Contemporary music at the Barbican 2012-13

There’s a healthy swathe of premières and commissioned works announced recently as part of the Barbican’s 2012-13 season.

Turnage

Image credit: Boosey & Hawkes

February 2013 sees a residency from Bad Boy of British music, Mark-Anthony Turnage,  and an evocative-looking programme of music from Japan with a ‘Total Immersion’ concert including works by Takemitsu, Dai Fujikura and Toshio Hosokawa: the latter’s Cloud and Light painted an evocative picture at the Proms back in 2009.

Leonidas Kavakos will be giving the UK première of Osvaldo Golijov’s Violin Concerto; there’s also an eclectic mix from Nico Mulhy, British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, pianist Joanna Macgregor and others, and a a performance of new piece from David Sawer. I went to the première of Sawer’s opera From Morning to Midnight back in 2001, but it seems to have sunk without trace since, although an orchestral suite has been distilled from it for concert programmes.

There’s also Andrew Davis at the helm for Tippett’s mighty Symphony no.4, where the orchestra is joined by the rasping sound effects of sampled breathing in a symphonic meditation on old age,  and a new work by Colin Matthews in a concert also including Boulez’s Notations.

There’s also a piece by Jason Yarde in a programme including John Adams’ white-knuckle ride, Chamber Symphony, and Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

Plenty to whet the appetite: see all the events here.

Great musical beginnings: Hallelujah Junction

I love the pulsing, driving impetus of the opening of Adams’ two-piano titan from 1996,  Hallelujah Junction.

JOhn Adams

Image credit: LATimesblogs

The bold clarion-call of the opening gesture, picked up by the second piano and imitated but slightly out of synch, sets up a relentless energy that can’t fail to grip the listener and take them with it.

The use of the key of Eb major can’t be an accident:  it’s the key of heroism, of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and is tremendously life-affirming as it resounds between the two pianos.

Then, the impish bassline that begins twelve seconds in to the above extract (or at 1’25” on the video below); impudent, puckish, it slowly finds its feet and darts along underneath the continuining rhythmic imperative of the opening.

There’s more about the piece, plus an audio extract, on Adams’ own website here. And if you can forgive the tuning between the two pianos, here’s a short video clip plucked from YouTube.

Awesome.

(Audio extract via LastFM).

Crusade for the New: there’s more than just the classical canon

Glance through most classical music festival programmes or most popular requests for pieces played on a classical radio station, and there’s an excellent chance that you will see familiar works from the mainstream, classical repertoire: Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart.

Whilst the venerable classical tradition of such composers will always have a place in the concert repertoire and the listening library, it is also important that audiences are introduced to, even challenged by, contemporary music, the music of their time.

The endless recycling of Great Masters is a self-rotating roundabout that can ultimately lead nowhere: there’s no development, nor indeed perhaps any desire for it. When festival-organisers and radio programmers know that a particular tranche of long-standing popular favourites will almost guarantee ticket-sales or healthy listening-figures, there’s a great reluctance to programme modern or challenging works that may drive audiences away.

But modern music need not be viewed with suspicion, with fear that audiences will be put off by recent works. Contemporary music has the capacity to embrace contemporary issues: ‘Soldiers of Heaven hold the sky’ from Nixon in China,

or The Death of Klinghoffer, and Dr. Atomic by John Adams show opera grappling with political issues of the twentieth century. And it can do so with a musical language that reflects its age: from the car-horns in Gershwin’s  American in Paris to the sirens in Antheil’s Ballet mecanique or the sampling keyboards playing non-musical ideas in Steve Reich’s City Life, contemporary music has the language and the sound-world to reflect modern life, and make us view it afresh. It can be fun and funky: think of Michael Torke’s bouncing dance-ryhthms in the percussion concerto, Rapture,

or Michael Nyman’s bright textural writing in Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds.

It can be spiritual and reflective, as in the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel,

or the work of the late Henry Gorecki, or Sir John Tavener.

Of course, music from previous eras can always have some relevance to the current political or social climate: Mozart operas being set in underground car—parks or Shakespeare plays staged in council tenement blocks can always draw contemporary relevancy from a work. But that can also be seen as imposing contemporary resonances on a work from a previous age. Contemporary music, like contemporary art, doesn’t need to have such meaning impressed upon it: it’s engaging with such issues directly. And it often does so in a refreshing, vibrant way that makes you re-evaluate its subject-matter.

As Ezra Pound famously put it, ‘Make it new.’ It’s time to trust that audiences are willing to be open to new music addressing contemporary issues, and to crusade for the new.

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(Audio extracts via LastFM).

Fervent Fitkin London Prom premiere

Yesterday saw the London premiere of Graham Fitkin’s L, a fiftieth-birthday present for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, originally written in 2005.

Yo-Yo Ma / Kathryn Stott: image, BBC Proms

The ten-minute piece opens with an harmonically ambiguous cluster chord that hangs in the air, before breaking into a typically Fitkin-esque, rumbustious, rhythmically dynamic texture, in which agile cello lines are supported by a piano accompaniment of stabbed chords. There’s great rhythmic bounce to it, bounding along in a style redolent of Antheil’s Ballet mecanique meeting John Adams’ Road Movies, before the pace lessens as the cello introduces a lyrical melodic line, answered by some chuntering in both the cello and the piano in unison octaves.

A contrastingly still section follows, with the same bubbling piano texture now supporting a more contemplative cello melody; respite comes, too, in the texture, as both instruments move into a higher register. The piece becomes progressively more still, until a single, sustained note in the cello floats above slowly changing piano chords, before the unison chuntering begins again in the piano, forcing the cello off its perch and into movement. The piece races off in the movement perpetual style once more, becoming increasingly frantic until it gradually susides, fading out on a repeated pizzicato cello gesture and a hushed piano chord.

The nature of the ending escapes me, I have to confess;  I will have to return to it, to see if I’ve missed the logic of the final moments; it seems as though the piece has had a slow ending imposed upon it, rather than such an ending occurring as an organic growth from out of the preceding material, on this first hearing. (Listen for yourself and see what you think: it’s on Radio 3 iPlayer until Monday.) And certainly, at the age of fifty, Yo-Yo Ma shows, in this performance, absolutely no signs of fading away, such is the dynamic flair with which he and pianist Kathryn Stott perform the work.

Image: Universal Music Publishing

A new Fitkin piece, like a new piece of Steve Reich, is always a cause for much ‘fervent’ excitement – for me, anyway – and there’s more in store later this week, with the Prom premiere of Fitkin’s Cello Concerto, again with Yo-Yo Ma. Make sure you’re tuned in.

And here’s a taste of Fitkin at his elastic, rhythmic best:

In defense of Minimalism

Everyone’s heard the criticism: minimalism is tiresome, repetitive, banal, boring, uninventive, uninteresting. It never evolves, never goes anywhere, the pieces drive you nuts. I admit, there are some pieces of minimalism where this is the case.

But then I remember there’s the shimmering colours of Music for Eighteen Musicians,  the bright sunlit textures of Glass’ North Star, the appealingly understated beauty of Glassworks, and I disagree.

Music for 18 Musicians: London Sinfonietta

There’s real colour here; the repeating figures gradually extend and overlap, creating an exotic soundworld which is always evolving, not remaining static. In later works, Reich embraced the audio sampler, creating textures of out sampled urban sounds in works like City Life, a modern take on musique concréte.

Minimalism has even expanded, if you’ll allow post-Minimalism to be included, which is how John Adams’ thinks of his composing, to embrace political issues in opera, as in Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

Glass has written soundtracks to mainstream cinema, for films like The Illusionist and Kundun, using his minimalist language; whilst his solo piano works have a genuine beauty in their stark simplicity.

British composer Michael Nyman remains popular through ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ from his soundtrack to The Piano (even though other works, like The Musicologist’s Scores, premiered at the Proms in 2009, are inifintely better).

Of course, Minimalism’s reliance on repetition and recurring harmonies or harmonic cycles will not appeal to everyone; perhaps because you have to listen to the music in a different way. You have to expand the time-scale of your listening, and follow the tiny nuances as a phrase lengthens by a single note or changes its rhythm; you have to follow the evolution of the melodic lines, of the rhythmic patterns, and follow one against the other to see how they interlock, and appreciate the vertical sonorities created as a result. Contrary to how most people might think one listens to Minimalism – simply letting it wash over you – you have to listen to it actively, attentively; you can’t just wallow in it, otherwise it will feel unchanging and never-ending. You have to be alive to the tiny changes to be aware of how the music is evolving; it demands concentration.

And the music can dance, too: boy, can it dance. Listen to Adams’ ‘The Chairman Dances,’ an orchestral showpiece distilled from the final act of Nixon in China; compulsive fox-trotting.

There’s more to minimalism than meets the ear; try it. As the old television advert for a powdered tea used to say: you might like it. Lazy listeners might say it’s dull: listen for yourself, and then tell them they’re wrong.

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