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21 Dec  

If you buy one CD set this month or, for that matter, over the next twelve, you should consider A European Odyssey, A remarkable musical adventure with the London Schubert Players. Released on Nimbus, the three-disk set is the fruit of the Invitation to Composers project that, since 2009, has challenged composers to write new works in response to established European chamber pieces. 

Invitation to Composers was developed by pianist, founder and Artistic Director of the London Schubert Players, Anda Anastasescu. It has had two incarnations. The first ran from 2009-2010, the sources of inspiration being works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns and Messiaen. The second, from 2010-11, used George Enescu’s Chamber Symphony for 12 Solo Instruments as well as works for unusual combinations of viola solo, piano solo and strings and soprano, piano and strings.  The chosen compositions were work-shopped and performed in a series of events in the UK, France and Romania.

The scope of this marvellous project was too large to make a complete survey of all the works performed, but this collection gives a generous selection. On disc one there are three of the inspiration works: Mendelssohn’s epic Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings, Saint-Saëns’ Septet op. 65, remarkable for its inclusion of solo trumpet, as well as the aforementioned Enescu, a work of searing introspection. The subsequent two disks contain 14 of the works written in response to the models, not just to those on disc one but also Messiean's Quatour pour la Fin du Temps, Schubert's Trout Quintet and two based upon the viola solo, piano solo model. The composers represented are from all over continental Europe and beyond and of all ages. The styles too are satisfyingly diverse; it is clear that scores were chosen simply on compositional merit and without stylistic preconceptions. On the one hand, for example, there is Ana-Maria Avram’s imaginative rendering of Ten Romanian Songs from Bela Bartók’s collection. Full of attractive tunes, often presented with witty panache, it is easily accessible without dumbing-down. On the other there is the eerie nocturnal world of Eberhard Eyser’s The Nightingale was Singing all Night Long or Adina Dumitrescu’s bracingly uncompromising J’ai trouve les Histoires. Some of the recordings are live, some made in the studio. All are excellent, though inevitably the live recordings are a bit more prone to extraneous noise.

For those who might lament the passing of such a brilliant project, the good news is that Anastasescu is planning a sequel to Invitation to Composers, to take place throughout 2014-2015, subject to securing funding. This will, of course, be of interest to users of this site. I will, therefore, return to this as more information becomes available.

The rest of the month’s releases

Despite the concentration on yuletide frolicking, there are a few other noteworthy releases this month. Chandos has issued new recordings of Karol Szymanowski’s Symphonies No. 2 and 10 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Garder. It forms part of their ongoing Polish series that includes, for example, an excellent survey of the music of Witold Lutos³awski. Naxos, as ever, has produced three important additions to its contemporary music catalogue: a programme of chamber and orchestral music by Chinese-born American Lei Lian; a selection of choral music by John McCabe performed by the BBC Singers conducted by David Hill; and, finally, Alla Pavlova’s Symphonies No. 7 and 8 performed by the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra under Gintaras Rinkevicius.



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13 Dec  

 

 

 

Mortuos plango, I mourn the dead. Though annus horribilis is, perhaps, an exaggeration, the grim reaper has done his work unusually well in 2012. This has especially been the case in the last three months. 

In October we lost Hans Werner Henze, who left behind some two-dozen operas and a bewilderingly diverse range of other music, drawn together only, perhaps, by his commitment to left-wing socialist politics. Elliott Carter followed him in November. In his case we had much to be grateful for, since, not only was he granted longevity, but a creative energy that lasted into and beyond his hundredth year. Dave Brubeck died at the beginning of December. Whilst not a classical composer, the reassessment of Jazz as a high art form has led to him receiving renewed recognition as a creative artist. On 11th December we lost both Ravi Shanker and Galina Vishnevskaya. Most famous as a player of the sitar, Shanker was a composer too (not just in the improvisatory sense), having written music for films as well as a concerto for his instrument. He will also be remembered as a key influence upon George Harrison and Paul McCartney. Russian soprano Vishnevskaya was, with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich, a great friend of Benjamin Britten. Most famously, he wrote the soprano part of the War Requiem for her, though the Soviet authorities would not let her attend the première (she later recorded the work with Britten).

The day before Brubeck, on 4th December, we lost Jonathan Harvey. Compared to the others, his death felt different: at 73 he was much younger, so it was easier to imagine what might have been had he been granted a little longer. 

