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21 Jun  

Trying to summarise concerts at this, the busiest time of year, is a fool’s errand. What follows, then, is the merest scratch of the surface of the many event on offer in July.

 

I've already summarised the main concerts at this year’s BBC Proms. I won't go over them again, except to say that things kick off on 14th July with the premiere of Tom Coult’s St. John’s Dance.

 

Apart from the Proms there are two other outstanding UK festivals to look forward to, both making reappearances after taking a break in 2016. The biennial Manchester International Festival (29th June–16th July) features more than 20 world premieres. Highlights include Available Light, a collaboration between choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer John Adams and architect Frank Gehry; Thomas Ostermeier’s Returning to Reims, a response to the wave of populist politics sweeping Europe; and Cotton Panic!, a story based in the 19th century, where the scarcity of imported raw cotton brought the textile industries of Northern England to a standstill.

 

The Tête à Tête Opera Festival (25th July–13th August) is not normally biennial, so it is something of a relief to see it back this year. The break seems to have recharged its batteries, with a bewildering array of works on offer. Many of these are also on the cutting edge of contemporary events. On 25th July, for example, ID Please, explores ‘themes of immigration, identity and xenophobia.’ Its British-Iranian composer, Soosan Lolavar, was almost prevented from attending rehearsals in the US because of Trump’s first ‘Muslim ban’.  The following day is a performance of Dominic Robertson’s The United Kingdom of Earth: A Brexit Opera, featuring Boris Johnson in Downing Street in a tie dye suit… 

 

Other UK festivals to consider include the Cheltenham Music Festival (1st–16th), the Buxton International Festival (7th–23rd) and the Three Choirs Festival (22nd–29th). A dig around in their programmes will reveal at least handful of world premieres and concerts otherwise featuring contemporary music.

 

Looking further afield, the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival (1st July–27th August) has the epic length one associates with the Proms, if not quite so many new music events. Despite this, there is a concert to celebrate the 80th birthday of Philip Glass; the premiere of Anna Clyne’s Three Sisters for mandolin and string orchestra; and a concert featuring the music of Hindemith prize-winner Samy Moussa. 

 

The Festival ‘Aix en Provence’s major new opera world premiere, Pinocchio by Philippe Boesmans, takes place on 3rd, with further performances on 7th, 11th and 14th July. The Bregenzer Festspiele begins on 19th July, but you’ll have to wait till 16th August for its own big opera premiere, with the first performance of Zesses Seglias’s To the Lighthouse, after the novel by Virginia Woolf. 

 

Some other festivals to consider include in Finland, the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival (9th–22nd), in South France the La Roque d’Anthéron International Piano Festival (21st–19th August) and, even further afield (at least for me) in South Africa, the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival (30th June-9th July), which will feature the music of British-based South African composer Robert Fokkens.



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14 Jun  

Musicians looking for rays of soft Brexit hope following Theresa May’s disastrous election last week might reflect on the fact that far from softening Brexit, it may have produced something worse: gridlock.

 

The effects of Brexit on the music industry have included higher prices for digital downloads, for musical instruments, computer equipment and possibly vinyl records. The potential loss of free movement coupled with generally negative attitudes towards immigration have resulted in whole orchestras leaving the UK, difficulties filling vacancies in those that have stayed and falling EU student numbers. Neither can the wider implications be ignored. A healthy arts sector does not exist in isolation—it depends on a healthy economy. With the UK registering the smallest growth of all 28 EU members in the first quarter of this year, it seems that some of the warnings made before the referendum are beginning to come true. When the Treasury coffers are empty, the arts will be among the first to suffer.

 

Suspending disbelief for a moment, it is possible, of course, that the hard Brexiters are correct. If we cut ourselves off from the EU completely, this dismal period will lead to a land of milk, honey and Schrödinger’s cake (had and eaten). In this context, whilst Theresa May’s Brexit approach did not look particularly attractive before her ill-judged election, at least it was a strategy, of sorts. There was chance of ridding ourselves of some of the uncertainly. Now May will have to negotiate a Brexit that satisfies her hard Brexit right wing; the DUP, who are quite keen on Brexit but don't want a hard border with Ireland; those who want to stay in the customs union, led by Philip Hammond; and those who appear to be suggesting we stay in the Single Market, most notably the newly powerful Ruth Davidson. All the while, the possibility of building a cross-party consensus is scuppered by the fact that Corbyn will probably be content to watch the whole farce play out until he gets what he really wants: a new election.

