Last night marked the launch of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams’ weeklong residency at the University of Michigan. Adams’ time in Ann Arbor, which will include performances as well as lectures on environmental advocacy, began with an evening of his chamber music at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The museum’s apse has been site of may memorable concerts over the years, but none may have taken advantage of this setting as well as yesterday’s program of Adams’ resonant and ravishing compositions. In one of the handful of interstitial interviews between Adams and University of Michigan Musicology Professor Mark Clague, the composer described his music as, “all about sound and space.” And, Adams later added, “I want to make strange and beautiful new places…make them empty, without my footprints in them…so the audience can find their way through them.”
From left to right: conductor Oriol Sans, composer John Luther Adams, conductor Jerry Blackstone (photo credit: Patrick Harlin)
The hundreds in attendance Monday night had a terrific opportunity to experience these characteristics in Adams’ works Strange Birds Passing, Dark Wind, The Farthest Place, In a Treeless Place, Only, and in four selections from his massive choral work Canticles of the Holy Wind. In between the pieces, Adams shared evocative and endearing anecdotes related each work’s origins. These included the revelation that the Strange Birds Passing was inspired by the paisley wallpaper decorating Adams’ Alaskan cabin’s refrigerator in the 1980s, or that the selected movements from Canticles of the Holy Wind reflect his more recent observations of parhelia and other celestial phenomena in the sky above the arctic and Mexico.
The concert’s program was, essentially, chronological, and enabled Adams to recount his sense of his growth as a composer. Fond of and familiar with his music, I listened for large-scale similarities and differences across the evening’s offerings. Certainly, The Farthest Place and Dark Wind – which Adams denoted as two of his, “color field pieces,” – work through deeply similar designs. The oldest piece, Strange Birds Passing, was the most overtly melodic composition, yet it evinced the same ambling, symmetrical form expressed by In a Treeless Place, Only Snow and Canticles of the Holy Wind. Altogether, Monday’s concert was a terrific aperitif to the culmination of Adams’ time in Ann Arbor: the University Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Become Ocean, which represents the work’s Midwest premiere. Even that piece, Adams’ most recent and celebrated, had ancestors of last evening’s program, as one could here embryos of Become Ocean in Dark Wind’s trembling opening.
In the end, as much as Adams’ music amazed, the setting of its performance was almost more stunning. At the very least – and as Adams admitted – the museum’s acoustics had as much a hand in the beauty of the evening’s performance as did the talented instrumentalists and vocalists of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, or Adam’s compositional artistry. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the concert was Adams’ willingness to collaborate with, and have his listeners’ experience so heavily influenced by, the space surrounding the performance. As Adam’s described, it seems he tries, in all his pieces, to remove himself as much as possible from the music, from the center of the audience’s attention. I think many composers aspire towards the humility needed to even consider this kind of rhetorical positioning, but few live in it like Adams seems to. And, though I doubt it is even possible for any composer to disappear fully from a listener’s experience of their music, Adams’ efforts to this end, like his compositions, are, indeed, superlative.
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Photo Credit: Janette Beckmann Members of the Da Capo Chamber Players (Left to Right:) Curtis Macomber, violin, Patricia Spencer, flute, Jay Campbell, cello, Meighan Stoops, clarinet, Blair McMillen, piano
On Thursday October 1st, the Da Capo Chamber Players commemorate the hundredth anniversaries of two recently deceased American modernists: Milton Babbitt and George Perle. They will perform Babbitt’s When Shall We Meet Again and two works by Perle: Sonata a Quattro and Nightsong. David Fulmer, a Babbitt student, contributes the world premiere of Cadenza, a piece built out of his violin concerto’s hyper-virtuosic solo part. Rounding out the program are Jason Eckardt’s After Serra and Fred Lerdahl’s Times 3.
Though it is more modest in scope than other centennial tributes one can hear this season – particularly Juilliard’s Focus Festival, devoted entirely to Babbitt – the Da Capo event features several players who collaborated closely with Babbitt and Perle. Indeed, both of the Perle works were written for the ensemble. It promises to be an intimate evening filled with finely honed performances.
