Holland Festival (Holland, Amsterdam) 30th May–23rd June
The Holland Festival takes place in numerous venues in Amsterdam and features dance, film, the visual arts, theatre and also a wide range of concerts, many of which feature new music. This year there is a particular focus on the music of Pierre Boulez, in concerts and also more exploratory events.
On 1st Jean-Guihen Queryas is joined by students of the Musikhochschule Freiburg to give a lecture recital on Boulez’ Messagesquisse for solo cello and six cellists. There is also a series of concerts on 4th and 11th in which students of the Royal Conservatoire perform reinterpretations of early Boulez works and, on 14th, a concert performance of Répons, Boulez’s first work combining traditional instrumentation and real-time manipulated sound. Beyond the Score, on 2nd, meanwhile, features a set designed by architect Frank Gehry on which key works from Boulez’s œuvre are played together with with letters, poems and archival footage.
Aldeburgh Festival (Snape, UK) 12th–28th June
There is also a chance to see a version of the Gehry/Boulez project at the Aldeburgh Festival on 17th, where it is called A Pierre Dream: A Portrait of Pierre Boulez and features the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble conducted by Susanne Mälkki. The same ensemble will also perform his Improvisation sur Mallarmé I and II on 19th.
The major première at the festival this year is Harrison Birtwistle’s new opera The Cure on 12th, 14th and 15th. The libretto, by David Harsent, is inspired by classical mythology and will be paired with their earlier collaboration The Corridor.
Other premières include Martin Sucklings Visiones in a late-night concert on 20th and Saed Haddad’s In Contradiction for two cellos and ensemble on 25th. The latter also features works by Birtwistle, Knussen, Benjamin and Ligeti. Also intriguing is the world première performance on 24th of Tal Rosner’s new video accompaniment to Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia. That concert is also worth attending for the chance to hear Helen Grimes’ Everyone Sang.
St. Magnus International Festival (Orkney, UK) 18th–25th June
Featuring concerts, theatre, food and drink, films and education projects the St. Magnus International Festival is, of course, most synonymous with the music of its founder Peter Maxwell Davies. On 20th there will be the chance to hear the world première of his new work for solo violin, with other new pieces by Sally Beamish and Adrian Sutton. His Ebb of Winter will also be played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on 21st. Also on 21st is festival director’s music for Greenvoe, featuring the prose of George Mackay distilled by Festival Poet Stewart Conn.
Istanbul Music Festival (Istanbul, Turkey) 31st May–29th June
The 43rd Istanbul Music Festival consists of 27 concerts and 5 premières. These include the world première of Hasan Niyazi Tura’s symphonic poem commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli War in the opening concert held on Sunday and Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s In memoriam Komitas Vardapet for viola and piano on 10th.
Many readers will not have heard of Mervyn Burtch, a Welsh composer who died on 12th May aged 85. For Welsh musicians his is a very familiar name indeed. His practical attitude to composition – the belief that a composer should serve his community – resulted in a large body of work, a significant proportion of which was written for amateurs and children. In this way Burtch touched the lives of many Welsh people.
Burtch hailed from Ystrad Mynach, attending Lewis School at Pengam, where he was taught by the composer David Wynne, a key early influence. His career also followed a similar path: he became Head of Music at Lewis School for Girls before teaching at the Welsh College of Music and Drama from 1979. It was probably his experience as a schoolteacher that enabled him to write so effectively for young people.
In an age when composers agonise over their style, Burtch, it at least appeared, had few such doubts, producing more than 650 works over his long life, including 17 string quartets, 14 concertos and numerous youth operas, choral and brass band works. In reality his style, accurately described elsewhere as ‘brisk, clear and concise, with an instantly recognisable voice’ was the product of hard-won professional determination. Neither should his fecundity obscure the fact that, especially in his more introspective works, his musical language could be stark and challenging.
Burtch will probably be best remembered for his youth operas, a product especially of the Welsh College of Music and Drama Schools’ Opera Programme, which he directed. These include works based upon well-known tales, such as The Pied Piper (his first opera for schools, written whilst still a teacher) and Alice in Wonderland (1997); others suggesting elements of Welsh culture, as in The Dragon of Abercwmgoch (1984); or the much more outlandishly titled Percy the Martian (1988) or Sam Sparrow and the Coca Cola Well (1992). His reach into youth music making wasn’t just through the medium of opera, however: there was also a substantial quantity of amateur music for choirs and brass band.
My own first experience of his music was playing second cornet in the première of his Concerto for Piano, Brass and Percussion in the National Youth Brass Band of Wales. What was interesting, looking back, is that the work was an intensely serious one with, as I remember, a dark, brooding slow movement and a finale of sardonic Shostakovich-like energy. His success in writing for amateurs was a product of him understanding what was and wasn’t possible whilst, at the same time, not compromising his style.
Others have written of his kindliness and unassuming nature. I had lunch with him once at the age of 17, also in the company of A.J. Heward Rees, who was then Director of the sadly now defunct Welsh Music Information Centre. I was incredibly impressed to be meeting a real composer and, I think, a bit tongue-tied. He was easy-going, natural and incredibly encouraging. I saw the same thing some years later during the rehearsals for The Pied Piper in 1999, where he patiently played piano for rehearsals of a little group of very young players in the Welsh College of Music Pre-Junior Department.
Given that Burtch became such a fixture in Welsh musical life, it seems astonishing that the discography of this composer is so limited. On Spotify I am able to locate only one recording, his Aladdin Overture, which shows the composer at his most urbane and fluent, but does not give a fair view of his compositional range. For more introspective Burtch try the Four Portraits of Alice in Wonderland (1982, rev. 1993) or his Dream Sequence (1986) for horn and piano. If you can track them down there is also a short collection of his choral music, recorded by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir, and also individual works on collections of other (especially Welsh) music, including his Prelude, Arioso and Dance, Three Welsh Folksongs and Sonatina.
For more information
Wales Online Obituary
Mervyn Burtch Trust
Storm is Signum Classics’ new disc of Judith Weir vocal music performed by the BBC Singers under David Hill. It consists of All the Ends of the Earth, for chorus, percussion and harp; her set of evening canticles, written in 2011 for St. John’s College, Cambridge; Missa del Cid; The Song Sung True; and Storm.
Weir’s ability to render the familiar new is often remarked, especially in her propensity to deploy tonal/modal elements in a manner that avoids cliché. That is everywhere apparent here, the language being accessible without dumbing-down. Her ability to renew also extends into other areas. Whilst the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis takes a traditionally compact approach to the setting of the evening canticles, two of the other works offer a rich reimagination of existing forms. The Missa el Cid is a mini opera, one in which the confrontation between the words of the narrator, the liturgy and the text of the 13th century Cantar del Mio Cid provide a striking dramatic tension. All the Ends of the Earth manages a similar feat, this time reworking elements Perotin’s Viderent Omnes into a work of ravishing polyphonic beauty in which the spirit of earlier composer is, nevertheless, never far away.