My own introduction to the remarkable sound world of Harvey was through his Ricercare una melodia for trumpet. I was a student at university casting around for a piece to play for my second year recital. The work serves as an excellent example of his ability to write music that miraculously ticks all the boxes. It consists of a solo trumpet playing into a microphone connected to two four-track tape delays. As the soloist plays he canons with his musical line as it is played back in four parts. There is a twist, however, when the speed of one of the delays is altered so that the musical material is displaced by an octave, then by two and so forth. At the end the counterpointing parts disappear into the depths. The effect is mesmerizing. 

Hearing and playing the piece was a watershed moment for me. At the time I was struggling to come to terms with avant-garde music. It seemed to make no sense to my ears, often feeling grey and diffuse. Ricercare was a stepping-stone to a more profound understanding of music. Like his much more famous Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (I call the living, I mourn the dead), whose title so aptly describes the last few months, Harvey had the uncanny knack of writing cutting-edge music that spoke directly to the heart. He will be greatly missed.

There have already been useful obituaries of the composer that are viewable online at the Telegraph, Guardian or Independent websites. There is also an excellent interview biography by Daniel Jaffé on this site. It was not my intention to add to them here. I have, however, been able to glean a small amount of information about his early life that does not seem to be readily available elsewhere. I got this from my father, who was at school with the composer. The Guardian, for example, has Harvey composing from the 1960s. Jaffé says from the age of six without giving further specifics. What is certain is that Harvey was active as a composer whilst a schoolboy at Repton. In 1957 Eric Maschwitz was commissioned to write a drama, entitled A Masque of Schollers, to celebrate the school’s quatercentenary. My father remembers this. As well as music from old Reptonians, it included contributions from Harvey, who was still a pupil. The two movements, Poor Tom and Old John of Etwall, were played, it seems, by the Harvey Trio, which presumably he formed whilst there. He also wrote and played a piece for cello in 1956. 

 



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30 Nov  

Last year I speculated as to why contemporary music and Christmas don’t mix; as we enter the festive month performances of new music decline as caroling and yuletide cheer take over. This year is no different, though there are a few concerts in CT’s concert diary worth noting.

At the beginning of December there is a mini Britten festival at Wigmore Hall as part of the Britten at 100 celebration. It includes a concert of song cycles on December 1st; the complete string quartets on December 3rd; and Les Illuminations, Lachrymae and Serenade on December 4th. In New York City the 28-year-old Composers Concordance Festival starts today, running for five concerts until 7th December. There are a large number of living composers represented: more details are on the festival’s website.   On 14th December at the Barbican Hall there is screening of Godfrey Reggio’s time-lapse cinematic vision of American Cities, Koyaanisqatsi, set to a new arrangement of Philip Glass’s film score. The website is reporting this as sold-out, though the old adage of turning-up on the night might pay dividends for the determined. Surprisingly deep into the festivities, on 20th December, Nonclassical, finally, is presenting a night of new music commissioned from six composers as part of the ‘Freedom From Torture Presents’ event, as well as Gyorgy Kurtag’s masterpiece Kafka Fragments. 



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28 Nov  

If you like your music cerebral and challenging then you should check-out Richard Barrett’s bewitching new CD Dark Matter. It features the ensembles ELISION and CIKADA conducted by Christian Eggen with mezzo-soprano Deborah Kayser, Carl Rosman on clarinets and Dary Buckley on electric guitar. The work is a profound rumination on the nature of being, ‘a response to the current state of scientific knowledge and speculation about the nature of the universe and of human consciousness’. It sets some of the oldest religious texts in existence, including the ancient Egyptian creation myth The Empire of Lights, whose striking opening eerily (or not, I suppose, since many creation myths share a common origin) evokes Genesis. There is, as the composer points out, no consolatory message in the work: no answers, only questions. In this way the work represents the nature of existence itself.

