The BBC Proms get going today. You can see my July picks in an earlier blog post. Looking further ahead, August concerts include the London première of Sally Beamish’s Violin Concerto on 1st; Berio’s Sinfonia on 5th; the UK première of Brett Dean’s Electric Preludes on 7th; Harrison Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance and Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra on 10th; Steve Reich’s Desert Music and It’s Gonna Rain on 13th; the world première of Benedict Mason’s Meld on 16th; UK premières of Kareem Roustom’s Ramal and Ayal Adler’s Resonating Sounds on 18th; and Unsuk Chin’s Šu, written for sheng virtuoso Wu Wei on 27th. There are also four concerts containing music by Maxwell Davies, on 9th, 12th, 14th and 30th.
The Salzburg Festival also begins today and runs until 31st August. There are many concerts that feature new music and even a kind of festival within a festival labelled ‘Salzburg Contemporary’. Concerts in this later series include music by Arab composers: the world première of Hossam Mahmoud’s Seelenfäden for Sufi choir, mixed choir and ensemble on 22nd July; and works by Samir Odeh-Tamini, Amr Okba, Zeynep Gedizlioglu, Hossam Mahmoud and Mark Andre on 31st. In August there are works by Mark-André Dalbavie on 1st, 9th and 11th; and Wolfgang Rihm on 4th and 25th.
The Edinburgh Festival runs from 8th to 31st August. There is a good mixture of established classics and newer works on offer. The former category includes performances of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces and Scriabin’s Prometheus – The Poem of Fire on 8th; Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time on 11th; and Britten’s War Requiem on 14th. Newer works include Colin Matthews Pluto, his appendix to Holst’s The Planets on 9th; Peter Sculthorpe’s Sonata for Strings No. 3 and the world première of Gareth Farr’s Relict Furies for mezzo soprano and double string orchestra on 26th; and Jonathan Mill’s Sandakan Threnody, an oratorio that honours prisoners of World War II who lost their lives in North Borneo, on 30th.
This year the Presteigne Festival (21st – 26th August) makes a special celebration of Polish music, with works by Andres Panufnik, Penderecki, Lutosławski, Gorecki and Bacewicz. There are also works by composer-in-residence Stephen McNeff, a celebration of John McCabe’s seventy-fifth birthday and the inclusion of music from Welsh composers commemorating the Dylan Thomas centenary. Premières include works by Pawel Łukaszewski, Lynne Plowmann, Hilary Tann and Daniel Kidance. The full programme may be viewed here.
The Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival begins on 24th July. Its 80 events focus entirely on new music, well justifying its claim to be one of the most important crucibles of the art form. The festival programme, because of its disparate and experimental nature, is difficult to characterise. My advice, therefore, is to have a rummage through it for yourself. You’re guaranteed to find a few things of interest.
Master of the Queen’s Music, or maybe Mistress of the Queen’s Music. Perhaps even Lady of the Queen’s Music. I personally favour Judith Weir using the normal title – it’s about time it were divorced of gender. Whatever ridiculous questions such an award poses, however, it’s an honour that feels richly deserved. Femininity aside, Judith Weir, along with a very select group of composers in the UK, occupies an elevated position borne of a brilliant catalogue of work.
Despite this, it would be easy to write off the fact that she is a woman as merely incidental. It isn’t. Whilst it is her work as a composer that has won her this accolade, it would be hard to imagine it being given to a female composer even in the recent past. The musical landscape has changed a great deal over the last fifty years. We now have a long list of established and emerging female talent – Judith Weir, Tansy Davies, Judith Bingham, Sally Beamish, Errollyn Wallen, Helen Grime, Charlotte Bray. Things aren’t perfect in the UK, but this appointment, at least, is a happy sign of the times.
Coinciding with her appointment is an NMC CD release of one of Weir’s more neglected works, the opera The Vanishing Bridegroom. Not as well known as A Night at the Chinese Opera or Blonde Eckbert it contains a similarly beguiling mixture of folk story-telling and psychological drama. There are three loosely connected parts: the first concerning a missing inheritance, the second a vanishing bridegroom, the third the story of the bridegroom’s daughter who is wooed by a mysterious and rich stranger. I’ve only been able to dip into the fairly generous extracts on the NMC website. The musical language – extended tonality, polyrhythms, found folk elements – will be familiar to those who know her music and eminently accessible to those who do not. As always, however, the genius of the music lies in Weir’s ability to weave these elements into a convincing drama. For that you will need to trust her and buy the complete recording.
There are two interesting releases on Naxos. The first is a disk by German-born, American composer Ursula Mamlok (b. 1923) that explores her chamber music, probably her favourite medium. There are six works that cover the years 1962 to 2001, the whole being prefaced with a seven-minute interview with the composer. The second release continues Naxos’s admirable John Cage series with a third instalment of his works for two keyboards, comprising his Winter Music, Two2 and Experiences No. 1.
Volume 9 of Bridge Records’ Poul Ruders Edition concentrates on his chamber music, including his New Rochelle Suite for guitar and percussion, Schrödinger’s Cat (12 Canons for Violin and Guitar) and 13 Postludes for Piano. Volume 16 of their George Crumb edition, meanwhile, contains the first recording of the last part of the composer’s American Songbook series as well as a new song series Sun and Shadow, setting the poems of Lorca. Finally on Bridge there is a new album containing première recordings of Peter Lieberson’s romantically inclined Piano Concerto No. 3 and Viola Concerto performed by Steven Beck (piano), Roberto Diaz (viola) and the Odense Symphony Orchestra under Scott Yoo.
A few other interesting finds hither and thither to check out. On Sony Classics piano-bass-drums trio The Bad Plus have released their interpretation of The Rite of Spring. It’s good fun; rather well making the point that classical music can transcend questions of genre. Try it out on Spotify if you’re not sure. On Chandos, there is a new disc of works by composer Edward Gregson, containing his Dream Song for orchestra, his Horn Concerto and Aztec Dances for flute and ensemble. Back to NMC, finally, for John Casken’s Apollinaire’s Bird, a single movement work for oboe and orchestra based on the poem Un oiseau chante by Guillaume Apollinaire. It is a bargain at just 79 pennies for half an hour of music.
Christian Morris talks to Dr. Felix Meyer, Director of the Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel. Established by conductor and patron Paul Sacher, the Foundation is one of the most important archives of twentieth and twenty-first century composers’ manuscript material.
We’re here to talk about the Paul Sacher Stiftung, but it would be nice to know a little about Paul Sacher the man to begin. Tell us a little about him: his background and how he came to be in a position to found the institution.
Well, he was was a musician born in 1906 who came from very humble origins. He studied musicology at university, at the same time learning to conduct. This was the time after the First World War when there was a reaction to everything that was considered to be romantic. That included an indifference to the traditional symphonic repertoire. So in 1926, when he was twenty, he founded the Basel Chamber Orchestra, playing old music and new music, excluding, basically, all of the nineteenth century. He conducted this group for sixty years.