The last work on the disk is a reminder of Weir, the practical community composer. Originally written in response to a commission from a local schoolteacher to set Shakespeare’s Our revels now are ended, it grew into a longer work of five movements for SSAA+treble chorus and 9-piece ensemble. It is music of poised beauty in which the spirit of Britten’s best music for amateurs never feels far off. The performance, in which the purity of the Choristers of Temple Church so effectively contrast with the rich sounds of the BBC singers, is a delight.
Time to dismantle the hustings, take off rosettes and breathe a sigh of relief that the UK election, possibly the most tedious campaign I can remember, is finally done with. At least the end was exciting, though I hate to think of what it harbingers for the future of the UK. It’s good today to be back looking at musical things: a pretty good range of new CD releases.
On Bridge Records Paul Lansky’s Contemplating Weather is a choral cantata commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Western Michigan University School of Music. As the title suggests, it sets poems that examine various facets of climate. The style is attractive, though a little anodyne for my taste. Don’t let that stop you making up your own mind, however. On the same label, David Crumb’s new disk contains four chamber works, the most substantial of which, the three movement Red Desert for Baritone and Piano also lends its title to that of the album. There is plenty of meat on offer here, from the witty dialogue of Soundings to the vast contemplative spaces of Rock Cathedrals (first movement of Red Desert). It is well-written music, not afraid to embrace a wide harmonic range. Worth exploring.
Such advice also applies to two new disks on Signum, which, like the aforementioned, can also be Spotified. I’m going to write a little more about Judith Weir’s new choral disk Storm in a separate blog post, safe to say that I am enjoying it a great deal. Also just released is Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s programme of music for solo violin, which consists of works by Bartok, George Benjamin, Penderecki, Carter and Kurtág. I’ve only dipped into this. It’s serious and astringent fare, but rewarding for the same reasons.
On Naxos a new Penderecki album consists of two choral works, his Magnificat and the much later (and therefore less avant garde) Kadisz performed by the Warsaw Boys’ Choir, Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra under Antoni Wit. There is a disk of orchestral works by Zhou Long, including his Symphony Humen 1839; Joan Tower’s Violin Concerto, Chamber Dance and Stroke; Pinho Vargas’s opera Os Dias Levantados, an exploration of the coup of 1974 that ended Portugal’s fascist regime; the latest issue of Naxos’s series of orchestral music by Gian Francesco Malipiero, most substantially containing his Sinfonia degli eroi (Symphony of Heroes); and, more lightheartedly, a reissue of the definitive restoration of Korngold’s music for the 1938 Warner Bros.’ production of The Adventures of Robin Hood.
A couple of other Spotifiable options to finish. Dutton Epoch have just put together a 3 for the price of 2 deal on a collection of works by Arthur Butterworth, a Manchester-born composer who died in 2014. Symphony No. 1 and 4, and the Viola Concerto, plus an interesting monologue from the composer talking about his life and music are available for streaming. The music itself, as the composer says, takes an individualist route, not attempting originality but rather using familiar, especially tonal, elements to forge his style. On Decca meanwhile, there is a new two-disk collection of piano works by Philip Glass played by Valentina Lisitsa. It includes the famous opening to Glassworks, arrangements from the soundtrack to The Hours and Metamorphosis 1-5.
I was sorely tempted to head from Basel to Prague in May: a month in a beautiful (and relatively cheap) European city with a major music festival sounded promising. As well as a wealth of other repertoire played by world class performers, new music events at the 70th Prague Spring Festival include: a revival of Ľubica Čekovská’s opera adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey on 19th; the Prague Philharmonic Choir singing John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis and Eric Whitacre on the same day; the Czech premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Apotheosis from Symphony No. 6 on 21st; and Berio and Britten on 23rd and 27th. Unfortunately my commitments will keep me here, but, if you’re tempted, there’s still plenty of time to organise a visit; the festival runs from 8th–3rd June, (though the first few days are a flute and clarinet competition, the official opening concert being on 12th).
The York Spring Festival is looking to create a carnival atmosphere in the city over the course of the weekend of 9th–11th May, with a spirit of exploration and openness to all genres. There are some imaginative events on offer. On 9th Latrabjarg: an Ecological Requiem for electric cello, counterternor and chamber ensemble by James Cave and Christopher Mullender explores loss of culture and the natural world; the Dark Inventions’ concert on 10th mixes folk song with music by British composers, including the the work Firewheel by Philip Cashian. On 11th there is a morning of new music debate and discussion, the day being rounded off by a Nonclassical Contemporary Music Club Night at 9.30pm.
The Vale of Glamorgan Festival (12th–23 May) takes place in a variety of venues in South East Wales. This year the focus is on celebrating Arvo Pärt’s 80th birthday, with performances spread throughout the festival programme. There will also be the chance to hear music by British/Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova, including her Fantasy Homage to Schubert, Frozen River Flows, and the UK premieres of Such Different Paths and Of the Sun Born. World premieres include Between the Waves by Tom Green and Xiao Ying’s Septet. Other living composers represented include Peter Reynolds, John Adams, Richard Ayres, Tan Dun and Jaan Rääts. On 12th there is also a New Music Day, where the Nieuw Ensemble will play compositions by emerging composers at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
The English Music Festival (22nd-25th) focuses largely on an undeservedly neglected seam of repertoire: more conservative English composers of late 19th and 20th centuries, including figures such as Havergal Brian, Vaughan Williams, Alwyn, Parry, Stanford and Howells. There are also a couple of world premieres and a concert of music given by composer/pianist Lionel Sainsbury.
Some other festivals worth exploring in May, especially if you are nearby include: the Techtonics Festival (1st–3rd) in Glasgow; the Norfolk and Norwich Festival (8th–24th); the St. Davids Cathedral Festival in Pembrokeshire, Wales (22nd–31st); the Northern Chords Festival in Gateshead, Durham, Corbridge and Newcastle upon Tyne (25th–30th); and the Holland Festival (30th May–23rd June) in Amsterdam.
A quick heads up that the Proms programme is now published. You can see it here.
Also two Helen Grime world premieres worth seeking out: her Concerto for Clarinet and Trumpet will be performed on 7th May at Bridgewater Hall Manchester by the Halle with soloists Lynsey Marsh (clarinet) and Gareth Small (trumpet); a new String Trio by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Wigmore Hall on 8th.
There’s a trio of contrasting discs on Signum Classics this month. Flight is a collection of works by Oliver David (b. 1972) performed by violinist Kerenza Peacock with the LSO. It’s colourful if pretty light fare, music to be consumed. If you like the style but prefer something a bit more profound, you could check out Bob Chilcott’s dramatic St. John Passion with Wells Cathedral Choir conducted by Mathew Owens. Both recordings are available on Spotify. For the more adventurous I recommend Signum’s disk of chamber music by Thomas Adès. It contains his metrically dazzling Piano Quintet; Arcadiana, most remarkable for its moving homage to Elgar in its sixth movement O Albion; and The Four Quarters, which uses the daily cycle as its central metaphor.