The musical language evokes Varese, Stockhausen and others, but also has a kind of paired down asceticism that reminded me of Britten’s Curlew River. It is, as the composer admits in an interview with with Daryl Buckley, a ‘rather forbidding landscape without signposts’.  This is, however, part of its ruminatory message. For those interested in the interface between visual art and music, you’ll also want to have a look at the performance of the work as an extraordinary installation with artist  Per Inge Bjørlo, partly available (it is interspersed with interviews) on YouTube

The rest of the month’s releases

Naxos has released a five-disc set entitled American Spirit that focuses on some of the defining moments of its decade-long American Classics project. It includes music by Charles Ives, Peter Boyer, Hannibal Lokumbe, Virgil Thompson and many others. They have also released a disc of Asian Music played by the New Zealand String Quartet. It contains Long Zhou’s Song of the Ch’in, Chinary Ung’s Spiral III, Ping Gao’s Bright Light and Cloud Shadows, Toru Takemitsu’s A Way a Lone and Tan Dun’s 8 Colors. There are three new discs featuring the major ballet music of  Stravinsky, all performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Schwartz: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring; and a new recording of Wolfgang Rihm’s complete music for violin and piano with Tianwa Yang (violin) and Nicholas Rimmer (piano). Finally on Naxos, the Maxwell Davies symphony project continues with the composer conducting a performance of Symphony No. 6, Time and the Raven and an Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

On Nonsuch there is a new Blu-ray and DVD release of John Adams’ Nixon in China, featuring Peter Sellars’ Metropolitan Opera production that was broadcast around the world in cinemas as part of The Met: Live in HD on February 12th, 2011. They have also released Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack for the film The Master. I became a Greenwood fan after hearing his fabulous score for There Will Be Blood. This one, though interspersed by performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford and Helen Forrest, is no less worth checking out.



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20 Nov  

That the internet has revolutionized the consumption of recorded music is a truism.  Artists can self-publish via their own websites or they may circumvent record labels by going directly to download services like iTunes, Amazon or Spotify. This is a trend that has long-since spread to more commercial forms of sheet music on websites such as musicnotes.com.

Composers of contemporary classical music, however, just don't have the profile to promote their music simply by putting it on their website. For this reason most would prefer to win a traditional publishing contract, leaving the sales and promotion to someone else. Failing this, however, the iTunes model does have much to recommend it; a composer may make his or her music available in a place that already receives 'footfall', without having to have it accepted by an intermediary. So what are the options for composers seeking to make their music available in this way?

Sheetmusicplus.com

Perhaps the biggest player to enter this field is Sheet Music Plus. They already have many thousands of sheet music buyers and recently opened their website to self-publishing composers. All the detail is laid out, here. The bottom line is that participating musicians earn royalties of 45% of the list price of their sheet music once their account reaches a $20 minimum. Composers retain the rights to their music; I spoke to a representative, who said: 'the composer has full control over his or her piece. They can choose to sell on our site and then work with any other organization and or publishers to sell it through them. And if for any reason they need to stop selling a title on our site, they just click 'delete' in the Manage Title section and the piece will be removed...within seven business days.'

Arcomis.com

I interviewed the director of Arcomis, Adrian Hull, on this website some time ago. They specialize in connecting the general public to the arts by helping with the commissioning process. They are particularly expert in the field of contemporary music, the director himself being a composer and director of the London Contemporary Music Group. They offer a similar self-publishing service as Sheet Music Plus. Whilst submission of scores is currently free there may, however, be a small submission charge in future. Composers earn a royalty of 50% of any profits they make once their account reaches £25. Like Sheet Music Plus, a composer retains complete control over his or her music. Whilst these terms are similar, it should also be noted that Arcomis scores are proofed by professional copyists before being published online. Arcomis also promote their catalogue to arts organizations and though their Arcomis Live concerts. Their International Flute Event, for example, attracted some of the world's best players, resulting in broadcasts on Radio 3 and a spin-off flute album.

Composers Edition

Composers Edition is a newer enterprise that will concentrate solely on providing editions of contemporary music. The store of composers' music is not, as yet, live. Composers will receive a profile and each work will be presented in its own web page with details such as forces, duration and programme notes. Like Arcomis and Sheet Music Plus the composer retains complete control of the music. The site will make versions of the works available in both print and downloadable versions, but on terms that make it seem that they have failed to do their market research: 'The composer get [sic] a return of 20% of the UK retail price on printed document sales and 30% of the UK retail price on digital download sales.' This looks mean set alongside the other two services, especially considering that scores are not even proofread before being published on the site. They also do not, as yet, have the promotional track record of a better-established organization like Arcomis. Despite these facts, and a whooping quarterly subscription fee of £75 (two of which are due at registration!), I happen to know that the service has received some interest from composers. So it might still be one to watch.

Also worth considering

Score Exchange is the successor to the now defunct SibeliusMusic.com, which was a self-publishing site for composers solely using Sibelius software. For a limited time they are allowing users of the old site to transfer all their music to the new one. Publishing works on the site is free, whilst the composer receives 30% of the sale price, as well as retaining complete control over their works.