Thursday, October 1st at 8 PM
Merkin Concert Hall,
129 West 67th Street, NYC, NY
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The Los Angeles chapter of the American Composers Forum (ACF-LA) held its annual meeting and concert over the weekend of September 11-12, 2015 at newly-refurbished Clausen Recital Hall on the campus of Los Angeles City College in Hollywood. Many of the groups in Los Angeles doing new music participated, and the resulting concert was over three hours long, requiring two intermissions. The 200 seat venue was completely filled, mostly by performers and composers. The night before there was another ACF-LA concert by wildUp at REDCAT in Disney Hall, so in just a couple of evenings you could have enjoyed a good cross-section of the local new music scene.
The evening began with greetings from Jack Van Zandt, ACF-LA Chapter President and Dr. Christine Park, Chair of the Music Department at LACC. Each performing group also had a spokesperson give a short introduction about the music and goals of their respective organizations.
The first to present was People Inside Electronics and Brightwork newmusic came on stage to perform like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment, by Benjamin Broening. The electronic re-processing of the acoustic sounds from the Brightwork ensemble gave this a shiny, shimmering feel that contained some lovely tones. Silences between the passages allowed the electronics to deliver ghostly echoes that added to the ethereal feel. There was a beautiful flute solo and some bowing of the vibraphone bars that seemed to cast a spell. Benjamin Broening was present – as were most of the composers – and he acknowledged the applause and the fine reading by Brightwork.
The second piece presented by People Inside Electronics was Sad Trombone, by Isaac Schankler. The group gnarwhallaby was on hand in their trademark black coveralls to reprise this work, having premiered it in March of this year. This is a trombone concerto that includes piano, clarinet and cello in addition to reprocessing electronics. Sad Trombone is a fearsome combination, with dark textures, piano crashes, lively syncopated tempos and primal trombone sounds supplied by Matt Barbier. All of this is taken into the microphones, reprocessed, amplified, and returned to the speakers mounted over the stage. The result was a powerful, complex sound that washed over the audience in great waves. The ensemble playing was excellent given the difficulty of the music and the strong presence coming from the speakers. The energy and power in Sad Trombone and the muscular playing by gnarwhallaby was enthusiastically acknowledged by the audience.
On Friday September 11, 2015, the Curve Line Space Gallery in Eagle Rock was the venue for a concert titled Collaborations 1.1 featuring the works of Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim as performed by members of the Southland Ensemble. Stäbler and Shim, German experimental composers, are on a three-city tour of the US, sponsored in part by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany and the Goethe Institute. Seven pieces composed between 1986 and 2007 were presented, ranging from conceptual works to those with graphical scores and standard notation. The warm evening and exquisite acrylic paintings by Sue Tuemmler complimented the amiable atmosphere present in the audience and the gallery.
The first piece was by Kunsu Shim In Zwei Teilen – I, and this was performed by violin, viola, cello and recorder. The first notes were barely audible – a light, high arco sound from the cello followed by about a minute of silence. A short chord from the strings and recorder was heard and then another long, soft tone from the cello. The combination of quiet sounds and long silences worked to focus the listening and the result was a sense of keen anticipation. More hushed tones from the cello followed and with a pleasantly dissonant final chord from the strings and recorder, the piece concluded.
Hart Auf Hart by Gerhard Stäbler was next and this had several performers scattered around the floor with portable radios and a graphical score consisting of bar codes overlaid by a grid of numbered coordinates. A series of numbers and letters were called out – much like a bingo game – the performers consulted their scores, and some began tuning their radios. The tuning proceeded fairly rapidly, and short bursts of voices and music were heard as well as loud static. The voices coming from the radios were fragmentary and did not add any sort of narrative. For some performers the score indicated silence, and the radio was turned off. The piece continued in this way, coordinates were called out at intervals and radio sounds were heard coming from different corners of the performance space. All of this produced an interesting texture, if not any definite form. The changing patterns and locations of the sounds produced an intriguing sense of space and movement for the stationary listener. Towards the end of the piece, the performers gathered around an open microphone and all of the radio sounds were now projected from a single speaker, flattening the previous sensations of distance and location. With a burst of loud sounds and static the piece suddenly ended.
