July sees the beginning of two long summer festivals. The BBC Proms runs from 17th July to 12th September, with the first night world première honours going to Gary Carpenter’s Dadaville. I’ve counted a total of 29 other premières of one description or another. The proms website, as ever, doesn’t do a very good job of highlighting these, so I’ll do a separate CT guide towards the end of this month.
The Salzburg Festival starts the day after the Proms, on 18th, and continues until 30th August. The focus is mainstream classical repertoire, though the nine concert Salzburg Contemporary series will this year focus on the works of Pierre Boulez, including Le Marteau sans maître, his three piano sonatas together with the original version of Notations, and Répons. There are also a substantial number of works by other contemporary composers as part of these concerts. Performers – including Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Ensemble Intercontemporain and JACK Quartet –are all top drawer. This mini-festival doesn’t actually kick off until 30th, so there is plenty of time to plan a visit.
There are several interesting music events as part of the biennial Manchester Festival (2nd–19th). Damon Albarn’s new musical wonder.land, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, previews from 29th June–1st July with performances running from 2nd–12th July. Actually a play, The Skriker by Caryl Churchill (performances throughout the festival) features incidental music by Nico Muhly and Anthony. Mark Simpson’s new work The Immortal explores ‘the obsession with death that lies at the heart of human experience.’ Written for orchestra, choir and solo baritone it will be performed alongside Mozart’s Requiem on 4th. Running from 9th–19th will be the fruits of a creative partnership between Arvo Pärt and artist Gerhard Richter (whose striking works I saw, and enjoyed, in a large exhibition in the Beyeler Foundation, Basel in 2014). A suite of four new works by Richter, Ashes (2015) and his Doppelgrau (2014), will be presented with Pärt’s Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima in the newly renovated landscape gallery of the Whitworth. The music of Pärt will also feature in a separate concert on 12th.
The Bregenz Festival (22nd July–23rd August) is almost as long as the Salzburg Festival, the repertoire more mainstream; the festival is dominated by performance of Turandot, The Tales of Hoffmann and Cosi fan tutte. The one exception, however, is Peter Eötvös’s opera Golden Dragon which will receive performances on 19th and 21st August. There is, similarly, contemporary opera amongst more conventional fare at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, namely a performance Jonathan Dove’s ‘opera for all ages’ The Monster in the Maze on 8th and 9th July and Ana Sokolović’s Svadba on various dates from 3rd–16th.
Some other festivals worth checking out, especially if you’re nearby:
Cheltenham Music Festival (30th June–11th July): Perhaps not so much contemporary music on offer as in previous years, but a rummage around will reveal some offerings in the 2nd, 7th, 12th, 15th, 18th, 21st, 31st and 33rd concerts (each concert is prefixed by an ‘M’ in the website concert listing i.e. M2, M7, M12 etc.).
Buxton Festival (10th–26th): ‘A happy marriage of opera, music and books’. Programme is arranged by performer here, click on the description for more information about composers.
Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival (11th July–30th August): Another long summer festival, this year focusing on the music of Tchaikovsky.
Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival (Finland, 12th–25th): Quite a range of repertoire on offer, including Varèse, Messiaen, Kryštof Mařatka, Jacob ter Veldhuis, Sofia Gubaidulina, Berg, Britten and Stravinsky.
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Though back in Pembrokeshire after three months at the Paul Sacher Sitting in Basel, a recent CD release brought to mind an uncomfortable event that occurred whilst I was there.
I am constantly reminded how little I know when I am at the PSS, a healthy facet of being in an environment surrounded by experts in different fields of musicology. It can, nevertheless, be quite alarming to think you have a decent grasp of twentieth century musical history only to come across a famous composer that you haven't even heard of. Having stuck up a conversation with a very lovely musicologist I asked the standard question: ‘Who are you studying here?’ She answered 'Stefan Wolpe', a name, I was embarrassed to admit, that I had never come across.
He is an interesting figure (I know now), having been an actively political, left-leaning Jew in pre-war Germany, a fact that, not surprisingly, led to him fleeing the country after the Nazi ascension to power in 1933. This led to a short period studying the serial method with Webern in Austria, before fleeing again to Palestine and later to the U.S. Musically he was never as strict in his use of serialism as his teacher – he remained interested in other pitch systems, including tonality and octatonicism – and also displayed an interest in popular forms, especially jazz.