For composers looking for maximum exposure and who don't care at all about making money or promotional issues, IMSLP hosts a growing range of contemporary composers' works. The submission process is outlined in their FAQ.

 


 



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10 Nov  

Christian Morris talks to Harriet Mackenzie and Philippa Mo, who have just released their debut-disk ‘English Violin Duos’ on NMC.
 

Retorica

Tell us a little about your background before you met each other.

Philippa: I started playing when I was 5. I had lessons and decided early on that I wanted to pursue the violin seriously and so that led me to the Royal Academy. I had a really good time there - I really enjoyed mixing with everybody and I think the best part of it was the chamber relationships that I built up. Probably one of the highlights was the fact that we were encouraged to study abroad for a year, so I spent my third year in China. That was a really wonderful experience. Then I returned to complete a masters course.

But presumably you’d met by the time of the trip to China?

Harriet: Yes, actually I think was slightly after then.

Philippa: We did coincide, but I’m a couple of years older than Harriet, so we started at different times at the Academy. I think on the music degree course everything is much more structured in the first two years, so you’re quite entrenched in your year group. It was only when I was a postgrad that I was mixing with students of different year groups. That was probably when we really got to know each other.


>> Click here to read the rest of the interview



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25 Oct  

I've just updated CT's concert diary for November. A few things, however, deserve special mention.

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the UK's largest specialising in this genre, runs from Friday 16th-Sunday 25th November. This year's composer in residence is Norwegian Maja S K Ratkje. You can find out more about her on her website, www.ratkje.com, via her Soundcloud feed or on Spotify. The full programme for the festival, which consists of more than fifty concerts and events, can be viewed here.

Oliver Knussen turned 60 in June and, by way of celebration, his music is to feature in a BBC Total Immersion day on 4th November at the Barbican. It starts at 1.15 and consists of three concerts: one to be given by Guildhall New Music Ensemble; another featuring Huw Watkins, Ryan Wigglesworth and Alexandra Wood; the last, at 8pm with BBC Symphony Orchestra. They will play a total of 17 works, including his Whitman Settings, Violin Concerto and Symphony No.3. The man himself will be there, including for a film and discussion about his music at 3pm. It promises to be a fascinating day.

Something that might also interest readers here is a musical retreat entitled 'The Sun Always Moves West', to be held at Dewsall Court, Herefordshire from Friday 9th November to Sunday 11th. It celebrates the lives of composers touched by the Great War - Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Bridge - and whose influence can still be felt today through their work as composers and teachers. There will be a concert given by tenor Stuart Jackson, violinist Ben Hancox and pianist Anna Tilbrook; an exploration of the poetry of the time; a debate entitled 'The Psychology of Song'; and an act of Remembrance on Armistice Day. More details can be found on their website or by emailing Samantha Vaughan.



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11 Oct  

 

I noticed with a sense of both amusement and nausea yesterday that EMI, a label that I used to follow avidly, has stooped to releasing Fifty Shades of Grey, The Classical Album. The webpage, to which I’m not going to put a link – why promote this nonsense – contains a preamble from the author saying how ‘thrilled’ she is about it (I wonder what her cut is?) followed by some nonsensical spiel about the album ‘setting a mysterious and alluring atmosphere with just a hint of danger.’

I suppose it is easy for musicians to sneer at this sort of thing. Many of us had a eureka moment when we realised that classical music moved us just as much as, if not more than, popular music. Mine came when a friend of the family bought me Dvorak’s New World Symphony when I was seven or eight. Perhaps it is possible that someone will have a similar kind of road to Damascus experience when listening to this CD.

The most popular forms of classical music have long been taken advantage of by the marketing people. I noticed the other night, for example, Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers being used on the channel Dave to advertise their Redbull X Fighters. It was quite droll and made me smile. The same might be said of other adverts: Stella Artois (Verdi Forza Del Destino Overture), British Airways (Delibes Flower Duet from Lakme), Hovis Bread (New World Symphony!). Music used in this way can be a powerful tool for teachers when introducing children to classical music. Something ‘boring’ is made accessible. It is then for the teachers to add context, showing that there is more to the music than the thing to which it has become attached. Fifty Shades of Grey, however, is a book for adults. And, in my opinion, releasing such a compilation disk not only infantilises adults by assuming that they can’t find these works for themselves, it also cheapens great works of art by association.