The third piece on the program was Gerhard Stäbler’s ]and on the eyes black sheep of night[ for piccolo, clarinet and violin. This was a conventionally notated piece that began with a dissonant tutti chord and gave off a feeling of remote loneliness. The piccolo played two alternating high notes and the others joined in similarly in their registers. The effect was like listening to a clockwork oscillating back and forth with a sort of familiar regularity. The coloring became more intense, adding a bit of anxiety. A sudden and almost painfully loud dissonant chord in the violin and piccolo disrupted the calm and captured everyone’s attention. There was a brief return to the more gentle feeling, but ]and on the eyes black sheep of night[ ended on a second tense chord as if to underline the journey from the comfortable to the anxious.
Luftrand, by Kunsu Shim, followed and this was for violin, viola and cello. Soft, muffled tones – almost a whisper – were heard, followed by silence. The players began each passage together and the quiet chords had a mysterious and secretive feel. Everything was soft and tentative, with never a strong bowing action or loud note. The players exhibited good ensemble and a soft touch to produce the delicate sounds that felt like a series of quiet sighs. Midway through, the string tension on each instrument was reduced and this produced a new sound – less purely musical perhaps, but more evocative. The now-lower notes seemed to be enveloped in a thick fog that greatly added to the mystery. Luftrand with its subtle, muted tones invites a deeper and more rewarding concentration from the listener.
One of the major threads of the programming of the 2015 Proms concerts was the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez. This commemoration is both testimony to the importance of Boulez to the music of the second half of the twentieth century, and also to his importance in the history of the BBC and to the Proms. The Prom on August 12 situated a major work of Boulez, Figures – Doubles – Prismes in the context of two of his musical forebears, Ravel and Stravinsky. On August 26, in the concert which was the Proms debut of the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden, another major work of Boulez’s, was presented alongside an important work of his contemporary György Ligeti. “…explosante-fixe….” began as short work (a page of musical notation with several pages of written instructions) which was part of a memorial tribute to Stravinsky organized by the magazine Tempo. The notes of this fragment gravitated to the note E♭, Stravinsky’s musical initial (S=E♭). Boulez produced various expansions of this original material for different ensembles, each version, like the original, called “…explosante-fixe…” and involving live electronics, but each seems to have been unsatisfactory to the composer due to technological difficulties. This “…explosante-fixe…”, which is a sort of concerto for flute, two ‘shadow’ flutes, and a chamber orchestra, with electronics, written between 1991 and 1993 (after further technological advancements), is not exactly a final version of the work, since the plan for the piece was that a relatively simple statement of the material, “Originel,” ending with an E♭, would be arrived at after moving through a cycle of seven “Transitoires,” which in turn were mediated by electronic “Interstitiels.” The present version has only two Transitoires (VII and V). One might be grateful, though, for this, since as it is the work is thirty-four minutes long; and at that length the constantly changing glittering texture and the shimmering instrumental writing remains continually fresh and beguiling. The performance, by soloist Sophie Cherrier, with shadow flutists Dagmar Becker and Anne Romeis, and a subset of the orchestra, the SWR Experimental Studio, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, was ebullient and aurally seductive and thrilling, and was altogether completely satisfying.
“…explosante-fixe..” was set along side of Ligeti’s Lontano, a work for huge orchestra, which, using more or less the same micropolyphonic techniques that in his earlier iconic orchestral masterwork Atmosphéres produced clustery sound masses, evokes the textures and ethos of late nineteenth century orchestral music. Ligeti said that as he was writing Lontano he had in mind some lines from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,”
“…The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn…”,
and as Stephen Johnson wrote in his program note, the work has several moments when it seems that a window is flung open, revealing a startlingly new vista, with yet another vista in turn opening up, continuing into infinity. The orchestra and Roth, just about perfectly realized the beauty and poetry of this work, following it with one of the most important works of one of the most important influences on Ligeti, the Bartok Concerto for orchestra.
