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29 Jul  

A short guide to the music of William Mathias, who died 25 years ago today.

I hail from the same part of the world as this most brilliantly communicative of composers. As with all who attended the old grammar school in the unexceptional town of Whitland, Carmarthenshire, I used to sing a work by Mathias at the beginning and end of every term, his School Song. Born in the town in 1934, Mathias had written the piece whilst a pupil at the school at the age of 11 or 12. It is a precocious work, with a shapely tune that comes to a rousing close, supported by effortlessly successful harmony. It is sad that, on turning comprehensive in 1989, the School Song, possibly Mathias's most performed work, was dropped.


The gusto with which normally unparticipative pupils sang Mathias's School Song suggests that his ability to communicate was an inherent part of his musical personality. It was a tendency that would eventually leave him, like Britten, at odds with the post-war avant-garde. Mathias was acutely aware of this. At the 1979 Menai Music Festival Lecture, he articulated his personal view that early twentieth-century innovations had led not, as some in the avant-garde believed, to a new unified system, but to the disintegration into various systems in which a composer should find his own place. It now seems obvious that this view was correct. As for his position in this pluralistic scene, in a BBC documentary devoted to his music, he railed against what he saw as the limited expressiveness of some twentieth-century music, which, he felt, sometimes gave the impression 'that music is there to talk insistently about tragedy, that it must always be unpleasant because that is the essence of our time.'  He underlined this by going on to say that 'music...does many things: it can be tragic...[but] can also be extremely happy and it can be, in my view, an act of praise.’


These statements provide the key to understanding Mathias's music. The composer showed an uncanny knack for writing music of great range, both within pieces and between pieces, which nevertheless sounds like it is by the same person. By this I mean that he was just as capable of writing a good tune forged from tonal materials (though not actually using tonal procedures) as well as 'difficult' textures with high levels of chromatic density. As with the music of Benjamin Britten, this makes him a good starting point for those wishing to become accustomed to the sounds of new music. This was the function Mathias served for me as a teenager as I gradually got to know his music. It unlocked my ears, accustoming me to more adventurous sounds, which then allowed me to explore more experimental music.


The most familiar works by Mathias are his carol sequence Ave Rex, which includes the perennially popular Sir Christemas; A Babe is Born; and Let the People Praise Thee O God, the anthem written for the ill-fated wedding of Charles and Diana. All are rollicking pieces, superbly written for maximum tuneful effect. Whilst there are many other works in a similarly attractive style, Mathias also wrote more serious church music. There is the visionary and transportive As Truly as God is Our Father, the astringent Jesus College Service and the cerebral Four Latin Motets. There are three good discs for those who wish to explore this music: Christ Church Cathedral Choir conducted by Stephen Darlington on Nimbus, Wells Cathedral Choir and Matthew Owens on Hyperion and one released by the American choir Gloriae Dei Cantores, conducted by Elizabeth Patterson. My personal favourite, especially because of the immediacy of the recording, is Stephen Darlington and Christ Church. A better choice for newcomers, however, might be Matthew Owens and Wells Cathedral, since the disc also contains several of Mathias's organ works, including his catchy Processional. This provides a way into his substantial and serious organ works such as Berceuse, Antiphonies and Fenestra. These have been recorded both by John Scott on the organ of St. Paul's Cathedral on Nimbus and Reichard Lea (in a double disc survey of Mathias's complete organ output) on the organ of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral on Priory.


Mathias was also known for his large choral-orchestral works. One of these, World's Fire, is, sadly, unrecorded. This Worlde's Joie, Mathias's rumination on the seasons of the year and the stages of life, is available on Lyrita with an orchestral version of Ave Rex and his powerful setting of the thirteenth-century poem Elegy for a Prince. Perhaps his choral best (a phrase he himself used of the work) is, however, his Requiem Mass written in memory of his mother, Lux Aeterna. Whilst clearly deriving inspiration from Britten's War Requiem it is, in contrast, a work of extraordinary radiance. It is available in an electric performance with the LSO and Bach Choir conducted by Willcocks on Chandos. It is one of my most treasured recordings.


