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30 Aug  

Christian Morris talks to Madeleine Mitchell, who will be giving the world premiere of a newly discovered work by Grace Williams on 7th September and whose new album, Violin Muse, will be be released on the Divine Art record label in October.

Madeleine Mitchell. Photo by Rama Knight

Tell us about your new album, Violin Muse.

This is a collection of seven world premiere recordings of violin works by established living UK composers. Five of the pieces were written for me (three as gifts), which I've premiered between 2007–15, and I've worked with all the composers on the album. It's good to have a concerto—Guto Puw's Soft Stillness(based on lines from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice)—and violin duos—Judith Weir's collection Atlantic Drift (celebrating the flow of traditional music between the British Isles and North America)—as well as five pieces with piano—by Michael Nyman, David Matthews, Michael Berkeley, Sadie Harrison and Geoffrey Poole. It creates an interesting mix of textures. There's a lyrical thread linking many of the works, which I think suits the violin. I'm pleased to be joined by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Edwin Outwater, pianist Nigel Clayton and violinist Cerys Jones; and that it's my second album for Divine Art.

I've been fascinated by the violin as a muse for composers, painters and writers and it's interesting that significant composers for the violin didn't play the instrument but collaborated with and were inspired by violinists. I've been privileged to have had around 30 works written for me over some years. 

Your association with living composers goes back to the beginning of your career. Apart from those represented on this new disk, are there any highlights from these working relationships, not just in terms of the finished piece but also in the collaborative process?

I started out as the violinist/violist in Peter Maxwell Davies' seminal group The Fires of London, whilst beginning a solo career in more standard repertoire and some teaching. It was through Max that I met several composers who then wrote works for me. The first I commissioned was *Brian Elias's Fantasia for a London recital prize I'd been awarded by the Kirkman Concert Society, where I wanted to include a new piece along with Brahms and Bartok. Piers Hellawell then wrote me a violin concerto, Elegy in the Time of Freedom (1992); James MacMillan two pieces—*Kiss on Wood and *A Different World; and Robert Saxton, whose sextet I played with the Fires, wants to write me a violin sonata next year. 

Click here to read the rest of the interview

30 Aug  

Dorico development continues apace with the launch yesterday of version 1.1.10.


From the Dorico website:


We have today released Dorico 1.1.10, the latest update to our professional music notation software, following hot on the heels of the Dorico 1.1 update that was released at the end of June.


The main focus of this update is to add graphical editing of individual chord symbols in Engrave mode, which was something that was planned for Dorico 1.1 but which needed a bit more time to get into shape. In addition to that significant bit of functionality, there are a few other minor functional improvements, and the usual crop of bug fixes. 


Click here for further details. And check this video for the new functionality:


23 Aug  

Anyone tempted to write for Ben Neill's new Mutantrumpet?

23 Aug  

The title work Jonathan Dove’s new Signum disk, In Damascus, is the composer’s response to contemporary events in Syria. Written for tenor and string quartet it is a haunting collection of eleven short movements, each economically constructed in his post-minimalist idiom. It is presented with, Out of Time, for string quartet, written in memory of a dead husband, which is by turns lively and elegiac; and his expansive Piano Quintet. 


NMC have started releasing works in their New Music Biennial project, these being: Winestead by Gavin Bryars, Ceumannan – Footsteps 2 by Anne Martin and Jason Singh, A Journey with the Giants of Jazz by Peter Edwards and Bethia by Daniel Elms. Not so contemporary, but certainly worthy of a look, is their collection of string chamber music works by Imogen Holst, a deleted album originally released on the Court Lane Music label. As they point out, one of NMC’s missions is to rescue these types of recordings, and there could hardly be a more appropriate composer, since Holst was not only a significant figure in her own right, but her Holst foundation helped to created the NMC label. 


If this kind of neglected British repertoire is your thing, also check out two releases this month on Lyrita. There is a disk of Rubbra instrumental music that comprises his Sinfonia Concertante op.38, Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Cyril Scott and his Violin Concerto Op. 103. He also appears as a pianist, performing Cyril Scott’s Consolation. I also dipped into Daniel Jones’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 11. Jones is a familiar figure to Welsh musicians. Growing up I remember we had a few scratchy records of his music at home, including his Sonata for Unaccompanied Kettledrums. I think this last piece especially had left me with the idea that his style was austere and forbidding. Far from it—whilst certainly serious utterances, these symphonies are bursting with engaging ideas. 


