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20 Oct  

It is hard to believe that it is nearly a year since the horrendous Paris attacks led to the cancellation of half of Nice’s Manca Festival programme in November 2015. Since then the capital of the French Riviera has had to endure a terrorist incident of its own and, in the aftermath, an unpleasant level of community tension, most obviously expressed in the bizarre banning and unbanning of an apparently innocuous item of beachwear known as the ‘burkini.’ 


Seeing the recently published programme for the 2016 Manca Festival somehow stuck me, then, as a ray of hope. No matter the political tension we are experiencing in Europe, be it the result of mass migration, Islamic terrorism or Brexit, the artistic community continues to express itself, if anything emboldened by difficult times. 


Or so I thought. It turns out that when a country experiences difficult times it has a direct impact on the art it produces. And in France budget cuts have led, once again, to the emasculation of the Manca Festival programme. It’s not a complete disaster—we still have nine decent events to look forward to—but the organising committee has had, apparently at the last minute, to drop their planned theme and rein in the number of concerts. 


If I talk about impoverishment, those who are in the UK (I am not), or hold the UK dear (I do), will understand what I mean. It is all very well to talk about counter-cultural opportunities presented by Brexit, but these will be few and far between if the pot of money available to us shrinks. The existence of art has always depended on surplus. And, generally, the more surplus the better, since it means more free time, free energy and money for art. We cannot, therefore, pretend that the situation doesn't matter.


It would be possible, of course, to point to the economic situation here in France (and, indeed, elsewhere on the Continent) and say that, well, being part of the EU is not helping so much. I think many would agree that the EU is, on many levels, a flawed organisation. As such I can, indeed, appreciate how fair-minded people might want to leave it. Given we have made this decision, however, it seems to be blindingly obvious that we should do this in a way that is least financially ruinous to our country and has the chance of healing some of the wounds opened up in our society. The approach being pursued by the UK government will not, I fear, achieve this—it appears to be opting for the most deleterious and extreme form of Brexit. 


Theresa May tells us that ‘We are all Brexiters now.’ If this is, indeed, the case it means that the extremes no longer own the debate. As such, it is up to us all to make our views heard before it is too late.


19 Oct  

It was splendid to see the BBC National Orchestra of Wales dedicate the first of their Welsh Foundations Concerts to the memory of Peter Reynolds, composer and biographer to this world class band of musicians. He would have been delighted to have been associated with such an event, which featured key works by Daniel Jones, Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias as well as a newer piece, Blue Letters from Tanganika by John Hardy. 


I was particularly pleased to have the chance to hear an alternative performance of the Mathias First Symphony. The recording under the baton of the composer with the same orchestra (albeit in its BBC Welsh days) is essential listening, of course, but the acoustic is rather too vast and the rhythmic control not always very exact. 


The performance, yesterday, began a little unpromisingly. The symphony frequently relies on rhythmic energy to drive it forwards—too slow and the thick orchestration and static harmonies weigh rather heavily. This was exactly the problem in the opening movement, where the tempo left the music feeling ponderous. Elsewhere, however, the performance was excellent, not always superseding the Mathias recording, but always adding new layers of insight. The slow movement, especially, was a thing of beauty; expertly paced as the counterpoints accumulated, superbly expressive and with an overwhelming climax. 


Of the other pieces, Daniel Jones’s Ieuenctid was certainly a revelation. I had always marked his style down as being austere, but perhaps the nature of the commission—an overture to mark the tenth birthday of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales—made him unbutton a little. The Hoddinott Horn Concerto was brilliantly played by Alec Frank-Gemmill, the work itself a typical Hoddinottian mixture of brooding stasis and sardonic kineticism. The brief for the more recently written Blue Letters from Tanganyika by John Hardy was for a work that was accessible to young children, the result a delightful suite of movements that really seemed to capture the essence of Africa.


You can hear the full programme for thirty days on BBC iPlayer.


The next concert in the Welsh Foundations concert, also featuring music by Hoddinott, Mathias and Jones is on 25th November.


14 Oct  

Ok, so it has very little to do with contemporary music, but if you haven't seen this musical parody of the second presidential debate you must watch it immediately—it is hilarious.

And in other news...

The composer Gerhard Wimberger, who promoted contemporary music at the Salzburg Festival from 1971 to 1991 has died at the age of 93. Norman Lebrecht at Slipped Disc, wryly observes that ‘Safe to say, nothing that he commissioned frightened the horses in the Reitschule… Wimberger believed that Carl Orff and Arvo Pärt were proof that music need never stray outside the tonal frame. He was awarded the Austrian Composition Prize in 1967 and was professor of composition at the Mozarteum, 1969-91. He was also head of the rights collection organisation, AKM.’

And Andre Previn has just accepted a commission to write a new piece for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra:

The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra is thrilled to announce that Maestro Andre Previn will write a 'Concerto for Orchestra' to be premiered as part of the Orchestra's finale concert of its 100th Anniversary season in 2020—2021.

KALAMAZOO, MI, October 13, 2016 /24-7PressRelease/ -- The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra is thrilled to announce that Maestro Andre Previn will write a 'Concerto for Orchestra' to be premiered as part of the Orchestra's finale concert of its 100th Anniversary season in 2020-2021.