 

All the while Article 50 ticks away. Not a clock, but an explosive device. If the politicians continue to be unable to defuse the bomb they have so happily built, primed and activated, we are all going to be faced by the worst kind of Brexit possible: a no deal Brexit. It will wreak havoc not just with our own industry, but with the country as a whole.



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12 Jun  

English composer Malcolm Lipkin died on 2nd June aged 85. Under the influence of his teacher Mátyás Seiber he music exhibited elements of serialism, but he always remained his own man, never fully adopting the system. His later fully found his voice in a distinctive tonal style.

 

Lipkin wrote thee symphonies; concertos for violin, piano, flute and oboe; and a number of chamber and vocal works.

 

Malcom Lipkin Symphony No.3 The Sun



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7 Jun  

This iOS app from independent developer Alexei Baboulevitch won a Children’s Technology Review award, which suggests that it might not be much use for creative professionals. That would be wrong.

 

The app takes an entirely graphic approach to composition. You are presented with a canvas with pitch on the vertical axis, time on the horizontal. Once you’ve chosen an instrument you press record and draw (with finger or Apple Pencil) in realtime or, if you prefer, you can enter a line note by note. You can zoom in and out, edit and assign a variety of instruments to different layers within a score. And that’s about it. 

 

The most obvious use case for such an app would be within a classroom or by someone not versed in staff notation. I would argue, however, that trying to use it to write traditional (especially tonal) music would not be the best use case since, actually, one still has to have a knowledge of musical grammar. The application doesn’t much help with this, giving you the whole gamut of 12 notes to choose from— finding the right notes would be pretty tricky for a beginner. But as a tool for creating imaginative sound collages and the like it has immense potential. And this doesn't just apply to educational users, but to much more experienced composers too.

 

The greatest achievement of this app is that it frees you from the tyranny of both barline and chromatic scale. Any kind of microtonal nuance is easy to achieve. The best way to think of it would be like directly composing a graphic score, such as those produced in the 50s and 60s by the likes of Ligeti, Stockhausen and Xenakis. Unlike, say, in Ligeti’s Artikulation, however, where the score is merely a graphic representation of hours of painstaking work to produce an electronic composition, here sound and symbol are directly linked, but have (or have the potential to have) the same flexibility offered by electronic manipulation.

 

If the app is to become really useful for professional composers it could do with expanding its feature set. There are several export option (AAC, MIDI, JSON and ZIP archive) though no import options. It is the latter that would make this a really powerful tool. It would be brilliant, for example, to be able to import and write with user generated sounds or to be able to import a conventional audio track, and then paint round it with this application. The editing tools too could do with enlarging. There is no copy and paste and it would be good to be able to edit the shape and position of individual notes. 

 

Despite this it’s still possible to do real creative work with Composer’s Sketchpad. It’s power lies in the simplicity of its conception and perfect use of finger or stylus input. If you want to give it a try you can download the lite version for free, the full version costs just £3.99.

 

 



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28 May  

The latest contemporary music phenomenon is Dutch pianist Joep Beving. For fun, Beving uploaded some of his music to Spotify. Since doing so his compositions have been streamed an astonishing 85 million times. The music probably only just qualifies for the classical contemporary label, Beving himself describing it as being more for a pop audience: “It’s chill-out, easy listening … mood-type music for people to calm down and feel comforted, like being in a bubble, protected.” You can make up your own mind here:

His latest album, Prehension, can also be found at YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music.

 

Wergo seem to have been subsumed into Schott and deprived of what used to be a rather excellent website. The best way to find their new releases now seems to be taking a look at their Facebook page. Happily, these still seem to be coming thick and fast, with four albums worth considering this month: a disk of unusual duet pairings by Keiko Harada; music for voice and instruments by Tom Sora; works for soprano by Wolfgang Rihm, Aribert Reimann and Hans Werner Henze; and chamber music by Ying Wang. 