Mathias's output also includes a number of concertos, three symphonies and a wide variety of chamber music. Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2 Summer Music are available on Nimbus with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) under the baton of the composer. They make a fascinating pair. The first energetic and tuneful, the second dark and brooding. The years between the two symphonies were marked by orchestral works that Mathias called 'landscapes of the mind': Laudi, Vistas, Helios and Requeiscat. Helios and Requiescat, are available with the Third Symphony and Oboe Concerto, also with BBCNOW on Nimbus. Laudi and Vistas are available on Lyrita together with some early works -- Dance Overture,  Divertimento for String Orchestra, Invocation and Dance and Sinfonietta -- that are both brilliantly written and outrageously good fun. The middle movement of the Harp Concerto shares both thematic material and the lamenting atmosphere of Elegy for a Prince, but is typically framed by two highly attractive and accessible movements. It is also available on Lyrita together with his Clarinet Concerto and the infectiously raucous Piano Concerto No. 3. For those interested in exploring Mathias's chamber music I recommend two discs: a recording of his three string quartets with the Medea Quartet on Metier and a disc that includes Mathias's Sonata No. 1 and No. 2 and Piano Trio on Koch.

This is a repost of a piece marking 20 years since the death of William Mathias.

For more information, visit the composer's page at OUP


28 Jul  

  The cast of Pterodactyls of Ptexas taking a bow.

My arrival at the first night of Tête à Tête coincided with a pop-up performance of Samuel Bordoli’s Belongings, a work first performed on the Caledonian Sleeper train the night before the opening of the festival. Frustratingly, I only caught the closing bars, an experience that was almost exactly replicated on my second night, when I should have known better. If you’re planning a visit to Tête à Tête, arrive early—you never know what treats they will lay on before the official performances start.

There were three operas on the first night, beginning with Stephen Deazley’s Dr. Ferret’s Bad Medicine, a riotous and brilliantly scored youth opera. Through a sequence of morality tales it outlined the many and various ways in which children are bad. Opera North Youth Chorus excelled themselves, their lusty choral singing providing the backbone to the work, as did Whitaker Mills as Dr. Ferret, who acted as ringmaster.


Liturgie was a very pointed contrast to the exuberance of Dr. Ferret, a stylised work that had its roots in the Ballets Russes. The austere coolness of Daniel Lee Chappell’s music, aptly reminiscent, perhaps, of late Stravinsky, acted as a perfect foil to the ritualistic nature of the dance and the quite extraordinary costumes, (both recreated from the original Ballets Russes conception). The instrumental ensemble took a little while to warm up—I  wondered whether they had had much time with the score beforehand—but the singers and dancers coped admirably with the many challenges of this tricky piece.


ID, Please has already won some notoriety given that the composer Soosan Lolavar, a British-Iranian passport holder, was almost unable to attend rehearsals of the work in the US during Trump’s first ‘Muslim Ban.’ The story unfolds as a series of interrogations between a border guard and ‘two’ (for the shifting nature of their responses makes them universal) travellers. Though some of these encounters are wittily handled, all are fraught with confrontation. There is a lugubrious inevitability about the score, which unfolds from an imaginatively handled fantasy on one note. All three singers excelled themselves, especially Robert Raso, whose portrayal of the guard was both unnerving and sympathetic—one moment the angry protagonist, the next just another innocent caught in the system.