Towards the end of his life John Cage wrote a series of works entitled Two. The number refers to the number of performers, with a superscript suffix (Two1, Two2 etc) denoting the piece within the series. WERGO has just released the performance of Two3 for Japanese shō and conch shells. The only performance I have heard of the work lasts for ten minutes, so I’m not sure how it becomes the two-disk epic presented here. Possibly for die-hard fans only. Also just released on WERGO is Giacinto Scelsi’s Suite 9 and 10 for piano performed by Sabine Liebner and a collection of organ music by Gerhard Stäbler. The latter takes it’s name from one of the pieces on the disk, Heiss! I’ve heard this wacky and experimental work, which is so full of original and fascinating sounds you barely realise you are listening to the king of instruments.
Two discs of electronic music. On Nimbus there is a three CD + 1 DVD complete collection of electro-acoustic works by Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), who is often considered to be the father of New Zealand music. The disc derives its rootedness by using found musical material from the New Zealand environment. Audio tracks from the collection are available on Spotify. Also using found material is Karen Power’s it is raining while you listen, a series of frozen sonic moments for electronics/electronic+acoustic instruments. It is released by Farpoint Records in an attractive limited edition with poetry, texts and photographs commissioned by the composer.
Keep an eye out, finally, for the soon-to-be-released disk Wild Cyclamen on NMC. It contains songs by Hugh Wood exploring the themes of youth, love, lust and longing in settings of poetry by DH Lawrence, Laurie Lee, Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell.
Whilst flicking between record label websites this afternoon, I came across the Composed app, a collaboration between Classic FM, Decca and Deutsche Grammophon that presents a curated list of classical music for £4.99 per month. I was unable to download the desktop version, which requires you to be in the UK, but my login to the Apple App Store seemed to be enough to persuade them of my Britishness. There doesn’t appear to be an Android version, which is short-sighted.
The feel of Composed is very ‘Classic FM’, with a high degree of emphasis on the core classical repertoire organised by moods, collections and composers. It all feels a bit dumbed-down if you’re an experienced consumer of classical music, though I liked the emphasis on searching by composer – if you prefer classical music this is how you choose a piece. It is a mistake, however, not also to allow searches by performer. It’s a decision, just like the trumpeting of ‘curation’, that feels like an admission that the collection lacks depth; the presence of only two record labels means that this is no Spotify.
Where the app might be useful is for those with a budding interest in classical music. The ‘moods’ and ‘collections’ sections are a lot of fun and contain heaps of good music, including the entire Classic FM Hall of Fame. There’s even a ‘Nervous Newcomer’ playlist, which contains a series of familiar lollipops to draw people in. And when you start digging deeper you can find some quite challenging stuff. There’s music by Boulez, Berio, Birtwistle, Cage, Henze, Varèse, Berg, Webern etc. I’m all for finding ways of introducing classical music to the masses and then maybe gradually winning them over to more recent fare.
The problem for Composed, however, is that Spotify also does themed playlists. Granted, it’s not as slick and Spotify costs twice as much, but you then get a far more comprehensive collection of classical music, plus the added bonus of having other genres – pop, blues, rock etc – available. As such, it’s difficult to recommend Composed, though, if you’re interested, the app gives you free access to its collection for a month, which by itself might make it worth investigating.
Conversations is John Palmer’s new book published by Composer’s Edition in partnership with Palmer’s own enterprise, Vision Edition. It contains 20 conversations with major figures in contemporary music: 13 composers, 4 players, a conductor, tonmeister and founder of a music archive. It is an impressive list of names, including figures such as John Cage, Jonathan Harvey, Michael Finnissy, James Wood, Luc Ferrari, Richard Barrett, Evelyn Glennie and Nuria Schönberg-Nono.
Palmer is very deliberate in preferring the term ‘conversation’ to ‘interview’ – certainly the tone that comes across throughout is one of an exchange of ideas between friends. That said, the conversations don’t ramble. Most begin with questions about background and musical formation, leading to more specific questions as the conversation develops. Palmer manages this unfolding expertly.
The oft-repeated structure allows readers to gain useful perspectives. It is fascinating, for example, to see the varied routes by which each of the composers came to music. There’s the more traditional choir and organ background of Harvey and Wood and then those with much less conventional early years. Richard Barrett and Daniel Teruggi, for example, became composers relatively late in life, both having being primarily interested in science.
Palmer also does a good line in reusing more imaginative questions, which can be just as revealing of his own interests and motivations. These range from technical information about a composer’s electronic setup, to his frustrations about musicians’ inability to perform aleatoric scores. My favourite concerns Palmer’s belief that music has an intrinsic power to change people; he is convinced ‘that an accurate listening experience may not only stir new perceptions of life, but also trigger a radical change of consciousness…therefore, by multiplication, it can initiate a potential change in the world.’ It’s an interesting idea that provokes fascinating responses.
In the more specific questions it is abundantly apparent that Palmer both knows his stuff and has done his homework. He asks Wood about his coming across Aristoxenes’s treatise Stoicheia Rhythmika in the 1980s and the effect on his music, a vital key, it turns out, to understanding his development. He takes Harvey through all the key moments in his musical formation and understands the importance of Rudolf Steiner and the influence of Eastern religions upon his work. There are, likewise, penetrating questions about Richard Barrett’s socialism, Finnissy’s eclecticism, the influence of Borges on Casserley, the influence of Japanese music on Jim Franklin, mathematics in the music of Elliott Sharp.
Neither is Palmer afraid to ask difficult questions. Conductor Celso Antunes remarks at one point that ‘there are developments [in new music] which I find frankly boring and sometimes completely nonsensical in musical terms.’ With an elegantly polite preamble Palmer asks ‘I would like to know which music directions you perceive as being nonsensical and why? Can you be as specific as possible, please?’ There is a frank and revealing discussion with Evelyn Glennie about the loss of her hearing and some beautifully tongue-I think-in-cheek exchanges with John Cage. With the later, for instance, the questions ‘Do you actually hear the sounds you write while you are composing?’ and ‘You once said you don’t have a feeling for harmony. Is that really true?’ provoke unexpected and hilarious responses.
John Cage is, indeed, one of the ‘superstar’ conversations that will rightly attract people to this book. Others highlights include the wide-ranging and substantial interviews with Jonathan Harvey, Michael Finnissy, Evelyn Glennie and James Wood. I loved the spontaneity and energetic fun of Luc Ferrari’s conversation, despite the trouble he had speaking in English, and Nuria Schönberg-Nono offers a unique perspective on twentieth-century music, having been both the daughter of Schönberg and wife of Luigi Nono. Her role as a founder of a musical archive also has resonance for me here in Basel, with my daily visits to the Sacher Foundation. As well as these grand figures, however, you should read this book for those that you know less well or not at all. The interviews will have you scurrying to your computer to look for more information and musical extracts.
A number of the interviewees are particularly known for their electroacoustic and acousmatic composition. Some may find that limiting, but it is to mistake the purpose of the book: it doesn’t pretend to be a neat cross-section of contemporary composition. Palmer also has considerable experience in this area – a significant minority of his own output being for the medium – and this puts him in a good position to be able to ask the right questions. The result is that many of these conversations powerfully advocate a too often neglected field of contemporary composition.
Some of these conversations have already been published in music journals. If you are a regular subscriber or have access through JSTOR you might want to double-check how much overlap there is. For those without access, or even those who would like to have these fascinating, illuminating and entertaining conversations in one place, the book is an easy recommendation.