"Previn is a man of few words about his own music," says Mattie Kaiser, his representative at music publishing company G. Schirmer, while Previn briefly commented, "It's a big piece, about thirty minutes long, and in four movements. I'm quite excited to be able to use such a sizeable orchestra.... Whatever is good about it, I hope is in the music."

"We are honored and excited about this amazing commissioning opportunity," said Peter H. Gistelinck, President & CEO of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. "Maestro Previn, honored with four Academy Awards, ten Grammy Awards and The Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, is one of the most amazing, versatile and talented musicians of our time and the fact that he accepted to write a vast work for our Orchestra that features our wonderful musicians as soloists, is extremely special and exciting."


12 Oct  

The Welsh musical community felt a deep sense of shock today at the news of the sudden death of composer Peter Reynolds. He was one of those figures that seemed to be at every event, on every committee, a constant and affable fixture in Welsh musical life. It is hard to accept that he has gone.


I cannot, sadly, claim to have known him well. I met him at a number of events related to Composers of Wales, or saw him knocking around Cardiff after some or other new music concert. I was, however, lucky enough to sit down and chat at length with him on several occasions. He was always so knowledgeable, so modest and always ready with a sound bit of advice. Especially I remember him telling me about the dangers of wasting energy on large-scale composing, a pearl of wisdom I have since tried to follow.


There have been many tributes today from people who were lucky enough to know Peter better than me. Many were also keen to share their thoughts here.


In publishing these tributes, I am indebted to Christopher Painter, who helped to put me in touch with many people at short notice.


BBC National Orchestra of Wales:


We are incredibly sad to hear that our friend and colleague Peter Reynolds has passed away. Peter was a gifted composer and true champion of Welsh music and musicians; he was our biographer and programme writer for many years, a constant source of musical knowledge and insight. We will miss him very much; our thoughts are with his friends and family.


Christopher Painter, composer:


Totally bereft to hear that my good friend Peter Reynolds has suddenly passed away. A man of superb intellect with an innate kindness who has been a tremendous source of support to me. A great yet unassuming composer who had so much more to give—he will be missed as a composer but even more so as a gentle, generous and constant friend whose opinion was always valued and whose complete integrity was always in evidence.


Rest in peace Peter, I will miss you more than I can say and will always treasure the knowledge that you were my friend.


Ben Lunn, composer, now working in Lithuania, who studied with Peter:


Peter was a modest but thought-provoking tutor. Whatever direction I was keen to explore he was always 30 steps ahead of me. He was ultimately caring, loving, never imposing, and most significantly always supportive.


George Vass, Chair of the British Arts Festival Association:


Completely numbed by the news of Welsh composer Peter Reynold's sudden death yesterday—a true gentleman, a huge supporter and enthusiast for everything musical and, above all, one of the greatest exponents of Welsh music and musicians. RIP Peter, it was an honour to have known you. 


Franziska Jones, friend and colleague:


Peter has been an inspiration and wonderful friend, mentor and colleague. I've known him for 10 years, and admire his work and life. His sense of humour and creativity were outstanding. He was a real renaissance man; he will be remembered for many things. I worked with him at Wales Millennium Centre, programming the foyer performances. He was always supportive and encouraging. Our daughter had piano lessons on the grand piano in his house, which was wonderful. He put on a 7am concert in a remote little church near Abergavenny, which will be a special memory. He cooked delicious tagines and soups, and his hospitality was brilliant. He also loved the local farmers markets and small bakeries. He shared some nice cycle routes around Cardiff and was a keen cyclist. So talented and intelligent yet humble and down to earth. He will be missed by so many…


Piano Circus:


Piano Circus are so incredibly saddened to hear of the passing of Peter Reynolds. We are happy to have had the pleasure of working alongside him on a number of musical projects in Wales over the past few years. He was a supporter, a gentleman and a friend. His loss will be felt deeply by many, and he will certainly be missed by us. 


Dawn, James, Paul, Neil, Leo, Nathan.

Piano Circus 


Mark Boden, composer, friend, colleague and former pupil:


I first met Peter at RWCMD where he tutored me in composition between 2004–2008. He was  incredibly knowledgable across a vast spectrum of musical genres and would always be able to suggest appropriate repertoire to enhance and enrich his pupils’ knowledge without forcing ideas upon them. Due to having so many musical engagements and commitments, Peter was often unable to give lessons at college and would instead tutor me in his study at his home. The place really was a treasure trove of scores, manuscripts and books—I loved studying with him there! As a student, it seemed there was never a musical event in Cardiff that Peter didn’t attend—he was an ever-present supporter of musical life in Wales. 


I returned to RWCMD in 2011 as a tutor in composition and Peter became a highly-valued and much-loved colleague. He remained an incredibly reliable source of knowledge and expertise in both composing and teaching. We would often share ideas with one another and discuss teaching methods, especially during the earlier stages of my lecturing career—something I remain incredibly grateful for. 


Peter had an huge capacity for fun, especially when he was hosting people at his home. He was an excellent cook and I fondly remember introducing him to Badger ales, which seemed like a revelation to him at the time! 


Peter was incredibly kind, humble, generous and loyal as a friend and colleague. He will be missed enormously by RWCMD staff and pupils, both past and present.