If you are new to his music a good place to start is on Bridge Records, who have just released the seventh volume of a survey of his works. This contains a selection of music written for violin solo, violin duo and violin and piano. The major work on the disk is his 1949 Sonata for Violin and piano which, written after taking U.S. citizenship, he described as ‘one of the first pieces which show my personal liberation.’ Despite this there are strong signs of his Germanic roots, especially in its uncompromising harmonic style and finely considered motivic working. Interestingly a fragment from the later Second Sonata, also on the disk, shows, if anything, a strengthening of the Germanic influence; the pointillistic style of Webern being never far away.
A dig around other releases (many of which can be found on Spotify) in the Bridge Records series reveals other facets of the composer’s style. Volume 3, for example, opens with the charming children’s puppet show tale Lazy Andy Ant, ending with the catchy Songs of the Jewish Pioneers and the fruitily tonal To a Theatre Now. Even here, however, there is more challenging fare on offer, such as Two Songs for Baritone. Such shifts of stylistic gear can make Wolpe a difficult composer to characterise, though set in the context of his experiences as a refugee – in every place he visited he absorbed something of the music – they begin to make sense.
Happily, and despite such shifts, the music remains, as far as I have heard, remarkably even in quality. And stylistic variation has its advantages: whatever you personal preferences, there is likely to be some Wolpe that you will like.
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Exciting times in the world of music streaming. Last night Apple announced the not-very-imaginatively-titled Apple Music, their response to dwindling iTunes sales and the streaming threat presented by companies such as Spotify. The service consists of several parts, though I imagine only one will be of interest to readers here.
‘Connect’ is a kind of social network for music, which will allow artists to share information about their current projects and potentially provide a platform for emerging performers. Time will tell if this gains any traction; Apple have tried music social networking before (the ill-fate ‘Ping’) and it is not as if the internet lacks other such platforms.
Beats 1 is a new internet radio station that will broadcast 24/7 from New York, Los Angeles and London. It’s raison d’être is to be unlimited by genre, playing the very best of well-known and emerging artists.
Beats 1 will focus on popular music. The same is probably true of Connect, which is a shame – it would be nice if contemporary composers thought about sharing information about current projects, or emerging composers had a promotional platform. Those decisions are in the hands of artists, I suppose, so one shouldn’t rule it out, though contemporary classical and Apple don’t seem an obvious mix.
Most aspects of Connect and Beats 1 will be free within the app. Users will also be able to purchase music from iTunes in the normal way and, I presume, to have continued access to any music ripped with iTunes Match. Also, and this is where things get truly exciting, for $9.99 single membership or $14.99 for a family of six (U.K. prices not yet confirmed), one can stream music from Apple. It is not entirely clear at this stage whether this includes all of the music currently available to purchase. If this is the case Spotify is in for a rough ride, since Apple’s classical catalogue is definitely more comprehensive. Unlike Spotify there is no advert supported streaming option, but there is a three month free trial and the option to download tracks for offline use.
I will post more thoughts when the service is available to try: the release date is 30th of this month.
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Holland Festival (Holland, Amsterdam) 30th May–23rd June
The Holland Festival takes place in numerous venues in Amsterdam and features dance, film, the visual arts, theatre and also a wide range of concerts, many of which feature new music. This year there is a particular focus on the music of Pierre Boulez, in concerts and also more exploratory events.
On 1st Jean-Guihen Queryas is joined by students of the Musikhochschule Freiburg to give a lecture recital on Boulez’ Messagesquisse for solo cello and six cellists. There is also a series of concerts on 4th and 11th in which students of the Royal Conservatoire perform reinterpretations of early Boulez works and, on 14th, a concert performance of Répons, Boulez’s first work combining traditional instrumentation and real-time manipulated sound. Beyond the Score, on 2nd, meanwhile, features a set designed by architect Frank Gehry on which key works from Boulez’s œuvre are played together with with letters, poems and archival footage.
Aldeburgh Festival (Snape, UK) 12th–28th June
There is also a chance to see a version of the Gehry/Boulez project at the Aldeburgh Festival on 17th, where it is called A Pierre Dream: A Portrait of Pierre Boulez and features the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble conducted by Susanne Mälkki. The same ensemble will also perform his Improvisation sur Mallarmé I and II on 19th.
The major première at the festival this year is Harrison Birtwistle’s new opera The Cure on 12th, 14th and 15th. The libretto, by David Harsent, is inspired by classical mythology and will be paired with their earlier collaboration The Corridor.
Other premières include Martin Sucklings Visiones in a late-night concert on 20th and Saed Haddad’s In Contradiction for two cellos and ensemble on 25th. The latter also features works by Birtwistle, Knussen, Benjamin and Ligeti. Also intriguing is the world première performance on 24th of Tal Rosner’s new video accompaniment to Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia. That concert is also worth attending for the chance to hear Helen Grimes’ Everyone Sang.
St. Magnus International Festival (Orkney, UK) 18th–25th June
Featuring concerts, theatre, food and drink, films and education projects the St. Magnus International Festival is, of course, most synonymous with the music of its founder Peter Maxwell Davies. On 20th there will be the chance to hear the world première of his new work for solo violin, with other new pieces by Sally Beamish and Adrian Sutton. His Ebb of Winter will also be played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on 21st. Also on 21st is festival director’s music for Greenvoe, featuring the prose of George Mackay distilled by Festival Poet Stewart Conn.
Istanbul Music Festival (Istanbul, Turkey) 31st May–29th June
The 43rd Istanbul Music Festival consists of 27 concerts and 5 premières. These include the world première of Hasan Niyazi Tura’s symphonic poem commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli War in the opening concert held on Sunday and Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s In memoriam Komitas Vardapet for viola and piano on 10th.
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Many readers will not have heard of Mervyn Burtch, a Welsh composer who died on 12th May aged 85. For Welsh musicians his is a very familiar name indeed. His practical attitude to composition – the belief that a composer should serve his community – resulted in a large body of work, a significant proportion of which was written for amateurs and children. In this way Burtch touched the lives of many Welsh people.
Burtch hailed from Ystrad Mynach, attending Lewis School at Pengam, where he was taught by the composer David Wynne, a key early influence. His career also followed a similar path: he became Head of Music at Lewis School for Girls before teaching at the Welsh College of Music and Drama from 1979. It was probably his experience as a schoolteacher that enabled him to write so effectively for young people.
In an age when composers agonise over their style, Burtch, it at least appeared, had few such doubts, producing more than 650 works over his long life, including 17 string quartets, 14 concertos and numerous youth operas, choral and brass band works. In reality his style, accurately described elsewhere as ‘brisk, clear and concise, with an instantly recognisable voice’ was the product of hard-won professional determination. Neither should his fecundity obscure the fact that, especially in his more introspective works, his musical language could be stark and challenging.
Burtch will probably be best remembered for his youth operas, a product especially of the Welsh College of Music and Drama Schools’ Opera Programme, which he directed. These include works based upon well-known tales, such as The Pied Piper (his first opera for schools, written whilst still a teacher) and Alice in Wonderland (1997); others suggesting elements of Welsh culture, as in The Dragon of Abercwmgoch (1984); or the much more outlandishly titled Percy the Martian (1988) or Sam Sparrow and the Coca Cola Well (1992). His reach into youth music making wasn’t just through the medium of opera, however: there was also a substantial quantity of amateur music for choirs and brass band.
My own first experience of his music was playing second cornet in the première of his Concerto for Piano, Brass and Percussion in the National Youth Brass Band of Wales. What was interesting, looking back, is that the work was an intensely serious one with, as I remember, a dark, brooding slow movement and a finale of sardonic Shostakovich-like energy. His success in writing for amateurs was a product of him understanding what was and wasn’t possible whilst, at the same time, not compromising his style.
Others have written of his kindliness and unassuming nature. I had lunch with him once at the age of 17, also in the company of A.J. Heward Rees, who was then Director of the sadly now defunct Welsh Music Information Centre. I was incredibly impressed to be meeting a real composer and, I think, a bit tongue-tied. He was easy-going, natural and incredibly encouraging. I saw the same thing some years later during the rehearsals for The Pied Piper in 1999, where he patiently played piano for rehearsals of a little group of very young players in the Welsh College of Music Pre-Junior Department.
Given that Burtch became such a fixture in Welsh musical life, it seems astonishing that the discography of this composer is so limited. On Spotify I am able to locate only one recording, his Aladdin Overture, which shows the composer at his most urbane and fluent, but does not give a fair view of his compositional range. For more introspective Burtch try the Four Portraits of Alice in Wonderland (1982, rev. 1993) or his Dream Sequence (1986) for horn and piano. If you can track them down there is also a short collection of his choral music, recorded by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir, and also individual works on collections of other (especially Welsh) music, including his Prelude, Arioso and Dance, Three Welsh Folksongs and Sonatina.
For more information
Wales Online Obituary
Mervyn Burtch Trust
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Storm is Signum Classics’ new disc of Judith Weir vocal music performed by the BBC Singers under David Hill. It consists of All the Ends of the Earth, for chorus, percussion and harp; her set of evening canticles, written in 2011 for St. John’s College, Cambridge; Missa del Cid; The Song Sung True; and Storm.
Weir’s ability to render the familiar new is often remarked, especially in her propensity to deploy tonal/modal elements in a manner that avoids cliché. That is everywhere apparent here, the language being accessible without dumbing-down. Her ability to renew also extends into other areas. Whilst the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis takes a traditionally compact approach to the setting of the evening canticles, two of the other works offer a rich reimagination of existing forms. The Missa el Cid is a mini opera, one in which the confrontation between the words of the narrator, the liturgy and the text of the 13th century Cantar del Mio Cid provide a striking dramatic tension. All the Ends of the Earth manages a similar feat, this time reworking elements Perotin’s Viderent Omnes into a work of ravishing polyphonic beauty in which the spirit of earlier composer is, nevertheless, never far away.
The last work on the disk is a reminder of Weir, the practical community composer. Originally written in response to a commission from a local schoolteacher to set Shakespeare’s Our revels now are ended, it grew into a longer work of five movements for SSAA+treble chorus and 9-piece ensemble. It is music of poised beauty in which the spirit of Britten’s best music for amateurs never feels far off. The performance, in which the purity of the Choristers of Temple Church so effectively contrast with the rich sounds of the BBC singers, is a delight.
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Time to dismantle the hustings, take off rosettes and breathe a sigh of relief that the UK election, possibly the most tedious campaign I can remember, is finally done with. At least the end was exciting, though I hate to think of what it harbingers for the future of the UK. It’s good today to be back looking at musical things: a pretty good range of new CD releases.
On Bridge Records Paul Lansky’s Contemplating Weather is a choral cantata commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Western Michigan University School of Music. As the title suggests, it sets poems that examine various facets of climate. The style is attractive, though a little anodyne for my taste. Don’t let that stop you making up your own mind, however. On the same label, David Crumb’s new disk contains four chamber works, the most substantial of which, the three movement Red Desert for Baritone and Piano also lends its title to that of the album. There is plenty of meat on offer here, from the witty dialogue of Soundings to the vast contemplative spaces of Rock Cathedrals (first movement of Red Desert). It is well-written music, not afraid to embrace a wide harmonic range. Worth exploring.
Such advice also applies to two new disks on Signum, which, like the aforementioned, can also be Spotified. I’m going to write a little more about Judith Weir’s new choral disk Storm in a separate blog post, safe to say that I am enjoying it a great deal. Also just released is Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s programme of music for solo violin, which consists of works by Bartok, George Benjamin, Penderecki, Carter and Kurtág. I’ve only dipped into this. It’s serious and astringent fare, but rewarding for the same reasons.
On Naxos a new Penderecki album consists of two choral works, his Magnificat and the much later (and therefore less avant garde) Kadisz performed by the Warsaw Boys’ Choir, Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra under Antoni Wit. There is a disk of orchestral works by Zhou Long, including his Symphony Humen 1839; Joan Tower’s Violin Concerto, Chamber Dance and Stroke; Pinho Vargas’s opera Os Dias Levantados, an exploration of the coup of 1974 that ended Portugal’s fascist regime; the latest issue of Naxos’s series of orchestral music by Gian Francesco Malipiero, most substantially containing his Sinfonia degli eroi (Symphony of Heroes); and, more lightheartedly, a reissue of the definitive restoration of Korngold’s music for the 1938 Warner Bros.’ production of The Adventures of Robin Hood.
A couple of other Spotifiable options to finish. Dutton Epoch have just put together a 3 for the price of 2 deal on a collection of works by Arthur Butterworth, a Manchester-born composer who died in 2014. Symphony No. 1 and 4, and the Viola Concerto, plus an interesting monologue from the composer talking about his life and music are available for streaming. The music itself, as the composer says, takes an individualist route, not attempting originality but rather using familiar, especially tonal, elements to forge his style. On Decca meanwhile, there is a new two-disk collection of piano works by Philip Glass played by Valentina Lisitsa. It includes the famous opening to Glassworks, arrangements from the soundtrack to The Hours and Metamorphosis 1-5.
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I was sorely tempted to head from Basel to Prague in May: a month in a beautiful (and relatively cheap) European city with a major music festival sounded promising. As well as a wealth of other repertoire played by world class performers, new music events at the 70th Prague Spring Festival include: a revival of Ľubica Čekovská’s opera adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey on 19th; the Prague Philharmonic Choir singing John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis and Eric Whitacre on the same day; the Czech premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Apotheosis from Symphony No. 6 on 21st; and Berio and Britten on 23rd and 27th. Unfortunately my commitments will keep me here, but, if you’re tempted, there’s still plenty of time to organise a visit; the festival runs from 8th–3rd June, (though the first few days are a flute and clarinet competition, the official opening concert being on 12th).
The York Spring Festival is looking to create a carnival atmosphere in the city over the course of the weekend of 9th–11th May, with a spirit of exploration and openness to all genres. There are some imaginative events on offer. On 9th Latrabjarg: an Ecological Requiem for electric cello, counterternor and chamber ensemble by James Cave and Christopher Mullender explores loss of culture and the natural world; the Dark Inventions’ concert on 10th mixes folk song with music by British composers, including the the work Firewheel by Philip Cashian. On 11th there is a morning of new music debate and discussion, the day being rounded off by a Nonclassical Contemporary Music Club Night at 9.30pm.
The Vale of Glamorgan Festival (12th–23 May) takes place in a variety of venues in South East Wales. This year the focus is on celebrating Arvo Pärt’s 80th birthday, with performances spread throughout the festival programme. There will also be the chance to hear music by British/Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova, including her Fantasy Homage to Schubert, Frozen River Flows, and the UK premieres of Such Different Paths and Of the Sun Born. World premieres include Between the Waves by Tom Green and Xiao Ying’s Septet. Other living composers represented include Peter Reynolds, John Adams, Richard Ayres, Tan Dun and Jaan Rääts. On 12th there is also a New Music Day, where the Nieuw Ensemble will play compositions by emerging composers at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
The English Music Festival (22nd-25th) focuses largely on an undeservedly neglected seam of repertoire: more conservative English composers of late 19th and 20th centuries, including figures such as Havergal Brian, Vaughan Williams, Alwyn, Parry, Stanford and Howells. There are also a couple of world premieres and a concert of music given by composer/pianist Lionel Sainsbury.
Some other festivals worth exploring in May, especially if you are nearby include: the Techtonics Festival (1st–3rd) in Glasgow; the Norfolk and Norwich Festival (8th–24th); the St. Davids Cathedral Festival in Pembrokeshire, Wales (22nd–31st); the Northern Chords Festival in Gateshead, Durham, Corbridge and Newcastle upon Tyne (25th–30th); and the Holland Festival (30th May–23rd June) in Amsterdam.
A quick heads up that the Proms programme is now published. You can see it here.
Also two Helen Grime world premieres worth seeking out: her Concerto for Clarinet and Trumpet will be performed on 7th May at Bridgewater Hall Manchester by the Halle with soloists Lynsey Marsh (clarinet) and Gareth Small (trumpet); a new String Trio by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Wigmore Hall on 8th.
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There’s a trio of contrasting discs on Signum Classics this month. Flight is a collection of works by Oliver David (b. 1972) performed by violinist Kerenza Peacock with the LSO. It’s colourful if pretty light fare, music to be consumed. If you like the style but prefer something a bit more profound, you could check out Bob Chilcott’s dramatic St. John Passion with Wells Cathedral Choir conducted by Mathew Owens. Both recordings are available on Spotify. For the more adventurous I recommend Signum’s disk of chamber music by Thomas Adès. It contains his metrically dazzling Piano Quintet; Arcadiana, most remarkable for its moving homage to Elgar in its sixth movement O Albion; and The Four Quarters, which uses the daily cycle as its central metaphor.
Towards the end of his life John Cage wrote a series of works entitled Two. The number refers to the number of performers, with a superscript suffix (Two1, Two2 etc) denoting the piece within the series. WERGO has just released the performance of Two3 for Japanese shō and conch shells. The only performance I have heard of the work lasts for ten minutes, so I’m not sure how it becomes the two-disk epic presented here. Possibly for die-hard fans only. Also just released on WERGO is Giacinto Scelsi’s Suite 9 and 10 for piano performed by Sabine Liebner and a collection of organ music by Gerhard Stäbler. The latter takes it’s name from one of the pieces on the disk, Heiss! I’ve heard this wacky and experimental work, which is so full of original and fascinating sounds you barely realise you are listening to the king of instruments.
Two discs of electronic music. On Nimbus there is a three CD + 1 DVD complete collection of electro-acoustic works by Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), who is often considered to be the father of New Zealand music. The disc derives its rootedness by using found musical material from the New Zealand environment. Audio tracks from the collection are available on Spotify. Also using found material is Karen Power’s it is raining while you listen, a series of frozen sonic moments for electronics/electronic+acoustic instruments. It is released by Farpoint Records in an attractive limited edition with poetry, texts and photographs commissioned by the composer.
Keep an eye out, finally, for the soon-to-be-released disk Wild Cyclamen on NMC. It contains songs by Hugh Wood exploring the themes of youth, love, lust and longing in settings of poetry by DH Lawrence, Laurie Lee, Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell.
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Whilst flicking between record label websites this afternoon, I came across the Composed app, a collaboration between Classic FM, Decca and Deutsche Grammophon that presents a curated list of classical music for £4.99 per month. I was unable to download the desktop version, which requires you to be in the UK, but my login to the Apple App Store seemed to be enough to persuade them of my Britishness. There doesn’t appear to be an Android version, which is short-sighted.
The feel of Composed is very ‘Classic FM’, with a high degree of emphasis on the core classical repertoire organised by moods, collections and composers. It all feels a bit dumbed-down if you’re an experienced consumer of classical music, though I liked the emphasis on searching by composer – if you prefer classical music this is how you choose a piece. It is a mistake, however, not also to allow searches by performer. It’s a decision, just like the trumpeting of ‘curation’, that feels like an admission that the collection lacks depth; the presence of only two record labels means that this is no Spotify.
Where the app might be useful is for those with a budding interest in classical music. The ‘moods’ and ‘collections’ sections are a lot of fun and contain heaps of good music, including the entire Classic FM Hall of Fame. There’s even a ‘Nervous Newcomer’ playlist, which contains a series of familiar lollipops to draw people in. And when you start digging deeper you can find some quite challenging stuff. There’s music by Boulez, Berio, Birtwistle, Cage, Henze, Varèse, Berg, Webern etc. I’m all for finding ways of introducing classical music to the masses and then maybe gradually winning them over to more recent fare.
The problem for Composed, however, is that Spotify also does themed playlists. Granted, it’s not as slick and Spotify costs twice as much, but you then get a far more comprehensive collection of classical music, plus the added bonus of having other genres – pop, blues, rock etc – available. As such, it’s difficult to recommend Composed, though, if you’re interested, the app gives you free access to its collection for a month, which by itself might make it worth investigating.
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