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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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10 Apr  

There is a nice story over at Slipped Disc about conductor David Bernard’s reaction to a small boy talking between pieces in a recent concert. Audience members became restless at the disturbance, asking his parents to take him out. Bernard’s reaction is priceless.

 

Warmed hearts aside, the incident raises an interesting question about the suitability of bringing young children to concerts of classical music. In the first instance one might be inclined to say that the parents were wrong to bring the child. In the end, however, the conductor was able to turn the situation into an valuable lesson, and not just for the child. 

 

If music is to be accessible to all, it needs to be welcoming to all. Part of that is a willingness to be flexible about concert conduct. Whilst it is important that others can listen to the music without interruption—a lesson properly learned in the Bernard story—I have never, for example, understood why people get so prissy about spontaneous applause between movements. Are we really so delicate as to let such small things disturb our enjoyment? 



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4 Apr  

Charlotte C. Gill’s article Music education is now only for the white and the wealthy, published in The Guardian on 27th March has caused quite the furore. A response by pianist Ian Pace has so far gathered over 500 high-profile supporters, including conductor Sir Simon Rattle. 

 

Gill's article begins uncontroversially. She is correct to observe that music is being squeezed in schools, the subject becoming ever harder to access. She also appears to grasp that one of the problems faced is that pupils can only access the subject if they have access to individual (or at least small group) tuition. The scandal here, as everyone knows, is that schools are no longer able to offer free instrumental lessons, which was always a key part of progressing in the subject. This has left ambitious parents and children little option but to seek private tuition.

 

It seems strange then that whilst, on the one hand, bemoaning the fact that this kind of high-quality teaching is not available for all, that Gill proposes to dumb down the whole subject so that, presumably, such academic rigour is not needed anyway. Her attack focuses specifically on music notation, which she calls:

 

‘a cryptic, tricky language–rather like Latin’

So tricky, in fact, that most children can pick up the fundamentals in a few years of regular tuition (arguably less time, but I choose a period that allows the child to attain some fluency). 

 

And like Latin it ‘can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education’

Gill manages to make it sound as if learning notation were an esoteric and morally dubious activity only pursued in top public schools. As she has already implied and we have already said, however, the scandal is that one-to-one tuition (which includes the study of notation) is not available for all, not that it shouldn't be available at all.

 

And she concludes by saying that ‘Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.’ 

I think most schools would take issue with this. They do their best under difficult circumstances to nurture the talents of their pupils, as Gill accidentally proves when recounting her own experiences. She mentions that she was one of those frustrated, abandoned pupils, then rather spoils it by saying that: ‘At secondary school, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who picked up on my passion. One day he pulled me aside, and said “you like music, don’t you?” before throwing me into two choirs, as well as singing and piano lessons. I learned Mozart, West Side Story and can now sing in Latin [that cryptic, tricky language!], German and Italian, eventually getting my grade 8.’ I would suggest that this experience is rather more common that she realises. 

 

There are other problems with the article. Gill seems to imagine that there is an oppresive academic elite (what is it with elites at the moment?) that prevents anyone from making progress who cannot read music. This has never been the case—ask Paul McCartney, who seems to have done quite well as a non-reader. There are plenty of musicians operating in genres of music that have traditionally not required notation and, in fact, schools cater rather fully in classroom music lessons for non-readers, many of whom study the subject further. Where there is a disconnect, and a genuine problem, is that eventually, usually around the A Level stage, these classroom musicians fare less well because they need to engage with the subjection in a more academic way. This does require notation. At this point it would be possible to have a genuine conversation about the merits of a more practical line of study for those pupils, but we cannot pretend that a deep understanding of music can be achieved without recourse to notation, any more than one can study languages without reading.

 

Gill also says that she cannot join the many choirs that insist that members can read music. So why not join one that doesn't? There are plenty of them, and standards of sight-singing vary so widely, even amongst trained musicians, that such a requirement is more honoured in the breach than the observance. We cannot, however, apply these amateur standards to our top music groups. Imagine the BBC Singers open to non-readers. Or, whilst we are at it, our top orchestras. That would make rehearsals pretty interesting. The fact of the matter is that music, particularly classical music, is a rigorous, difficult subject that requires years of study before any kind of mastery is attained. In this respect, like all serious subjects, it is elitist. The important thing is that the path to mastery is available to all though education, not that the subject is crippled by a creeping philistinism that insists that everyone’s contribution, regardless of their training, is equally valid. 