Rhiannon Hoddinott:


As one gets older the list of people that one would not miss gets longer and longer while the list of those that one would miss terribly gets ever shorter, dear Peter was definitely on the latter.


Suzanne Hay, Head of Partnerships and Learning, BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales and Management Board, Ty Cerdd—Music Centre Wales:


I was very saddened to hear last night of the sudden passing of Peter Reynolds. Peter has played a central role in music-making in Wales—whether that be through ensuring that our rich cultural music heritage is celebrated, publicised and carefully archived or through nurturing, encouraging and developing our future composers and musicians. On a national and international level we owe much to Peter for helping to raise the profile of music in our country. He was a true gentleman, whose wit and good humour could diffuse any situation. Peter has made a lasting impact and his legacy will live on.


Benjamin Teague, organist, friend and former pupil:


I wake this morning in the dim light, and the harsh realisation that the death of Peter Reynolds was not a dream. There is too much anguish and sadness to describe the loss of this man. He was a true bastion of musical knowledge, and will remain in my heart forever as one of my formative teachers and friends.


Ruth Garnault, former Director of Public Programmes, Wales Millennium Centre; friend and colleague:


I first met Peter in a pub during the 1980s. I know this because one of Peter's boundless talents was an ability to recall exactly where and when he first met you. I was delighted to be able to employ him to run the Glanfa performance programme at WMC and the success of that programme was down to Peter's knowledge and dedication.  He became a valued friend and I cherish the epithalamion he wrote as my wedding gift. Words can not express how much I'll miss him.


Gregynog Festival:


Remembering Peter Reynolds, a most gifted, versatile and delightful colleague, whose premature passing is a grievous loss to music in Wales. (via Twitter)


Wales Arts Review:


Very sad to hear of the passing of Peter Reynolds, a major figure in Welsh music, a WAR contributor, but more importantly, also a friend. (via Twitter)


To learn more about Peter Reynolds:


Personal website:


Full obituary:


Some Soundcloud links:



Canons for the Longest Day

Bye Baby Bunting

The Sand of Time: an opera in four minutes


8 Oct  

Do you have a composition website? Ah, the tedious art of self-promotion. If you’re anything like me, you try to put in every positive thing that you’ve done, that one decent newspaper quote you have, the few nice recordings. You know, generally give the impression that the world is beating a path to your door, begging you to write just one more symphony.


I spend a fair bit of time flicking round this type of website whilst writing these blogposts. One that brought me up short recently belongs to British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad (see picture). If you know anything about her, you know that she is very talented and very successful. If you hunt round her website, however, you will find a wonderful little thing called a ‘Failure C.V.’ (I won’t give the direct link—doesn’t feel fair somehow). In it she lists all of her failures during 2016. The list is quite long. 


I like this idea a lot. It’s easy to forget, especially when you are struggling to make any impact at all as a composer, how often it is necessary to fail. The world won’t beat a path to your door unless you put yourself about a bit and run the risk of being knocked back. And it provides a great example to composers starting out to realise that people higher up the artistic food-chain are also, to some extent, failures.


More than anything, however, I just liked the failure CV for its freshness, it’s honesty, it’s two-fingered, raspberry-blowing confidence. In this spirit, therefore, here is my 2016 failure CV: 


—A chamber opera I entered for the The Bluegrass Opera competition didn’t win, though I did get some useful feedback.


—I was recently asked to contribute a piece at short notice to a concert, but didn't think I had anything appropriate. Afterwards I discovered several pieces I could have submitted.


—I entered the Hendrix College Candlelight Carol Competition 2016 competition. My carol got to the last 10, but was eventually rejected.


—I entered a competition (I forget what) for chamber ensemble. Again not successful.


—I recently sent pdfs of two Christmas pieces, together with Soundcloud links to around 20 British cathedrals. I have had three polite responses and radio silence from everyone else. My Soundcloud page does not seem to have had any additional hits.


As you can see, my failures are less elevated than those of Frances-Hoad, which rather shows our relative position in the composerly pecking-order. My list is also rather short, which makes me realise that I need to fail a bit more. Therein lies success.


4 Oct  

A happy birthday to Steve Reich, who turned 80 yesterday. For those wishing to get to know or revisit some of his key works, take a look at this article, which describes 10 pieces beginning with It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and finishing with Radio Rewrite (2012).


Here also are some videos in which he talks about his life and work:


Steve Reich in Conversation with Mohsen Mostafi 



Reich speaks about his work and plays sample recording from his oeuvre.


The Rest Is Noise | Steve Reich in conversation with Gillian Moore (2013)



Part of The Rest Is Noise - Southbank Centre's year long celebration of 20th Century classical music - composer Steve Reich speaks to Head of Classical Music Gillian Moore. 


Steve Reich: Playing Music/Talking Music



Steve Reich discusses his career and the current state of contemporary classical music with Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Justin Davidson, of New York magazine.


Steve Reich in Conversation with Bang on a Can Co-founder David Lang (2014)



Reich and Lang spoke in MASS MoCA’s Sol LeWitt retrospective after Bang on a Can staged a performance of his compositions. Hear them speak about his friendship with LeWitt, his compositions and his work Radio Rewrite.


Reich and Sondheim: In Conversation and Performance (2015)



For the first time, on January 31, 2015, the two luminaries and mutual admirers appeared together on stage for a conversation moderated by WNYC’s John Schaefer and a performance of several of their milestone works.

Steve Reich and Michael Snow, Appel Salon (2016)


Steve Reich in conversation with Canadian artist Michael Snow. Hosted by CBC Radio's Sook-Yin Lee.


4 Oct  

I was away doing other things when the death of Sir Neville Marriner came through on Sunday, so it feels a little belated to be mentioning it now. 


Even if I had had my computer with me, however, I would probably not have written at length. Whilst Sir Neville was undoubtedly and deservedly one of the UK’s best-loved conductors, a blog dedicated to contemporary composition is probably not the place for an obituary—he specialised largely in baroque and classical works, only occasionally straying into early twentieth century repertoire. 


For me he will always be the conductor of the soundtrack to Amadeus, a film that knocked me sideways as a young teenager. In other respects Sir Neville’s work, for me at least, fell between two stools. In his preferred baroque and classical repertoire, I favoured period instrument conductors of the likes of Hogwood and, even when he did stray a bit later, one felt he was not so much in his element. 


Despite this, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge his role in transforming standards of instrumental playing in the UK. He moulded the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields into one of the most virtuosic ensembles in the world at a time when UK orchestral playing was not considered to be exactly world class. The good effects of this continue to ripple around the UK’s musical scene. 


For complete obituaries from both sides of the Atlantic:


The Guardian

The Independent

The Telegraph

The Washington Post

The New York Times


27 Sep  

It turns out that Alan Turing, Bletchley Park’s most famous codebreaker, was also a musical pioneer—in 1951 he created a device that produced the first computer-generated music. A recording of this is now available to hear (see Soundcloud link), having recently been restored by researchers in New Zealand. 


Via The Guardian


25 Sep  

Ravi Shankar was working on an opera at the time of his his death in 2012. This is now slated to received its world premiere in May at Leicester’s Curve Theatre. 


Collaborator Davis Murphy explained: “He’d written the whole piece in outline – the entire raga structure and almost all the melodies so [after Shankar’s death] it was just a matter of filling in the gaps, which were small,”


Via The Guardian.


Ravi Shankar Opera Website.


Work in Progress video:


25 Sep  

A date for the diary. On October 1st Sonostream will free livestream Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Donnerstag, the first opera from his monumental Licht cycle.


From the Sonostream website:


The first of the seven operas, „Donnerstag“ (Thursday), embarks on a spiritual journey through space and time: a musical big bang which is light, playful and touchingly poetic and which exerts a hypnotic power. First staged in 1981 at La Scala, Milan, it is an ambitious, visionary work that combines opera, ballet, trumpet concerto and oratorio.


At the centre of the work is Michael, a modern Orpheus, whose task is to bring “the music of the heavens to man and the music of man to the heavens”. On his path through life, which ‘Donnerstag’ presents at different stages, Michael visits many exotic locations both on earth and in space where he is repeatedly confronted with the dark power of Lucifer. However, Michael succeeds in passing the many tests he must set himself – not least with the help of his trumpet and the magical healing powers of music.


The staging in June 2016 by Theater Basel was not only its Swiss premiere, but its first production of "Donnerstag" anywhere in more than 30 years. The director is the young American Lydia Steier, who took a fresh, highly theatrical approach to the piece and the conductor is Titus Engel, especially renowned in modern music.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung praised the production a "milestone of the Stockhausen reception", proclaiming: “Now that this production in Basel has broken the ice and bravely saved Donnerstag for the sake of contemporary music theatre, we can only hope that other houses will soon venture to stage at least this part of the Licht cycle."



24 Sep  

From 7—16th October Venice Biennale’s International Festival of Contemporary Music marks its sixtieth anniversary with a programme of 26 events that feature 45 world premieres, 27 Italian premieres and 24 commissions. Highlights include a new work for string quartet and piano by Kaija Saariaho on 7th; Pascal Dusapin’s Beckett’s Bones for soprano, clarinet and piano on 12th; and Toshio Hosokawa’s Aya for flute and amplified string trio also on 12th. On the 8th there will also be a presentation of the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award to Salvatore Sciarrino. It will be followed by a concert given by the London Sinfonietta, who will perform three works by the composer, including the world premiere of Immagina il deserto, for ensemble and soprano.


As well as these premieres, there will be both an Italian and American focus during the festival, the former including composers such as Azio Corghi, Sylvano Bussotti, Claudio Ambrosini, Luca Mosca, Michele dall'Ongaro, Stefano Gervasoni, Mauro Lanza, Vittorio Montalti, Gabriele Cosmi; and the latter David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Tyondai Braxton, Nico Muhly and Judd Greenstein. Other strands to follow include explorations of connections between images and sounds, especially through music written for film; and relationships with tradition, both within the Western canon and in World Music.


And outside Venice…


Nicolas Horvath has been committing the complete piano music of Philip Glass to CD in his Glassworlds survey. He is now bringing this immense experience to bear in an epic performance of the complete piano output of the composer at a concert at Philharmonie de Paris on 1st October. The performance is scheduled to start at 7pm and to continue for around 12 hours.


In marking the start of her period as composer in residence at Wigmore Hall, London, Helen Grime will have a day dedicated her music there on 15th October. There will be a concert of chamber music written for combinations of violin, viola, cello, oboe and piano at 1pm; a chance to hear the composer in conversation at 6pm; and a concert given by BCMG at 7.30 that will include her Clarinet Concerto, Luna, Embrace and Seven Pierrot Miniatures as well as works by Knussen, Carter and Janáček.


In a frustrating bit of programming, on the same day as the Grime the Barbican is hosting a James MacMillan Choral Music Day. At 3pm at St. Giles’ Cripplegate, Ex Cathedra will give the first London performance of Seven Angels, which tells the story of the Biblical apocalypse from Revelation. At 7.30 Harry Christophers conducts The Sixteen and Britten Sinfonia in the world premiere of Macmillan’s Stabat Mater. This concert also includes his Miserere and works by Tallis and Vaughan Williams. There is pre-concert talk with James MacMillan, Jeffrey Skidmore, Harry Christophers and John Studzinski at 6.15.


An exciting operatic premiere takes place in Birmingham on 25th, with the first performance of Jane Eyre by John Joubert. The work dates back as far as 1969, but was substantially revised following an amateur performance some years ago. This, therefore, marks the official premiere of the work, happily coinciding with both the composer’s 90th birthday and the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte.


In the States, at Jordan Hall, Boston, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project present works by four prominent US composers: Michael Colgrass, Gail Kubik, Harold Shapero and Steven Stucky. In NYC, meanwhile, Contemporary Insights presents a programme of recent instrumental and vocal chamber music by composer and oboist Sky Macklay. Pieces include Macklay’s chamber opera Why We Bleed, Doppelgänger III for two oboes and keyboard,  FastLowHighSlow for two violins and piano four-hands and Lessina, Levlen, Levlite, Levora for speaking violinist and electronics.


19 Sep  

As a teenager I would spend many a happy hour with my head buried in the latest Deutsche Grammophon, Decca or Chandos catalogue, lusting after shiny CDs and the pleasures digitised into their perfectly polished surfaces. These days, if you are looking for something a edgy and interesting, the most well-known labels are not the places to look—they tend to concentrate on core classical repertoire, only venturing into the field of contemporary music where they can promote, and make money from, the latest fad. Happily, for the more adventurous there are plenty of newer labels who have stepped in to fill this gap. The range of music they offer can be bewildering.


A particularly happy recent discovery was the Norwegian label Lawo. I gave a full review to one of their CDs, a splendid disk of contemporary music for trumpet, not long ago. I didn’t, however, mention the plethora of other recent releases from them. These include The New Song, a collection of recent works for voice and piano performed by Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo-soprano) and Nils Anders Mortensen (piano); works for oboe by Mozart and Norwegian composers Ketil Hvoslef and Harald Sæverud; a programme of saxophone music played by Lars Lien; music for wind octet by Gideon Klein, Johan Kvandal, Isang Yun and Magnar Åm; a selection of chamber music by British composer Laurence Crane; live music from the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, including works by Liza Lim and Jon Øivind Ness; and a second album in a series that explores the chamber music of Ketil Hvoslef. I am still exploring these albums and might do another full review soon. In the meantime, I will just say that I own physical copies of all of the above, which in itself is rather a joy given the high production values and beautiful artwork.


Another label that is new to me is Navona Records, the classical wing of Parma Recordings, which, in their own words, ‘offers listeners a fresh taste of today's leading innovators in orchestral, chamber, instrumental, and experimental music as well as prime pieces of classic repertoire.’ This seems hardly an exaggeration when browsing their latest releases: a selection of piano music by Robert Casadesus and Henri Dutilleux played by Cicilia Yudha; The Crossroads Project, a multidisciplinary project featuring the music of Libby Larsen and Laura Kaminsky; Between the Echoes, a showcase of recent chamber music by Daniel Burwasser, David DeVasto, Georges Raillard, Michael Lee and Allan Crossman; a programme of concert music by Lawrence Ball; chamber music by André M. Santos; and an album exploring the music of Michael Laurello.


And on other labels…


Naxos this month releases a new recording of Michael Nyman’s one-act chamber opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, featuring Ryan McPherson, Rebecca Sjöwall, Matthew Treviño and the Nashville Opera Orchestra; and  a disk of organ music from that often neglected Australian Master of the Queen’s Music, Malcolm Williamson. On Bridge Records James Levine conducts performances of Charles Wuorinen’s Eighth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto; and a disk of music for tuba played by Aaron Tindall. On Signum Records, finally, Wells Cathedral Choir conducted by Matthew Owens perform music by John Tavener. As well as established favourites such as Song of Athene it also contains several world premiere recordings, including Preces and Responses and They are all gone into the world of light


18 Sep  

Recently giving evidence to the UK Government’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, George Vass, Chair of the British Arts Festival Association, and Mark Pemberton, Director of the Association of British Orchestras, both observed that new entries into the music profession tend to have the same white middle-class background. Pemberton said ‘It is looking like it is becoming more and more a middle class and advantaged profession’ with Vass adding that ‘There’s a whole raft of people that we’re just missing completely and it’s a great shame.’


More information available at Arts Professional


12 Sep  

Chaya Czernowin was born and raised in Israel but has subsequently lived in Germany, Austria, Japan and now the US. Given such a peripatetic lifestyle it is, perhaps, unsurprising that the question of identity plays a large role in her music. She remarks:


“…my music almost obsessively tried to stretch the idea of identity: from the inside, exploring separate and contrasting voices (or identities) within one larger identity, investigating how much dissent and difference can exist before the seams start to tear apart and all of a sudden, we have more than one identity. Dialectically, I stretched identity by combining different instruments into a unified meta instrument.”


This last comment seems particularly prescient when listening to this disk, since in these works Czernowin strips instruments of their familiar identities, recombining them in new and novel ways. At the opening of The Quiet, for example, the brass and strings are asked to play in ways that fall short of actually producing a pitch, the brass blowing through their instruments and the strings lightly drawing their strings to produce scratchy overtones. The one effect seems to complement and grow from the other, so that normal instrumental identities become blurred. And even where instruments are individually delineated Czernowin prefers to use extended techniques, though in a way that feels less a straining for effect and more a search for the very essence of each instrument’s character. The net result is never less than compelling.


These works are not, however, a mere morass of interesting sounds. Both form part of what Czernowin calls the ‘Crescendo Trilogy’, which provides a clue to underlying structural processes. Whilst in The Quiet we are told this is because ‘an exponential increase in volume ends the piece’, the gradual introduction of pitch into the texture suggests a more metaphorical crescendo, one that shapes the entire span. The second work Zohar Iver takes a similar approach, the emergence of single pitches also playing a role in initiating a final crescendo, though a long pedal also serves to delay the peroration. In terms of instrumental writing there are also some neat additional touches, including the emergence of an electric guitar, the use of distortion pedal fitting rather well into the grungy texture.


€18.50 might seem a pretty hefty price for two works totalling not much over 25 minutes, but on a cost/benefit ratio they are definitely worth the investment. If in doubt, try before you buy—the EP is available on both Spotify and Apple Music.


8 Sep  

It seems that a contingent of Remainers plans to use the Last Night of the Proms to wave a large number of EU flags. This has provoked angry interventions from Leave politicians. Bill Cash, remarked “The climax of the last night is the singing of Rule Britannia – which is the great hymn to Britain and certainly not to the European Union”; Peter Bone MP said: “The Last Night of the Proms is an inspiring, uplifting British event, not an EU event – so for it to be hijacked is cheap politics.” Pots and kettles black, perhaps?


Nicholas Kenyon wrote perceptively recently about a sense of foreboding that the occasion might be used ‘to celebrate the triumph of Little England, to reinforce the message of a land of hope and glory in which Britons never shall be slaves – to the EU or anyone else.’ It seems ironic that the opposite might be about to happen. Either way, it’s about time that the harmless bit of froth that is the Last Night were taken a lot less seriously. Singing rousing patriotic songs is one thing, but expecting to receive political enlightenment, of whatever ilk, whilst doing so is absurd. 


7 Sep  

Brian Eno has just refused permission for Tel Aviv dance company Batsheva to use his composition Neroli because they are sponsored by the Israeli embassy. Eno is a signatory to the Artist’s Pledge to Palestine, which promises to ‘accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.’ More information available, here.


7 Sep  

Two leading arts figures have this week quit the UK in the wake of the decision to leave the European Union. On 4th September Nicholas Mansfield, the British director of Netherlands Touring Opera, became a Dutch citizen, saying ‘I’m a man of principle. If my homeland takes a different path, I must cease to belong to it’. The following day, the German director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose leadership has seen record visitor numbers and the award of Art Fund museum of the year, said that Brexit had hastened his decision to leave his post. He considered the referendum ‘a personal defeat’ and expressed his worry that a ‘“me first” mentality’ was spreading throughout Europe.


30 Aug  

Norman Lebrecht recently drew attention to comments made by Jacques Attali:


Je crois personnellement que la musique atonale est une impasse, elle ne correspond pas à la nature même de l’audition, elle a constitué une tentative de « terrorisme musical » qui ne correspond pas à la nature profonde de ce qu’est la musique.


(I personally believe that atonal music is an impasse, it does not correspond to the natural way of hearing, it constitutes a ‘musical terrorism’ that has nothing to do with the profound nature of music.)


Jacques Attali is more politician than musician (‘would-be orchestra conductor’ as Lebrecht neatly sums him up) and his comment is neither original nor particularly provocative. Criticisms of atonality are as old as atonality itself. In 1914 Strauss allegedly described Schoenberg as being in need of a psychiatrist and that ‘he'd do better to shovel snow instead of scribbling on music-paper…’,  in 1961 Ernest Ansermet attempted to debunk serialism in his book Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine. More recent criticisms include, in 2009, Roger Scruton’s collection of essays Understanding Music, Philosophy and Interpretation (especially in the eleventh, True authority: Janáček, Schoenberg and us) and, perhaps more provocatively, Jérôme Ducros’s 2012 lecture L'atonalisme. Et après?


