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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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15 Sep  

 

Apart from the excellent Retorica disk reviewed in my last post, there are a number of other new recordings worth checking out this month.

There are five releases on Naxos. The survey of the symphonies of Maxwell Davies under the baton of the composer continues with the issue of his classically proportioned Fourth and the single movement Fifth, played by the orchestras for which the works were originally written: the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Philharmonia respectively. In a similar vein, Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic and Choir continue their increasingly impressive survey of the music of Penderecki with the release of the boxed set of Symphonies 1-5, 7 and 8 (No. 6, I believe, is still being written) and a disk of choral/orchestral music: Hymne an den heiligen Adalbert, Song of Cherubim, Canticum Canticorum Salomonis, Kosmogonia and Strophen.

In the American Classics series there is a recording of music by Claude Baker conducted by Leonard Slatkin and Hans Vonk with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. The programme consists of The Glass Bead Game, Awakening the Winds, Shadows: 4 Dirges-Nocturnes and The Mystic Trumpeter. I don't know the composer but, having dipped into the disk on Spotify, I can say that the music is fascinatingly mercurial and atmospheric. Well worth a listen. Atmospheric, but in a different way, would also be a good description of Vivian Fung's Violin Concerto, Glimpses and Piano Concerto Dreamscapes with the Metropolis Ensemble. Here the effect is an intelligent mix of East meets West via Gamelan and John Cage prepared piano. Finally, there is a new disk of music for wind band that comprises Chen Yi's Dragon Rhyme, Kurt Weill's Violin Concerto and Jennifer Higdon's Soprano Saxophone Concerto. It is worth checking out even if you're not a fan of the genre, since the composers on the disk admirably exploit the range of which this type of instrumental group is capable.

Apart from Retorica, there are also two exciting new releases on NMC. The first is an all-Knussen programme consisting of Choral, Autumnal, the Whitman Settings, Secret Psalm and Prayer Bell with BCMG and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the composer. The disk, sadly, doesn't seem to be on Spotify, so I've been unable to check it out properly. Little tasters are, however, available on the NMC website. The second is a disk of music by Tansy Davies entitled Spine, including the substantial works Iris, Falling Angel and the five movement Loopholes and Lynchpins for piano. Those who familiar with her music will know what to expect - urban but urbane: grungy but sophisticated - for those who don't, this is a good place to start, even if the disk Troubairitz on Nonclassical might be more immediately accessible. Also on Nonclassical, but this time only just released, is Cello Multitracks, featuring the music of Gabriel Prokofiev played by cellist Peter Gregson. Don't forget, finally, to check out the 20x12 page on NMC. Now the Olympics are over the project is drawing to an end, but it is perhaps even more compelling now the full range of works can be experienced.

 



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8 Sep  

If a programme of music for two violins does not sound like a very appealing prospect, check out Retorica's debut disk, just released on NMC. Violinists Harriet Mackenzie and Philippa Mo have made it something of a mission to bring this little-known repertoire to a wider audience. Even the name of their duo - the Italian feminine form of the word rhetoric - is a reflection of this: just as rhetoric could be said to be artful persuasion in speech, they seek to do the same through their playing. They succeed here by the oratorical bucket-load.

The all-English programme consists of: Jim Aithison's Syruw: Five Kazakh Tableaux, John McCabe's Spielend, Moeran's Sonata for two violins, William Croft's Sonata IV Op. 3 No. 4, David Matthews' Eight Duos, and Alan Rawsthorne's Theme and Variations. It is a well thought-out programme; many of the pieces have a distinct feeling of place, especially by their link to the English pastoral tradition (or in some cases their reaction against it). The Croft, placed mid-programme, in itself a lovely piece, also acts as a clever amuse oreilles before we return to the twentieth-century for the last two works. It also ends with the same lilting rhythms with which the Matthews begins, providing a nice sense of connectivity.