A concert last night by students of the Hochschule für Musik revealed much about standards in Swiss higher education. The ambitious programme contained Cage’s First Construction (In Metal) and Six for six percussionists, Feldman’s Instruments II, Improvisations sur Mallarmé II (No. 3 from Pli selon pli) and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto.
The two Cage works are eminently performable by students, as was proved. I need not have been so sceptical that they could pull off the Boulez and the Ligeti, however. The two soloists coped brilliantly with the distinct virtuosic requirements of each work: soprano Céline Wasmer singing Boulez’s difficult lines with otherworldly expressivity; pianist Krill Zwegintsow providing machine-like stability in the Ligeti. Student Ensemble Diagonal likewise provided sensitivity in the former, thrillingly focus in the latter. Only in the Feldman did the need for fine control tax the players to the point where it was in danger of interfering with the meaning of the music. And this hardly surprised; the Feldman, which is a long span of pianissimo entries, often in difficult tessituras, requires phenomenal control. Conductor Jürg Henneberger, who is obviously a bit of a fixture here in Basel (he also conducted the Ensemble Phoenix concert on 16th), did a superb job leading these youngsters.
Tomorrow, the Hochschule in cooperation with OperAvenir, give their first performance of a new production of the Rape of Lucretia at Theater Basel. It’s one of the few Britten operas I don’t know at all, so I hope to visit before the end of the run on 25th April.
Talking of opera, 11th April sees the world première of Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds with ENO (performing at the Barbican, not the Coliseum). The title of the work derives from the dreadful scenario it describes: a group of people are trapped in one of the World Trade Center Towers, above where it has been hit and therefore unable to descend. They are, quite literally, ‘caught between earth and heaven, life and death.’ There are a total of eight performances the last being on 25th April.
There are two chances in the UK to hear works by emerging composers. The first is at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff on 1st April, where selected composers from the workshop stage of the Composition:Wales project will have their pieces performed by BBC NOW under Jac van Steen. Meanwhile in London the LSO Soundhub project will perform chamber compositions by Maxim Boon, Laurence Osborn, Helen Papaioannou, Robert Szymanek, Laurie Tompkins and Aaron Holloway-Nahum; all of whom are in the second year of their membership of the scheme.
The Budapest Spring Festival runs from April 10th–26th. As well as more standard orchestral fare, there are a few premières on offer. On 24th April there is there first chance to hear Péter Nógrádi’s Partita - Four paintings by Csontváry for the string orchestra, Zoltán Kovács’s Pictures of Taormina and László Dubrovay’s Csontváry - 3 symphonic images for orchestra. There are also works by Miklós Kocsár and Péter Tóth. The day after is the Hungarian première of Gyula Fekete’s piano concerto The Dream of the Red Chamber.
Other notable premières this month include James Macmillan’s St Luke’s Passion at the Barbican on 5th (London première); Robert Matthew-Walker’s Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (world première) at Wigmore Hall on 12th; Jake Heggie's Camille Claudel: Into the Fire (European première) at the Barbican on 14th; David Matthews’ Symphony No. 8 (world première) at Bridgewater Hall on 17th; Georg Friedrich Haas’s Atthis (UK première) at Royal Opera House on 23rd–25th; and Christopher Rouse Prospero’s Rooms (UK première) at the Barbican on 24th. The New York Philharmonic are also in London around the middle of the month, bringing with them a taste of their Contact! series in the form of works by Daniel Bjarnasson, Timo Andres, Missy Mazzoli, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Shulamit Ran at the Barbican on 18th.
A ‘Happy Birthday’ to Pierre Boulez, who turned 90 just the day-before-yesterday. If you would like to listen to selections from the Barbican Total Immersion day, this is available on iPlayer for the next three weeks. There is also a 45-minute tribute programme with Petroc Trelawny, Paul Driver and Morag Grant. The celebrations of his work continue into April with Peter Eötvös conducting Livre pour cordes and Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna with the LSO at the Philharmonie de Paris on 20th and Matthias Pintscher conducting Syrinx, Memoriale and Sur Incises with Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Barbican on 28th.
Another couple of interesting concerts here in Basel. I say in Basel, but the first was actually in Germany. One of the curiosities of this city is that its suburbs are in three countries: Switzerland, Germany and France. It goes a long way to explaining why everyone seems fluent in at least three languages.
I headed a bit further into neighbouring territory on 13th, however: to the Konzerthaus Freiburg (see first photo), where the Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg were playing Lachenmann’s Tableau, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 3 and Berio’s Sinfonia.
I was there mostly for the Berio, which I’ve never heard in concert. It was every bit as brilliant as I’d hoped, especially the crazy parody in the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Lachenmann – an immensely tall and impressive figure – was present for the performance of his Tableau. The work, I confess, left me nonplussed. Despite, to borrow a phrase from my more enthusiastic companion, the work being like a beautiful garden of sound, I had difficulty connecting these sounds into a comprehensible whole.
On 16th I headed to Bahnhof für Neue Musik, a little bit, perhaps, like Basel’s version of Nonclassical in London. It has a similar relaxed approach to concert going and makes use of a pretty interesting venue: the Gare du Nord Station near the border with Germany. There is a rather grand, if slightly faded, bar. You are then free to take your drink into the concert area, which used to be the station’s first class waiting room (second photo).
The concert programme consisted of Ensemble Phoenix Basel playing two works by young composers that had been awarded prizes by the group: Vladimir Guicheff Bogacz’s bulle apenas and Matthias Renaud’s Concerto for Piano and Ensemble. Both were written in response to John Cage’s Sixteen Dances, which formed the second half. Of the two, Vladimir Guicheff Bogacz’s was easily the most successful, partly because of the relative reserve with which it deployed the four available percussion players. It was a trap that Matthias Renaud’s Concerto did not, sadly, avoid; the work becoming a chaotic barrage of percussion sounds and extended techniques. It was a relief when the Cage came, which was an object lesson in deploying generous resources, using few notes, to maximum effect.
One curiosity here has been the difference in pricing and audience attendance at the concerts I’ve been to. The large hall at Freiburg, Germany was completely sold out for a concert that consisted of mostly newish music. It cost €11. The Gare du Nord concert was 30 CHF (almost the same in euros); the Feldmann, Ligeti, Stahnke concert earlier in the month was 50CHF (which nearly provoked a wallet attack). These are prices that make me, a person that is enthusiastic about new music, think twice. They seem to have the same effect on others: neither Swiss concert was well attended.
DG have just reissued Boulez’s Le Domaine Musical collection, which can be added to my earlier guide to the composer’s recordings. It features performances from the seminal Paris concerts between 1956 and 1967, including works by Stockhausen, Berio, Messiaen, Varese, Kagel, Henze, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and, of course, Boulez. Perhaps, most intriguing of all, is the inclusion of two works by Giovanni Gabrieli, presumably to give context to other compositions on one of the programmes. Gabrieli as sixteenth century modernist, perhaps?
Also just reissued on the same label is Max Richter’s 2004 album The Blue Notebooks both on CD and vinyl, the latter being a sure sign of its popularity. I’d check it out on Spotify first if you are in any way tempted: you will either love or hate its zen-like simplicity.
