble, playing prominently in front of them, and sometimes disappearing beneath their billowing sheets of sound.

 

The premiere of Dai Fujikura’s Cello Concerto featured a labyrinthine structure. Soloist Katinka Kleijn’s supple tone was challenged by often piercing responses from the ensemble. Cast in a single expansive movement, it was sometimes difficult on first hearing to follow the thread, but several signposts — sections where the cello played open strings and prominent harmonics — helped one to be reoriented.

 

Wang Lu’s Cloud Intimacy is designed to feature all the members of its ensemble in spotlight moments. It is also meant to be a commentary on technophilia. One heard the tapping of computer keys and ICE musicians got to ham it up with cell phones; the piece ends with a “selfie.” The soloistic aspects of the concerto were less prominently dealt with than the depiction, or distraction, of “Tinder.” However, guitarist Dan Lippel did get a chance to “rock out,” which he did with abandon.

 

The evening culminated with the US premiere of Fujikura’s Flute Concerto. Written for Chase, it contains many of her signature extended techniques: beat-boxing, multiphonic glisses, harmonics, and pitch bends. It also requires her to employ an array of instruments, from piccolo all the way down to the enormous (and voluptuous sounding) contrabass flute. Interestingly, rather than relying on its strident altissimo register, Fujikura features the underutilized lower register of the piccolo. Cast in five sections, the movement between instruments by Chase helped to delineate the piece’s form. The Flute Concerto has two versions, the chamber one heard here, and another in which Chase is accompanied by full orchestra, already premiered and recorded for Sony/Minabel. The chamber version was plenty for the intimate environs of Merkin Hall and proved to be an ebullient showcase for Chase.

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wulfexteriorThe Last Dance series of events at the wulf continued on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 with experimental music offerings by Carmina Escobar, Casey Anderson and Scott Cazan. The wulf will be moving to new quarters in the fall, closing out a successful eight-year run at the Santa Fe Avenue address in downtown Los Angeles.  A good-sized crowd of enthusiasts gathered for an evening of friendly chatter and three pieces of new music.

Carmina Escobar opened, equipped with a microphone, colored lamps and a camera connected to a computer. According to her website: “Her work focuses primarily on sound, the voice, the body and their interrelations to physical, social and memory spaces.”. Rough ambient sounds began the piece, perhaps the roar of a passing jet. Humming was heard, soon joined by more sounds that were variously alien and industrial in character. Images from the PC camera were projected on a screen – indistinct and flesh colored – while the lamp issued a cool green light that flooded the darkened space of the wulf. Singing tones appeared in the audio and these evolved into indistinct words and the occasional shriek.

As the piece proceeded the lamp turned to a blue color and the images on the screen became a bit clearer – parts of a face that proved to be Ms. Escobar, who was holding the PC camera a few inches away from her head. As her voice increased in pitch and volume, these purer tones provided a nice counterpoint to the ambient and alien sounds in the background. An unintelligible speaking voice was heard in the audio that, combined with the fuzzy and partial images on the screen, created a sense of disoriented uncertainty. It was as if your mind and your senses were struggling to arrange this into some kind of context. The images, different colored lamps and new audio continuously arrived in various combinations, challenging the comprehension of the observer in multiple ways. The singing voice of Ms. Escobar stood out as the brightest and most lucid sound, offering a welcome connection to the familiar. As the piece neared its conclusion the indistinct sounds dropped away, leaving a loud electronic tone that abruptly ceased. Carmina Escobar succeeds in creating a world of sounds and images that float just beyond our comprehension and grasp, and then gives us the critical vocal landmark to find our way.

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Next up was The Argument, a piece by Casey Anderson, who appeared with five other performers in a rough circle, all holding portable transistor radios. Anderson began by reading aloud from a poem – “A Wave” by John Ashberry. The performer to his immediate right listened closely, picking out phrases or fragments and repeating them, even as Anderson continued reading. The next performer in the circle listened to the person on his left and did likewise, so that a sort of ringing of words and phrases took place as the piece progressed. When nothing was being repeated in the circle, the performers played their portable radios. The success and texture of this piece depended on the careful listening and sharp memory of the individuals. An interesting variety of words surged around the circle, sometimes an entire sentence and sometimes just a word or two. Often a phrase would shorten as it worked its way around, diminished by the hearing and memory of those repeating it.