There is a strong pictorial element in many of these works, none more than the first on the disk, Jim Aitchison's Syruw. The composer has long forged connections with the art world, and this piece was designed to be performed with an exhibition that explored Kazakh life and textiles. It consists of a series of delightful and expertly-realised vignettes, from the stillness of the opening, whose little disturbances presage the gentle breeze of the second movement through to 'an exaggerated tale', which seems capture a storyteller in the very act. The Matthews has a similarly visual feel. There is a sense of connectedness between some of the movements, especially in the emphasis on the pastoral and, in the sixth movement entitled 'Contra-Pastoral', its urban equivalent. The whole can also, however, be understood as a series of hors d'oeuvres-like 'moments', each element entire unto itself, but much more satisfying when consumed together.

The other three twentieth-century works on the disk use more abstract structures. In the case of the Rawsthorne this is a closely argued theme and variations, though the emphasis on short movements provides a not dissimilar feeling to the Aitchison and Matthews. There is no doubting the fact, however, that this was intended as a much more serious work, the theme of the opening being skilfully and inventively manipulated throughout, with the final movement recapitulating some of the early variations in order to bring the piece to a satisfyingly cogent close. Spielend, the German word for 'playing', by John McCabe is based upon the idea of the musicians 'playing their themes against each other and playing with the musical material.' The thirteen-minute, single-movement work, begins with exhilaratingly spirited hocketing interspersed with flourishes. It is followed by a long central section that explores two reminiscences of the Violin Sonata of Poulenc before returning to the vigour of the opening.  Moeran's Sonata for Two Violins is the most traditional of the twentieth-century works on the disk. The influence of English folksong is everywhere imprinted on the music, though his frequent diversions into more adventurous harmonic territory avoids the 'cow-pat' element of which many of his contemporaries were guilty. This is especially evident in the final movement in which, after 12 straightforward passacaglia statements, the music is allowed to roam more freely.

What is especially striking about the pieces on this disk is that, perhaps because the limited resources force the composers to make every note count, each has a structural tautness that facilitates rapid engagement with the listener. This is not to say the composers give away everything too quickly; far from it, this is music that challenges and rewards repeated hearings. The other extraordinary quality of these works is the way in which each composer has made limited resources sound rich and even symphonic. In this they are aided by the brilliant performances of Mackenzie and Mo. It is clear that they not only understand the subtleties of the music they are playing but they want to 'wow' you into loving it as much as they do. In this they totally succeed. The recording too strikes an excellent balance: it is both intimate but with sufficient acoustic spaciousness for they music to feel full.



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30 Aug  

Having written a eulogy to the music of William Mathias not many weeks ago, I managed to forget to mention the upcoming North Wales International Music Festival, which was founded by the composer. It runs from the 22nd-29th September and focuses on more popular contemporary music, making a special feature of the works of Karl Jenkins and royal composer Paul Mealor. The twentieth anniversary of the composer’s death will be marked by performances of his Anniversary Dances and Let the People Praise Thee O God. His daughter, Rhiannon Mathias, will give the festival Eucharist address on 23rd  September.

A heads-up also for Ultima,  the Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, which runs from 6th-15th September. The introduction to the festival from Director Mars Petter Hagen makes a virtue out of pointing out that there is no theme, but instead links will become clear as the festival unfolds: ‘whether it is in the intervals, between the concerts, at the fragile acoustic micro level in a newly composed and never performed piece, in a brutal, musical collision, or somewhere totally different.’ That may sound a bit nebulous, but a quick glance at the programme, here, reveals a very wide range of interesting concerts.

On Septermber 19th, finally, the BE OPEN Sound Portal arrives at Trafalgar Square as part of the 2012 London Design Festival: ‘An alien black, rubberised structure will be home to finely-tuned audio technologies aimed at delivering pure acoustic experiences to visitors in the middle of Trafalgar Square.’ It will also play host to musicians and sonic artists who have been commissioned to produce new works in the space. More information is available via SaM.