What might, however, be easier to defend, would be the use of such marketing ploys in order to make money as a means of pursuing worthier projects elsewhere – here I am, of course, thinking of new music. Naxos has done this with compilation disks of music from adverts. The big record labels are increasingly, however, a lost cause for living composers.

So it is with EMI this month. Whilst there’s nothing else that plums the depths of Fifty Shades, their releases are wearyingly predictable. There’s Bizet’s Carmen, Nielson and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos, some Vivaldi and Beethoven and several compilation disks: Great Cello Concertos, Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies and Maria Callas – The Studio Recordings. The one ray of light, but one that is still decidedly mainstream, is a disk of Brahms and Berg Violin Concertos with Renaud Capucon and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Naxos, on the other hand, completely outclasses the full price big boys. There is a new recording of Chen Gang’s Yellow River Concerto and (written with He Zhanhao) The Butterfly Lovers Concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra;  a programme of American trumpet music featuring works by Leo Eylar, Steve Rouse, Robert Starer and Stephen Sondheim; Gabriel Jackson’s Requiem and other works with the Vasari Singers under Jeremy Backhouse; and Tan Sun’s Concerto for Orchestra, Symphonic Poem of 3 Notes and Orchestral Theatre with the Hong Kong Philharmonic under the baton of the composer.

Elsewhere things are relatively quiet. There’s a handy new page on NMC featuring all of the 20x12 composers. I’ve already written extensively on this project, but do pay a visit if you haven’t already. I also very much enjoyed browsing NMC’s annual review document, which is a great reminder of the excellent work done by the record label.

I will also mention a disk that I didn’t notice when it first came out, but have since enjoyed a great deal: John McCabe’s Rainforest I and II on the Dutton record label. McCabe is a composer well worth checking out; he seems to manage the uncanny trick of being adventurous, lucid and accessible all at the same time. It also features the violinists Harriet Mackenzie and Philippa Mo, who together make up Retorica, performing his Double Concerto Les Martinets Noirs. I reviewed their brilliant debut disk in September and their playing is no less engaging and assured here. Look out for an interview with them on CT, coming soon.



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28 Sep  

For a bit of Friday fun why not take a look at NMC's Music Map , an interactive application that explores links between composers? It launches with the composer you have chosen placed in the centre of the screen. Surrounding him or her like petals you will see others with whom the composer shares stylistic links. There is also a petal that shows who taught the composer and surrounding the 'flower', this time like orbiting planets, is a summary of the composer's style. In the bottom left is a panel to listen to musical extracts. Perhaps the most fun to be had, however, is by clicking on composers to make a 'musical map journey'. Rather like the six degrees of separation theory, it can provide some interesting links. It is possible, for example, to get from the lush tonal conservatism of Elgar to the integral serialism of Milton Babbitt, the composer who once wrote a paper entitled 'Who cares if you listen', in just four steps: via Anthony Payne, Elisabeth Lutyens and Robert Saxton. Inevitably there is a certain degree of subjectivity in the links but it makes for an interesting way of discovering new music.



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21 Sep  

Apart from individual concerts, just updated here, there are several important festivals this coming month. As ever, I've not included concerts from these festivals in the main round-up. Instead follow my links to festival websites below.

The Festival Internacional de Música Contemporánea de Tres Cantos takes place in Madrid from October 6th to 28th. The programme concentrates on the music of Spanish composers, though there are also performances of works by Alfred Schnittke, Elliott Carter, Maxwell Davies and Arvo Part.

Sound, which takes place in a number of venues in North East Scotland, has become, since inception in 2005, a vital and thriving place to experience new music. Among the highlights this year include a 4-day programme of opera, with performances taken out of the theatre and staged in more unusual venues; the finale of the Three Cities Project (linking Aberdeen, Bergen and St Petersburg); a Red Note Ensemble Noisy Night; a primary school project based on Edward Lear's poems led by Daniel's Beard; a sound map of Aberdeen; and Matthew Herbert's visceral One Pig. The 2012 sound Festival runs from 19th October to 18th November.

 

In contrast to the relative youth of Sound, Wien Modern, which runs from 22nd October to 16th November, this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. The birthday is being marked with a series of concerts chosen by Lothar Knessel, one of the festival's founders. Marking his centenary year, there will also be a special focus on the works of John Cage. 



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