He always told a story that when he studied musicology his professor said to him that you had to do a dissertation, it being, more or less, the thing that you needed at the end of your studies. His professor gave him a subject. It was a Beethoven topic and that made him decide not to finish those studies but really to do something, not against Beethoven but against what that represented. For him it was always, from the beginning, old and new. That meant pre-nineteenth century and post-nineteenth century.
So the entrepreneurial drive was there before the financial means were at his disposal?
Absolutely. We have to bear that in mind because there have always been people saying that he could do what he did because he was wealthy. He was not wealthy in 1926. He married Maja Stehlin in the 1930s and she had been married to the heir of Hoffmann-La Roche who had died in an accident. So it was only in the early thirties that he had access to money. Of course, once he was wealthy he could proceed on another scale, that’s quite clear. He could then commission famous composers to write pieces for him. That is what he became best known for – his championship of contemporary music, but he also did continue to conduct classical and especially pre-classical music for many decades.
>> Click here to read the rest of the interview
You have to work a little to find the contemporary music amongst the long list of composers represented at the 2014 BBC Proms (18th July – 13th September). Sadly, there is no First Night of the Proms première this year, the organisers instead opting for a complete performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom. July does, however, see a number of interesting concerts, including the posthumous world première of John Tavener’s Gnosis on 23rd; the world première of Gabriel Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto on 29th; and the European première of Roxanna Panufnik’s Three Paths to Peace. There’s even a Pet Shop Boys concert on 23rd, including the première of A Man from the Future.
The Cheltenham Music Festival runs from 2nd to 13th July. It is one of the UK’s livelier and interesting events, with its own composers’ course and a good range of contemporary music to enjoy. This year this includes world premières of Nicola LeFanu’s Japanese-inspired opera Tokaido Road; new works by Tom Stewart and Gavin Higgins played by the Fidelio Trio; a new percussion quintet from Graham Fitkin; and Pluck from the Air, a brand new quintet from John Woolrich. Other composers represented include Michael Zev Gordon, Piers Hellawell, Arlene Sierra, Philip Cashian, Steve Martland and, in a performance of his seminal Different Trains, Steve Reich.
Two operas by HK Gruber stand out in the Bregenzer Festspiele (23rd July to 25th August). The title of Tales from the Vienna Woods, which receives its première on 23rd July, derives from a play by the Austro-Hungarian writer Ödön von Horváth, a bitter satire about the mendacity and brutality of the petite bourgeoisie. On 31st there is also the chance to see his Gloria – a pigtale, a satirical opera that tells the story of a pig who falls in love with a butcher.
The Festival ’Aix en Provence has been running since 16th May. There are a few interesting concerts this month before the festival ends on 24th July. There is the world première of a new work for string quartet by Jérôme Combier on 10th, which will be played alongside Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5 and Manfred Trojahn’s String Quartet No. 3. There are several other works by Trojahn to enjoy on 13th July, not to mention the chance to hear Ligeti’s Piano Concerto in the same programme. On 12th July, finally, will be a concert of contemporary masterpieces after Francesca Verunelli's and Sebastian Rivas' compositions.
Not a huge number of new CD releases this month. Even the normally hyperactive Naxos only has one album by a living composer: the song cycles Natural Selection, Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia and Eve-Song by Jake Heggie. Attractive and approachable the works are influenced by folk, jazz and music theatre.
Going back in time a little, Naxos has also released five disks of music by Swiss-French composer Pierre Wissmer (1915-1992). This includes all nine symphonies, two of his three piano concertos, his Violin Concerto No. 1 and Concerto Valcrosiano. Wissmer’s style can vary a great deal, sometimes it is hard-nosed and ascetic, sometimes more straightforwardly romantic. Even in the case of the latter, however, this is still very much music of the twentieth century, with enough quirkiness to keeps things lively.
On 9th June DG release a CD devoted to the music of Richard Reed Parry that consists of a series of works inspired by the movement of heart and breath. I have only heard one of the pieces on the disk (in a different performance): For Heart, Breath and Orchestra. Simple in conception it is, nevertheless, a highly original and immensely beautiful work. If you have Spotify, you can make your own mind up here. The rest of the disk should, therefore, be a real treat. DG have also released a four-CD Max Richter retrospective, that consists of the albums The Blue Notebooks, Songs from Before, 24 Postcards in Full colour and Infra.
I mentioned Larry Goves’s Just stuff people do on NMC last month in my roundup. It is now available for streaming on Spotify. On 23rd NMC also will release a programme of music by Ben Foskett. Spanning ten years of his composing career it consists of Five Night Pieces, Hornet II, From Trumpet, On From Four, Dinosaur and Cinq Chansons à Hurle-Vent. Preview extracts are already available on the NMC website.
On June 10th, finally, Nonesuch will release Louis Andriesen’s award-winning opera La Commedia. The work is based on Dante’s Divine Comedy with additional texts from the 16th century theologian Sebastian Brant and 17th century Dutch dramatist Joost van den Vondel. Others, including Alex Ross and Anne Midgette have raved about this work, so this release, as both a double-CD and a DVD collaboration with director Hal Hartley, should be a major event. Again, extracts are available now on the Nonesuch website.
Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic have big plans for their inaugural contemporary music festival, which has just got underway in New York:
“We want the NY PHIL BIENNIAL to galvanize the whole city around an immersive contemporary music experience — to take a snapshot of where music is today,” says Gilbert. “We have followed the lead of the great visual art biennial events in making this project extremely collaborative, and have reached out to a variety of curatorial voices, as well as the many other imaginative and forward-looking New York cultural organizations who have accepted our invitation to ‘come play with us’ as partners.”
The 11-day programme, which runs until June 7th, consists of 21 concerts involving more than fifty composers, hundreds of musicians and ten of New York City’s cultural institutions. New works on offer range from those by children in the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Programme to such well-known figures as Christopher Rouse, Peter Eötvös, Steven Mackey, Julia Wolfe, Matthias Pintscher, Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, and George Benjamin. Six new works by emerging composers will receive NY Philharmonic readings, three of which will lead to world premières. There will also be panel discussions, post concert ‘meet-ups’ with composers and musicians, national radio broadcasts and electronic media and photography installations. A festival pass is a very reasonable $95, which will get you into all the events.
The Aldeburgh Festival takes place from 13th to 29th June. The centrepiece of 2014 is a new production of Britten’s pacifist opera, Owen Wingrave, with four performances (13, 15, 16, 18 June), a screening of the original BBC TV production (16 June) filmed at Snape in 1970, and a Study Day (17 June).
On 28th Tristan Murail will be in attendance for three concerts of his music, including two UK premières. Festival Artistic Director Pierre-Laurent Aimard will makes a number of appearances performing music by composers with whom he is particularly associated, including a major project exploring Ligeti’s Études. There will also be the opportunity to hear new works by Ryan Wigglesworth and Britten–Pears young composers Louis Chiappetta, Tom Coult, Nicholas Moroz, Michael Taplin, Robert Peate and Emma-Ruth Richards.