The BBC Proms Matinee on August 29, presented by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Thierry Fischer, offered three other important works of Boulez’s, this time situating them with works of younger composers following in his wake, Helen Grime and Christian Mason. The concert opened with Memoriale, an intermediate version of “…explosante-fixe…”. Boulez was working on developing the work at IRCAM with the flautist Lawrence Beauregard during the early 1980s, but Beauregard’s untimely death in 1985 at the age of 28 caused Boulez to suspend his work, after writing Memoriale in his memory. The seven minute long piece is a meditative flute solo (played in this performance by Michael Cox) surrounded by a quietly and elegantly whirring instrumental texture. The clarinetist Mark van de Wiel performed Domaines, an unaccompanied solo work which is possibly the signal product of Boulez’s interest in controlled chance. The work consists of six ‘cahiers,’ or pages, which can be played in any order, which are then followed by six ’mirroirs’, mirror versions of the original ‘cahiers’, which can also be played in any order; each of the cahiers and mirroirs contains six fragments whose order can be varied in a particular way. Eventually, like “…explosante-fixe…”Domaine was expanded by the addition of six additional instrumental sections for from one to six instruments. This rather dazzling solo virtuoso piece received a completely dazzling performance.
The concert concluded with Éclats/Multiples, yet another, in principle, unfinished work consisting of, at the moment, an approximately ten minute long piece for fifteen players, featuring the contrast of instruments whose sound is hard, unchanging, bright, and clanging, and produced percussively, with those whose sound can be prolonged, and whose continuity and speed of figuration can be decided, within certain bounds, by the performers, followed by an approximately seventeen minute long piece for twenty five players (adding nine violas and a bassett clarinet), expanding, darkening, and prolonging the more sustained music from the first part. The performance of the work was vivid, fluent, eloquent, and engaging, and was a suitably spectacular ending for the concert and for the Proms’s birthday celebrations.
Between the works of Boulez were works of composers who, having been born about sixty years later than he was, might be considered part of his progeny. Both Helen Grime and Christian Mason have worked with Boulez and both attested in discussions with Tom Service before the performances of their pieces, proudly and happily claimed to have been profoundly influenced by him, particularly by his ear and mind for detail. Helen Grime’s A Cold Spring, for ten players, is in three movements: a prelude featuring fluttering parts for two clarinets, a serious singing movement featuring a solo horn, and a concluding much more dramatic movement in which the clarinets reappear as featured players. It is concisely and elegantly made and attractively orchestrated. Christian Mason’s Open to Infinity: a Grain of Sand, which was commissioned jointly by the BBC and the Lucern Festival, received it’s UK premiere. Its three movements, played without a break, spurred on by the Blake poem referenced in its title, explore the relationship between the material of the work and the larger parts and, in turn, the whole which it generates. It begins with a rather static, chordal movement, followed by agitated and rhythmically active music, which develops a dramatic trajectory, and ends with slower contemplative music which evolves into a sort of slow motion struggle towards its end. All of this arises from and fades back into the sound of the crotales which all fourteen of the performers play in addition to their other instruments. The pacing of the work and the drawing out of the arc of its argument is masterly and compelling. The playing of the members of the London Sinfonietta throughout the concert was a demonstration of how to bring all this very difficult music to vivid life.
All of these performances are available on the BBC iplayer.
(August 26: http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/emdc8g#b06709hk ;
August 29: http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e4pxj5#b067x658 ;
or the individual pieces can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pcr1d )
On August 27, 2015, the Locrian Chamber Players gathered on the 10th floor of Riverside Church to present a program of classical contemporary music. The Locrian Chamber Players set themselves apart from other contemporary music ensembles in two ways. First, LCP only programs works that were composed in the last ten years. Second, they withhold the program notes until the end of the concert, leaving the audience members with fewer distractions from directly engaging in the program. As one who often finds himself buried in the program notes, this approach was incredibly refreshing, and successful.
The program opened with Daniel Thomas Davis’ Thin Fire Racing, an art song for mezzo-soprano, piano, and clarinet. The work is a selection from Follow Her Voice, a set of songs based on Sappho’s Fragment 31, here translated into English. Mezzo Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek’s performance matched the fiery intensity of both Sappho’s text and Davis’ setting. While clarinetist Benjamin Baron and pianist Jonathan Faiman expertly supported her, both were also given moments to shine.