The concentration of the performers and the repetition of the words gave a sense of activity and common purpose to this. The patterns and cadences of the voices suggested an earnest conversation or perhaps an ancient incantation. The sound of the portable radios – tuned to various local stations – added an emotional space to the otherwise intimate feel of the conversation and projected a sense of wider importance onto the proceedings. The Argument is an interesting study of how the sounds of the spoken word can transmit feelings and emotion, even when divorced from context or content.

The final piece for the evening was Network Dilation by Scott Cazan and this was realized with a violin, a computer and two large speakers placed about 20 feet apart. The piece began with a series of electronic beeps and chirps that was soon joined with a sort of clatter that gave a strong sensation of movement and energy. It was a bit like being inside an old school pinball machine. Although this was loud, it did not overwhelm and the addition of a booming bass tone lessened the sense of randomness by producing a regular beat. The violin was fitted with a pickup and the energetic bowing by Cazan produced a continuous series of complex squeals and squeaks that resembled the sounds of a working metal lathe. These higher pitches formed a nice melodic counterpoint to the bass and the overall feel was brightly optimistic.

As regular increases in pitch and volume continued, there was a sense of mounting excitement along with the feeling that the whole process was going slightly out of control. Yet even as the sounds intensified, the various elements held together in a kind of primal harmony. After peaking with a very powerful sound, the piece decelerated and gracefully slowed to a stop. Network Dilation is crafted from sounds that are partly alien, partly electronic and partly identifiable – but the sum of these – remarkably – is completely musical.

The Last Dance series continues through the end of this month. New concerts are being programmed for the fall and the wulf will continue to provide events and music in various venues around town. A permanent home for the wulf is planned, and new locations are being investigated. For eight years the wulf on Santa Fe Avenue has been an integral part of the new music scene in Los Angeles. Thanks to Mike Winter and Cal Arts for their support and stewardship of this important venue. September will begin a new chapter, continuing a fine tradition.

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Every year the BBC in conjunction with the Proms holds a competition for composers aged 12 through 18 as part of their larger music education program Inspire. Each concert performance of the winning pieces has always had a slightly different format, but has tended over the years towards less talk and more music. It has gradually come to include only the winning works and not those which were “highly commended.” The concerts in many past years have been at the Royal College of Music, but the 2016 concert, on August 15, was in the theater at Broadcasting House. Since it only included the six winning compositions, it was quite short, in fact less than an hour long. All of the performances, by members of the Aurora Orchestra, whose conductor is Nicolas Collon, were thoroughly prepared, sympathetically presented, and elegantly and enthusiastically executed. Of the pieces, Morgan Overton’s Two Boys, a setting of a Walt Whitman poem for two baritones, two horns, and two violas, made the strongest impression on this listener. The baritones, always singing together in a style evoking medieval vocal music, or maybe earlier vocal music as filtered through late Stravinsky, were complemented (rather than accompanied) by continuous dialog and commentary by the two instrumental units (pairs of horns and violas), each of which played its own distinctive strand of music. Both Shoshanah Siever‘s Les nuances de la lumière, for solo violin, and James Chan’s Litany, for a small string group, were impressively well written for the instruments but left the impression of not completely finishing the span of the argument of the piece. Jack Robinson’s Hound Hunter, written when he was ten (he is now twelve), for flute, bassoon, and ‘cello, realized a scenario involving the exploits of a group of wolves with a brisk vividness and no time (or notes) wasted. Sam Rudd-Jones’s Angry, for a fourteen piece chamber orchestra, realized its title in a work demonstrating considerable command of instrumental writing and formal control. Alex Jones’s Sensim mutationem for two pianos explored extremes of texture and means of gradually moving from one to the other. All of the works were impressive both in the clarity of their conceptions and in the strength of the realization of them.