A double trio of disks to finish. On Naxos there is instrumental music by American George Tsontakis; Lori Laitman’s opera The Scarlet Letter, David Mason’s libretto an adaptation of the original Hawthorne novel; and a collection of choral music from Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. On Wergo, meanwhile, are two albums of string quartets, one from Wolfgang Rihm, the other by Helmut Zapf; and a collection of seven chamber works by Milica Djordjević, headed by the string quartet The Death of the Star-Knower

20 Aug  

All 16 members of President Donald Trump’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned on Friday morning. The group, which advises the President on cultural issues, was protesting at Trump’s ‘support of the hate groups and terrorist who killed and injured fellow Americans in Charlottesville.’ Members include musician Paula Boggs, architect Thom Mayne, actor Kal Penn and author Jhumpa Lahiri.


The full text of the letter:



In a later twist the White House claimed that it had already decided to disband the group:

13 Aug  

Sad news with the loss of composers Pēteris Plakidis and Marian Varga, both on 8th August. 


Pēteris Plakidis (1947–2017) was Latvian, a graduate from the Jāzeps Vītols State Conservatory  in 1970, later teaching composition in the same institution (renamed to the Latvian Academy of Music). He was especially known for his Music for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani; Variations for Orchestra, which won the Latvian Great Music Award; and his works written for various anniversaries of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra. 


In Memoriam by Pēteris Plakidis, Choir BALSIS, IBSCC Grand Prix Competition


Marian Varga (1947–2017) was Slovak. He studied piano and composition at the Bratislava Conservatory, eventually leaving to pursue his interest in rock music. With his group Collegium Musicum his music subsequently explored the interface between art and popular music, especially through his reinterpretations of music by classical composers such as Haydn, Bartók and Stravinsky, but also through original compositions. He was also known for his interest in improvisation. 


Collegium Musicum - Concerto In D

9 Aug  

September sees the return of Simon Rattle to London as LSO Music Director, an event that will be celebrated with a series of Barbican concerts that have contemporary music front and centre. Things kick off on 14th with a concert featuring composers associated with the conductor: Oliver Knussen, Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès and, with a new piece that will open the concert, Helen Grime. Each of these featured composers then will curate their own concert as part of the celebration: Knussen on 16th, Adès on 18th, Grime on 20th and Birtwistle on 23rd. The repertoire on offer in these is pretty interesting, from Machaut and Byrd to Madness, Maw and Matthews. 


September marks the end of the Proms season, the last night premiere this year being Lotta Wennäkoski’s, Flounce on 9th. For those looking for something after this, there is the North Wales International Music Festival on 16th. Living composer represented include Rhian Samuel, Edward Gregson, Gavin Higgins, Robat Arwyn, Paul Mealor and Oliver Tarney. There will also be music by the festival’s founder, William Mathias on 24th and 30th. 


Overlapping with the end of the Proms season is the Ultima Festival in Oslo (7th–16th). It is Norway’s biggest festival for contemporary music, making use of a number of big and small venues within the capital. The festival opens with a concert performance of Heiner Goebbels’ Eislermaterial, a tribute to one of his great musical heroes, Hanns Eisler. Other highlights include a new installation Rats–Secret Soundscpres of the City by Jana Winderen from 6th–14th; Ballerina, a new chamber opera by Synne Skouen on 8th; and a multimedia theatre work Adventures in space and time by Norwegian performance group Verdensteatret from 8th–17th. The full programme is available, here.


Warsaw Autumn (14th–24th) is likewise Poland’s most important contemporary music festival, this year celebrating its 60th season. The theme is the ‘troubled’ avant garde. It will explore artistic issues as they were at the time of the first Warsaw Autumns and as they are today, strands including ‘the phenomenon of sonorism, the orchestra, the string quartet, song, instrumental theatre, electronics, and multimedia.’ Composers whose music appeared at the first festivals—Tadeusz Baird, Wojciech Kilar, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Bogusław Schaeffer, Luigi Nono, Isang Yun—will be performed at this year’s festival. These will be contrasted with works by younger and middle generation composers such as Pierre Jodlowski, Tadeusz Wielecki, Christophe Bertrand, Alexander Schubert, Brigitta Muntendorf, Johannes Kreidler, and Artur Zagajewski. The opening concert features Grisey’s Le noir de l’étoile, Georg Friedrich Haas’s Dark Dreams, as well as Tansy Davies’s Forest and circulatio by Artur Zagajewski.