To offer a change in mood, the second piece on the program was Shafer Mahoney’s Shining River. This duet was played by flautist Catherine Gregory and harpist Victoria Drake. In contrast to Thin Fire Racing, Shining River is calm, pensive, and deeply internal. Gregory’s long, lyric lines complemented the gently bumping harp to create the image aptly suggested by Mahoney’s title.
Another Ecstatic Opening Out by Victoria Malawey received its New York premiere. For this piece, violinist Keats Dieffenbach and cellist Kristina Cooper joined Gregory and Drake. The interesting textures and timbres Malawey creates within the ensemble are striking. The sounds of the flute blend almost seamlessly into the violin and then further from violin to cello. A pizzicato cello complements the steady churn of the harp, with Cooper’s timbre seemingly growing out of the colors of the harp.
The first half of the program concluded with Mei-Fang Lin’s Mistress of the Labyrinth for solo piano. In contrast to the melodic and lyrical pieces presented before it, Mistress of the Labyrinth is rough and aggressive, with a dissonant and pointy harmonic language. The piece is labyrinthine, expansive and winding, never fully revealing to the listener exactly where it is leading.
The second half of the concert opened with Cantico dell creature by Caroline Shaw. Another very old text, this piece is a setting of an Italian text by St. Francis of Assisi. While the lengthy text did yield a substantial piece, Shaw’s setting did much to offset the formulaic nature of Assisi’s poetry.
For the finale, Cooper and Dieffenbach were joined by Baron, violinist Anna Lim, and violist Daniel Panner in Aaron Jay Kernis’ Perpetual Chaconne. The omnipresent falling motive that opens the piece creates a sense of perpetuity. As the piece builds and intensifies, it almost seems to exist outside of time. As most of the thematic detail seems to develop and open up upon itself as the piece progresses, in a fascinating way, listening to this piece feels much more like the expansion of the a single moment, the meticulous inspection of a single detail, than a large-scale progression over a long period of time.
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Raymond Yiu’s Symphony, a sort of Mahlerian song-cycle, which received its first performance on the Prom on August 25 by counter-tenor Andrew Watts and the BBC Symphony conducted by Edward Gardner, is a big piece, ambitiously conceived and handsomely realized. It is some indication of its success that most of the criticism one might have of the piece have to do with appealing aspects of it which one wants more of. It is well timed and beautifully orchestrated and consistently engaging, and, in its final moments particularly beautiful and rather moving, and it very successfully sustains an arc of 26 minutes length. There is some indirection about the relationship of its texts to each other and to the ostensible subject of the whole, which is AIDS. Exactly what about AIDS is a little hard to determine–one ends up with having to say that it has something to do with AIDS, but without being able to say exactly what. The introductory first movement’s Whitman text proclaims strong music that celebrates victors and “conquer’d and slain” alike. The second, instrumental scherzo’s title ‘Strong With Cadence Multiply Song” is a line from Basil Bunting (which the program notes says was significant for the whole work, somehow, but it’s hard to tell exactly how, since we were never given it, or an explanation for its significance), the third movement sets a poem by Cavafy which invokes “beloved sensation,” aka sex, presumably. The fourth and longest movement sets a poem by Thom Gunn describing an encounter of the poet with two other men in a gay bar, combining thoughts and deeds of death and the sexual, and drugs. The final serene movement, setting Donne, celebrates the triumph of love and fidelity over destruction and decay. So the texts highlight different aspects of the subject, as it were throwing light on it from different angles at the periphery , without having a single sustained argument. There are evocations in the second and fourth movements of pop music of the seventies. Whether the fourth movement could really be said to be a “seventies-style disco song”, as Yiu described it, is debatable, but it probably comes close enough; it is in this movement that the use of the counter-tenor to reference such falsetto pop singers as Barry Gibb, Jackie Jackson, and Sylvester is most apparent. For this listener, as strong as the piece is, it would have been even more successful and more moving had it had more grit in it–a little more harshness now and then in the sound–and greater harmonic intensity in its climatic moments. The implications of the treatment of the texts at the beginning–with the singer’s stuttering drawing out of the sibliants of the words “song” and “strong” which are juggled momentaily, were never realized, since that manner of treating text is abandoned for a more traditional, and very masterly, manner of setting the words. But the reservations one might have are small in view of the work’s achievement and of the mastery involved in its execution. Both Andrew Watts’s singing and the orchestras playing was direct and vivid and had clearly been prepared with great dedication. Yiu’s Symphony was preceded on the program by Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, another serious and highly accomplished work by a composer who was around thirty. The second half included the NielsenFlute Concerto, with Emily Benon, soloist, and the JanáčekSinfonietta, both of which were played with considerable elegance and charm. The whole concert was a great pleasure.