 

As Leonard Bernstein’s centenary (1918-2018) approaches, Bridge records has begun its celebrations early with a new recording of the composer’s complete piano music played by Andre Cooperstock. They have also released a programme of works for large chamber ensemble and wind ensemble by Gregory Mertl; and Rites of Passage, a disk of chamber music by Martin Boykan.

 

Bracing Change, a new album featuring of string quartets by Simon Holt, Donnacha Dennehy and Anthony Gilbert marks the beginning of a new project from NMC featuring new string commissions. Also on NMC is a programme of music by Gavin Higgins, Mark Bowden, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Kate Whitley and Quinta (stage name of composer Katherine Mann). All are past Rambert Fellows, the works here being played by the Rambert Orchestra.

 

Nimbus has released a mixed programme of works by George Benjamin, including Flight, a work written in his late teens for solo flute. A DVD of a 2014 performance of Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah has just been made available over at Naxos. Also, if you are unimpressed by Joep Beving’s piano music, check out From My Beloved Country, a programme of South African piano music played by Renée Reznek. It’s proper, stimulating contemporary music, just as capable of being enjoyed by a wide range of listeners. 



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24 May  

Maria Wanda Milliore, originator of the fantastical lake opera sets at the Bregenz Festival, died on May 12th aged 96.

 

It was for a performance of Mozart’s Bastien et Bastienne in 1946 that she conceived the novel design, variations of which continue to this day.

 

A history of these designs, together with fascinating pictures, is available here.

 

And here is a short documentary on the construction of the lakeside set for the 2014 production of The Magic Flute: 

 



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24 May  

Simon Rattle has spoken about Brexit, remarking how some musicians a the LSO broke down in tears the day after the decision. He also said that there are already fewer applications from European musicians to play in the orchestra. 

 

As for himself, he said 'I feel more European than ever.’

 

The full interview is in German, here.

 

Here is a translated version.



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20 May  

A surprising and pleasurable piece of news. In a listing ranking UK university music departments, Surrey University came second, being placed above such august institutions as the Royal Academy, Royal College and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 

 

The surprise came from such a relative unknown being placed second, the pleasure from the fact that this was where I studied for my first degree…



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17 May  

Several big festivals to look forward to next month. In Amsterdam the Holland Festival (3–25 June) contains a mixture of theatre, dance, music, visual arts and film. There is plenty of new music, highlights including premieres from Mouse on Mars on 10th, new works from Indonesia on 16th, the world premiere of Kate Moore’s Sacred Environment on 24th. There are also several chances to hear works by American composer George Crumb and concerts that revive undeservedly forgotten works by Dutch composers.

 

The Aldeburgh Festival (9th–25th) contains, as always, a number of works by Benjamin Britten, with performances and explorations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the first Snape Maltings outing for Billy Budd. New works include Bill Fontana’s installation Acoustic Visions–Snape Maltings, available throughout the festival, Knussen’s setting of haiku texts Hototogisu, and Deborah Pritchard’s Wall of Water; Edge. That last piece is another response (see my CD review, below) to Maggi Hambling’s Walls of Water series of paintings, which will be on display during the festival. There are also a number of premieres from featured composers Olga Neuwirth and Jörg Widmann.

 

The St. Magnus International Festival (16th–24th) marks its connections with Norway with visits from the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Berken Domkor, not to mention the Norwegian Crown Prince and Princess. A second thread will be a celebration of the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St, Magnus, which provides the inspiration for Alasdair Nicolson’s new work I, Pilgrim, to be performed on the opening night. Other composers receiving premieres include Paul Crabtree, Geoff Palmer, Gemma McGregor, Philip Cashian, Stuart MacRae, Marco Ramelli and the eight composers taking part in the St Magnus Composers’ Course.

 

The Munich Opera Festival begins on 18th and runs until the last day of July. There are major productions of older repertoire, including La Traviata, Figaro, The House of the Dead and a complete production of The Ring. Contemporary works include Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek, Franz Schreker’s The Stigmatized, Joby Talbot’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (ballet) and Gordon Kampe’s Can you whistle, Johanna (children’s opera). 

 

Outside the festivals there are a few other bits and pieces to look out for. At the Barbican on 2nd Thomas Adès begins his survey of Beethoven Symphonies with the Britten Sinfonia. Each of the concerts will be paired with works by Gerald Barry beginning, appropriately enough, with Beethoven. Also at the Barbican on 11th is a celebration marking 350 years since the writing of Paradise Lost, with new works from Joel Rust and Edward Nesbit. From 9th–17th ENO will be playing Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, the first European run for the jazz-infused chamber opera. Glyndebourne, meanwhile, will give the world premiere of Brett Dean’s new opera Hamlet on 11th, with performances until 6th July (on which day it will also be available to view in cinemas)



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13 May  

Harriet Mackenzie (violin), Retorica, English Symphony Orchestra, English String Orchestra, Kenneth Woods (conductor). Nimbus NI 6295.

 

Violinist Harriet Mackenzie and conductor Kenneth Woods have both made appearances on this blog before. Mackenzie is a great champion of contemporary music, both as a solo artist and with duo partner Philippa Mo (who also appears in one work on this disk). They chatted to C:T back in 2014 about their disk of violin duos, featuring music by living English composers. The enthusiasm and deep knowledge of both was palpable, not just in their interview, but also in extensive and lively email correspondence.

 

The English Symphony Orchestra, now under the baton of Kenneth Woods, have likewise done much to promote contemporary composers, their work going back almost four decades. One of their recent premieres was of Philip Sawyers’ Symphony No. 3. Sawyers explained how the performance became part of a wider project examining the symphony in the 21st century, the ESO commissioning nine new works, including his own. That project is ongoing, so this new disk, An Eventful Morning in East London: 21st Century Violin Concertos is, then, an excellent way of whetting our appetites for pleasures to come.

 

In a sense the title is a misnomer; only two of the pieces here go by the name of violin concerto, though a third, Paul Patterson’s Allusions for 2 solo violins and strings, might just as well be—its traditional fast-slow-fast shape being the only work that makes use of the traditional concerto shape. The ‘Allusion’ of the title refers, nevertheless, not to the form but to the fact that each movement uses a section of a well-known opera as a starting point: the final fugue of Verdi’s Falstaff in the first movement, the Commendatore Scene from Don Giovanni in the second movement (even if the Bartokian starkness made me think more of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), and a witty reworking of the overture to Figaro in the third. Typically of Patterson, the music is wide in range—vigorous and entertaining but not eschewing darker territory where necessary.

 

Deborah Prichard is known for her synaesthetic approach to composition, Wall of Water being no exception. It is a response to Maggi Hambling’s magnificent Walls of Water series of paintings, which she and violinist Mackenzie viewed being made at the artist’s studio in Suffolk. The result is not strictly programmatic, but the work has undoubtedly absorbed something of the elemental character of the visual pieces. It reverses some of the concerto conventions, unfolding impressively from a majestic cadenza that leads to a fast and fluid passage before returning to the stasis of the opening. 

 

David Mathews’ single movement Romanza for solo violin and string orchestra plays elegantly with waltz form. After an expressive opening section we suddenly find ourself tripping along in a world that has the all the urbanity of Strauss without any of the platitudes—the transition back to the opening material near the end, for example, is spine-chilling.

 

The title of Fokkens’ exhilarating and colourful An Eventful Morning Near East London refers not to the UK, but a ‘cattle-infested stretch of the N2 motorway between East London and Umtata’ in the composer’s native South Africa. It is possible that this was an intentional play on words—Fokkens' music often reflects the tension of being a South African abroad. It opens in the stratospheric upper regions of the violin, played with extraordinary control by Mackenzie, before outlining a lugubrious procession that leads to a peroration of Sacre–esque energy. 

 

The final piece, Emily Doolittle’s falling still for violin and strings, is informed by her interest in sounds from the natural world— she divides the ensemble so that the strings represent a non-sentient natural process, such as the movement of water or geological phenomena, the soloist a living creature in the form of birdsong. The effectiveness relies on the starkness of the juxtaposition—simple repeating chords vs. the melodic weaving of the soloist. Mackenzie describes it as a kind of ‘modern Lark Ascending’. It can’t quite reach those expressive heights, but it is a beautiful nevertheless.

 

Apart from what is a deeply satisfying and varied programme of music, it is not possible to conclude without again mentioning the performers. Two of the works here presented would not exist without the collaboration between Mackenzie and the composers. For that and also her flawless musicianship, everywhere in evidence here, we have much to be grateful for. The same extends to this magnificent orchestra under their conductor Kenneth Woods. Many conductors pay lip service to promoting new music, what Woods has memorably described as the programming ‘shit sandwich’—an unpalatable modern work between two stalwarts. His mission is to demonstrate that modern repertoire needs no such support, a fact that this disk proves in spades.



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10 May  

The Royal Philharmonic Society announced their music awards yesterday evening at The Brewery in the City of London. The awards celebrate live music-making and recognise outstanding musical achievement in the UK during 2016. Award winners are chosen by independent juries of leading music practitioners from hundreds of nominations nationwide. RPS Chairman John Gilhooly said the ceremony:

 

"This year’s RPS Music Award winners take no prisoners, united in their excellence and their commitment to removing barriers to listening or participation in classical music.  The awards celebrate live music of extraordinary quality and ambition, taking place across the width and breadth of the country (closer to home than many might think).  I’d urge those who have yet to experience its multifarious pleasures to get out there and listen and make music, in the moment, of the moment.  Live Music Is… more vibrant than ever.”

 

The full list of winners is as follows:

 

Audiences and Engagement: East Neuk Festival, in collaboration with 14-18 NOW: Memorial Ground (David Lang)

Chamber Music and Song: Fretwork

Chamber-Scale Composition: Rebecca Saunders: Skin

Concert Series and Festivals: Lammermuir Festival 

Conductor: Richard Farnes 

Creative Communication: Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet by Edward Dusinberre (Faber)

Ensemble: Manchester Camerata

Instrumentalist: James Ehnes

Large-Scale Composition: Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis 

Learning and Participation: South-West Open Youth Orchestra

Opera and Music Theatre: Opera North: Ring Cycle

Singer: Karita Mattila

Young Artists: Joseph Middleton

 

 

More information at the RPS website.




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6 May  

In Philadelphia, a project to reanimate over 1,000 broken instruments owned by the school district is reaching its latter stages. 

 

The project is the brainchild of Robert Blackson, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Temple University who, on learning of the instruments, decided to mount a creative project in partnership with a number of local organisations. The first part of the programme was an exhibition of the instruments at Temple University back in 2016. After this an attempt was made to play each instrument, the sound—no matter how basic—being recorded. These samples were sent to composer  David Lang, who used them as a reference when composing a new work, which will premiere in October. This performance will involve a mixture of volunteer and professional musicians playing the broken instruments. 

 

Best of all, the programme has raised enough money to make repairs. This will happen after the premiere, most of the instruments finding their way back into the hands of young players.

 

You can read more about the project, here



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3 May  

Tickets for the BBC Proms go on sale at 9am on Saturday 13th May. The full programme is available, here. If you wish to view the living composers represented, click on this link and look for those with birth dates only. Alternatively, see below for a complete list of concerts that include new music, arranged in chronological order. As last year, once the Proms gets going you can click through on the link I’ve given to hear listen again options on concerts you've missed.

 

As for the programme itself, it’s good to see the reintroduction of the the first night premiere, with St John’s Dance by Tom Coult on 14th. We’ve not got a bad crop of other world premieres either, with major new commissions for Pascal Dusapin, Julian Anderson, Brian Elias and Judith Weir. Am I the only one, however, to notice that with 12 in total, there are significantly fewer world premieres than last year (where there were 16) or in 2015 (where there were 18)? A sign, perhaps, that in cash straightened times, new art is considered dispensable.

 

July 

 

14th Tom Coult, St John’s Dance (world premiere); John Adams Harmonium.

16th Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Deep Time (UK premiere).

19th Pascal Dusapin, Outscape (UK premiere).

24th Laurent Durupt, Grids for Greed (world premiere). 

26th Julian Anderson, Piano Concerto (world premiere)

28th Anders Hillborg, Sirens (UK premiere).

29th David Sawer, The Greatest Happiness Principle.

30th Sir James MacMillan, A European Requiem (European premiere).

 

August

 

3rd Erkki-Sven Tüür, Flamma (UK premiere).

5th Francisco Coll, Mural (London premiere); Thomas Adès, Polaris.

9th Brian Elias, Cello Concerto (world premiere).

12th Judith Weir, In the Land of Uz (world premiere).

14th Mark-Anthony Turnage, Hibiki (European premiere).

15th Thomas Larcher, Nocturne – Insomnia (UK premiere).

15th Philip Glass/Ravi Shanker, Passages (first complete live performance).

17th Michael Gordon, Big Space (world premiere); David Lang, Sunray (London premiere); Julia Wolfe, Big Beautiful Dark and Scary (London premiere): Philip Glass, Glassworks – Closing ; Louis Andriessen, Workers Union.

20th Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Chorale Prelude ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (world premiere); Jonathan Dove, Chorale Prelude ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’ (world premiere); Daniel Saleeb, Chorale Prelude 'Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort’ (world premiere), Toccata on 'Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort’.

21st Gerald Barry, Canada (world premiere).

30th Andrea Tarrodi, Liguria (UK premiere).

30th Hannah Kendall, The Spark Catchers (world premiere); George Walker, Lyric for Strings.

 

September

 

1st Wolfgang Rihm, In-Schrift.

4th John Adams, Lollapalooza.

5th Missy Mazzoli, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (European premiere of orchestral version).

9th Lotta Wennäkoski, Flounce (world premiere); John Adams, Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance (London premiere).



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1 May  

Not much of a welcome at JFK, where American composer Mohammed Fairouz was detained for hours when trying to reenter the US, apparently for having a Muslim name. The full story over at the Washington Post.
 



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29 Apr  

PRS has just announced that it has secured funding of €200,000 from the Creative Europe programme of the European Union. The money will be used to run its European Keychange programme to empower female musicians.

 

From the PRS website:

 

This new and ambitious European collaboration will promote the role of women in music and the potential creative and economic contribution women could be making to Europe’s music industry. Building on PRS Foundation’s experience of running the pioneering Women Make Music Fund in the UK, Keychange aims to stimulate talent development and innovation in music by creating new international opportunities for performance, collaboration and learning amongst female artists and innovators who are ready to break into new markets. The long term goal is to transform Europe’s music industry for current and future generations by accelerating recognition of women’s artistic and economic value and empowering them to work together across European and international borders.

 

The initiative is led by PRS Foundation who have joined forces with like-minded European partners who believe that the future of music will benefit from a more balanced representation of women and men across all aspects of the industry. These partners are: Iceland Airwaves, BIME (Spain), Reeperbahn Festival (Germany), The Great Escape (UK), Tallinn Music Week (Estonia), MusickCentrum/Way out West (Sweden) and Mutek (Canada). Additional sponsorship has also been secured from Spotify and STEF (The Performing Rights Society of Iceland) and we will be announcing more associate partners over the next few months.

 

Activities will include two mass gatherings of the Keychange network at Tallinn Music Week and BIME in 2018, smaller groups showcasing and networking at other partners’ music festivals, a programme of creative labs and online content which stimulate ideas for new projects and ways of working, a high profile social media campaign and a final event in Brussels at the European Parliament in 2019 at which partners will jointly present a manifesto for change. 

 

All supported artists and innovators will be selected through a nomination process coordinated by local partners and their industry colleagues. A joint selection panel will take place at Reeperbahn Festival in September 2017.



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26 Apr  

May begins with a BBC Total Immersion Day dedicated to the music of Edgard Varèse at Barbican on 6th. There will be a talk at 12pm, a concert of ensemble musical 2pm, a film exploring the life of the composer at 4.40pm and an evening concert featuring Varèse’s orchestral music at 7pm. 

 

On the same day the Tectonics Festival kicks off in Glasgow. It only lasts a couple of days, but both are packed: there’s an installation, 2 chamber concerts, 2 ‘Meet the Artists’ events, and concerts with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.  There’s also plenty of new music, including premieres of music by Lawrence Dunn, Linda Catlin Smith, James Saunders, Roscoe Mitchell and Lori Goldston.

 

The Norwich Festival (12th–28th) includes a wide variety of events, including circus, literature, music and dance. Amongst the music events is the chance to hear the first performance in the UK of Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson’s collaborative project American Style on 19th; the Calidore Quartet performing Ligeti’s String Quartet no.1, ‘Metamorphoses nocturnes’ on 20th; and Gerald Barry’s Beethoven on 26th.

 

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival (19th–26th, multiple venues across SE Wales) only performs music by living composers (indeed it claims to be the only festival so to do). It also offers a particular focus on the music of Welsh composers. Premieres this year include works by Hilary Tann, Steph Power, Ben Wallace and John Adams. Perhaps most significantly, Welsh composer Guto Puw will see the first performance of his new Welsh-language opera Y Tŵr at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff on 19th.

 

The English Music Festival (26th–29th), as the name suggests, focuses entirely English repertoire. Though it’s not heavy on contemporary music, the festival is doing good work reviving forgotten pieces— there are premieres of music by Vaughan Williams, Stanford and Montague Phillips. Also worth a visit is the St. Davids Cathedral Festival (26th–4th June) in West Wales. A dig around will reveal new music by Joby Talbot, Chris Marshall and Judith Bingham. 




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19 Apr  

Samuel Barber would have been 107 on 9th March, an event I marked by mentioning Paul Moon’s soon-to-be-released documentary on the composer, Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty. I am lucky to have been able to view an advance copy of this remarkable film, which rather rewrites the rules of documentary film-making.

 

Moon essentially mounts his film projects alone, his most recent being a documentary exploring the remarkable circumstances of the composition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps

This new film—a two-hour documentary of Samuel Barber’s life and work—is, however, several orders of magnitude more ambitious. It is the kind of project that used only to be made by documentary departments of major television studios. For its more than two-hour running time, you wouldn’t be aware that it hadn’t been.

 

Moon has assembled an impressive range of experts in the field. These are headed by two of Barber’s biographers, Pierre Brevignon and Barbara Heyman (both of whom receive producer credits). They provide the authoritative narrative backbone to the film. Heyman, especially, does much of the heavy lifting, introducing many of the key works and peppering her contributions with some delightful biographical vignettes. In addition to this, a number of well-known musicians (Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop, to name but two) contribute interviews, performances and rehearsals of the works. A third layer is provided by the use of archive material, which appears both as footage and as voice-overs. In most cases individual contributions are excellent (there is occasional hyperbole, the very early Dover Beach, for example, being described as ‘One of the greatest pieces of vocal music of the twentieth century’, a tall order given the competition), but it is the structural coherence that Moon brings to the whole that makes it such a remarkable success.

 

The tone and theme of the film is set at the opening in archive contributions from William Schuman, who identifies Barber as a composer who, like Bach, was content to operate within a given style, and by Leonard Bernstein, who describes Barber’s music as having the quality of ‘absolute beauty.’ After this Moon takes a sensibly, though not slavishly, chronological approach. The first section begins with the aforementioned Dover Beach (op. 3, 1931) for baritone and string quartet, certainly a remarkable work for a 19 year-old, before leading us through the Cello Sonata (op. 6, 1932), First Symphony (op. 9, 1935-6), the Adagio (op. 11a, 1936), Violin Concerto (op. 14, 1939/40), Cello Concerto (op. 22, 1945), Piano Sonata (op. 26, 1948), Hermit Songs (op. 29, 1953) and Ballet Medea (op. 23 1946/7). Each section allows Moon’s experts to expand on the individual works and, extrapolating from this, the themes identified at the opening.

 

Knoxville (op. 24,1947), a setting for soprano and orchestra of a text by James Agee, comes in the middle of the film, its theme of childhood leading naturally to an examination of Barber’s earliest life. This forms a happy interlude before the deeper explorations in the second half of the documentary, beginning with one of Barber’s most challenging works, his Piano Sonata (op. 26, 1948), where he consciously tested the limits of his style. Of the several works that follow only Summer Music for wind quintet (op. 31, 1956), where Moon shows us a curious piece of rehearsal footage with no further comment, feels a little perfunctory. More revealing is the section following Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra (op. 36, 1960), which explores Barber’s lifelong relationship with composer Gian Carlo Menotti and Barber’s own attitudes to homosexuality. 

 

The last years are painful to watch. Composer John Corigliano (who is also a significant contributor elsewhere) explains how the critical reaction to the first performance of his third opera Anthony and Cleopatra (op. 40, 1966) led Barber partially to withdraw from composing. He was also forced to sell Capricorn, his much-loved countryside home, and live in New York. There was a trickle of final works, but ultimately we are left with the image of a composer who spent much of his time alone playing the works of Bach. When the end came it was in his lifelong companion’s arms—Menotti providing a poignant description of that moment. 

 

The documentary argues passionately that Barber should be ranked highly amongst twentieth-century composers, a question that it cannot, of course, answer definitively. For many, especially in Europe, he is known mainly as the composer of that work—the ubiquitous Adagio. In its own way, however, writing the Adagio was in itself a rebellious act, one that is plausibly identified in this film as a precursor to minimalism and to the emergence of composers such as Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki. Despite this, Barber was no revolutionary—to quote Liszt via Heyman, he knew that there is a ‘degree of innovation beyond which one does not pass without danger.’ He was content to avoid that danger by staying within certain stylistic parameters. It is within these boundaries, however, that his music must be judged, not by a perceived failure to join in with mainstream modernism (a confrontation that is comically described in this film in a chance meeting between Barber and Boulez). In this sense the quality and importance of his work should not be in doubt. If you are at all unfamiliar with this essential twentieth century composer, this marvellous documentary is the ideal place to begin. 

 

Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty streams online via watch.samuelbarberfilm.com and amazon.samuelbarberfilm.com. DVDs ship worldwide from dvd.samuelbarberfilm.com.  Subtitles are included on all media in English, French, German, Spanish and Russian.

 

 

Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty from H. Paul Moon on Vimeo.



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16 Apr  

As well as the Rhona Clarke (see my previous blog post, below) other recent releases include, on Wergo, Tun Tu, a disk of electroacoustic music by Chinese composer Sing Wang; Wechselspiele, vocal and instrumental works from Tom Sora; and Midstream, and Midstream, a disk of chamber music from Japanese composer Keïko Harada. 

 

NMC has released a couple of new albums: a varied selection of music by Rolf Hind, including his Viola Concerto, chamber works and I am I Say, for soprano, bass and children’s chorus; and a disk of orchestral works by Simon Holt. 

 

Naxos, meanwhile, has new recordings Jennifer Higdon’s Viola and Oboe Concertos and her orchestra suite All Things Majestic; as well as new additions to the Dutilleux catalogue in the form of a new recording of his Second Symphony, Mystère de l’instant and Timbres, espace, mouvement.

 

Col Legno, finally, have released a rather interesting disk of classic electroacoustic works. It includes such well-known pieces as Varèse’s Poème électronique, Ligeti’s only two contributions to the genre Glissandi and Artikulation; Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco; as well as works by Berio, Lachenmann Maderna, Boulez and Ferneyhough. These are not new recordings, of course—in many cases this would be difficult to achieve, the original documents being, in a sense, unrepeatable—but remasters. Some of the works, for example, can be heard for the ‘first time in surround sound in order to show the relevance of the spatial presentation of works intended for multichannel speaker configurations or complex setups of speakers distributed in space.’ This makes them a must for anyone interested in this repertoire. 



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12 Apr  

Piano Trios 2, 3 and 4 (‘A Different Game’); Gleann Da Lough (solo piano), Con Coro (violin, cello and tape), In Umbra (solo cello).  The Fidelio Trio, Métier msv 28561.

 

This new disk features three strongly contrasted works from Irish composer Rhona Clarke. Her Second Piano Trio is, by turns, darkly introspective and neurotically obsessive; the Third, in its jazz inflected first movement especially, more lyrical and harmonically relaxed. The Fourth Trio is a recent work (2016), and here one suspects that it has been influenced by Clarke’s encounters with electroacoustic music—extended instrumental sonorities are explored, most notably in the very clustered piano writing. All three works are structurally lucid.

 

Of the three bonus pieces, I was particularly struck by Con Coro which, as the same suggests, explores mixing choir and chamber instruments. The result is exquisite. 

 

This disk is available for streaming on both Apple Music and Spotify. It is likely to appeal to both more and less adventurously-inclined. 



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12 Apr  

The Riot Ensemble in association with Sound and Music have just begun a new podcast series exploring the world of new music. It is playfully titled Chest of Toys after an anonymous attendee at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary music was quoted as saying ‘the problem with contemporary music is that much of it sounds like a chest of children’s toys coming down the stairs.’

 

I’ve just listened to, and very much enjoyed, the first episode, which explores the creative path of violinist, composer and improviser Alison Blunt after she experienced health problems that forced her to stop playing for two years. It is embedded, below:

 



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