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25 Aug  

There are several festivals that feature new music in September. I’ve included a selection of concerts from them in my monthly round-up on CT's concert page. As always, however, a more complete programme can be found by browsing individual festival websites: the Warsaw Festival of Contemporary Music  (16th-24th September); the Festival de Música de Alicante (21st-29th September); Musikfest Berlin  (31st August-18th September); and Beethovenfest, Bonn  (7th September-7th October). I should also make special mention of the Presteigne Festival, which I forgot last month. Whilst it started on 23rd August, it still has a few days left to run. There is much left to enjoy. Tomorrow, for example, there is the chance to hear Sally Beamish’s String Quartet no. 2 ‘Opus California’ and the world première of Michael Berkeley’s Oboe Quintet. The festival’s final concert on 28th August contains Paul Patterson’s Allusions for two violins and string orchestra and the world première of the revised version of Sally Beamish’s No, I’m not afraid.

Of the other individual concerts, Fish Music (see photo), taking place in Plymouth on 13th September, especially caught my eye. It comprises a sound installation where fish in an aquarium become musical notes. Their position in relation to a stave placed in front of them is interpreted by improvising musicians. Whilst its success no doubt relies more upon the skill of the performers than the position of the fish, the concept is a fascinating one; I imagine the combination of the hypnotic movement of fish and music is felicitous indeed.



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9 Aug  

Okay, I admit it: hosting the Olympics was not such a bad idea after all. As I've watched I have found myself whooping, shouting, crying with joy and often turning the television off because I can't take the stress. This is strange, since I've not much more than a passing interest in sport. Granted, I enjoyed seeing Andy Murray avenge his defeat at the hands of Roger Federer, and it's been thrilling to see the cyclists and rowers perform so brilliantly. Maybe, however, it's because the spirit of the Olympics, especially in the journey athletes have to make in order to achieve mastery, is something with which musicians can connect. Music, like sport, demands sacrifice.

 

New CD Releases

 

The Olympics continue to be a source of inspiration this month for composers taking part in the 20x12 project. There are three new tracks  available on NMC: Aidan O'Rourke's jauntily minimalist TAT-1, inspired by the first transatlantic telephone cable; the astringent and powerful mini-opera Our Day by Conor Mitchell, set against the backdrop of events in Northern Ireland in 1972; and Oliver Searle's mercurial Technophobia, which brings together conventional and unconventional instruments played by young disabled musicians and their peers.

 

Elsewhere, as musicians concentrate their efforts on the concert hall, there are only a few new recordings. The music of Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) features in two releases. There is a collection of his music for two pianos -  Barcelona Blues, Tres Divertimentos, Sum Vermis and 5 Invocations al Crucificado - on Naxos; and Partita 1958, Cinco Canciones Negras, the premiere recording of Calidoscopi Simfonic and Sinfonia de Requiem on Chandos. Described by Aaron Copland as 'The Messiaen Monster', the Turangalila-Symphonie, now acknowledged as one of the great works of the twentieth century, receives a new recording with Juanjo Mena and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on Hyperion. Warner Classics, finally, have released a very enticing 6 CD collection featuring pianist Pierre-Laurent  Aimard playing music by Debussy, Ives, Messiaen, Ravel, Carter, Boulez, Beethoven and Liszt.

 

BBC iPlayer

 

If you missed the BBC Proms over the last week, I thoroughly recommend picking up the world premieres of James MacMillan's Credo and Charlotte Bray's At the Speed of Stillness on BBC iPlayer (follow my links). Some may find the MacMillan difuse, but there is no doubting his ability to make the familiar - both in terms of raw musical language and established forms - seem excitingly new. The Bray, in contrast, showed commendable focus. Other works still available on iPlayer as I write include Knussen's Symphony No. 2 with the BBC Philharmonic under Noseda and the UK premieres of Langgaard's Symphony No. 11 Ixion and Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Incontri played by BBC Symphony Orchestra under Dausgaard. 

 

Embedded

 

A quick reminder to finish. For those interested in Sound and Music's excellent Embedded programme, there are still a few days left to apply. There are three calls: no.w.here, an organisation based in Tower Hamlets that combines film production alongside critical dialogue about contemporary image making; Music Hackspace, a platform that supports the development of innovative new projects using new technologies; and BBSO, which offers a year-long partnership to write new works of up to 12 minutes for symphony orchestra. The deadline for these calls is August 13th. More details are available on the Sound and Music website.



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