In Strasbourg Musica 2017 runs from 21st to 7th October. It opens with the French premiere of Michaël Levinas’s La Passion selon Marc, une passion après Auschwitz (see video below), a work which examines the painfully irreconcilable character of the Passion and the Holocaust. As well as established works by living or recent composers, there are a number of world premieres. These include works by Bruno Mantovanni, Andy Emler, Zad Moultaka, Amadeus Regucera, Jean-Patrick Besingrand, Jeremías Iturra, Benoît Montambault and Raphaël Cendo.


La Passion selon Marc

Une passion après Auschwitz (2016) Michaël Levinas

2 Aug  

After spilling more than a few column inches over the Tête à Tête Opera Festival I thought, today, that it was probably time to move on. 


Then I came across a provocative article by Anne Midgette at the Washington Post entitled ‘New opera wants the same appeal as television. If only it could be as smart.’ It felt unnecessarily glum.  In it she says (quotes in italics): 


‘When was the last time you came out of a new opera — or ANY opera — feeling that you had had a vital, exciting dramatic experience? When was the last time you felt you had lost yourself in another world?’


Last week, on a number of occasions. See my review. Whilst one of the operas I saw did not really qualify as a dramatic work and another was just ghastly, the other three ticked those boxes very nicely. I don’t think she’s necessarily wrong that some new operas are awful (weren’t they always?—think how many old operas are now justifiably forgotten), it’s just I don't think that they all are.


The idea shouldn’t be “We have to find a good story and tell it through arias and ensembles.” Rather, it’s the arias and ensembles and other musical elements that create and define the “story.” I love Verdi’s “Il trovatore,” but it’s certainly not because of the plot.


I wonder of if Midgette’s love of Il Trovatore, especially when set aside her recent review of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, suggests that she might be missing something here? Music renders an undramatic opera lovable precisely because it can be enjoyed in its own right. I can’t particularly see the harm in any contemporary composer writing an undramatic work with music so beguiling that it is as compelling as Il Trovatore. Her effusive praise of Mason Bates’s score to The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, whilst simultaneously panning the drama, would seem to put that work precisely in the Il Trovatore tradition. Is that to be despised? 


With the emphasis on telling stories, opera is in effect trying to set itself up as an alternative to television — which is only setting itself up for disappointment…But opera could learn things from contemporary television’s success that could help make it more dramatically effective to a contemporary audience. One is not to remain fettered by formulas but, rather, to transform them, as television has reconceived the miniseries or the sitcom (“Veep”).


I don’t object to the idea that old conventions may be reimagined in order to make opera more relevant for modern audiences. But I don’t buy into the idea that, on the one hand, composers are not already doing this—none of the operas I saw at Tête à Tête was conventional in its approach—or, on the other, that the older forms are inherently undramatic—plenty of recent composers have derived great dramatic impetus essentially working within them (Britten and Henze, for example).  In this sense I’m not sure what television teaches us.


“We need to explore new ways of getting operas out there.” 


Here Midgette makes the point by quoting librettist Royce Vavrek, who is doing just what she is suggesting—using new approaches to get their works into the public domain. In this case, he is ‘working on a series of short opera movies with several notable composers.’ She also mentions Yuval Sharon’s Hopscotch ‘which played out in cars on the freeways of Los Angeles, with audience members as passengers.’ To this I could add a composer friend of mine who wrote a rather brilliant pop-up opera sung spontaneously in a café, or the podcast opera and opera on a train at Tête à Tête. Not to mention the fact that operas are now regularly screened at cinemas and on television—I recently saw the Aix en Provence production of Bizet’s Carmen in this way (great performance, strange production, I thought).  In essence, again, I’m not sure what television is supposed to teach us. Opera has already moved with the times.


The truth, it seems to me, is not that the operas the Midgette has seen and disliked are insufficiently innovative. It is, rather, that they are not good operas. The old adage holds true: in opera, as in all types of art, there are only two types—good and bad. Innovation is not, in itself, a sign of relevance.

29 Jul  

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

28 Jul  

  The cast of Pterodactyls of Ptexas taking a bow.

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

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


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


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


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


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


Tête à Tête continues until 13th August.

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