The second night began with The United Kingdom of Earth: A Brexit Opera, the piece that originally inspired me to make the long journey from Belgium to Tête à Tête. It was a horrible letdown. The premise, that at some point after leaving the EU the rest of the world is destroyed in some species of conflagration, is a promising one. We were treated, unfortunately, to something that barely rose above the level of a sixth-form play. The ‘score’, such as it was, was a poorly conceived electronic backing track turned up so loud one could barely hear what was happening on stage. A pianist added inane interjections. Apart from a genuinely funny cameo by an actor playing Boris Johnson, there was barely any singing and, when the dialogue was spoken, it was frequently read from ill-hidden scripts. The bawdiness of it all seemed relentlessly pointless and not at all sharp—we had a man masturbating at the appearance of the Queen, a dog humping a boy and a character pronouncing that he had ‘three prepubescent girls locked in a cage in the cellar.’ I guess the defence of this is that Brexit itself is amateurish, badly conceived and relentlessly dispiriting. I, however, found myself thinking that if this is best art that Brexit inspires, it is merely another tragedy to add to the mess that we are in.


A better lesson in foul-mouthedness was provided by Stephen Crowe’s Pterodactyls of Ptexas, a smart masterclass in small opera. The scenario is not particularly original, but has a nice twist: love and loss in the Wild West with added pterodactyls (because, like Crowe, we all love pterosaurs). There were no props other than several chairs, a static back projection of a volcano, one pianist and an electronic score. It’s sparse, but everything that it lacks is turned, often hilariously, into a plus. Credit to the actors/singers for this, many of the little details relied on their ability to time their actions with sound effects or simply to milk a comic situation. This they did with aplomb, at the same time coping with a score that was pretty fiendish. The best thing about the work was just how self-referential it was. The two female characters slugged it out for who was the lead, Fleur de Bray winning by the sheer prowess of her acting chops and scarily dependable coloratura. The poor Sheriff, meanwhile, was stuck with the hilarious aria: ‘who the fuck wrote this libretto, where are all my lines?’ 


Tête à Tête continues until 13th August.


24 Jul  

Tête à Tête kicks off tomorrow in London, running until 13th August. I’ve long wanted to experience the festival, probably the UK's liveliest forum for new opera, so am today heading to London for the first two days of the proceedings. The five operas I will be seeing give a fairly good idea of the sort of the range and relevance the festival offers.


Things kick off on Tuesday with Dr Ferret’s Bad Medicine Roadshow. Inspired by Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, it tells ‘several stories of Matilda, whose lies ignited a terrible fire, Henry King who ate too much string, and George, a little boy who causes lot of trouble…’ There then follows Litugie, a work that explores the story of the Virgin Mary in the realisation of a concept that actually began with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. The final work on the first day, is ID, Please, which addressed themes of immigration, identity and xenophobia in the age of Brexit and Trump. On Wednesday 26th is Pterodactyls of Ptexas, an electronic opera set in the Wild West. It features ‘trigger-happy cowgirls, gyrating dinosaurs, and saloon brawls.’ Then there is The United Kingdom of Earth: A Brexit Opera. I’m hoping that this might provide me with some light relief from the stresses of being British and living on the continent in uncertain times.


If these operas entice, then there is still time to get tickets for them. Alternatively, do take a look at the rest of the programme, which is stuffed full of similar delights. Also I should make mention of two pre-festival events that can be experienced today. There is Belongings, which is inspired by  items of luggage carried by railway passengers and will receive its premiere on the Caledonian Sleeper as it makes its journey from Aberdeen to Eston Station tonight. There will also be pop-up performances of the work throughout the festival. Road Memoir, finally, is a free twelve episode podcast opera available today. It follows the story of a woman forced to flee her home, turning from citizen to refugee. 


19 Jul  

If the Last Night of the Proms was a focus of Brexit discontent in 2016, this year it was has been the been the first few nights. In the opening concert, Igor Levit performed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the adopted anthem of the EU, as an encore (he was also sporting an EU badge on his lapel). If that wasn’t enough, on the third night Daniel Barenboim made an impassioned humanitarian plea that appeared to be inspired by his opposition to Brexit.