Anniversaries, birthdays and returning friends are behind the programme for the 2014 St. Magnus International Festival, which celebrates the 200th Anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution and Orkney’s historic links with the country; 70 years since the release of the Italian POWs and the creation of the Italian Chapel; and Peter Maxwell Davies’s 80th birthday.
Premières include Cecilie Öre’s Toil and Trouble given by the BBC Singers, a new work for wind quintet by Tom Harrold, Alasdair Nicolson’s String Quartet, and a concert of world premières by those studying on the St. Magnus Composers’ Course. Works by Peter Maxwell Davies include Start Point, A Hoy Calendar, One Star at Last, three sets of songs for children, The Pole Star March and Farewell to Stromness.
‘There are places in Wales I don't go:
Reservoirs that are the subconscious
Of a people, troubled far down
With gravestones, chapels, villages even…’
Guto Puw is in many respects the quintessential Welsh composer: he grew up in a musical family steeped in national folk forms and traditions, he is a native speaker who now teaches at Bangor – the only university where it is possible to earn a degree through the medium of Welsh, he rose to prominence through the Eisteddfod tradition and, most importantly, his music is steeped in the folklore of the country.
Whilst extra-musical influences frequently derive from his rootedness, however, his style – highly chromatic, driven, brash even – sometimes feels like a challenge to the culture that gives it succour. Despite the efforts of an earlier generation of composers, Welsh music still suffers from a tradition of amateurism often ignorant of radical developments elsewhere. Puw’s roots might be Welsh, but his outlook is international, with influences including Lutosławski, Per Nørgård and György Ligeti.
His new disc of five orchestral works, Reservoirs, released this month on Signum Classics amply demonstrates these two sides to Puw’s musical character. The first piece in the programme …onyt agoraf y drws…, (…Unless I Open the Door…) is based upon the end of the Branwen tale from the Mabinogion that, with its opening of forbidden doors, evokes something of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The musical surface includes ‘found’ musical elements, including a Welsh folk tune and an Irish string reel. There is not a hint of parochialism in this, however; their integration into his wider style being knowingly postmodern. The piece also displays a fine instinct for drama, suggesting, perhaps, a nascent operatic talent; Puw’s forthcoming project, the opera Y Tŵr (The Tower), with Music Theatre Wales is an exciting prospect.
The most substantial work on the disc, Reservoirs, is inspired by the R.S. Thomas poem of the same name, the opening lines of which begin this review. The poem refers to the flooding of various valleys in North Wales in order to supply water to English cities, a subject of particular resonance to Puw, whose grandfather lost some of his own land at this time. Puw approaches the subject from several angles: the serenity of the musical surface in slow sections is contrasted with violent passages representing the tragedy that occurred beneath; the notion of water being held in one place represented by the accumulation of clusters of sound. It is an intensely serious piece, the musical language more consistent than …onyt agoraf y drws…
Concerto for Oboe and Hologram stand apart from the other works on the disk, not being inspired by any aspect of national consciousness. They are, nevertheless, also programmatic. In the Concerto each movement is based upon a characteristic of language: in Rumour, the oboe weaves a line of beguilingly attractiveness that eventually melts away, the parallels with the title being obvious enough; Chatter hammers away with mechanistic zeal, building into an exhilaratingly brassy climax.; Lento tenerezza explores tenderer aspects of language, though perhaps in a way that acknowledges that sympathetic words are not always delivered with sincerity; S... s… s… stutter, evokes this particular malady with deliciously humorous effect.
The ten-minute purely orchestral work Hologram, by contrast, takes a rather more serious approach to his source of inspiration, the techniques of holography being translated into a musical argument involving ‘gradual and subtle changes of colour and texture’. It is an idea that pays off, Puw handling the ten-minute span with an acute ear for orchestral sonorities.
The programme ends with his Break the Stone Overture, written for the 125th Anniversary of Bangor University. The title makes reference to the people of the area, many of whom were quarrymen who contributed their wages to the founding of the University. Puw transforms the idea of working stone into a purely musical one, the musical raw material being subjected to constant development. It is an exhilarating span of music, the semiquaver figure first presented in violas building with relentless energy. It leads into an atmospheric central section with Ligetian running scales, a distant trumpet call and various unusual percussion instruments – including ‘a masonry hammer and chisel, a roofing slate and shell chimes’ – that evoke the sound of the quarry. The opening section eventually reasserts itself, the piece ending in a satisfying blaze of energy.
Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform with vigour, precision and understanding throughout. The recording is well-balanced and clean. All of which is superfluous – you are not going to find these recordings anywhere else. If you want to get to know the music of this fine Welsh composer, this is the place to start.
More May Releases
Another Welshman whose music is worth getting to know is Brian Noyes. Journeys After is a substantial new release containing his orchestral works Points of Decision and Shadows of Memory, played by the Moravian Philharmonic and St. Petersburg State Philharmonic respectively.
On Naxos there are six new releases of recent music: Paul Reale’s Seven Deadly Sins, Celtic Wedding, Holiday Suite and Composers’ Reminiscences; Jake Heggie’s Out of Darkeness, containing song collaborations with Gene Scheer and Krystyna Zywulska; a programme of chamber music by Michael Brouwer; Mieczysław Weinberg’s Symphony No. 18 and Trumpet Concerto; Ross Harris’s Symphony No.4 and Cello Concerto; and – a welcome re-release of the original recording – Peter Maxwell Davies’s claustrophobic The Lighthouse.
DG have released a trio of albums by Max Richter: Infra, 24 Postcards in full colour and Songs from before. They also debut a new recording of motets by Karl Jenkins. NMC, meanwhile, have issued Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain – a re-release, I believe, of the original recording; and also Just stuff people do, a programme of works by Larry Goves.
Over the last week I have watched with fascination this odd-looking structure taking form outside the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel:
Today it finally became clear what it was all about.
A few years ago, after a visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, I railed against the lack of parity between contemporary artists and composers. Why could an exhibition of obscure modern art gain such a wide and appreciative audience, and yet a disdainful public leaves contemporary music to its tiny coterie of initiates? I tentatively suggested that we need to get out of stuffy music halls, accommodate ourselves more to the needs of audiences.
Of course others have successfully attempted just this. What I saw today, however, struck me as a particularly elegant solution to the problem. The curious construction is the >reinhören pavilion – a mobile concert hall. Over the course of this month there will be a number of performances in it, but today we were treated to a series of works played by pianist Marino Formenti.
The interior has beautifully minimalist wood panelling with various levels, including a little area only reachable by a ladder. Strewn all around are enormous red beanbags. At the entrance there is a table of apple juice to which you can help yourself.