The Prom on August 27, presented by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, contained two first performances. The first, preSage by Ørjan Matre, although billed as a world premier, was actually a second version of a piece originally commissioned by the Oslo Philharmonic to both commemorate the centennial of The Rite of Spring and to mark Vasily Petrenko’s becoming the orchestra’s Principal Conductor. Based on material derived from the section of the ballet called ‘The Sage,’ Matre’s work is a sort of expansion over twelve minutes of a split second before the beginning of that music, with some hints of reminisces of other places in the ballet also included. The recognizability of the material makes this effect possible. The music, which throbs and shimmers and rings many changes of instrumental color while evoking that moment of the ballet, is appealing and engaging, and would be even a little more so were it a little shorter, but it still doesn’t outstay its welcome. I would be happy to hear it again, and to hear more of Matre’s music.
The second premiere on the concert was of Bergen’s Bonfire by Alissa Firsova. Firsova is the child of two Russian composers who defected from the Soviet Union to the UK in 1991, and she grew up and was trained in England, where she has a career both as a composer and pianist. Bergen’s Bonfire is a depiction of an apocalyptic dream of the composer’s. Her retelling of the dream in her note, involving Norse mythology and the end of the old world and the birth of a new, doesn’t actually include anything about a bonfire, so the reason for the title is a little unclear. The work is about ten minutes long, in three sections, the first describing the Twilight of the Gods, with themes for the sun, the moon, and the stars; the second depicts the composer’s walk around Mount Floyen, one of the mountains surrounding Berger, and the third shows a new age of peace and happiness and is based on a piece the composer wrote when she was eight years old. The beginning of the work is very strong and compelling (and is much stronger than any of the music included in the Composer Portrait concert of her music which had been given earlier in the afternoon), and all goes well for a while, until the third section arrives. At that point things start to go badly wrong. For one thing it’s much longer than it should be in relationship to the first two sections, but in addition it slides into a music of simply astounding banality, which would make a second or third tier Hollywood composer of the 30s or 40s blush. One can believe that it was written by a precocious eight year old. Sometimes when you’re presented with somebody’s ideas of the sublime and utopian it can be like having them share their dreams or their sexual fantasies with you–just a little too much information which, when you’ve received it, you’d rather they hadn’t shared it with you to begin with, and which you can’t unhear.
The concert concluded with a remarkably wonderful performance of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, which had enormous clarity and nuance, rock solid ensemble and rhythm, and enormous drama and character. It was moving and memorable.
Concurrent with the Proms, the BBC sponsors various workshops and events for pre-college composers under the general title of Inspire. I observed on August 21 an impressive Inspire session run by Paul Griffiths (this is not the musicologist and writer on modern music–this Paul Griffiths is a composer, improviser, and “music educationalist” on the faculty of the Guildhall School of Music) which dealt with collaborative composition. Led by Griffiths and assisting professional musicians, about two dozen performing composers created over the morning a joint composition. There is also every year a competition with a concert of the winning works. For the last several years the concert has been presented by the Aurora Orchestra and its music director and principal conductor, Nicholas Collon. This summer’s concert happened in the afternoon of August 28. The format is never quite the same: there is a varying amount of talking (over the years this has been, mercifully, reduced), and the number of works played changes. Past concerts have presented work by the winners and the highly commended composers. This year’s concert only included the five winning works, which were Fantasia for Strings by Matthew Kelley (b.1999), Mechanical Passion by Tammas Slater (b.2000), After Death by Toby Hession (b,1997), The Complications of Life in an Enclosed Space by Daniel Penney (1999) and Like the Wind by Finnlay Stafford (b.1998). All of the works were lively and interesting and were performed with serious care and understanding by the excellent performers. It seemed short; one wanted to hear at least some of works the ten highly commended composers as well.
These concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer: Yiu:http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06708yz (the whole concert, the Yiu only at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030rzhk), the Matre and Firsova: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06709tq (the whole concert; Matre only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030yxs6, Firsova only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030z9md).
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One of the major themes of this year’s Proms is the commemoration of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius. The Proms on August 12 and 13 were programmed to put Boulez into a context, offering his music alongside that of his predecessors Ravel, Stravinsky, and Messiaen. The Proms concerts on August 15, 16 and 17, featuring all of the Sibelius symphonies in order over three evenings, additionally projected Sibelius’s influence forward: the only music on those three evenings not by Sibelius was the first performance of a BBC commission from Michael Finnissy.
Sibelius is a composer who would seem not to be neglected, however at the same time that his music is “popular” and certain pieces of his are performed fairly often, he doesn’t often seem to be recognized as an modernist whose methods of dealing with musical materials and building musical structures are just as novel as a number of his younger contemporaries, such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Janacek, and Bartok. His seven symphonies are probably his most important works. Hearing them all together, one after another, the consistency of them, both in terms of language and quality, is striking. The performances, on August 15 by the BBC Scottish Symphony, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, on August 16 by the same orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, and on August 17 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, were all of a very high level, although the playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony was really memorable for the sheer beauty of its sound and the continuous presence of a certain kind of music making which one might describe as loving. In addition to the Symphonies, the first concert included the tone poem Finlandia and the second included the Violin Concerto, with Julian Rachlin as soloist.
Michael Finnissy is undoubtedly one of the major living British composers, which makes the few number of times that pieces of his have been included on the Proms something of a mystery, especially when one considers other composers whose pieces have been programmed many more times and regularly; this piece was the third work of his to be scheduled on Proms concerts. He described Janne, the title being a diminutive of Siblius’s first name, as “an imaginary portrait of Sibelius or, more exactly, a portrait of his music and its sources.” Finnissy described the work as a set of variations (“or variant explorations”) on a bit of a tune from the Finnish folk epic, the Kalevala. In fact those variations underlie a profuse fantasia of “foreign elements”, allusions to music of other composers who influenced Sibelius, Tschaikovsky and Bruckner, and “the flotsom and jetsam of 20th-century musical history (such as Futurism, Impressionism, new simplicity, new complexity)”. The variations, which surface from time to time featuring solos and small concertino groups–a single bassoon, then three horns, then viola, and later oboe and ‘cello, then a solo violin–provide a grounding structure, which along with an extraordinarily compelling harmonic trajectory, give a clear and sure progress through the span of the piece. It is striking that, while Janne, which very strongly evokes Sibelus’s language and methodology, is in a number of ways a much more conventional work, and much more conventionally skillful, dazzlingly so, than one might expect from Finnissy, it is at the same time completely personal and identifiable as the work of its composer, in its evoking and estranging of its elements, and it’s starkly contrasting “plain and more ornate, even conflicted, surfaces”. It is wonderfully convincing and satisfying, and it is just beautiful.
All of these concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player) . The Finnissy is also available separately in a special section of new music on the Proms (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pcr1d).
As well as being one of the major figures in the music of the second half of the twentieth century, Pierre Boulez has had a long and important relationship with the BBC and with the Proms, so it is not surprising that the celebration of his 90th birthday would be one of the prominent strands of the programming of this year’s Proms season. The Proms concerts on August 12 and 13 presented the first performance at the Proms of a major orchestral work of Boulez’s and placed it in a context of musical and orchestral tradition in which it stands.