On August 9, the concert presented by the BBC Philharmonic and their chief conductor Juanjo Mena began with a work by Mark Simpson, a winner of earlier BBC young composer competitions as well as BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. Israfel, written in 2014, is a depiction of the Islamic angel of the trumpet, particularly as described by Edgar Allan Poe: “…whose heart-strings are a lute, and how has the sweetest voice of all of God’s creatures…”The most immediate, most strongly remembered, for me anyway, aspect of Israel, which last about twelve minutes, is the expertness and clarity of its orchestral sound. The piece is clear and convincing in the arc of its development, and possibly a little prolix in its thematic ideas.

Donald Martino told me once that he had written an article refuting Boulez’s article on the death of Schoenberg. Although the details of that are at this point hazy to me, I clearly remember what he said the title of the article was: Fancy French Composing. That title has come to be for me a term descriptive of a certain kind of music, and most of the music of Henri Dutilleux which I’ve encountered falls into that category. “Tout un monde lointain…” for ‘cello and orchestra, for which ‘cellist Johannes Moser joined Mena and the BBC Philharmonic, certainly does. There’s no denying the skill of the orchestral writing, the sensitivity to the sound of everything, the subtlety and delicacy of the conception, and the superiority and soigné quality of it in every aspect, and all of it in the same ways all the time. But it all still leaves me unmoved, a little irritated, and a little bored. I am perfectly willing to admit this is more a failure of mine than of the music. (Big of me, I know.)

Before the performance of the Elgar first Symphony which ended the concert, the orchestra added a performance of Sir Charles his Pavan by Peter Maxwell Davies as a tribute to the composer who died in March and who had been Composer/Conductor of the orchestra for ten years. The piece was really a sort of double commemoration; Davies grew up in Salford, a metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester, where the BBC Philharmonic has its home. Groves was conductor of the orchestra (which was formerly called the BBC Northern Orchestra) which first recognized the fourteen years old Davies as a composer, and he conducted the first recording of Davies’s Second Taverner Fantasia, his first major orchestral work. Sir Charles his Pavan, based on a tune Davies had written when he was twelve, was written as a memorial work for Grove when he died in 1992. The piece is short and concise and direct, with an especially beautiful ending.

The concert on August 10, presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakai Oramo, opened with another Dutilleux work, continuing with the Proms commemoration of the composer’s centennial. Timbres, espace, mouvement, written in 1978 for thee inaugural concert of Mstislav Rostropovich, and revised in 1990, and having something to do with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, is altogether something other than Fancy French Compositing. Scored for a larger orchestra without violins or violas, it inhabits a vivid and luxuriant sound world with considerable forward motion. After an opening glittering slowish movement pushing with some urgency to its conclusion, there is a very striking second movement (which was added in the 1990 revision) which is a sort of cadenza for the ‘cello section, featuring a texture of many separate lines–and highlighting the different effect that that kind of texture has in strings as opposed to winds–there is a concluding precipitously fast movement. The brilliant timbral quality or the whole work, and most especially the contrast between the second movement and the beginning of the third and how one moves into the other, have persisted strongly in this listener’s memory.

The Dutilleux was followed by Busking by H.K. Gruber, written in 2007 for the trumpet player Håkan Hardenberger, who was the soloist here. The trumpet is joined by banjo and accordion in a sort of concertino group contrasted to the accompanying string orchestra,. It is that sort of street band quality in the instrumentation, that presumably is alluded to by the title, and which gives the piece its unique sound. Each of the three movements has a different and distinctive character which is emphasized by the use of different trumpets–E-flat trumpet for the ‘bear dance’ first movement, flugelhorn for the more sombre slow movement, and C trumpet for the folky finale. It may be that the instrumentation of Busking alone evokes Kurt Weil or there may be a certain quality reminiscent of Weil in the notes, but he certainly comes to mind.