Inevitably this has caused outrage in various wings of the press. Normal Lebrecht in the Spectator (reproduced on Slipped Disc) called the speech ‘out of order’, Stephen Pollard in the Telegraph called it ‘deeply irritating.’ The tabloids were rather more colourful, The Sun saying that ‘Barenboim ranted against the UK leaving the EU and had a German orchestra play Elgar’s Land of Hope of Glory in protest;’ the Express, in a similar vein, saying that the BBC Proms had been ‘hijacked by conductor’s anti-Brexit rant.’


I have some sympathy for Lebrecht’s take on the two events. He made a distinction between Levit’s intervention, which was purely musical and hence acceptable, and Barenboim’s which could more easily be said to have overstepped the mark. Similarly, despite Barenboim’s protestations that his speech was not political—he didn’t once mention Brexit— Pollard was right to observe that ‘you’d have to be verbally tone deaf not to get what he meant.’


Despite this, however, it is not unfair to say that Barenboim's words were only rendered controversial in the context in which he said them, that context being Brexit. A plea for greater education, for more European unity and for us to fight against extremism seems a fairly reasonable one for any person, including a musician, to make at any time. If he had said similar words at the Proms before 2016, I don’t think anyone would have remarked much upon them. That they are controversial now is another rather worrying sign of the times.


Daniel Barenboim’s speech:


19 Jul  

The PRS Composers’ Fund aims to support the creative and professional development of talented composers by offering direct access to funding at pivotal stages in their careers. The fund offers £150,000 annually to support composers and enable them to realise projects and ambitions that may not be possible through traditional commissioning models.


The ten composes who will receive funding from PRS to support their various projects in 2017 are: Philip Cashian, Mark Bowden, Charlotte Bray, Sadie Harrison, Arlene Sierra, Julian Anderson, Naomi Pinnock, Emily Howard, Raymond Yiu, Roberto David Rusconi. Many congratulations to them!


You can see the many admirable ways in which they will use their funding, here


If you wish to apply for the next round of funding, the deadline is Autumn of this year.


13 Jul  

Christian Morris talks to Till Janczukowicz, the CEO and founder of Idagio, a new music-streaming app dedicated to classical music that has some intriguing possibilities for composers.

Till Janczukowicz

What is Idagio?

It is a reaction to more than 20 years of pain. I have been lucky and privileged to always do what I wanted to do. I managed great musicians - conductors such as Seiji Ozawa and Christian Thielemann - I helped young talents start their career - like Arcadi Volodos and Juraj Valcuha - and produced concerts and recordings in all parts of the world. What I learnt is: every musician, every composer, young and unknown, famous and established - every musician has relevance for a certain public. The question is not 'is it relevant?' but 'for whom it is relevant?' It comes down to how can music be made available, when is the right moment to make it available, what is the right channel to make it available and to whom can it be made available? 

Look at what technology does in other areas of our daily life, look at Airbnb, look at Uber: technology helps connect supply and demand in a new way. More direct. This is exactly what classical music needs. A platform that manages processes in a smarter, faster and more efficient way than we used to manage them before. Or, to put it simply: the best streaming service for classical music. A service that understands the difference between composers, their works, conductors, orchestras, soloists and so on and that connects music directly to any smartphone and streaming device in the world. Idagio is a streaming service that helps musicians, composers and labels on one side and audiences on the other better reach out to each other. We have built our own technology as a base for what many already call "the best search in classical music." 

>> Click here to read the rest of the interview


9 Jul  

Pierre Henry in 2008

French composer Pierre Henry died on Wednesday at Saint Joseph's Hospital in Paris. He was 89. 


Henry was known as one of the pioneers of noise in music, his interest beginning in his teenage years. Following studies with Messiaen and Boulanger at the Paris Conservatoire, Henry worked at Pierre Schaeffer’s RFT musique concrète studio, later collaborating with him in his Symphonie pour un homme,  a work written using the sounds of the human body. He later founded an electronic workshop, the first of its type in France, with Jean Baronnet. This resulted in works that explored mixing musique concrète with synthesised sounds (Coexistence, 1958; Investigations, 1959 and La noire à soixante, 1961).


The decade that followed showed an increasing preoccupation with spiritual matters with works such as La Messe de Liverpool, commissioned for the opening of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and L'Apocalypse de Jean (both 1968). The 70s became more self-referential, with Futuristie (1975), a tribute to musique concrète; and Parcours-Cosmogonie (1976) which recapitulated some of his own earlier works.


Henry exerted an influence on popular culture. He collaborated with American rock trio Violent Femmes (A Story, Featuring Pierre Henry) and his music was remixed on the LP Metamorphosé by Coldcut, DJ Vadim, William Orbit, Fatboy Slim, and Funki Porcini.


Henry’s output was large, more than 150 works, many of which are long. Composer Michel Chion has described his music as possessing ‘fecundity, forcefulness and a wide-ranging palette, an impeccable and sumptuous technique and a taste for excess and the bold mingling of the grotesque and the sublime.’


The Art of Sounds (2007). Directors: Éric Darmon & Franck Mallet.


5 Jul  

NMC is taking preorders for its New Music Biennial Subscription in association with the PRS Music Foundation. The programme builds upon two earlier NMC programmes, the New Music Biennial 2014 and the Cultural Olympiad scheme, New Music 20×12. For £10 you will receive a series of recordings by Eliza Carthy, Mica Levi, Simon Holt, Peter Edwards, Jennifer Walshe and others. Also just released on NMC is Brian Elias’s Electra Mourns, a setting of a 5th century BC play by Sophocles, along with two song cycles, Meet me in the Green Glen and Once did I breathe another's breath. 


Brett Dean’s Dramatis personae for trumpet and orchestra and Luca Francesconi’s Hard Pace, Concerto for trumpet and orchestra receive electric performances by Håkan Hardenberger with the Gothenburg Symphony and conductor John Storgårds in a new release on BIS. Also on the label are instrumental works by Tommie Haglund, headlined by his prize-wining cello concerto Flaminis aura; and John Pickard’s Symphony No. 5 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Martin Brabbins.


In the American Classics series Naxos has just made available recordings of viola concertos by Amanda Harberg and Max Wolpert, both of which were written for and here played by Brett Deubner. The title piece of Bright Sheng’s new album of chamber music, Northern Lights, explores a common thread in his music, that of folk music; Melodies for Flute, on the other hand, is inspired by Chinese poetry; Hot pepper by the ‘the spicy cuisine of Si Chuan province.’ The Naxos series exploring the music of Hungarian composer László Lajtha this month reaches volume 5 with the release of his Symphony No. 7 Revolution Symphony


Lyrita/Nimbus has just released archive recordings of works by Gordon Crosse. Whilst the performances and sound are variable, they are welcome additions to the discography of this no-nonsense serial composer. An interesting project by British Composer Orlando Gough, released on two CDs on Signum Classics, sees him attempting to recreate Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe using a viola consort, an ensemble that accompanied the sailor on the trip. It mixes music from 16th century England, sounds that the sailors might have heard as well music from local cultures along the route. On Alba, finally, is Orfeo Amoroso, a programme of guitar music played by Mari Mäntylä. It includes works by Graham Lynch, Pekka Jalkanen, Jukka Tiensuu, Nikita Koshkin, Anastasia Salo, Sid Hille, and Tõnu Kõrvits. 


29 Jun  

This video speaks for itself, I think. If we cannot protect music education, what hope for the future of our industry?


28 Jun  

Arts Council England has just announced its portfolio organisations that will receive funding over the next four years.


A greater percentage of money than in previous years will be used to fund organisations outside London (60.4% in 2018–22 as compared to 55.8% in 2015–18 and 53.8% in 2012–15). 


Musical organisations receiving funding for the first time include two for disabled musicians,  OpenUp Music and the British Paraorchestra; Plymouth Music Zone, which is involved with outreach work with vulnerable children and adults; and Sound City Music Festival.


The full list of portfolio organisation may be viewed here (Excel file).


From the Arts Council Website:


Our Chief Executive, Darren Henley, welcomes 831 organisations to the 2018-22 portfolio. Stay tuned to the blog this week and next for a series of posts on the new portfolio, including discussion of the organisations in your area, diversity, National Lottery investment, art forms and the new Sector Support Organisations.


Today, we announced our new National Portfolio for 2018-22 - a fresh, ambitious and wide-ranging group of organisations that we believe will bring new energy to the arts and cultural sector, while reaching more people in more places than ever before.


In all, 831 organisations will receive a total of £1.6 billion over four years for 844 projects. Importantly, we’ll be investing £170 million more outside London and there will be significantly increased investment in places like Reading, Bradford, Plymouth, Northumberland and Stoke.


The National Portfolio includes organisations across England of all sizes and scales, with museums and libraries coming into the portfolio for the first time.  Some organisations are well-established nationally or internationally, like the Royal Shakespeare Company, the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, the Royal Philharmonic and theatre company Punchdrunk.

Other portfolio organisations are just starting out, like the Factory – a major new international arts venue in Manchester. It will be exciting to see how the 183 organisations joining the portfolio grow and develop.


The new members include small organisations like Corali, a dance company of performers with learning disabilities, and The NewBridge Project, a vibrant community that supports talent development for individual artists. Larger organisations include Without Walls, a consortium that creates extraordinary outdoor work.


There will be 72 museums and seven libraries in the portfolio, including The National Holocaust Centre and Museum, the Bowes Museum in Teesdale, the Tank Museum in Dorset and library services in Barking and Dagenham, Suffolk and Leicester.


We’ve focused on ensuring that this is a diverse portfolio that will produce work relevant to the world we live in, as well as supporting fresh talent and artists from many different backgrounds and representing different perspectives. The arts, and society generally, urgently need to draw on the huge resources of our national diversity.


In 2016 we established the Elevate fund to prepare organisations keen to become part of the 2018-22 portfolio. We’re very pleased that of the 40 successful applicants to Elevate, 20 will now become portfolio members – including Ballet Black and Venture Arts, which champions the work of learning disabled visual artists.


This portfolio has emerged from an exhaustive and rigorous process, from initial consultations with the sector, through to the final balancing decisions. Financially, we’ve committed all we can to this new portfolio because we believe that this is the right time. Up and down England there are organisations, villages, towns and cities that will benefit hugely from this investment.


We have supported more organisations than ever before, but of course there have been hard decisions to make – often between applicants of great merit. We are fortunate to have such a variety and quantity of talent in our country.


I hope that those who have not made the portfolio on this occasion will be encouraged to come back next time. In the meantime they may find that we have other funding streams that are suitable for them, such as Grants for the Arts.


To those who have entered the portfolio: welcome. You are collectively embarking on a creative journey, which will bring some profound and positive changes to our arts and cultural sector and its relationship with the public.


26 Jun  

French composer and organist Jacques Charpentier died on 15th June, aged 83. Partly self-taught, he was also decisively influenced by Indian music and by Olivier Messiaen. The fullest evidence of this was in his immense piano cycle 72 études karnatiques, based on Indian musical scales.


Charpentier also worked in a wide variety of other genres, including symphony and opera. He was also known as an administrator of French music and as a teacher, having spent seven years as professor of composition in Nice. 


72 études karnatiques


21 Jun  

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


14 Jun  

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


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


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


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


12 Jun  

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


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


Malcom Lipkin Symphony No.3 The Sun


7 Jun  

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


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


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


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


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


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




28 May  

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

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


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


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


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


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


24 May  

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


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


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


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



24 May  

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


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


The full interview is in German, here.


Here is a translated version.


20 May  

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


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


17 May  

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


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


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


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


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


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