Figures-Doubles-Prismes, written in 1957-8, and revised in the later 1960s, is a product of the heyday of post World War II European zero-hour modernism, but it is also, more personally, Boulez’s response to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, whose first performance he had participated in as one of the three conductors. Like Gruppen, Boulez’s work is for three orchestral groups, but deployed on one platform rather than spatially around the audience. As its title implies, the work’s constructive methodology involves a series of ideas of varying lengths which are presented (figure), varied (double), and extended and refracted in various ways (prisme), whose various statements and progresses are cross cut and proliferate over and through the three instrumental units. The result is a kaleidoscopic succession of textures of greatly varying densities and a wide array of different orchestral sonorities, many of which are strikingly and beautifully calculated, presented in a state of harmonic stasis. The command of all these elements and the brilliance of the orchestral writing is fearsome and impressive. The performance by The BBC Symmphony, which looked very cramped on the stage of the Albert Hall, conducted by François-Xavier Roth. was a model of clarity and probably got the right combination of beauty of sound and emotional coolness.
The August 12 concert made the connection between Boulez’s music and that of the second generation before him, Stravinsky and Ravel, which, if it wasn’t important to his compositional career (and I think it was), was certainly a major aspect of his career as a conductor. The most explicit connection was represented by Boulez’s orchestration of Ravel’s Frontisipice, a very short (two minute long) piece which Ravel wrote in 1918 as a frontispiece to the publication of an extract of S. P. 503: Le poème du Vardar by the Italian poet Ricciotto Canudo which concerned the author’s experiences during the First World War (S. P. 503 was the postal code of Canudo’s unit). Ravel’s score of the work is on five staves; it seems to have been intended for two pianos, five hands, or possibly for pianola. Boulez, in one of his Domaine Musical concerts in 1954, presented what is thought to be the first public performance of the piece; he later orchestrated it for a small orchestra in 1987, and then for full orchestra twenty years later. This concert also included Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand, played with enormous brilliance and beauty by Marc-André Hamelin (he also played very beautifully, with both hands, as an encore Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau). The concert ended with the complete Firebird ballet of Stravinsky. As a whole The Firebird has a good number of stretches of brilliant orchestration of not much of musical interest, but in the bits that ended up in the suites there’s a lot of power, and certain places, most especially the beginning of the finale, are down right thrilling. This performance realized all of its virtues.
The Proms of August 13, presented by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena, included a major work of Boulez’s teacher Olivier Messiaen, The Taurangalîla Symphony. It’s hard to know where to start in describing or discussing Taurangalîla. It’s excessive and completely over the top and it’s brilliant in its orchestral writing and it’s quite long (75 minutes, according to the program) and it has a lot of the vigor and liveliness of complete tastelessness (although taste is not any kind of valid standard for judging it) and it’s very complex rhythmically and musically inventive. It’s also very static harmonically (once again, no valid standard–it’s probably part of its appeal). It’s one of those pieces that convinces me that Messiaen had no sense of humor whatsoever. The performance of this ecstatically excessive piece was completely go for broke and it was very effective, although somehow less fun that I’ve found other performances of the piece I’ve heard to be. The playing of the pianist, Steven Osbourne, was always gorgeous–with lots of color and always with very very beautiful sound. From where I was sitting, since her back was to me, and the speakers of the instrument faced in some other direction, I don’t think I every heard much of Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, who played the Ondes Martinot, ostensibly the other solo instrument. I did seem to notice (or at least get the impression), though, that everything the OndesMartenot does is doubled somewhere in the orchestra.
This program began with John FouldsThree Mantras. There was, of course, no connection between Foulds and Boulez, but it was connected thematically with Sanskit/Hindu elements of the Messiaen. Foulds lived from 1880 to 1939, making him part of the same generation as Holst (who also had a lot of interest in Hindu religious philosophy) and Vaughan Williams. The Mantras, apparently part of an unrealized projected ‘Sanskrit opera’, Avatara, were written between 1919 and 1930. They call for a large orchestra, including a wordless female chorus, and sound a little something like parts of The Planets. Iin terms of the orchestral writing, the Mantras are pretty impressive. Although it was less interesting, at least to me, than Holst’s music usually is, it was still not at all uninteresting or unpleasant to listen to, and I was glad to have run across them, even if I probably won’t go out of my way to hear them more.
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LSO Live is (are, if you’re English) releasing Sir Peter Maxwell Davies Symphony No 10 and Panufnik Symphony No 10, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra on August 28. You can get a 10% discount by pre-ordering before the release.
Here’s an interview with Maxwell Davis about his tenth symphony.
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