Two Naxos disks containing chamber music that is neglected for different reasons. The first is a collection of music for violin and piano by little-known composer Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986). If you’d like to get an idea of the style it’s worth checking out his disk of chamber music with clarinet, available on Spotify. It’s not at all what I expected: by turns romantically lyrical, quirkily dissonant and ascetically controlled. Whilst Bernstein is well-known for his musicals and handful of choral and orchestral pieces, a new disk explores some of his music for piano, including an early Piano Sonata and his Anniversaries, a sequence of short pieces written for people close to him. Also on Naxos is a disk of two Malcolm Arnold films scores, The Roots of Heaven and David Copperfield played by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
On WERGO Rolf Reim’s new disk contains four works, all of which draw upon story telling and theatricality to achieve their effect. The style is uncompromising but, at the same time, full of lightness and humour. This is particularly apparent in Lenz in Moskau, for trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano, two drums and recorded voice where a story is unfolded simultaneously in voices and instruments, the brilliantly sardonic interjections being easily as pictorial as the spoken text. Also on WERGO this month is Detlev Mueller-Siemens’ new disk TRACES, which contains four works for chamber ensemble written between 2002 and 2009; and Charlotte Seither’s Equal Ways of Difference that has five works written for combinations of violin, cello and piano.
On Métier David Gorton’s powerfully uncompromising new disc contains Orfordness for piano, Austerity Measures II for oboe and string quartet, Fosdyke Wash for piano and string quartet and the Second Sonata for Cello, with electronics. Orfordness, which also lends its name to the title of the disc, includes taped USAF messages about a UFO sighting. ‘This is eerie, this is strange’, says one of the men in the recording, a description that could well be applied to this unnervingly creepy music.
Sure to be popular is the Tallis Scholars’ Tintinnabuli, a programme of works celebrating the 80th birthday year of Arvo Pärt. Extracts are available to listen to here. The performances, typically of this group, sound gorgeous.
Two, as yet, unreleased disks worth looking forward to. Tomorrow NMC release a new disk of horn music by Peter Maxwell Davies, Gerald Barry, Colin Matthews, Huw Watkins, David Matthews, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Robin Holloway with the Nash Ensemble, Huw Watkins on piano and Paul Watkins on cello. At the time of writing extracts were not available, thought that sure to change on release day. Less imminent, though available now for pre-order, is Tyondai Braxton’s label debut on NMC on May 12th with HIVE, a recording of eight pieces that debuted at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2013. Scout I, the last track on the disk is available to listen to now.
Despite waxing lyrical about the joys of being on the road, the comfort of a Pembrokeshire Christmas almost persuaded me to give up my nomadic lifestyle. I have finally, however, dragged myself away God’s own county and am back in Basel, Switzerland. Not particularly adventurous, perhaps, but the need for change has to be balanced by the need to get on with projects – for now Basel is the best place to continue work on the Dutilleux sketches, which is increasingly looking like it might occupy me for the next ten years.
It’s exciting to be back in a city with a thriving cultural life. On Friday I heard the Basel Sinfonietta play Ligeti’s Hamburgishes Konzert, Manfred Stahnke’s Trace Des Sorciers and Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light at the Musiksaal.
I’d heard the Stahnke in rehearsal the day before, where it had left me pretty unconvinced; there seemed to be little sense of structural cohesion and the players appeared to struggle with the microtonal tuning. It was strange, therefore, to be so won over in the concert. The balance was better in the hall and the many generous ideas did seem to form a larger narrative. A reminder not to rush to judgement.
The Sinfonietta played the Ligeti manfully, in particular Olivier Darbellay coped superbly with the extravagant extremes of tessitura in the solo horn part. The work remains, however, frighteningly difficult to perform. Four natural horns trying to pitch complex chords is a recipe for ensemble problems.
The Feldman presents its own issues, though here this is to do with balance and control in a long, essentially static, span. The Sinfonietta played brilliantly, however, with conductor Michael Wendeberg allowing the work to unfold without fuss. It was a disappointment when the piece ended, so hypnotically had it held me.
Boulez seems to be much on musicians’ lips in Basel. He is, by all accounts, in poor health and may not be able much to take part in his 90th birthday celebrations. One Boulez in Basel story crops up again and again, however, and is worth retelling.
Boulez had a long association with Paul Sacher, the founder of the city’s famous music library, and, until his death in 1999, would stay with him when visiting the city. This no longer being an option, in 2001 Boulez stayed in a local hotel. This was, unfortunately, just after the terrorist attacks in New York.
On seeing his name pop up somewhere on a computer, the local police did a background check on what, to them, was an entirely unknown figure. It had somehow found its way onto a list of possible suspects, perhaps because of some of his famously intemperate remarks about burning down opera houses and destroying all art of the past.
Given the attitude of Muslim extremists to music and other forms of art, as so disgustingly demonstrated by Isis recently, it is perhaps not surprising that the police were somewhat alarmed. Boulez was raided at his hotel, his passport and train ticket seized. After further investigations, and presumably some red faces, the situation was ironed out.
I’m told that the next time he visited Basel the Chief of Police was on hand to welcome him with a large bouquet.
Harpsichord Music by Graham Lynch and François Couperin. Assi Karttunen (harpsichord). Divine Art dda25120.
Alex Ross describes Graham Lynch’s style as puzzling ‘over the classic distinction between ‘tonal’ and ‘atonal’, writing in praise of the neither-here-nor-there.’ It’s a pretty good analysis, though in the context of the works on this disk it, perhaps, underplays the extent to which the music is made up of recognisable (and therefore accessible) tonal elements. I’d also be coy about using the word ‘atonal’. Whilst often correct in the sense of being ‘not tonal’, the surface of the works abound with generous and attractive melodic writing and, even when the harmony is nicely unpredictable, the extensive use of pivot pitches always keeps the music centred.
Beyond the River God, for example, presents three tonally derived ideas at the outset: a spread extended chord, a lovely melody and rocking homophonic chords. They appear throughout, sometimes obviously in a cyclical sense, sometimes appearing to lurk under the surface directing harmonic traffic. Ay! is tonal (though always interestingly so), being made up of flowing arpeggios that are given point and poise by the gradually emerging tango rhythms beneath. Admiring York Waterfall and Present-Past-Future-Present are more stark, with In Peterna lying somewhere in between.
Structural matters are handled with admirable lucidity. The shape of Beyond the River God derives from Lynch’s use of the rondeau/couplet idea associated with the seventeenth century school of French clavecinists, most notably, François Couperin (five of whose works appear on the disk). In Admiring Yoro Waterfall the opening group of material, notably a two note whole tone figure, features several times, then gives way to a more obviously pictorial representation of the waterfall before returning at the end, all occurring over a carefully worked out pitch ground plan. The Six Strings from In Petenera elucidates a repeated phrygian idea based round a single pitch. Present-Past-Future-Present opens with a thoroughly explored ‘walking’ idea that reappears in the final movement. All the works also have a strong feeling of cadence, often underlined by a moment of silence before the launching of a new phrase, making the musical shapes easy to follow. Only in Sound Sketches did I feel that the musical argument was, perhaps, a little too pared down, neither the simple ground plan or arpeggiated surface providing enough interest. It is, anyway, only a very small piece at the end of the disk.