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27 Mar  

  Hermann Meier, 1945

The IMS conference ended a few days ago. I meant to mention a few of the final papers at the time, but got tied up with other things, mostly sightseeing—Japan is a very lovely country indeed. 

 

If I’m honest, the papers at the conference varied alarmingly in quality. It’s actually better, I learned, to go to papers of people that you know will do a good job, regardless of the topic. With that in mind I saw a superb presentation given by John Rink, an old lecturer of mine who is now at Cambridge. He spoke with wit and insight on performance practice in Chopin. There was also an interesting session on film music, with Gregory Camp’s paper on the various means by which an actor may be musically characterised standing out. I was also pleased to be introduced to a largely unknown Swiss composer, Hermann Meier (1906–2002), in a paper given by Michelle Ziegler of the Hochschule der Künste Bern.

 

Meier was a primary school teacher by day, by night a composer of some substance. His long career followed some of the major trends in Europe music. He wrote in the dodecaphonically until 1952, later adapting a more personal serial style in works such as Klaviervariationen and Stücke (1956 and ’57 respectively). In the 60s he began using montage, the subject of Ziegler’s fascinating lecture. In doing so Meier sketched using graphical representations of his musical material (which occasionally also became a final score). These representations are influenced by artists such as Piet Mondrian. Indeed, his sketches, many of which we were shown in the presentation, are works of art in themselves: 

 

Graphic sketch for Mauer for winds - Piece for large orchestra and three pianos HMV 60  (1964)

 

In the 70s Meier was introduced to electronic equipment at the Südwestfunk's studio, subsequently  realising a number of works for the medium. He stopped composing in the late eighties.

 

For those interested in seeing Meier’s sketches, they will be exhibited at  Kunstmuseum Solothurn on 28th October 2017.

 

The graphics were, of course, only a part of the composing process for Meier—in most cases they were realised in normal staff notation. Here are is a playlist of Meier’s music:

Further examples of his works are available, here



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21 Mar  

To keep up to date with the latest contemporary music news, don't forget to follow C:T on Twitter. Here are a few tweets from today....



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21 Mar  

I am currently spending a few days as an observer at the International Musicological Society’s 20th Annual Congress (19th–23rd March) in Tokyo, partly to provide company to my partner, who is giving a paper on Thursday, partly because there are so many interesting topics being discussed, many of which relate to contemporary music. It has so far been a lot of fun, if a little bewildering—the programme is so packed that many papers occur at the same time, often of things you would like to attend. We are also based in Chigasaki, some way from the centre of Tokyo. This makes getting to the morning sessions tricky.

 

As well as the lectures, there have been a couple of concerts organised as part of the event. The first was the performance of Gagaku, held before a sake-fuelled opening reception on Sunday night. It was my first live experience of this elegant and ancient art form. We were treated to both traditional Gagaku works, and a modern piece by Sano Kōji. This latter was clearly respectful of its roots though it made me wonder what might be achieved by taking a rather freer approach.

 

Last night there was a concert of contemporary music. It provided a superb showcase for graduates of the Tokyo University of the Arts (which is hosting the conference), almost all of the performers having attended the institution. Of the works, Regis Campo’s witty and well-heard Pop Art (2001–2) and Grisey’s more substantial Talea stood out. Kenji Sakai was in the audience to hear his Monopolyphonie/Défuguration for solo cello, a work that effectively explored the possibility (or not) of writing polyphonically for the instrument. Boulez’s Derive I left me rather cold; dating from 1984 it feels rather less substantial than some of his more cerebral early efforts. Most bewildering, however, was Wolfgang Rihm’s Fremde Szene II for piano trio. It was easy enough to hear the work as a kind of dialogue between Rihm and Schumann, much of the figuration and even the harmonic writing deriving from the latter, but there was a heaviness to the writing with problems of balance that did not derive from the performance. 