The August 11 Prom, presented by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, featured, along with the Bartok Dance Suite and The Dvorak Seventh Symphony, the first performance of Malcolm Hayes’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Tai Murray. Hayes’s program note says that the work is “about creating space,” and he cites Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and certain aspects of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (“not its powerhouse virtuoso idiom”) as works he had in mind when writing the piece, as well as the landscape of the Scottish Outer Hebrides (..”a northern-latitude drama of summer light and winter darkness, unfolding in an Atlantic landscape of low hills(with the higher mountains of Harris nearly to the south), inlets winding deep inland from the open sea, huge shifting and re-forming cloudscapes, and immense surrounding distances.”) This sense of landscape is in fact immediately evoked in the concerto’s opening, after an extended unaccompanied solo with very long quietly slow moving low notes under a alternately leisurely singing and delicately skittering violin part. That character is maintained consistently throughout the 25 minutes of the single movement work, and it is extremely appealing. After a while one wished for some fast music, and there not being any is the weakest aspect of the piece. All the same I was happy to have heard it, and I would be glad to hear it again. Tai Murray’s playing was resplendent and eloquent.

All of these concert can be heard online, along with all the other Proms concerts, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0741yk1/episodes/player

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Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez's 'Derive 1,' 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)

Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez’s ‘Derive 1,’ 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)

The Sunday concert at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music is always something of a marathon. It starts at 10 AM and is chock full of offerings that usually challenge the ear as much as tantalize it. The Sunday concert has traditionally also been the one that tests the capacities of the TMC Fellows most thoroughly. This year was no exception, although it was a horse race between Sunday’s chamber music concert and Monday’s presentation of Messiaen’s formidable Turungalila-Symphonie, a work that vibrated and thundered with intensity, shaped with eminently detailed care by conductor Stefan Asbury.

 

Ander’s Hillborg’s Brass Quintet is one of his most often played pieces, and one can readily hear why. Its opening antiphonally spiralling textures reveal a kinship to a more recent orchestra piece, Hillborg’s Vaporized Tivoli: both make a similarly captivating impression. There is an excellent use of repeated note textures, and the bold harmonic language makes it clear he’s studied a fair bit of Copland.

 

Brett Dean’s Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) is a cleverly crafted Pierrot plus Percussion piece with a number of scoring touches that set it apart from the average piece in the genre. There’s the clever use of percussion, with bowed vibraphone and gongs occurring simultaneously to create a two-headed beast of an instrument. The middle movement gives a nod to Carter’s Triple Duo by splitting the ensemble into a double trio. There’s also some mid-movement scordatura that changes up the harmony and proves to be quite an impressive feat from the strings. Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, settings of Tagore, featured soprano Sarah Tuttle. The piece combines several of the composer’s harmonic interests, including spectralism, microtonality, serialism, and modality. Glissandos and melismas are ably deployed to further variegate the texture.

 

David Fulmer has appeared at Tanglewood as a string soloist and composer. In the intervening time he has added conductor to his resume, and he did a fine job leading two pieces on Sunday’s concert. The first was Pierre Boulez’s Derive 1, one of his finest chamber pieces from the 1980s. Much shorter than his later Derive 2, seven minutes compared to nearly an hour, it is a compact utterance, but an eloquent one. Long sustained harmonic regions are parsed out again fast melodic filigrees and rapid trills. Christian Rief led Franco Donatoni’s Arpege, a piece that was originally a vibraphone piece and was later built up to a Pierrot plus Percussion Sextet. As one might expect, the vibraphone’s arpeggios lead the proceedings, in a curious amalgam of post-tonality and minimalist figuration. The ostinatos appear in almost “locked hands” scoring at first, then gradually stagger to create a lustrous shimmering from the ensemble.

 

Fulmer returned to the podium to conduct Harold Meltzer’s song cycle Variations on a Summer Day, settings of Wallace Stevens. The cycle has grown over time; I saw an earlier performance at Symphony Space that had, if recollection serves, around eight songs. It has since expanded to sixteen. Not only are the Variations longer, they have become more elaborate. There is a use of microtones in the winds that is quite attractive. The vocal part, here performed by the estimable Quinn Middleman, takes up far more vertical real estate, casting down into a nearly contralto register and up to high soprano notes. Middleman is billed as a mezzo soprano and her effort here was impressive, but I’m curious if subsequent performances might benefit from using two singers, a mezzo and a soprano, to better capture the distinct registers required by the songs. It is clear that Meltzer has lived with the poetry for a long time, and his settings of it are imaginative, ranging from terse utterances to attractively varied textures. Those who eschew the morning hour on Sundays at the Festival of Contemporary Music miss out.

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