The pitfalls of a generous (nearly 80 minute) programme of music on a instrument with limited means of dynamic and timbral variation are obvious enough. In some ways, interpolating the music of Couperin with that of Lynch was a necessary practicality; the disc contains all of Lynch’s harpsichord music to date which, by itself, would not have been enough to fill the disk. It also, however, provides a happy solution to the ‘lack of contrast’ issue – the ear is never tired by one style or the other. Also, I have to say, the quality of Lynch’s writing is very much a match for that of his illustrious predecessor. Not that it’s a matter of competition, since the two styles sit very comfortably together: though, Beyond the River God excluded, Lynch seems to want to avoid drawing comparisons between his style and that of his antecedents, in its lucidity, fecundity and understanding of the medium there are definite parallels.
I’m not in a position to judge the authenticity of the ornamental minefield of the Couperin except to say that the performances strike me as stylish and assured. In the Lynch Karttunen plays with verve, commitment and a total grasp of the structural issues at play. A highly rewarding disk.
If you’ve not already been, Christian Marclay’s solo exhibition continues throughout March at the White Cube Bermondsey. It features his new video installation Pub Crawl in which he ‘coaxes sound from the empty glasses, bottles and cans that he finds abandoned on the streets of East London during early morning walks. In a series of projections that run the length of the gallery’s corridor, these discarded vessels are hit, rolled and crushed, forming a lively sound track that echoes throughout the space.’ The exhibition also features shorts concerts on 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th in which the London Sinfonietta will play new commissions that respond to the space.
At Wigmore Hall on 4th the Britten Sinfonia première a new work by Dutch composer Joey Roukens whilst Magnus Lindberg’s new piece will played by Leila Josefowicz (violin) and John Novacek (piano) on 19th. Both works are, as yet, untitled. Pitch up to learn more.
On 8th at the Barbican there is the chance to see the UK première production of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland with a multimedia staging by Netia Jones, which will combine ‘the darkly imaginative illustrations of gonzo-artist Ralph Steadman with live action, interactive animated projections, eye-popping costumes and choreography.’
On 31st March at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff BBCNOW under Jac van Steen
will workshop new works by Charlie Barber, Gareth Churchill, John Cooney, Nathan James Dearden, Jordan Hirst, Ray Leung, Nicholas Mills and John Senter. Several of these pieces will then be selected for public performance the following day.
An Englishman in New York, Thomas Adès makes his NYPhil conducting debut on 12th, conducting the US première of his own Totentanz alongside works by Beethoven and Berlioz. On 7th the NYPhil present one of their Contact! concerts, this time exploring music from Nordic countries, including premières from Per Nørgård, Kaija Saariaho and Ðuro Živković.
Also in New York there are two residencies at The Stone, a space dedicated to experimental and avant-garde music. The first, beginning on 17th, features composer/accordionist Guy Klucevek and will feature three world and seven New York premières. The second, beginning on 26th, features composer Lukas Ligeti with a number of guest artists including Marilyn Crispell (piano), Susie Ibarra (percussion) and Eyal Maoz (guitar).
In France, finally, Dai Fujikura’s new opera Solaris receives its première on 5th March at Théâtre des Champs Élysées, with a subsequent performance on 7th. It is based upon the same 1961 Stanislaw Lem novel that inspired the famous film adaptation by Andreï Tarkovsky. Ensemble Intercontemporain are conducted by Erik Nielsen.
A bit of good news for anyone interested in the future of ENO.
For the last couple of years Arts Council England have been implementing vicious cut to the funding of ENO, one of our most innovative opera companies. In a press release today, however, they announced ‘special funding arrangements’ for the organisation, effectively an enormous capitulation. The release is as follows:
12 February 2015
The Arts Council today (12 February) announces that two organisations, English National Opera and Colchester’s firstsite gallery, will not be admitted into its National portfolio of organisations for 2015-18. Instead they will be placed under special funding arrangements.
The proposed new National portfolio was announced on 1 July 2014 but confirmation of membership is subject to negotiating a funding agreement. As well as showing they will produce excellent work, all companies offered National portfolio status must demonstrate their business plans and their governance are robust enough to ensure the organisations are sustainable over a three-year funding term. In the case of these two companies the Arts Council has continuing concerns which it wants to see addressed.
The special funding arrangements with ENO and firstsite, which will run for two years, and one year respectively, will allow the Arts Council to work closely with each company as they review their business models and governance and to set rigorous milestones to monitor their progress. Entry to the portfolio at a later date will be possible, but will depend on the extent of progress made.
The Arts Council will take decisions on the future funding of both organisations following the implementation of these special arrangements.
English National Opera
ENO is offered funding for two years. The agreement will combine elements of the NPO and transition funding agreements previously proposed in July 2014. £12.38m revenue funding per year, with an additional £6.13m of transition funding, will be made available to the company over the two years to enable it to operate and make changes to its business model.
A considerable amount of work has been undertaken by English National Opera to address the challenges identified during the Arts Council’s Opera and Ballet analysis and the risks highlighted in its National portfolio application. However, a number of significant risks associated with the proposed business plan remain.
This decision has been taken following a period of working very closely with ENO on their proposed funding agreement, further detailed analysis of their business model by financial consultants and recent uncertainty about ENO’s senior leadership team.
firstsite is offered funding for one year. The funding agreement will combine elements of NPO revenue funding (£814,517) and transition funding, to be confirmed, which will enable firstsite to operate and restructure.
This decision has been taken following a consultation period with key local stakeholders and funding partners, revised financial accounts from firstsite and an independent analysis of the organisation.
Althea Efunshile, Acting Chief Executive, Arts Council England said: “The Arts Council’s role is to ensure that we get the best value for the taxpayer’s money by investing in well run companies who delight audiences with brilliant work.
“With the very occasional exception, all the organisations we fund do just that.
“No one is doubting that ENO is capable of extraordinary artistic work but we have serious concerns about their governance and business model and we expect them to improve or they could face the removal of our funding. The challenges are similar for firstsite.
“However, we believe these organisations can inspire audiences long into the future and it is our hope and expectation that this happens.”
The National portfolio now includes of 668 arts organisations (NPOs) and 21 Major Partner Museums (MPMs). 46 arts organisations join the portfolio and 60 leave. A final list of NPOs and MPMs will be published on 31 March.
The investment in NPOs for 2015/16 will be £339.5million, compared to £341.4m in 2014/15.
For more information and a wry take on this volte face, have a look at this article by Norman Lebrecht.
From March 19th–22nd the biennial London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music is holding a small series of events to keep the spirit of the festival going in its fallow year (the next full festival being in 2016). Cheekily, but appropriately, labelled ‘Between the (Y)ears’ this mini festival looks pretty interesting.
The theme is contemporary Italian music. It kicks off on 19th with a harp workshop with Gabriella Dall’Olio that explores the writing in Donatoni’s Marches. Both performers and composers are invited to attend. Later that evening the piece will be performed at a wine and nibbles reception along with pieces by Berio, Sollima, Bozzol and Gwyn Pritchard.
On 20th there is a concert by ensemble in residence Flame with guests Laura Monaghan (soprano) and Simone Beneventi (percussion). They will perform Zeno Baldi’s In Punta – a new work from the festival’s 2015 call for scores, as well as pieces by Pierluigi Billone, Giacinto Scelsi and the two festival artistic directors Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari. Later the same evening there will be a video concert featuring Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari and Andrea Cavallari’s Three Flags II.
The final day (Sunday 22nd) features a midday coffee and music concert with another new work from the 2015 call for scores, Lorenzo Troiani’s Sotterranee. In ombra. The other composers on offer are Luciano Berio, Francesco Filidei, Franco Donatoni, Beat Furrer and Luisa Valeria. The festival ends with a closing cocktail and concert at 6pm.
The festival takes place at The Warehouse and The Cello Factory, close to Waterloo in London. Tickets are available here.
There are three new albums on Naxos worth exploring this month: wind band music by Salvador Brotons that includes his Symphony No. 6 and Symphonic Movement No. 7; Patric Standford’s Symphony No. 1 and Cello Concerto; and Argentinian composer Osias Wilenski’s Oboe Concerto and other works.
If you can get past the numinous packaging of Voces 8's new album Lux on Decca, there are some good things to be found on it, including works by Ola Gjeilo, John Tavener, Eriks Esenwalds, Rihards Dubra, Patrick Hawes, Will Todd and Paul Mealor. The modern works are broken up with some appropriately spiritual, though always welcome, lollipops: Tallis’s O Nata Lux, Allegri’s Miserere and a section from Rachmaninov’s Vespers.
Jagoda Szmytka’s new CD Bloody Cherries on WERGO explores physicality of sound and how it relates to the physicality of performance. It includes 7 works: 3 for amplified ensemble, the others for various combinations of amplified ensemble, amplified voices, transducer, electric guitar, cello, flute, piano and drums. The other new release on the label is a programme for saxophone, including works by Arturo Fuentes, Paulo Ferreira Lopes, Juan Camilo Hernández Sánchez, Phivos-Angelos Kollias, Tom Mays, Bernd Schultheis and Agostino Di Scipio.
There are two works for keyboard on Divine Arts. Masque is a follow-up album to Carson Cooman’s well-received disk of organ music Litanies. It features his Preludes and Fugues 1–9, Preghiera and Symphony for Organ played by Erik Simmons on the instrument at Laurenskerk, Rotterdam. Beyond the River God, finally, features the harpsichord music of Graham Lynch and François Couperin.
If some of Boulez’s pronouncements have given the impression of narrow-mindedness in accepting the music of others, his work as a conductor suggests rather the reverse.
Celebrating this part of his career, DG has just released a 44 CD set of Boulez’s recordings of twentieth century works for the label. Whilst much of this includes the usual suspects – the second Viennese school and Boulez’s own works – there is also a great deal which isn’t, including Bartok, Debussy (as far back as Prélude à l’apres-midi), Ravel and plenty of pre-serial Stravinsky. It comes in a rather nice limited edition box set, for £102 in the UK and $223 in the US.
DG is marketing this as the ‘complete’ Boulez 20th century recordings, which it clearly isn’t, since it doesn’t contain a single performance from his DG Mahler cycle. If you wish to have that, the 14 disk set is available at just £37 ($55). I’m aware that Boulez gets mixed reviews in this repertoire, though I think some of the more frequent criticisms – that he can be brilliantly analytical and clear, but sometimes soulless – are often exaggerated. My own favourite Mahler symphony is No. 6 (‘the only sixth, despite the Pastoral’, as Alban Berg said) and Boulez’s interpretation of it with the Vienna Philharmonic (included in this cycle) is brilliant: tempi are ideal, he takes the crucial first movement repeat and the two most powerful parts, the slow movement and vast final movement are superbly shaped and devastating in their impact. I can’t imagine, therefore, that the rest of the set isn’t worth exploring too.
If the 44 CD DG set is a little too much to purchase all at once you can also buy many of the recordings in smaller sets concentrating on one or two composers at a time. There is Boulez conducts Debussy and Ravel (6 CDs, £18.79/$32), Boulez conducts Stravinsky (6 CDs £20/$26) and Boulez conducts Bartok (8 CDs, £30/$30). Particularly recommended is Boulez’s complete survey of the works of Webern (6 CDs, £22/$30). No one understands this repertoire better than him, and that shows in the crystalline clarity of these performances. Also an obvious recommendation is the composer conducting his own complete works (13 CDs, $68/£44).
Boulez has dabbled more than a little in the world of opera. Two productions, both with Patrice Chéreau directing, stand out: his Wagner Ring Cycle for the 1976 centenary performance at Bayreuth and his Janáček From the House of the Dead in 2007. The former was hugely controversial, some believing that Boulez’s conducting lacked the necessary expressivity, was too fast and the singing uneven. Despite this, the production did win many admirers, as this article in The Guardian makes clear. It is available on DVD at DG (having originally been released on Philips). The Janacek, a DVD I own and like a great deal, is an easier recommendation.
Another handsome boxed set worth considering was released at the end of 2014: Sony Classical’s 67 CD survey of the recordings made by Boulez for CBS/American Columbia (67 CDs, $187/£89). Again there is plenty of twentieth century repertoire here including Schoenberg, Berg, Varese, Stravinsky, Berio, Carter, Messiaen and works by Boulez himself. Less well-known is Boulez’s fondness for Berlioz, represented here with recordings of Symphonie Fantastique; Lelio, ou Le Reour a la vie; excepts from Benvenuto Cellini, Les Troyens and Beatrice et Benedict; Carnaval Romain; Les Nuits d’été; and La Mort de Cléopâtre. Most fascinating of all are the real rarities: Handel’s Water Music, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Wagner’s rarely heard work for choir Love-Feast of the Apostles.
On March 26th Boulez will turn ninety. Even at this grand old age he hasn’t entirely cast off the image of enfant terrible, the man responsible for some of the most intemperate remarks in the history of twentieth century music, including, yes, that one about wishing to burn down all opera houses.
It is an image which, even now, clouds my judgement of his music. There was Boulez the quasi-mathematician who serialised the composer out of the musical process. Boulez, who wished to rip up the past ('It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All art of the past must be destroyed.'), Boulez who branded any musician who didn’t feel the necessity of the serial method as ‘OF NO USE’ (his capitals).
Boulez’s influence on European cultural life has not, in my opinion, always been healthy. His insistence that his way was the way, looks extraordinarily misguided today. How sad that some composers felt that they had to fall into line with serial orthodoxy or be branded a failure. Neither was this something experienced just by his contemporaries.
I have often pondered the influence that Boulez had on the most significant member of the older generation – Igor Stravinsky – even if it operated indirectly. It’s a curious fact of Stravinsky’s life, especially given his status as probably the greatest composer of the twentieth century, that he was so keen to be accepted by his peers. That surely was a factor in his decision, at the suggestion of Robert Craft, to adopt the serial method.
(You can see this facet of Stravinsky’s character in this superb film by János Darvas where, at 32 minutes, he remembers, with some rancour, an imagined rebuff from Benjamin Britten. A minute before this you also see him, rather too humbly in my opinion, taking advice from Boulez about a mistake in one of his serial works.)
Of course I acknowledge the greatness of these late works – after all, Stravinsky was a superb craftsman; how could they be anything else? Also, I know that many composers (myself included) have benefited from Stravinsky’s rotational take on the serial system. Despite this, I cannot, however hard I try, love them so much as those that came before. I sometimes find myself wishing that Stravinsky had had the confidence to stick to his compositional guns.
One can also forget the institutional power that Boulez has wielded, especially in France. When President Georges Pompidou was looking for a figure to set up a music section as part of a new cultural institution it was Boulez he invited for dinner. When it came to cultural/political influence Boulez, quite literally, ate at the top table.
The meal with the President eventually resulted in IRCAM. Boulez was not, perhaps, the ideal man to wield such institutional power, since he has never been stylistically openminded when dispensing patronage. I think especially of the music of Henri Dutilleux. Despite Dutilleux commissioning the 1948 version of Boulez’s Le soleil des eaux he was not programmed in Boulez’s Domaine Musical concerts, was snubbed by Boulez at the première of his First Symphony and had to wait many years to receive a commission from Ensemble Intercontemporain (a commission he never fulfilled). A style which, however tenuously, retained elements of tonality was, to Boulez, infra dig.
The irony is that Boulez’s own compositional trajectory and also recent interviews, show that he was less dogmatic than he pretended. The early total serial works culminated in Structures I, the ‘ascetic attitude’ of which Ligeti described as ‘akin to compulsion neurosis’. Subsequent works, beginning with Le marteau sans maître, however, showed a loosening of approach to the serial method and even the granting of freedom to performers, especially in allowing them to choose a route through a work (e.g. Third Sonata, Pli selon pli or Domaines).
In a recent interview Boulez has also acknowledged his need to balance the ‘constructivism’ he encountered (and even found ‘a burden’) in the works of the Second Viennese School with a freer approach. He also has talked about how music cannot be compared with science, in that in science things progress, whereas the music of a particular time is not to be considered superior to that of an earlier epoch. It is surely not a huge mental leap to realise that, if works are not to be judged by the mere fact of their chronological position in the canon, then neither should they judged by how completely they adopt the most cutting edge techniques.
So, in this ninetieth birthday year, what are we left with? We are left with the works. A composer is not to be judged by his personal life, writings, in the institutions or colleagues he has championed or the other composers he has conducted. He is only to be judged by his works.
Even here, however, I remain ambivalent. The early experiments with total serialism seem to me to be little more than curiosities of the time. Something that was as inevitable as, say John Cage’s 4’33” and, like it, more of a thought experiment than art. I even find Le marteau sans maître, acknowledged by many as a key twentieth century masterpiece, as curiously colourless, despite the influence of gamelan and the like.
I have listened to most of the works following Le marteau. A few have really grabbed me – I cannot forget, for example, the exhilaration I first felt on hearing the orchestral version of Notations, a work of tremendous power – though others have left me bemused. Even with the latter category, however, it is impossible to reject them outright. Sometimes I listen to a piece of music and I know straight away I don’t like it, usually because I can see through it. I have never had this feeling when listening to Boulez. A cynic would point to the obfuscatory complexity of his scores, which tends to make easy judgements difficult. I disagree; with Boulez one always senses a profound musical intelligence at work. This commands respect and a desire to understand better.
For many aficionados, then, 2015 will be a chance to wish Boulez a hearty ‘Happy Birthday’ and revel in performances of his works. I wish him many happy returns too. I will not so much be revelling in his works, however, but trying to understand them. Like parts of his oeuvre, it is likely to remain a work in progress.
Some videos worth exploring
2014 interview with BBVA Foundation
2012 interview with Universal Edition
2011 Boulez on Mahler
2010 round table discussion, including interesting information about the founding of IRCAM
2010 Boulez on Cage
2009 interview on winning the Kyoto Prize
1995 interview in Amsterdam. Bad sound but Boulez is articulate and witty, so worth a look
Musical creativity and mathematics
Boulez talking about Pierrot Lunaire and his own Eclat (subtitles in Spanish)
Boulez talking about his Sur Incises
Boulez at Biennale Musica 5th October 2012. Interviewed by Robert Piencikowski and Claude Samuel
Pierre Boulez talking to Michele Dall'Ongaro
UK premières begin next month with a new work by Ben Comeau, winner of the Cambridge University Composers’ Workshop, which will be played by the Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall on 4th. Gerald Barry’s song Crossing the Bar, will receive its first performance at the same venue on 24th. A small work, perhaps, but part of an intriguing programme: a selection of 17 songs for soprano and small ensemble commissioned over a ten year period by John Woolrich and BCMG Artist-in-Association Mary Wiegold. The programme reads practically like a who’s who of contemporary music, including, as it does, such figures as: Harvey, Babbit, Adès, Birtwistle, Ruders and Sciarrino. That programme will be repeated at the CBSO Centre on 27th.
Mica Levi, also known by her stage name Micachu, also has an, as yet, untitled work to be premièred by the London Sinfonietta on 27 February as part of their ‘Spectrum of Sound’ concert, which will explore the advances in sonic manipulation over recent years, tracing a path from the pioneers of the 20th century to spectral music of the 21st. The concert also contains the UK première of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Open spaces for 12 string instruments and 2 percussion as well as works by Xenakis and Vivier.
The London Sinfonietta are joined by the BBC Singers on 12th February for a programme of vocal music by James Macmillan, which includes the UK première of Górecki’s Church Songs and MacMillan’s Alleluia. At City Halls, Glasgow, meanwhile, the BBC SSO will, on 28th, give the UK premières of Manfred Trojahn’s Herbstmusik/Sinfonischer Satz and Vito Žuraj’s Hawk-eye (horn concerto). The concert will also mark Boulez’s 90th birthday with a performance of his …explosante-fixe…, appropriately so, since the work received its UK première on Scottish soil more than 20 years ago. The concert will be recorded for Radio 3’s Hear and Now programme, so there will be the chance to hear the programme even if you can’t make it to the venue.
At the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, NYC on 5th February is the world première of Missy Mazzoli’s Quartet for Queen Mab as part of a portrait concert that includes works for strings, voice and electronics. Also at the Miller Theatre on February 19th is a portrait concert of Italian composer Stefano Gervasoni, containing his works: Sviete tihi, Six lettres à l'obscurité (und zwei Nachrichten) and In dir. At SubCulture the NY Philharmonic Contact! series explores new music from Israel on 9th February, including the New York Première of Avner Dorman’s Jerusalem Mix.
The Silk Road Ensemble, which explores the cultural traditions of the famous trade route from which it takes it name, will give a number of concerts in NYC, starting with a meet the ensemble session on February 18th at the David Rubinstein Atrium. The ensemble has commissioned many new works over its fifteen year existence, so there is sure to be much of interest.
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Concert Listings Today & Tomorrow: