Ravi Shankar was working on an opera at the time of his his death in 2012. This is now slated to received its world premiere in May at Leicester’s Curve Theatre.
Collaborator Davis Murphy explained: “He’d written the whole piece in outline – the entire raga structure and almost all the melodies so [after Shankar’s death] it was just a matter of filling in the gaps, which were small,”
A date for the diary. On October 1st Sonostream will free livestream Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Donnerstag, the first opera from his monumental Licht cycle.
From the Sonostream website:
The first of the seven operas, „Donnerstag“ (Thursday), embarks on a spiritual journey through space and time: a musical big bang which is light, playful and touchingly poetic and which exerts a hypnotic power. First staged in 1981 at La Scala, Milan, it is an ambitious, visionary work that combines opera, ballet, trumpet concerto and oratorio.
At the centre of the work is Michael, a modern Orpheus, whose task is to bring “the music of the heavens to man and the music of man to the heavens”. On his path through life, which ‘Donnerstag’ presents at different stages, Michael visits many exotic locations both on earth and in space where he is repeatedly confronted with the dark power of Lucifer. However, Michael succeeds in passing the many tests he must set himself – not least with the help of his trumpet and the magical healing powers of music.
The staging in June 2016 by Theater Basel was not only its Swiss premiere, but its first production of "Donnerstag" anywhere in more than 30 years. The director is the young American Lydia Steier, who took a fresh, highly theatrical approach to the piece and the conductor is Titus Engel, especially renowned in modern music.
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung praised the production a "milestone of the Stockhausen reception", proclaiming: “Now that this production in Basel has broken the ice and bravely saved Donnerstag for the sake of contemporary music theatre, we can only hope that other houses will soon venture to stage at least this part of the Licht cycle."
From 7—16th October Venice Biennale’s International Festival of Contemporary Music marks its sixtieth anniversary with a programme of 26 events that feature 45 world premieres, 27 Italian premieres and 24 commissions. Highlights include a new work for string quartet and piano by Kaija Saariaho on 7th; Pascal Dusapin’s Beckett’s Bones for soprano, clarinet and piano on 12th; and Toshio Hosokawa’s Aya for flute and amplified string trio also on 12th. On the 8th there will also be a presentation of the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award to Salvatore Sciarrino. It will be followed by a concert given by the London Sinfonietta, who will perform three works by the composer, including the world premiere of Immagina il deserto, for ensemble and soprano.
As well as these premieres, there will be both an Italian and American focus during the festival, the former including composers such as Azio Corghi, Sylvano Bussotti, Claudio Ambrosini, Luca Mosca, Michele dall'Ongaro, Stefano Gervasoni, Mauro Lanza, Vittorio Montalti, Gabriele Cosmi; and the latter David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Tyondai Braxton, Nico Muhly and Judd Greenstein. Other strands to follow include explorations of connections between images and sounds, especially through music written for film; and relationships with tradition, both within the Western canon and in World Music.
And outside Venice…
Nicolas Horvath has been committing the complete piano music of Philip Glass to CD in his Glassworlds survey. He is now bringing this immense experience to bear in an epic performance of the complete piano output of the composer at a concert at Philharmonie de Paris on 1st October. The performance is scheduled to start at 7pm and to continue for around 12 hours.
In marking the start of her period as composer in residence at Wigmore Hall, London, Helen Grime will have a day dedicated her music there on 15th October. There will be a concert of chamber music written for combinations of violin, viola, cello, oboe and piano at 1pm; a chance to hear the composer in conversation at 6pm; and a concert given by BCMG at 7.30 that will include her Clarinet Concerto, Luna, Embrace and Seven Pierrot Miniatures as well as works by Knussen, Carter and Janáček.
In a frustrating bit of programming, on the same day as the Grime the Barbican is hosting a James MacMillan Choral Music Day. At 3pm at St. Giles’ Cripplegate, Ex Cathedra will give the first London performance of Seven Angels, which tells the story of the Biblical apocalypse from Revelation. At 7.30 Harry Christophers conducts The Sixteen and Britten Sinfonia in the world premiere of Macmillan’s Stabat Mater. This concert also includes his Miserere and works by Tallis and Vaughan Williams. There is pre-concert talk with James MacMillan, Jeffrey Skidmore, Harry Christophers and John Studzinski at 6.15.
An exciting operatic premiere takes place in Birmingham on 25th, with the first performance of Jane Eyre by John Joubert. The work dates back as far as 1969, but was substantially revised following an amateur performance some years ago. This, therefore, marks the official premiere of the work, happily coinciding with both the composer’s 90th birthday and the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte.
In the States, at Jordan Hall, Boston, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project present works by four prominent US composers: Michael Colgrass, Gail Kubik, Harold Shapero and Steven Stucky. In NYC, meanwhile, Contemporary Insights presents a programme of recent instrumental and vocal chamber music by composer and oboist Sky Macklay. Pieces include Macklay’s chamber opera Why We Bleed, Doppelgänger III for two oboes and keyboard, FastLowHighSlow for two violins and piano four-hands and Lessina, Levlen, Levlite, Levora for speaking violinist and electronics.
As a teenager I would spend many a happy hour with my head buried in the latest Deutsche Grammophon, Decca or Chandos catalogue, lusting after shiny CDs and the pleasures digitised into their perfectly polished surfaces. These days, if you are looking for something a edgy and interesting, the most well-known labels are not the places to look—they tend to concentrate on core classical repertoire, only venturing into the field of contemporary music where they can promote, and make money from, the latest fad. Happily, for the more adventurous there are plenty of newer labels who have stepped in to fill this gap. The range of music they offer can be bewildering.
A particularly happy recent discovery was the Norwegian label Lawo. I gave a full review to one of their CDs, a splendid disk of contemporary music for trumpet, not long ago. I didn’t, however, mention the plethora of other recent releases from them. These include The New Song, a collection of recent works for voice and piano performed by Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo-soprano) and Nils Anders Mortensen (piano); works for oboe by Mozart and Norwegian composers Ketil Hvoslef and Harald Sæverud; a programme of saxophone music played by Lars Lien; music for wind octet by Gideon Klein, Johan Kvandal, Isang Yun and Magnar Åm; a selection of chamber music by British composer Laurence Crane; live music from the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, including works by Liza Lim and Jon Øivind Ness; and a second album in a series that explores the chamber music of Ketil Hvoslef. I am still exploring these albums and might do another full review soon. In the meantime, I will just say that I own physical copies of all of the above, which in itself is rather a joy given the high production values and beautiful artwork.
Another label that is new to me is Navona Records, the classical wing of Parma Recordings, which, in their own words, ‘offers listeners a fresh taste of today's leading innovators in orchestral, chamber, instrumental, and experimental music as well as prime pieces of classic repertoire.’ This seems hardly an exaggeration when browsing their latest releases: a selection of piano music by Robert Casadesus and Henri Dutilleux played by Cicilia Yudha; The Crossroads Project, a multidisciplinary project featuring the music of Libby Larsen and Laura Kaminsky; Between the Echoes, a showcase of recent chamber music by Daniel Burwasser, David DeVasto, Georges Raillard, Michael Lee and Allan Crossman; a programme of concert music by Lawrence Ball; chamber music by André M. Santos; and an album exploring the music of Michael Laurello.
And on other labels…
Naxos this month releases a new recording of Michael Nyman’s one-act chamber opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, featuring Ryan McPherson, Rebecca Sjöwall, Matthew Treviño and the Nashville Opera Orchestra; and a disk of organ music from that often neglected Australian Master of the Queen’s Music, Malcolm Williamson. On Bridge Records James Levine conducts performances of Charles Wuorinen’s Eighth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto; and a disk of music for tuba played by Aaron Tindall. On Signum Records, finally, Wells Cathedral Choir conducted by Matthew Owens perform music by John Tavener. As well as established favourites such as Song of Athene it also contains several world premiere recordings, including Preces and Responses and They are all gone into the world of light.
Recently giving evidence to the UK Government’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, George Vass, Chair of the British Arts Festival Association, and Mark Pemberton, Director of the Association of British Orchestras, both observed that new entries into the music profession tend to have the same white middle-class background. Pemberton said ‘It is looking like it is becoming more and more a middle class and advantaged profession’ with Vass adding that ‘There’s a whole raft of people that we’re just missing completely and it’s a great shame.’
Chaya Czernowin was born and raised in Israel but has subsequently lived in Germany, Austria, Japan and now the US. Given such a peripatetic lifestyle it is, perhaps, unsurprising that the question of identity plays a large role in her music. She remarks:
“…my music almost obsessively tried to stretch the idea of identity: from the inside, exploring separate and contrasting voices (or identities) within one larger identity, investigating how much dissent and difference can exist before the seams start to tear apart and all of a sudden, we have more than one identity. Dialectically, I stretched identity by combining different instruments into a unified meta instrument.”
This last comment seems particularly prescient when listening to this disk, since in these works Czernowin strips instruments of their familiar identities, recombining them in new and novel ways. At the opening of The Quiet, for example, the brass and strings are asked to play in ways that fall short of actually producing a pitch, the brass blowing through their instruments and the strings lightly drawing their strings to produce scratchy overtones. The one effect seems to complement and grow from the other, so that normal instrumental identities become blurred. And even where instruments are individually delineated Czernowin prefers to use extended techniques, though in a way that feels less a straining for effect and more a search for the very essence of each instrument’s character. The net result is never less than compelling.
These works are not, however, a mere morass of interesting sounds. Both form part of what Czernowin calls the ‘Crescendo Trilogy’, which provides a clue to underlying structural processes. Whilst in The Quiet we are told this is because ‘an exponential increase in volume ends the piece’, the gradual introduction of pitch into the texture suggests a more metaphorical crescendo, one that shapes the entire span. The second work Zohar Iver takes a similar approach, the emergence of single pitches also playing a role in initiating a final crescendo, though a long pedal also serves to delay the peroration. In terms of instrumental writing there are also some neat additional touches, including the emergence of an electric guitar, the use of distortion pedal fitting rather well into the grungy texture.
€18.50 might seem a pretty hefty price for two works totalling not much over 25 minutes, but on a cost/benefit ratio they are definitely worth the investment. If in doubt, try before you buy—the EP is available on both Spotify and Apple Music.
It seems that a contingent of Remainers plans to use the Last Night of the Proms to wave a large number of EU flags. This has provoked angry interventions from Leave politicians. Bill Cash, remarked “The climax of the last night is the singing of Rule Britannia – which is the great hymn to Britain and certainly not to the European Union”; Peter Bone MP said: “The Last Night of the Proms is an inspiring, uplifting British event, not an EU event – so for it to be hijacked is cheap politics.” Pots and kettles black, perhaps?
Nicholas Kenyon wrote perceptively recently about a sense of foreboding that the occasion might be used ‘to celebrate the triumph of Little England, to reinforce the message of a land of hope and glory in which Britons never shall be slaves – to the EU or anyone else.’ It seems ironic that the opposite might be about to happen. Either way, it’s about time that the harmless bit of froth that is the Last Night were taken a lot less seriously. Singing rousing patriotic songs is one thing, but expecting to receive political enlightenment, of whatever ilk, whilst doing so is absurd.
Brian Eno has just refused permission for Tel Aviv dance company Batsheva to use his composition Neroli because they are sponsored by the Israeli embassy. Eno is a signatory to the Artist’s Pledge to Palestine, which promises to ‘accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.’ More information available, here.
Two leading arts figures have this week quit the UK in the wake of the decision to leave the European Union. On 4th September Nicholas Mansfield, the British director of Netherlands Touring Opera, became a Dutch citizen, saying ‘I’m a man of principle. If my homeland takes a different path, I must cease to belong to it’. The following day, the German director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose leadership has seen record visitor numbers and the award of Art Fund museum of the year, said that Brexit had hastened his decision to leave his post. He considered the referendum ‘a personal defeat’ and expressed his worry that a ‘“me first” mentality’ was spreading throughout Europe.