I was led to this last source after reading the often perceptive, sometimes hilarious comments to Lebrecht’s original post. It would have taxed my French, except that, just a couple of weeks ago, an English language version of the lecture was made available on YouTube (embedded, below). It is fascinating to watch, really one of the most compelling and elegant arguments in favour of a return to the old ways of composing. It will enrage many.


Ducros L’atonalisme. Et après? Lecture given at Seminar Amphithéâtre Marguerite de Navarre, College de France

Ducros’s argument basically boils down to the fact that atonality results in a kind of blandness, since music lacks a dialectic, a set of rules understood by the listener against which the composer can satisfy, surprise or, indeed, frustrate their expectations. In essence, the listener, in expecting everything, is surprised by nothing. 


I have some sympathy for this point of view, having often found it difficult to discern the shape or narrative thrust of atonal music. On such occasions, however, I have never felt this had anything to do with the lack of tonality itself. There are many ways of providing coherence to music and one of the joys of grappling with modernist repertoire is trying to work out what these might be. To take an obvious, and popular, example: Ligeti’s Atmospheres is best understood as a series of shapes, shifting colours and subtle manipulations of tessitura. Heard in this way the work is both coherent and compelling. 


Ducros's analysis does, nevertheless, lead us to an important truth: too often the other forms of musical coherence that a composer must rely upon in the absence of tonality are not nearly sufficiently stressed. Of course, often there will be all sorts of clever musical filiation going on in the background, but none of this is of any use whatsoever if it cannot be discerned by the listener.


A secondary issue raised by Ducros is that too often music students are encouraged, or rather forced, to write in an atonal style in musical institutions. He presents it rather dramatically as a battle in which composers, after years of stultifying musical education, have to emancipate themselves from the modernism they have been forced to adopt. If this is true, it seems to be more a reflection of the ossified state of musical education in France than a criticism of higher education more generally. Certainly, in the UK and US, most universities are perfectly happy to produce students that write tonal music. What they will not accept is students who do this from a position of ignorance. One cannot pretend that the twentieth century did not happen. It is vital for universities to challenge young composers by making them aware of the historical context in which they write. 


Ducros’s attempts to characterise the twentieth century as the century of atonality are, anyway, erroneous. The best composers have always followed their own stylistic inclinations. How else could Britten be writing Noye’s Fludde a year after Boulez finished Le marteau sans maître? And if composers are individuals, so too are listeners. Ducros might be rather surprised to find, even if he does not like it himself, that there are plenty of people who adore the music of Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen et al. Composers will choose to write whatever they wish and audiences will choose to listen to whatever they wish. There is no battle, just a myriad of bewildering and enticing possibilities from which the contemporary composer must choose. 


22 Aug  

The Proms continue until 10th September, though with just one more world premiere to look forward to: Tom Harrold’s Raze on the Last Night. I am a little behind on my listening, but of the August new works I was particularly struck by Helen Grimes’s characteristically colourful Eardley Pictures. Splendid also to hear the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland do such a good job of the second of these. All the premieres, including links to completed performances, are still viewable, here.


If the prospect of the Proms ending is a depressing thought, it may be worth heading to the Continent, where there are several major festivals to look forward to, including:


Musikfest Berlin (Germany, 2nd–20th)


Features 29 events and 70 works by 35 composers including Shostakovich, Galina Ustvolskaya, Luigi Nono, Philippe Manoury, Olga Neuwirth, Matthias Pintscher, Enno Poppe and Rebecca Saunders. There is also a particular focus on works by Edgard Varèse, Wolfgang Rihm, John Adams and György Ligeti.


Ultima (Oslo, Norway 6th–17th)


Focusing on contemporary music, there is much to enjoy over the festival’s 45 events. Of particular interest to British audiences is a staging of Britten’s War Requiem, to be performed on seven nights during the festival. Its importance in the context of contemporary events and British music will also be discussed. Living composers represented include Bent Sørensen, Jacob Kirkegaard, Manos Tsangaris, La Monte Young, Maja S.K. Ratkje, Trond Reinholdtsen and Terry Riley (who will also perform). 


Paris Autumn Festival (France, starts 6th September)


More a season of arts events than a festival, so perhaps of more interest if you live in Paris. Two concerts stand out in September: a ‘posthumous’ opera by Robert Ashley on 21st and 24th, and an opportunity to hear George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song… on 28th and 29th


BeethovenFest, Bonn (Germany, 9th–14th)


Despite the focus on Beethoven there is some more recent music to enjoy, including works by Ligeti, Bartok, Rihm, Nono and Malipiero. There is also a recreation of Dance, Philip Glass’s 1979 collaboration with choreographer Lucinda Childs and conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.


Warsaw Autumn (Poland, 16th—24th)


Another festival that focuses entirely on contemporary music. This year the focus is on the stage, both literally, in terms of form, and metaphorically, as a compositional paradigm. Opera events include The Magic Fountain by Paweł Mykietyn; the multimedia opera Aaron S by Sławomir Wojciechowski; Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway; and two works by Salvatore Sciarrino: Infinito Nero and Luci mie traditrici.


musica2016 (Strasbourg, France 21st–8th Oct)


Also a contemporary music festival with a huge amount on offer: an exploration of electronic music that pays homage to one of its founding fathers, Pierre Henry; several screenings of cinematic works accompanied by live performances of their original scores (in the case of Kubrick’s 2001) or by new or improvised works (for Métropolis by Fritz Lang and Les Misérables, by Henri Fescourt); four concerts for choir and orchestra; Mririda, a new opera by Ahmed Essyad; a dance spectacle My Rock by Jean-Claude Gallotta; a focus on music by Spanish composer Alberto Posadas; and the promotion of works by emerging composers.


Back in the UK, you could check out the Lammermuir Festival in East Lothian (9th–18th). There’s Britten’s perennially popular Noye’s Fludde on 11th, Rolf Riehm’ s He, très doulz roussignol joly on 15th and a programme that includes Berio, Sørensen and Gubaidulina on 16th. In London, there are premieres from Stephen McNeff, Roland Pöntinen, Julian Philips and Anna Meredith at Wigmore Hall on 12th, 19th, 20th and 24th respectively. There is also a collaborative performance between Gwyneth Herbert and the London Sinfonietta, including new arrangements and pieces, on 9th at Kings Place. Wim Henderickx’s new choral work Blossomings, finally, receives its first performance on 23rd at the Barbican. The rest of the programme is chiefly dedicated to the vocal music of Jonathan Harvey.


7 Aug  

It was fascinating reading the responses of UK composers to Brexit on 16th July. So much so that I was inspired to write down my own thoughts in a post on my own website. If you’re at all interested I’d be delighted if you were to pay a visit.


A piece of good news came on 26th July. The Sounds Like Now crowdfund, a project to launch a new glossy magazine dedicated to contemporary music in the UK and Ireland achieved, and then surpassed, its £18,000 target. The team, lead by Dan Goren and editor Steph Power are now beavering away to produce the first edition, which should appear in November 2016. I’ll post a reminder when it comes out.


The Proms continue apace. If you have missed any of the premieres, why not take a look at CT’s guide, which I published here on 7th July. As a I speculated at the time, if you follow the link through to the Proms website, audio (and video where appropriate) of each concert is posted after the event. This makes this list a great way of catching up on premieres, as I have been doing today. I’d especially suggest that you pay the Michael Berkeley Violin Concerto a visit. An achingly beautiful work that has a pretty surprising final third—I won’t say why. I’m still not sure that it entirely works, but it's certainly not boring.


There have been a number of interesting recent CD releases. If you are an organ aficionado, as I occasionally am, there are two disks that give very different perspectives of contemporary organ writing. On Signum Classics is a new album in their Hakim plays Hakim series, this time on the Schuke Organ of the Palacio Euskalduna, Bilbao. Naji Hakim is a delightful miniaturist, two of the works here, the Suite Norvégienne and Suite Françasie being collections of movements that are around a minute each. His style is traditional, what we might call quirkily tonal; in a work such as the Ouverture Libanaise, with its oleaginous  harmonies, popular tunes and fruity registration he’s not above flirting with what we might call the Wurlitzer school of organ playing. It’s deliciously entertaining. 


Also delicious, but in a quite different way is Maurice Kagel’s Improvisation Ajoutée, a new recording of which has just been issued on Wergo. It’s not hard to see why the work caused something of a scandal when it was premiered in 1962. The organ writing in itself is novel enough: dense, dissonant and with a plethora of extended techniques. In addition to this, however, the player and his two assistants are also asked to make all manner of noises: ‘speaking, coughing, laughing, whistling, clapping, and above all loud groans and shouts.’ If you’re in the right frame of mind it’s great fun. If not, start by listening to a different work on the disk, Kagel’s own set of organ miniatures Rrrrr, which rather give the Hakim a masterclass in quirky attractiveness.


I mention en passant a new recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Whilst, obviously, not a new work, the significance of this particular recording, also on Wergo, lies in the fact that it is a new completion by composer and conductor Yoel Gamzou. I’m not in a position to compare its merits with the better-known Deryck Cooke version, but I’m sure that many will want to do just that. 


A composer who remains a favourite of mine is William Mathias; his music, as I wrote in 2012, being brilliantly communicative. It’s great to see his discography continuing to expand, this time in a useful collection of his vocal music performed by St. Albans Abbey Girls’ Choir. It contains some of his best known works, including the carol sequence Ave Rex and the mystical As truly as God is our Father, but also lesser known pieces such as An Admonition to Rulers and premiere recordings of All the works shall praise thee and The Lord’s Prayer. The disk is currently available for pre-order on iTunes, with previews of each track to help you decide whether to stump up the quite reasonable £5.99.


Other recent disks to consider include a collection of piano music by Kenneth Hesketh on BIS, the most substantial piece of the programme, Horae (pro clara), lending its name to the album. On Wergo there is a first recording of the original version of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Symphony in One Movement, an important document given that he substantially rewrote the work after its much criticised first performance. There is a portrait CD and DVD of music by Ondřej Adámek, which contains nine works for a variety of instrumental setups, from an air machine to orchestra and choir; and, by way of contrast, a collection of works for solo flute by Violeta Dinescu. On NMC there is a collection of music by Mark Bowden, the orchestral works being played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with whom Bowden is Resident Composer; and also a new album featuring works by Emily Howard. The Singing Bridge, finally, is a sound-work by Claudia Molitor written as a response to Waterloo Bridge.

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