The pianist was already mid-piece as I entered so I waited respectfully at the entrance for a suitable pause. I needn’t have bothered – the whole idea, I soon discovered as I settled into one of the beanbags, was to come and go as you pleased, entirely removing that feeling of being forced to stay in your chair, no matter whether the piece that was being played was to your taste or not. The prevailing attitude was summed up by this instruction on the wall:
The repertoire was astonishingly varied but focused especially on works by Satie, Cage and Feldman, the pianist stopping after each piece to scribble the next work on the wall:
What was most gratifying was the variety of people who came and went, including families with young children, some of whom had to be reluctantly prised out of their beanbags by their parents when they had to go. Perhaps the biggest triumph came at the end of my three-hour stay, when Formenti played the 70-minute For Bunita Marcus by Feldman. The composer is not my thing on the best of days – I very rarely have the patience to sit through any of his works, let alone the epically static ones that came towards the end of his life. Today it was different. Possibly because there was no pressure to stay, I was happy to. So, too, did almost everyone else. Some sat and read books, one man painted, others lay back with their eyes closed. Outside the ambient sounds added interesting punctuations to the performance – the rain on the roof, the bells and organ of the Münster, a distant roll of thunder. It was entrancing.
So there it is. Contemporary music can do exactly what contemporary art does. It is all a matter of presentation and especially of prioritising the needs of the audience. After all, when people listen to music at home they slouch in the most comfortable chair, check their smartphones when their attention wavers, get up to stretch their legs or have a drink. And they certainly don’t dress up. Why should they behave so differently in a concert?
To find more information about this concert venue, or perhaps to pay it a visit in Basel, you can visit the >reinhören webpage here.
Harrison Birtwistle turns 80 in July, with birthday concerts starting in earnest this month. One of the best places to enjoy the celebrations is at the Barbican, London. There will be a concert performance of the opera Gawain on 16th May; the monumental Earth Dances, a work that has been compared to Le Sacre du Printemps, on 20th; two concerts of chamber music and songs, including the piece that that established Birtwistle’s reputation, Tragoedia, on 25th; and Fields of Sorrow and Melencolia I on 30th. There will also be a series of lectures and two chances to see Tom Mustill’s new film about the composer on 25th. BCMG, who are performing in this Barbican series, will also be presenting some of their programme at the CBSO centre in Birmingham on May 10th.
Julian Anderson has two world premieres this month. Most significant is the first performance of his opera Thebans, a retelling of Sophoclean tragedies that focuses on the fate of Oedipus and his daughter Antigone. Written in collaboration with distinguished playwright Frank McGuinness, it receives its premiere on 3rd May at ENO. Performances continue until 3rd June. On 15th May there is also the chance to hear the first performance of his String Quartet No. 2, given by the Arditti Quartet at Wigmore Hall.
Errollyn Warren’s new work Full Fathom Five, dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela, receives its world premiere by the Melodia Women’s Choir of NYC at the Church of the Holy Apostles on May 3rd. You can also hear Welsh composer William Mathias’s deliciously enjoyable Learsongs in the same concert.
Mathias’s contemporary Mervyn Burtch is a highly respected figure in the principality that deserves to be more widely known. His new work 4 Portraits of Dylan Thomas receives its first performance on 5th May by BBC National Orchestra of Wales where there will also be the rare chance to hear works by Daniel Jones and Alun Hoddinott.
The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their 40th birthday on 13th May in a concert that includes UK premieres of Glass’s String Quartet No. 6 and Ukrainian composer Mariana Sadovska Chernobyl. The Harvest. In Edinburgh, meanwhile, the Edinburgh Quartet will give the first performance of Helen Grime’s String Quartet on 21st.
Festival season gets going in earnest this coming month. The Prague Spring International Festival begins on May 8th with, amongst other things, a concert of world premieres on 19th. The Sounds New Festival (2nd–9th) in Canterbury contains some really innovative programming, from concert performances by London Sinfonietta on one hand to a dusk improvisation on a decaying piano in a wood on the other. The full programme can be found here. The Vale of Glamorgan Festival (8th–17th), held in various venues in South East Wales, this year remembers the works of John Tavener, visiting ensemble Juice perform works by nine contemporary composers and there is a whole day dedicated to up-and-coming composers studying at the Royal Welsh College on 13th. The York Spring Festival (9–11th), finally, celebrates new music of every style and genre, including pop, rock, jazz and classical. Composers represented include James Cave, Christopher Mullender, Stef Conner and Philip Cashian.
Christian Morris talks to John Palmer, a composer of both acoustic and electroacoustic music whose wide influences include Jungian psychology, Buddhism and mythology.
Tell us something about your background.
I have always loved music and any form of sound and sound making. My father had a music shop and a recording studio in our home. As a little boy I would try to play any instrument I would come across. I grew up listening to a lot of pop music and jazz – we are talking about the sixties – and I started to study the classical piano at the age of six.
How did you start composing?
First of all by playing back and trying to imitate the songs I heard on radio. In those days I had a little organ and a piano. When I started taking piano lessons I would spend most of the time improvising in the style of Chopin, for example. Nothing spectacular, really, but I always wanted to get a first-hand experience at the music I was taught in the lessons, you know the usual classical repertoire. When at the age of 13 I got my first guitar I started writing my own songs. That was 1973. Meanwhile I kept improvising at the piano. I had my first band at around that time. Initially mainstream pop, later on progressive rock. Experimental and free-jazz followed in the early and mid-eighties. In 1980 I started again to study the classical piano from scratch and in the mid-eighties I was admitted to the Lucerne Conservatoire where I also started writing my early piano and chamber music.
What was your first success as a composer?
In order to answer this question I have to tell you something about my life: I have never been in the centre of a big musical scene and I have always been working in silence following my own path as both an individual and a musician. I have lived rather isolated for many years and have struggled to make a living in many different places in Europe. I didn’t have the support of my parents and have lived more or less ‘on the road’ from the age of 18 to 20. For many years I have tussled with having to make a living with any job I could find and getting myself a serious music education at the same time. Nothing has been easy in my life and my profile is certainly not typical for a composer. Perhaps this is the reason why I measure success in terms of individual growth rather than public recognition. I am not saying I disregard acknowledgment, but I tend to feel successful, for example, every time when the aural experience of the performance has matched the imagination of my inner ear. A similar sense of ‘success’ occurs when I can clearly ‘hear’ the codes of my musical idiom in the performance of a piece of mine. These are moments when I feel very happy with myself. One of these moments was certainly the performance of ‘koan’, for shakuhachi and ensemble, by Teruhisa Fukuda and the Tokyo Comet Ensemble at the World Music Days in Yokohama in 2001.
>> Click here to read the rest of the interview
Penderecki Works: Polymorphia, Analasis, Fluorescenes, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Intermezzo, Kosmogonia (Antoni Wit) Naxos NAC-LP002-03
Written in 1959/60, Anaklasis, for 42 string instruments and percussion was the work that established Penderecki’s radical credentials with its extensive use of sounds that emphasise sonorous effect as opposed to pitch-based harmonic and melodic argument. It was swiftly followed by 8’37’’, for 52 string instruments, renamed Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima after the composer heard it in performance. It remains one of his best-known pieces, its radical and energetically deployed effects – clusters, microtonal tuning, playing behind the bridge, slapping the instrument body – providing a visceral and disturbing listening experience that lives up to its revised title.
Polymorphia, for 48 string instruments, written in 1961, is less brazen than Threnody. The gradually expanding clustered opening is brilliantly paced and opens out into an extravagant section full of percussive extended string writing. The work culminates in a return to dense clusters that end in a C major triad, the composer claiming that this was a natural result of musical processes at work. In other contexts, such as the final chord of the St. Luke Passion (1966) or in Kosmogonia (see below) the effect works triumphantly well. Here, however, it is rather less convincing: the chord feeling more like a petulant challenge to musical tradition rather than a natural consequence of what precedes it. It rather spoils an otherwise fine work.
Fluorescences, written from 1961-2 is a more ambitious piece that includes brass, wind and a large range of percussion instruments, including güiros, gongs and a typewriter. The score was considered a departure, with Penderecki declaring that ‘All I’m interested in doing is liberating sound beyond all tradition.’ The range of felicitous sonorities easily maintains interest, even if the more subtle structure is harder to follow. The much later Intermezzo (1973), by contrast, and despite being considered to be part of this radical period, is much easier to grasp; whilst still making use of many extended techniques there is a much greater sense of melodic development and even of pitch-centeredness.
The only vocal work on offer is Kosmogonia (1970), written to mark the 25th anniversary of the United Nations. By this time the composer was well versed in deploying his radical effects, many of which will be familiar from the earlier works here presented. The piece feels more epic than its rather slender 18 minutes would suggest, the varied sonorities being moulded into a convincing and satisfying whole.
This two-disc set, convincingly performed by Antoni Wit and his Warsaw forces, provides an excellent introduction to Penderecki’s sonoristic style of the sixties and early seventies. It is also, perhaps, marks a good moment for us to reflect upon Naxos’s unrivalled work in support of contemporary music. Their Penderecki catalogue now contains his eight symphonies, his most important choral works such as the Polish Requiem and St. Luke Passion, various concertos and chamber music and the opera Die Teufe con Loudon. It is a commitment that Naxos extends to many other living composers, both well and less well known. For sheer breadth and depth, Naxos is the one record label contemporary music could not be without.
The rest of the month’s releases
As if to reinforce the point, there are a number of other interesting releases on Naxos this month: Shin-ichi Fukada plays the complete guitar music of Toru Takemitsu in the first of an on-going series of Japanese guitar music; there is a disc of viola music and another of various chamber works by Frank Ezra Lévy; two Flute Concertos by Christos Hatzis; Cage Works for 2 Keyboards played by Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer; Desbrière’s Piano Concerto, Cinq Pieces Etranges and Huit Préludes Intérieurs; and Richard Danielpour’s Toward a Season of Peace oratorio.
There are two upcoming releases on NMC to look forward to: Violin Concerto, Concerto for Orchestra and Orion Over Farne by John Casken (released 20th April) and Gawain by Harrison Birtwistle (18th May). You can listen to extracts from these recordings now by following my links. On Nonesuch, John Adams’ City Noir and the debut recording of his Saxophone Concerto is now available for preorder; whilst composer Jacob Cooper’s debut Silver Threads, consisting of a six-song cycle performed by Mellissa Hughes, will be released on April 29th.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks: leaving one of my jobs, moving house and preparing to leave the country. I shall be spending a month in the lovely city of Basel, continuing my research into French Composer Henri Dutilleux at the Paul Sacher Foundation. I hope my blog posts next month might reflect some of this local colour.
My trip to the city coincides with Basel Symphony Orchestra’s More than Minimal concert series. Works on offer include: Michael Nyman’s Prospero’s Books, Trombone Concerto and The Draughtman’s Contract; Philip Glass’s Cello Concerto, Naqoyqatsi, Plutonian Ode and Mishima; Arvo Pärt’s These Words and The Banishment; and John Adams Harmonielehre. For those not in Basel, the orchestra will be touring these works around the UK at the end of the month, with concerts in London, Basingstoke, Cambridge and Cardiff.
Also in Switzerland, the Lucerne Festival at Easter takes place from 5th – 13th April. There’s not, sadly, much contemporary music on offer, though one concert does stand out: the world première of Riccardo Panfili’s The Last Land which will be performed by the Human Rights Orchestra Ensemble together with students from the festival on 12th. Also on this day there will be the opportunity to hear works by Bartók and Ligeti.
Oliver Knussen and BCMG are spending some time in the States this month, where they will perform in the Library of Congress, Washington on April 8th and 11th. Their programme includes Knussen’s Ophelia Dances, Ophelia’s Last Dance and Cantata; Niccolò Castiglioni’s Tropi; Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Three Songs; Elliott Carter’s Epigrams; and Marc Neikrug’s Piano Trio. There are also two new multimedia works in the US: Life, Love and Death on 11th April and Bora Yoon’s Sunken Cathedral 23rd.
In the UK, there is a John Woolrich 60th birthday celebration with the London Sinfonietta on April 6th, with the chance to hear his In the Mirrors of Asleep; Evnvoi and Farewell; Watermark; A Dramolet at St John’s Smith Square. ENO also mount a major new production of Thomas Adès’s precocious Powder Her Face, an opera that ‘charts the glamorous rise and seedy fall of the notorious socialite beauty, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.’ Performances run from 2nd – 19th April. New works, finally, to look forward to in April include John Casken’s Oboe Concerto at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on 10th; a concert of new saxophone and piano works in Cambridge on 6th; and the first performance of Codebreaker, James McCarthy’s exploration of the life of Alan Turing, performed at the Barbican on April 26th.
NMC, the label that has done more than most to nurture new music in the UK, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a plethora of new releases and projects.
Building upon the success of their 20x12 programme that ran alongside the Olympic Games, the New Music Biennial Project in collaboration with PRS is an international celebration of new music as part of Glasgow 2014, the cultural programme of the XX Commonwealth Games. The twenty commissioned composers will have their works played in various parts of the UK during the course of 2014.
The Higher Education Programme run by Sound and Music features 12 young composers currently studying in UK universities and conservatoires. Those selected are working with the London Sinfonietta, Sound Intermedia and leading soloists to develop 10-minute pieces that will be performed at a showcase as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2014.
NMC will release recordings from both of these projects during 2014.
The label also plans to support emerging composers through five more releases in their Debut Discs series, those selected being Larry Goves, Ben Foskett, Helen Grime, Charlotte Bray and Richard Causton. More established figures, too, will be represented with major releases of operas by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Gerald Barry and Judith Weir.
NMC have a page dedicated to their birthday celebration where more announcements will be made in coming weeks. This is a good time to reflect upon the vital work that this label does for composers in the UK. Why not visit the page and leave them a birthday message?
New Music Collections is a new mid-price series on NMC that explores its back catalogue of piano, electronic, orchestral and choral music. There are a wide range of composers represented, both well-known and less-so, so this would be a good starting point for anyone interested in a particular genre to discover new works. Also soon to be released is a disc featuring Mark Anthony Turnage’s UNDANCE, Crying Out Loud and No Let Up. Extracts are available to dip into now, with the music scheduled for release on 31st March.
New on Naxos, Bright Sheng’s The Song and Dance of Tears combines Chinese and Western sonorities in an evocation of the impressions made on him by the music of that region. Also on the disc, Colors of Crimson expands the timbre of the solo marimba through a spectrum of orchestral effects, whilst the The Blazing Mirage was inspired by the artistic treasures of the Dunhuang Caves. Works are performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic, conducted by the composer.
From nearby Japan, meanwhile, Toshio Hosakawa, like many of his countrymen before him, takes the connection between man and nature as his theme in an album that features his Horn Concerto Moment of Blossoming and Piano Concerto Lotus Under the Moonlight. His Chant, on the other hand, is inspired by the ceremonial music of Japanese Buddism. Works are performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl.
Naxos have also added a new album to their collection of music by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: The Boyfriend, based on a 1954 musical by Sandy Wilson, introduces a large dance band and period motifs, while dramatic extremes depicting the film’s themes of corruption, exorcism and execution within a medieval religious setting are explored in The Devils Suite. Seven in Nomine evokes Maxwell Davies’ interest in medieval plainsong. The composer himself plays two of his most popular piano pieces, Yesnaby Ground and Farewell to Stromness, with their evocations of Orkney landmarks.
There are two new CD collections to consider. Taverner’s untimely death is marked with a 5-CD box set that includes his The Protecting Veil, In Alium, Ex Maria Virgine, Lament for Jerusalem and a number of shorter works, including, of course, The Lamb and Song for Athene. Meanwhile there is a 3-CD set of music by Henryk Górecki that headlines with his Symphony No. 3 Sorrowful Songs, Symphony No.2 and Concerto-Cantata, conducted by Antoni Wit.
Malcolm Williamson, an Australian who relocated to the UK, was a composer whose prominence was marked in 1975 with the award of Master of the Queen’s Music. Sadly, however, his music is now largely forgotten. Hyperion have just released a double-disc set of his four Piano Concertos and Sinfonia Concertante in an attempt to reanimate interest in him. Piers Lane plays the piano accompanied by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Howard Shelly.
Keyboard music of a difference sort, Divine Art Records has released Litany, a collection of organ music by Carson Cooman, one of America’s most prolific and feted composers. The album presents a programme of recent works of a lyrical, Romantic and pastoral nature. Erik Simmons performs on the Marcussen organ of Laurenskerk, Rotterdam.
DG, finally, have released a recording of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary. A Passion Oratorio that roughly parallels those of Bach, the work is widely regarded as a masterpiece. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale are conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.
The London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music, run by composers Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari, is now in its second year. Over four days, from 27th–30th March, there will be nine concerts that include a wide spectrum of contemporary music from twenty countries: fifty-one works, three festival commissions, eight world and several UK premieres. Well known composers include Xenakis, Kagel, Harvey, Holliger, Jarrell, Hosokawa, Oehring and Finnissy, but the festival also offers an opportunity to hear numerous works by less familiar names, some of them younger or emerging composers, others well known in their home countries but less so in the UK. Tickets are priced from £40 for a full festival pass to £5 for some individual events.
On 14th March Total Immersion takes on the music of Villa-Lobos. There are two cinema features, one of which has already sold out, and three concerts. Of the latter, there is a chamber music recital given by students at the Guildhall School of Music that includes his playful work for flute and cello Assobio a Jato (‘The Jet Whistle’) ; a choral concert with the BBC Singers that includes some of the works inspired by Brazilian folk traditions, Latin sacred music composed for the Catholic liturgy and other devotional texts; and a final concert with the BBCSO and Chorus with its Parisian storm-inducing Chôros 10 as its centerpiece.
For those looking for something rather more recently written, on 1st March there are UK premières of Andy Scott’s Jumbo and Jeffery Wilson’s Three Haiku; on 9th March Steve Mackey’s One Red Rose at Wigmore Hall; Hoard Shore’s Cello Concerto Mythic Gardens at the Watford Colosseum on 11th; a series of works by Pelle Gudmundsun-Holmgreen played by the London Sinfonietta on 12th; works by Steen-Anderson, Christensen, Glerup and Worssae also on 12th; a new dramatic work, Anon, by Errollyn Wallen being toured from 14th March by WNO; and Fabian Panisello’s Cuadernos para Orchestra at BBC Maida Vale on 21st. Also worth attending is the Composition: Wales day at BBC Hoddinot Hall, Cardiff, which explores the works of emerging composers born or working in the principality.
In France Hector Parra’s new stage work Te Craindre en Ton Absence written in collaboration with Marie NDiaye receives its world première at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris on 4th March with subsequent performances on 5th, 7th and 8th. There are several world premières at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam: an, as yet, unnamed work by Kris Defoort on 13th; a new St. Luke Passion by James Macmillan on 15th.; and works by Willem Jeths and Sander Germanus on 24th. In the United States, finally, the world première of Peri Mauer’s At Home With Allen Ginsberg, Five Songs for Baritone and Piano takes place in NYC on 6th March; and string quartet ETHEL plays a series of new and recently written works by Vijay Iyer, Marcelo Zarvos, Nico Muhly and Son Lux at Trinity Wall Street on 13th.
For a day-by-day roundup of all March events, check out the CT Concert Diary.
Electrifying Oboe on Métier is a disc of experimental works for oboe (and sister instruments) by Roger Redgate, David Gorton, Christopher Fox, Edwin Roxburgh, Michael Young and Matthew Wright. Collaboration is very much the order of the day in all of these pieces bar one, with many options being left open to the performer and even to the accompanying group of turntable, laptop and electronics. The works are likely to be a shock to anyone with preconceived ideas about the instrument – just about every kind of extended technique is explored, the wacky accompaniments adding to the novelty. The result, however, is highly engaging, though not, perhaps, quite as ‘new’ sounding as billed; the sound world is often reminiscent of Stockhausen or Ligeti’s electronic music of the late 50s.
Métier has an on going mission to record the works of English composer Michael Finnissy. Their latest disc is a rather novel addition to this project. Before revisions to ‘Peer Gynt’ that he made for performances in 1892, Grieg sketched 250 bars of a Piano Quintet. He never completed it. In 2007 Finnissy decided to elaborate the unfinished sketch into a one movement Kammersymphonie, sticking entirely within Grieg’s stylistic parameters. To what extent Finnissy has mimicked the Norwegian master is for others more expert than me to say. In a sense, however, this isn’t the point: the result is music of ravishing beauty and, like Anthony Payne’s completion of Elgar’s Symphony No. 3 or Deryck Cooke’s of Symphony No. 10 by Mahler, it stands on its own. Of greater interest, perhaps, to Finnissy aficionados will be the second work on the disk, in which he decided again to take the Quintet as his starting point, this time elaborating it in a much freer manner. The result is a fascinating and highly rewarding meeting of minds, the Grieg gradually and gracefully giving way to Finnissy’s contemporary idiom.
The rest of this month’s releases
Signum classics marks the untimely death of John Taverner with a two disc recording of the concert version of The Veil of the Temple performed by James Vivian, Patricia Rozario, The English Chamber Orchestra, The Holst Singers and The Temple Church Choir. Richard Causton’s meditation on the turn of the last century Millennium Scenes performed by BCMG and the Hallé receives its first recording on NMC. There are a clutch of new albums on Naxos: Van der Roost’s Sinfonia Hungaria and From Ancient Times; Maxwell Davies’s Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 9 and 10; Lyell Cresswell’s Landscapes of the Soul, Piano Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra and String Quartet; David Rupert Coleman’s Starry Night and other works; and Peter Boyer’s Symphony No.1, Silver Fanfare, Festivities, Three Olympians and Celebration Overture. There is also a new recording of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel in the version for piano and violin. On Dutton Vocalion, finally, is a disc of music by Alan Bush that contains his Second Symphony and world première recordings of his Africa Piano Concerto and Fantasia on Soviet Themes; and, also world première recordings, David Mathhews’ Symphony No. 7 and Vespers.
Christian Morris talks to Alasdair Nicolson, composer, Artistic Director of the St. Magnus International Festival and Director of its Composers' Course.
Tell us a little about the origins of the St. Magnus Festival.
St Magnus International Festival started 37 years ago and was initiated by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and a group of local enthusiasts, amongst them the local writer George Mackay Brown, around the time that Max decided to set up home in Orkney. For such a small place in a remote part of the UK the list of international performers, orchestras and ensembles that have ventured North is quite extraordinary and this has made the reputation of the Festival across the world quite enviable. Equally because it was started by a composer, and once again with me is in the hands of a composer, new music plays a huge part in the programming. Over the years the RPO, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Scottish Orchestra and Trondheim Soloists have visited with solo artists ranging from Isaac Stern to Christine Brewer, Valdimir Ashkenazy to Nicola Benedetti.
Tell us a little about your role as Artistic Director.
Being Artistic Director of St Magnus International Festival is a busy job and is quite wide-ranging. We have a very small professional staff which runs the Festival and so my job is not only to choose artists and repertoire and to invent projects but also has quite a lot to do with the overall running of the organisation. The programme also includes poets, painters, theatre, folk music and cabaret so I also have to be able to think and know about a world beyond concert music and opera. Being a group of islands and with no "state-of-the-art" concert venues, I also have to spend time thinking about appropriate ideas for the spaces we have available, for example a production of Carmen in the cattle market or a wartime concert party in an old barracks. Of course there is a wonderful medieval cathedral in the heart of Kirkwall which has a magnificent atmosphere and is a great acoustic but most of our other venues are created for the Festival from churches, sports centres etc. As a composer myself I'm very keen that there is a constant representation of new work and making sure that in most concerts there is something being played by a composer who is still alive. This is not always possible of course, but we try. In recent festivals we have counted up to 36 world premieres through the Festival programme never mind the music which is just from the last hundred years. I also really like to treat the Festival as an entry point for younger performers and composers and having several courses surrounding the main work of the Festival has allowed me to find interesting young musicians and bring them back to Orkney. I'm also Director of the St Magnus Composers' Course and oversee the Conductors', Writers' and Singers' courses so I have a keen sense that training opportunities are key. The access a Festival provides to lots of visiting orchestras, performers and ensembles is unlike any other summer school or course.
>> Click here to read the rest of the interview
Peter Maxwell Davies described in a recent BBC interview how close he came to being struck with ‘the curse of the ninth’, having being diagnosed with leukemia that, without treatment, would have left him with just weeks to live, almost certainly preventing him completing his Tenth Symphony. As a result, and with extraordinary physical courage, the piece was largely written in hospital whilst undergoing chemotherapy. Now thankfully recovered, he can look forward to the London Symphony orchestra’s world première of the symphony this Sunday at the Barbican. There is also the chance earlier in the day to hear the orchestra rehearsing the work under the baton of Antonio Pappano, with a discussion with the composer at 2.30.
Also at the Barbican on 15th of February is a BBCSO Total Immersion Day exploring the music of Scottish composer Thea Musgrave. There are two talks, one at the beginning of the day, the other introducing the evening concert; two concerts given by the BBCSO that will include Chamber Concerto No. 2, Pierrot, From Spring to Spring, Impromtu No. 1, Cantilena, The Seasons, Horn Concerto, songs for a Winters Evening and Turbulent Landscapes; and a performance of choral works Rorate Coeli, On the Underground and Ithaca with the BBC Singers.
The Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival runs from 7th–10th February at Plymouth University around the theme Thinking Music. Highlights include a new electronic work by Duncan Williams on 7th and 8th; the Ten Tors Orchestra playing works by Eduardo R Miranda, Linas Baltas, David Bessell and Ignacio Brasa on 8th; a light installation collaboration between David Strang and Sean Williams on 9th; and, also on 9th, a concert that explores the works of Anestis Logothetis, who was one of the first artists to work simultaneously in the auditory and visual dimensions. There are also panel discussions, a book launch, and a concert promoting John Matthias’ new album Geisterfahrer.
In the Salle Pleyel, Paris on 14th February Wolfgang Rihm’s Nähe Fern II and II and Philllipe Manoury’s Zones de Turbulences receive their French premières in a concert that includes Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. Also worth looking out for at that venue this month are performances of symphonies by Shostakovich given by Valery Gergiev and Orchestre du Théâtre Mariinsky on 16th, 17th and 18th. The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, features a number of contemporary music events this month. There are premières of works by Willem Boogman, Reinbert de Leeuw and Magnus Lindberg; a performance of Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato; and a concert of works by Glass, Adams and Stravinsky entitled Minimalism at its Best. In Athens, Greece, finally, the Update Contemporary Music Festival runs from 14th–21st February and includes music by Pascal Dusapin, Luigi Nono, Nikolas Tzortzis, Raphaël Cendo, Yannis Kyriakides and Georges Aperghis.
Many composers are inspired by their roots, some so much so it would be hard to imagine how their music would sound if they had been born elsewhere. South African Robert Fokkens is one such composer. His new disc of chamber music on Métier is everywhere infused with the spirit of his home country – its division and diversity, its language, its native music, even its wildlife. These aspects are manifested in a variety of ways: in elements of structure, melodic and tonal procedures and programmatic components. Fokkens is also, however, keenly aware of his antecedents in the Western classical tradition, and these play their part here too.