 

I would write more, but finish this in haste. Hope to catch the keynote lecture by Toshio Hosokawa this afternoon, as well as a session on twentieth century French music….



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19 Mar  

Sam Hunt is a PhD researcher at the University of the West of England in the Department of Computer Science and Creative Technologies. His current research is looking into technology that can support computer based music composition, specifically looking at integrating algorithmic music techniques into existing composer workflows, as well as music analysis and visualisation techniques. 

 

He has designed a survey that looks to understand current composer workflow and practice, and invites music practitioners and professionals to participate in it. A link to the survey is included below. The survey should take around 10-15 minutes and any response is greatly appreciated.

 

Link to survey: https://uwehls.az1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_6xL3TLfZiXOIV4V

 

Output from this survey will inform the design of new composition software and hopefully provide a significant research contribution to the field. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, Sam can be contacted directly through the following email address: samuel.hunt@uwe.ac.uk.



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14 Mar  

  Photo: Tristan Murail

A belated happy birthday to Tristan Murail, who turned 70 on 11th March. At a time when composer birthdays are marked with endless retrospectives and whole years dedicated to their work, it seems strange that such a respected figure is not being fanfared a little more. Perhaps spectralism is out of fashion…

 

I would have mentioned him at the time, but was preparing for a trip to Japan. Now arrived, my intention was to do a little roundup of new music events from this corner of the globe, but it turns out that this is rather the wrong time of year, both in terms of season and because one of the main concert venues, the Suntory Hall, is closed until the end of August for renovation work. I will, however, be going to a concert of contemporary music organised by the IMS conference (one of the reasons why I am here) on Monday, so may have more to say after that. Just as interestingly I’ll also have my first authentic taste of Gagaku, traditional Japanese court music. The conference itself offers a bewildering range of papers (371 free papers, 23 roundtables, and 12 study sessions to be exact) packed into just four days. I’ve already got a few things earmarked, and am especially looking forward to a keynote lecture that will given by Toshio Hosokawa. 

 

What is true of Japan is true of the rest of the world—contemporary music seems really to get into its stride with the onset of festival season around May. Those looking for something in April, however, could head to the Malta International Music Festival (12th–30th). The composer in residence, Alexey Shor, has pieces being performed in almost every concert. In the UK, meanwhile, the Barbican will host a mini-festival, Sound Unbound 2017, on the weekend of 29–30th. Highlights include music by John WIlliams,  experimental music from Gabriel Prokofiev and Nonclassical, some Nordic Noir from the The Samuelsens string duo and a site specific piece by Anna Meredith for the Curve Gallery.

 

Lack of festivals does not mean a lack of individual premieres, though these are quite scattered around. For a complete breakdown, take a look at C:T’s concert listings. Almost every event includes a premiere. A few that jumped out at me include a Viola Concerto from Andreas Zhibaj in Stockholm on 5th, an as yet untitled orchestral work from Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles on 13th, a Trombone Concerto by James Macmillan in Amsterdam on 20th and a new chamber work by Colin Matthews in Winchester on 28th

 

Talking of James MacMillan, younger composers will want to consider attending his Inspire Session at City Halls Glasgow on 2nd April. Part of the BBC Proms Inspire scheme, it will offer the chance to hear music by Macmillan and to submit pieces for performance by BBCSSO musicians. Those who wish only to observe the workshop section are also encouraged to attend. 



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9 Mar  

A very happy birthday to Samuel Barber, who would have been 107 today. To mark the occasion, here is a preview of a soon to be released documentary about the composer, made by Paul Moon. More information about the film is available at its official site, or on Facebook.



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8 Mar  

  Susanna Eastburn, Chief Executive of Sound and Music

Today is International Women’s Day, which celebrates the ‘social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women’ whilst calling for action to accelerate gender parity. 

 

In this context two articles recently caught my attention. One had geographical relevancy to me, having just moved to the Flanders region of Belgium. It describes a study of 5,227 students from the area, asking them to rate their interest in 24 leisure activities, including in the arts; the extent to which they felt typical of their gender; and whether they felt pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. The result was that ‘the more typical a male adolescent considers himself to be, the lower his interest in highbrow culture’. Conversely,  the ‘more gender congruent a female adolescent is, the higher her interest in highbrow cultural activities.’ It went on to observe that this gender gap is reflected in the US in females outnumbering males both in school musical groups and in audience attendance for all highbrow art forms. 

 

The second article was Chief Executive of Sound and Music, Susanna Eastburn’s passionate advocacy of female composers in The Guardian on Monday. In her piece she noted that in 2014, a study found that at every stage of development ‘the gap between male and female applications widened – from 50% at GCSE level, to the 35% female applicants to our summer school, to the 25% female applicants to Sound and Music’s various professional artist development programmes.’ 

 

Putting the two studies together begs the obvious question: if women are statistically more likely to be interested in the arts and to be more involved in music-making as students, why are they not following through and becoming composers? Why are they are turning from being creators and participants as youngsters to consumers only as adults? It seems abundantly clear that something, somewhere, is going wrong.

 

With the weakening of the liberal consensus both in the US and Europe it has become more acceptable to criticise efforts to redress gender imbalances. Some would even argue (as has Milo Yiannopoulos with regard to women in science) that Eastburn’s statistics are simply a reflection of women making life choices and even that there are roles to which men are more suited. Just as insidious, however, is a more subtle and unconscious bias against women composers. As Eastburn observes:  ‘Unconscious biases…can take many forms, from asking questions about their personal lives rather than their music, to offering shorter or lighter commissions, or even (a real-life example) asking a famous female composer who had helped her with her orchestral piece, because she clearly couldn’t have done it all by herself.’

 

It would seem that such conscious and unconscious views are a product of hundreds of years of predominantly male musical history. The stupidity of allowing our judgements to be clouded by the past is evidenced, however, by how much progress we have actually made in the last forty years. If I think only of my native UK, the profession is effectively led by a woman, with Judith Weir as Master of the Queen’s music. I was lucky enough to receive tuition from her and another woman composer, Arlene Sierra, as a student. And more widely we have names such as Helen Grime, Tansy Davies, Rebecca Saunders, Errollyn Wallen, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Charlotte Bray. There are many more.

 

This is what makes Susanna Eastburn’s argument so compelling. The point is, we have made progress, but not nearly enough. The statistics suggest that women composers are still being lost as they progress through the various stages of their training. But, conversely, when we realise the female talent that, against the odds, has managed to break through, the question becomes: what music are we losing because of our failure to support and promote women composers? As Eastburn says, ‘it's not about tokenism, it's about talent.’



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4 Mar  

Happy signs that new music is more fashionable than ever. Jim Farber makes the argument in The New Music Paradox, Part 2: Lessons From the Front Lines over at the San Francisco Classical Voice. Well worth a read.



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2 Mar  

 

The Glass@80 celebrations are already in full swing, the maestro having celebrated his birthday on January 31st. Anne Midgette points out, however, that the festivities are not quite so all-pervasive as one might imagine. Dennis Russell Davies, who has conducted all eleven of Glass's symphonies, offers some thoughts as to why that is.

 

 

Read more at The Washington Post



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1 Mar  

From the PRS website:

The Women Make Music Fund was created to draw attention to the gender gap between men and women in the music industry and increase the number of women creating new music in the UK. In 2011, just 13% of PRS for Music members were professional female songwriters and composers. Now in 2017, female membership sits at 16%.

The outcomes of the Women Make Music Fund speak for themselves. To date, the fund has:

Attracted 1,300 applications

Awarded £522,790 in grants

Increased grantee annual income by an average of £3,513

Awarded an average grant of £3,600, representing almost 100% return on investment

The report found that over three-quarters (79%) of Women Make Music grantees – which consists of 157 female songwriters, composers and music creators including; Mercury-nominated ESKA, genre-defying composer and producer, Anna Meredith and Women of the Future Award winner Hannah Kendall – said the fund significantly helped their confidence by enabling them to grow their professional profile.

More here.


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1 Mar  

A fascinating and disturbing article by Douglas Jarman argues that Alban Berg initially planned to use the motto of the Deutscher Turnerbund as a structural device in his Violin Concerto. The Turnerbund was ‘a movement concerned with the setting up of gymnastic and sports clubs…[and]…believed that physical education was not only a cornerstone of health but the very identity of a nation.’ By the time that Berg was writing the concerto, however, the organization had been banned because of it sympathies with the Nazi Party.

The complete article is available here.



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22 Feb  

NMC D220 Hallé, Hallé Youth Choir, The Manchester Grammar School Choir, Jamie Phillips and Sir Mark Elder.

 

It seems ridiculous that a disk that has no overt political agenda should, as the clock ticks inexorably down to the triggering of Article 50, have acted to calm my jittery Brexit nerves. It’s not been fun being British on the continent these last few months, wondering what on earth is going to happen once we leave the EU.

 

There’s something unashamedly international about this disk, a tonic at a time when our politics seem much meaner. O’Regan himself was brought up in the UK, but spent a lot of time in North Africa, his mother being born in Morocco but from an Algerian family. He now lives and works in New York City. These myriad cultural influences are woven deftly into his accessible musical language.

 

The opening work, for example, A Celestial Map of the Sky, contains a collage of texts with a distantly international tone. One of the threads which binds the whole together is Walt Whitman’s Salut au Monde! which includes the lines:

 

I see the cities of the earth, and make myself at random a part of them. 

Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens; Asia, Africa, Europe, [...] America; 

I see the cities of the earth; 

I am a real Parisian;
I am a habitan of Vienna, St Petersburg, Berlin, Constantinople; I am of Adelaide, Sidney, Melbourne;
I am of London, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Limerick; 

 

That these words are performed by the fresh, and excellent, voices of The Manchester Grammar School Choir (for whom the work was written) and the Hallé Youth Choir, makes them more poignant still. Citizen of nowhere Mrs. May? Count me in.

 

The music itself reflects wonderfully the changing tone of the different texts. There is the mystical opening of the Gerald Manly Hopkins, the positive and exhilarating energy of the Whitman, the more tonally ambiguous and searching quality of the Mahmood Jamal. Tarik O’Reagan identifies himself as a fan of Benjamin Britten. There is certainly an element of that here in his responsiveness to the text, his facility in writing for young voices and the flexibility of his musical style. Combined with this, there are more obviously American elements—hints of minimalism, a certain stylistic unpretentiousness, an occasionally Coplandesque ‘openness’ to his orchestration—making him truly transatlantic.

 

The stylistic net is drawn wider still in two works: Raï and Chaâbi. Written for orchestra alone they draw upon popular North African dance forms, though the composer is quick to observe that ‘neither is an ethnographic study.’ Raï, which is Moroccan influenced, takes things a stage further with the inclusion of darbuka drums, which add a propulsive energy to the proceedings. In fact, of the two, Raï is rather the more successful, its taut rondo structure containing a plethora of well-executed ideas. Chaâbi, has a wonderfully elegiac quality, especially in the opening dialogue between soloists and orchestra. It nevertheless feels a little diffuse, and towards the end some of the ostinato patterns begin to overstay their welcome. As if to emphasise this point, the download version of the disk contains a bonus track, Now Fatal Change, for solo violin and countertenor, based on the same material as Chaâbi. It is a beautiful work, poised and focused in a way that Chaâbi can’t quite manage. It also once again highlights the Britten (this time via Purcell) influence.

 

J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for Solo Violin in C Major provides the inspiration for Latent Manifest, which was commissioned as part of a programme of musical transcriptions at the 2010 BBC Proms. O’Regan explains that his method of transcription is also derived from Bach, for when the composer himself adapted the violin piece for harpsichord ‘the result was more fantasia than conventional transcription.’ The same is certainly true here. The opening is a literal enough quotation, but O’Regan quickly leads us on an exhilarating reinterpretation of the original material. The brassy, and expertly prepared, peroration five minutes in had me clutching the arms of my sofa in delight.

 

The programme ends with Fragments from Heart of Darkness, a suite extracted from O’Regan’s chamber opera Heart of Darkness, based upon the novel by Joseph Conrad. Again that text is seems apposite for our troubled times—though seen through the prism of imperialism, the central question of how one race perceives another remains relevant. The piece, the most substantial in the programme, works in a way that opera suites don’t always manage—we are not merely presented with a bouquet of nice moments from the larger work, but a composition that contains a thrust and narrative drive of its own. It’s not unlike listening to a Strauss tone poem; it is vividly pictorial and contains a circularity (we begin and end in the same place) familiar from, say, An Alpine Symphony. In any case it provides an excellent conclusion to this splendid and highly recommended programme of music. 

 

A Celestial Map of the Sky: Interview with Tarik O'Regan



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15 Feb  

 

  Leuven City Centre

It is with some exhaustion that I have just updated the concert listings here on C:T. Another period of change sees me now living in Leuven, Belgium, having wended my weary way here from sunny Nice a couple of weeks ago. Hunting an apartment has been enervating, rendered more stressful by the desire to become established before Mrs. May begins the business of Brexit. 

 

I hope, soon, to be able to bring some more interesting perspectives from this part of the world. I am, indeed, excited by the possibilities. Nice is a beautiful place, but it is artistically out on a limb. Here I am one train stop from Brussels, with other important cultural centres within easy reach, including London, Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne. 

 

One thing I can report is that linguistically Belgium is fascinating. Here in Leuven the main language is Dutch, or Flemish to be exact. Yet one can quite happily get by in daily life speaking English which, whilst not being an official language, is much preferred to French. And yet if you take that one-stop train journey to Brussels the world turns Francophone. The eastern cantons of Eupen-Malmedy, on the other hand, are Germanic. Different regional languages are, of course, pretty common in Europe—indeed I grew up with this in Wales—but the degree of linguistic homogeneity within each region makes one feel that Belgium is several countries in one, a fact, I suppose, reflected in the country’s federal system of government.

 

Anyway, I digress. March is still a bit early in the season to be a bumper month for new music, but if you cast your eyes around there is, as ever, plenty going on. On 3rd Oliver Knussen will conduct BCMG and Huw Watkins in the world premiere of Helen Grime’s new Piano Concerto at Wigmore Hall, with a second opportunity to hear the work at the CBSO Centre on 5th. In New York on 3rd, meanwhile, Gene Pritsker’s new Violin Concerto with Big Band will be premiered by Vesselin Gellev at The Cutting Room, 19th West 24th Street. 

 

James MacMillan receives a brace of premieres at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh in March. The first, on 4th, is his Concertino for Horn and Strings, to be played by Alec Frank-Gemmill accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. On the 23rd is the Scottish Premiere of his Stabat Mater, performed by The Sixteen.

 

At the Concergebouw, Amsterdam on 11th is the first performance of a new Requiem by Willem Jeths. If one premiere is not enough in a concert, however, there are two concerts worth checking out. On 19th, the New London Children’s Choir celebrates its 25th anniversary with a programme that includes eight world premieres. Similarly, in Paris on 30th Ensemble Intercontemporain marks its fortieth anniversary with concert that includes seven new works, each of which is based on one of the days of Genesis. 

 

At Wigmore Hall on 25th, finally, is a day dedicated to the music of Thomas Adès. It begins with a concert at 1pm that contains his The Four Quarters, Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face and Piano Quartet, as well as music by Lutosławski and Walton. At 6pm is the chance to hear Adès in conversation with Wigmore Hall Director John Gilhooly. The day concludes with BCMG performing his Concerto Conciso and Arcadiana Op. 12 alongside works by Kurtág, Janáček and Gerald Barry.



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14 Feb  

The BBC Concert Orchestra recently performed a tribute concert to mark the 85th birthday of John Williams, the complete concert being available here.

 

Much more fun, and educational, however, are their three performances of Star Wars, Jaws and Jurassic park, now available on the Radio Two website. They are interactive, so that you can zoom around the orchestra spotlighting different instrumental sections. Doing so reveals interesting details of orchestration. Unfortunately, it seems that Flash is required, so it won't work on mobile.



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