Je crois personnellement que la musique atonale est une impasse, elle ne correspond pas à la nature même de l’audition, elle a constitué une tentative de « terrorisme musical » qui ne correspond pas à la nature profonde de ce qu’est la musique.
(I personally believe that atonal music is an impasse, it does not correspond to the natural way of hearing, it constitutes a ‘musical terrorism’ that has nothing to do with the profound nature of music.)
Jacques Attali is more politician than musician (‘would-be orchestra conductor’ as Lebrecht neatly sums him up) and his comment is neither original nor particularly provocative. Criticisms of atonality are as old as atonality itself. In 1914 Strauss allegedly described Schoenberg as being in need of a psychiatrist and that ‘he'd do better to shovel snow instead of scribbling on music-paper…’, in 1961 Ernest Ansermet attempted to debunk serialism in his book Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine. More recent criticisms include, in 2009, Roger Scruton’s collection of essays Understanding Music, Philosophy and Interpretation (especially in the eleventh, True authority: Janáček, Schoenberg and us) and, perhaps more provocatively, Jérôme Ducros’s 2012 lecture L'atonalisme. Et après?
I was led to this last source after reading the often perceptive, sometimes hilarious comments to Lebrecht’s original post. It would have taxed my French, except that, just a couple of weeks ago, an English language version of the lecture was made available on YouTube (embedded, below). It is fascinating to watch, really one of the most compelling and elegant arguments in favour of a return to the old ways of composing. It will enrage many.
Ducros L’atonalisme. Et après? Lecture given at Seminar Amphithéâtre Marguerite de Navarre, College de France
Ducros’s argument basically boils down to the fact that atonality results in a kind of blandness, since music lacks a dialectic, a set of rules understood by the listener against which the composer can satisfy, surprise or, indeed, frustrate their expectations. In essence, the listener, in expecting everything, is surprised by nothing.
I have some sympathy for this point of view, having often found it difficult to discern the shape or narrative thrust of atonal music. On such occasions, however, I have never felt this had anything to do with the lack of tonality itself. There are many ways of providing coherence to music and one of the joys of grappling with modernist repertoire is trying to work out what these might be. To take an obvious, and popular, example: Ligeti’s Atmospheres is best understood as a series of shapes, shifting colours and subtle manipulations of tessitura. Heard in this way the work is both coherent and compelling.
Ducros's analysis does, nevertheless, lead us to an important truth: too often the other forms of musical coherence that a composer must rely upon in the absence of tonality are not nearly sufficiently stressed. Of course, often there will be all sorts of clever musical filiation going on in the background, but none of this is of any use whatsoever if it cannot be discerned by the listener.
A secondary issue raised by Ducros is that too often music students are encouraged, or rather forced, to write in an atonal style in musical institutions. He presents it rather dramatically as a battle in which composers, after years of stultifying musical education, have to emancipate themselves from the modernism they have been forced to adopt. If this is true, it seems to be more a reflection of the ossified state of musical education in France than a criticism of higher education more generally. Certainly, in the UK and US, most universities are perfectly happy to produce students that write tonal music. What they will not accept is students who do this from a position of ignorance. One cannot pretend that the twentieth century did not happen. It is vital for universities to challenge young composers by making them aware of the historical context in which they write.
Ducros’s attempts to characterise the twentieth century as the century of atonality are, anyway, erroneous. The best composers have always followed their own stylistic inclinations. How else could Britten be writing Noye’s Fludde a year after Boulez finished Le marteau sans maître? And if composers are individuals, so too are listeners. Ducros might be rather surprised to find, even if he does not like it himself, that there are plenty of people who adore the music of Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen et al. Composers will choose to write whatever they wish and audiences will choose to listen to whatever they wish. There is no battle, just a myriad of bewildering and enticing possibilities from which the contemporary composer must choose.