One of the most seminal influences on his style is that of South African Xhosa bow music. A number of the works on the disc, for example, make use of a type of rhythmic-melodic cycling common to this type of indigenous music. Sometimes this is presented with great restraint and economy, as in Ingwe from Mammals of Southern Africa. Sometimes these small ideas are made to bounce off each other whilst being worked up with joyful skill, as in the exuberant movement Mob of Meerkats from the same work. Microtones also appear, for example in the opening movement of Tracing Lines (which also contains a similar kind of rhythmic-melodic cycling), mainly for expressive inflection. There is also the extensive use of string harmonics, which Fokkens partly traces to the use Xhosa bow music makes of partials to create melody. The result is a musical surface full of capricious interest. Even when lines are comparatively simple, as in the agonised second moving of Tracing Lines, for example, there is often a harmonic aura that renders the simplest ideas otherworldly and strange. There is never a hint of banality.
It would, of course, be possible to attribute at least some of these stylistics traits to other acknowledged Western classical influences: cycling rhythmic cells, for example, might just as easily derive from Stravinsky or minimalism. Fokkens feels these types of dichotomies keenly, the question of identity being an important theme to him. What, for example, does it mean to be a white, classically trained composer, in predominantly black South Africa? What does it mean to be a South African working, as he is now, in Europe? This sense of schism works itself directly into the music. Irreconcilable Truths, for example, pits sections of violent stabbing chords, sul ponts and high-octane anguish against a simple ticking passage that again recalls Xhosa bow music. The two forces compete until the latter is expanded into a long and lovely coda. This musical duality, common in many of the works in the programme, never feels forced. It also has the side benefit of providing the listener with strong structural markers whilst never tiring the ear with too much of one thing or the other.
Also helpful is the economy with which Fokkens builds his structures. Inyoko Etshanini (‘Snake in the Grass’) pits high string harmonics against a bass flute, the two engaging in a simple but eerie dialogue. The interaction is subtle, gradual and very satisfying. Fokkens also extracts considerable traction out of seemingly unpromising musical ideas. Nine Solitudes, a set of studies for solo piano, for example, is built into a substantial and exciting whole out of a series of simple two-note chords.
Fokkens’ sense of his roots is most on display in the final piece in the programme, a moving setting for soprano and piano of David Diop’s poem Africa. As a South African abroad, Fokkens’ attraction to such a work should come as no surprise – the poem’s deep affinity for the continent is overlaid with a sense of isolation from it, though, if anything, the feeling of separation makes the connection even more potent. Beginning in incantatory fashion the music builds powerfully as the words describe the torment of a continent with ‘beautiful black blood spilt in the fields’. The ending is poignant; the last line, ‘The bitter taste of freedom’, an acknowledgement that emancipation brings its own difficulties and challenges. It is set separately and with great poise, a fittingly questioning end to a highly rewarding programme of music.
It was with great sadness that I learnt of Claudio Abbado’s death on Monday. He is perhaps best known for being appointed as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic following Herbert von Karajan’s retirement and then sudden death in 1989. Abbado was, however, a much more passionate advocate of contemporary music than his notorious predecessor, whose occasional forays felt like tokenism when set alongside his vast discography of core works. Before expanding the Berlin Philharmonic repertoire, Abbado had also set up Wien Modern specifically to present key works of the twentieth century. Under his direction it has become one of the great European music festivals. It might also be speculated that the more open-minded approach of Abbado prepared the Berliners for the even more radical Simon Rattle.
From his recorded legacy I pick two treasured albums, neither, incidentally, with the Berlin Philharmonic: his emotionally charged recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and Kammersymphonie Nr. 1 by Schoenberg, Autoritratto nella note by Sciarrino, and 6 Bagatellen and Dopplekonzert by Ligeti with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The transitional musical vocabulary in the Schoenberg is, in particular, brilliantly shaped.
Using their extensive concert database, the people at Bachtrack have put together a fascinating analysis of classical concerts during 2013. Unlike CT, their listings do not concentrate on contemporary music so, using their data, it is possible to perform a crude assessment of the state of contemporary classical music as compared to classical music in general.
Most remarkable has been the extent of the 2013 Britten 100th birthday celebrations; internationally the composer was the fourth-most performed during the year (and the most performed in the UK), above such big beasts as Schubert and Brahms. Only Mozart, Beethoven and Bach did better. Perhaps surprisingly, given it is one of his more difficult and expensive works to mount, the most performed of his oeuvre was the War Requiem. Two other anniversary composers also did quite well: Poulenc climbed a little to 30th place, whilst Lutosławski moved from 79th in 2012 to 48th in 2013.
Hearteningly, a high proportion of music performed in 2013 is relatively recent. The graph at the bottom of their infographic shows concerts and operas divided by historical period. In all parts of the world surveyed, twentieth and contemporary music make a hefty proportion of total works performed, even if music by more recent composers makes up a much smaller fraction of this total. Of performances of music by living composers Arvo Pärt comes highest at 38, James Macmillan second at 45 (he is highest in the UK) and John Williams third at 77. More disheartening is the extent to which composition is still dominated by men. The highest entry for a female living composer is Judith Bingham at 202, followed by Unsuk Chin and Kaija Saariaho. The situation, incidentally, is not much better for conductors, with only Marin Alsop breaking into the top 100.
Most people would identify Britten as being at the softer end of twentieth-century music and would say that his popularity tells us something about enduring musical tastes: that, like the Queen (as Maxwell Davies cheekily revealed), most concertgoers have a hard time with dissonance. It is confirmed not only by the popularity of Pärt, Macmillan and John Williams in the Bachtrack listing, but also by my much less scientific analysis of CT’s 2013 concert listings where Britten is, again, the clear winner, with Steve Reich second, Stravinsky third and John Adams fourth.
In all this, however, I think that there are signs that audience tastes have matured. In my own experience as a listener one is, in the first instance, drawn to works are closest to the tonal music we tend to experience as children. When I first heard Britten’s War Requiem aged 14 I thought it was the most astonishing racket after Mozart’s K.626. Gradually my ears accustomed and I am now shocked by very little, even if I am occasionally bored or outraged by bad contemporary music. Audiences appear to be going through the same process. They still favour, and probably always will, music that still retains some kind of pitch centre and melodic line, but are nevertheless becoming more adventurous in their tastes – after all, there is plenty that does challenge in Britten, Stravinsky, Macmillan, Reich, Adams and even, away from the big Hollywood tunes, John Williams.
One last thing that came out of digging around CT’s 2013 concert listings was the sheer volume of living composers, some 450, who had music performed during the year. CT, just like Backtrack, does not pretend to be definitive, so this must represent a tiny proportion of all of those active in the world. That is heartening indeed. It is, of course, for audiences to provide the sifting that will ultimately decide the fate of all of these composers. That they have this year welcomed a twentieth century figure – Britten – above such old warhorses as Brahms and Schubert is a great encouragement to those of us stalking around the periphery (wrongly) believing that no one needs New Music.
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Concert Listings Today & Tomorrow: