A short guide to the music of William Mathias, who died 20 years ago on 29th July.
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]...it 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.
For more information, visit the composer's page at OUP.
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On July 2nd, Avid Technology, the company who recently acquired Sibelius Software, announced a major restructuring. This included the shedding of 350 jobs and the sell-off of the audio peripheral division M-Audio and its consumer video division to Corel Corp in Ottawa for $17 million. According to an article on pro-tools-expert.com this restructuring will also include the closure of Sibelius's UK office. They quote one Sibelius team member as saying: 'this is heartbreaking, it took us 15 years to build this business and it took Avid 15 months to wreck it.' Whilst Ian Bruce, Director of Communications at Avid, stated yesterday on Twitter 'Let there be no doubt - Sibelius stays with Avid', it remains unclear as to how the reorganization will affect future development of the software.
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I've just updated CT's concert listings for July. Festival season gets into full swing this month, however, so, with so much going on, it would hard to make that list comprehensive. Instead I'll also try to summarize the festivals in which much of the music is being played, as well as a few highlights.
The Buxton Festival runs from 7th- 25th July. It is dedicated to music, opera and books. Whilst that doesn't include much in the way of contemporary music there is, nevertheless, a new productions of Britten's masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, to look forward to on 16th and 20th July.
The Cheltenham Music Festival (4th- 15th July), contains a number of interesting new music concerts, handily summarized on their own page. It includes a Goehr Horn Trio première, a production of Edward Rushton's opera Babur in London and a concert of new music given by the BBC Singers that includes five premieres.
The Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival starts on 7th July and runs almost to the end of August. The focus of the programme this year is on Chinese culture, including the contemporary music scene. Details can be found on the festival website, here.
The Festival 'Aix en Provence (5th-27th July) features the world première of George Benjamin's new opera Written on Skin. It is based on an Occitan legend from the 12th century and explores the consequences of self-discovery and the limitations of human power. Performances are on 7th, 9th, 11th and 14th July.
There is also a new opera at this year's Bregenz Festival, Detlev Glanert's Solaris, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem. The work was also turned into a great film by Andrey Tarkovsky in 1972, so this new interpretation will have much to live up to. The premiere is on 18th July.
The Salzburger Festspiele runs from 20th July to 2nd September. It contains a series of concerts entitled 'Salzburg contemporary', including works by Lutoslawski, Dallappiccola, Boulez, Berio, Zimmerman, Scelsi, Ligeti and Stravinsky. A complete guide can be found here.
There are two other music festivals that may be worth investigating, though, at the time of writing, neither had published their programmes. They are the Schlern Festival (5th-25th July) and the Highscore Contemporary Music Festival (23rd July- 4th August). Both promise updates soon on their websites. Finally, don't forget that the Proms season gets going this month. A full preview can be seen in my earlier blog post, here.
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A relatively quiet month in terms of CD releases, but one nevertheless marked by some interesting finds.
Naxos, as ever, has released a clutch of new recordings. Two of these are in its continuing American Classics series: a collection of Hailstork orchestral music, including American Port of Call, Symphony No. 1 and 3 Spirituals with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of JoAnn Falletta; and Leshnoff chamber music - String Quartet No. 2, Seven Glances at a Mirage, Cosmic Variations on a Haunted Theme and ...without a chance - played by the Carpe Diem String Quartet and Opus 3 Tri. Both make for interesting listening, the Hailstork richly accessible in the manner of film music, the Leshnoff imagined with a fine ear for instrumental sonority that, especially in a work like ...without a chance, evokes something of Javanese Gamelan.
These composers are balanced by two stalwarts of the European tradition. Penderecki's Fonogrammi, Horn Concerto, Partita, The Awakening of Jacob, Anaklasis and De natura sonoris, are played by the Warsaw Philharmonic under Wit; Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, Le tombeau resplendissant and Hymne by the Lyon National Orchestra under Markl. Whilst generally dark in tone, the Penderecki programme shows the wide range of influences upon the composer, from his use of new sonorities associated with his avant-garde days, to neo-romanticism and jazz. The Messiaen programme is dominated by Et expecto, his profound rumination on two world wars. The other two pieces, are earlier works that, especially in Le tombeau replendissant, written when he was 23, show his remarkable precocity
I was once told by a respected musical figure that Shostakovich wasn't a great composer. That immediately sent me back to listen to my favourite work of his, the Fourth Symphony. It is a work of extraordinary range and transcendental power, easily confirming that his reputation is very much deserved. I've always loved Simon Rattle's hard-driven recording of the work with the CBSO on EMI, but Esa-Pekka Salonen's live recording of the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic just released on DG is also worth checking out, especially as it is paired with a remarkable premiere recording of a recently discovered and reconstructed operatic prologue, Orgango.
NMC have just launched their Debut Discs project, which offers emerging composers an international platform for their work. They are being supported by Peter Maxwell Davies, who spoke eloquently on the launch day about the initiative. The first three discs in the series were launched this month, featuring the works of Huw Watkins, Dai Fujikura and Sam Hayden. The new recordings are available on Spotify, though some tracks are withheld in order to encourage you to buy. For those interested in the physical product, the CDs are handsomely produced with striking cover designs by students from Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. Composers who will feature in future releases include Helen Grime, Joseph Phibbs, Ben Foskett, Richard Causton and Charlotte Bray.
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C:T talks to New York-based pianist Molly Morkoski
Tell us something about your background.
I’m a pianist living and working in New York City. I moved to NYC on September 01, 2001 and, needless to say, that time was the most important historical moment in this city’s history. I have many memories of that time, and all the years since, which give me ample reasons to be here and to stay here making music.
In the months that followed 9/11, however, it was relatively unclear to me whether I should stay and make New York City my home. But, in March of 2002, I became involved in a relatively new series at Carnegie Hall on the “Elliott Carter workshop” directed by Oliver Knussen, and subsequently, several other workshops since. I also became involved on their “Making Music” series and have had the opportunity, as a result, to meet many acclaimed composers, conductors, and performers and have made lasting, life-long bonds with several composer peers. As I worked to create a life in music in NYC during the years following, I continually reached out to many of the musical friends (now living in NYC) that I had met during my academic and festival years. It has never ceased to amaze me how small and generous the musical community is.
Tell us about your life prior to New York City.
I grew up in a small, mountain town in North Carolina. I started piano studies just before I turned 7 years old, and became more serious about my studies around 11 or 12, when I decided that I wanted music to be my life and career. I went to an undergraduate program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and, after successfully completing it, went directly on to a master’s degree program at Indiana University in Bloomington. After that, I went to study and earn my doctorate degree with Gilbert Kalish at Stony Brook, NY. I attended many of the more famous American summer festivals such as Aspen, Tanglewood, and Norfolk and a few other more specialized new music festivals along the way, like Bang on a Can’s North Adams festival. Towards the end of my doctorate degree, and after working one summer with John Adams and David Robertson and a few of the Ensemble Contemporain members in Aspen, I applied for a Fulbright to apprentice with EIC in Paris and was awarded the grant and the opportunity to go and live abroad. It was a tremendous experience living in St. Germain-des-Près and experiencing the music scene and the life in Paris. After the experience of city living for the first time, I decided to move to New York City, which I did.
>> Click here to read the rest of the interview and to hear Molly playing Charles Wuorinen's Blue Bamboula
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Helmut Lachenmann. The latest composer to feature in Tom Service's guide to contemporary music.
I recommend checking out Tom Service's excellent and evolving guide to contemporary music on the Guardian website. It started at the end of April and, during the course of a year, promises to give an introduction to a new composer each week. To qualify, a composer must either have been born within the last one hundred years or be still alive.
The list of composers is prefaced by a passionate defence of new music that deserves to be widely read. I especially love the comment about the willingness of children, who don't come to music with any baggage, to engage with more 'difficult' works.
The guide so far includes portraits of: Elliott Carter (the only composer not born within the last one hundred years who still qualifies for inclusion), Pauline Oliveros, Harrison Birtwistle, John Zorn, Judith Weir, Oliver Knussen and Helmut Lachenmann. Each also contains a rich range of embedded links, including some to full performances of works on You Tube.
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I did - just - manage to update CT's concert directory in time for June a few days ago. However, I also wanted to point out a few festivals that take place this month, especially since, on the whole, I have not included their concerts in that listing. I would have done this yesterday, but instead watched the rather splendid barge procession on the Thames, a day dampened only slightly by the bad weather and the disappointing TV coverage. I was especially surprised that the BBC didn't seem to have thought of putting a microphone on any of the music barges. I didn't catch any of the New Water Music.
There are couple of interesting festivals on the continent this month. The first, the KunstFestSpiele Art and Drama Festival, is already underway, but continues until 17th June. Taking place in the beautiful Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen, Hanover, there is much to enjoy in the rest of the festival, including the BBC Singers performing Britten, Bitwistle and Stevie Wishart on 7th June; the pianist Marino Formenti playing Liszt, Kurtag, Pesson, Nancarrow and Rihm on 9th June and Evelyn Glennie performing new works with the Tapei Chinese Orchestra on 17th. The short Zeit Für Neue Musik festival takes place in the Kammermusiksaal der Firma Steingraeber & Söhne, Bayreuth from 21st June to 24th and includes works by Cage, Andriessen, Ligeti. Tober-Vogt, Bartok and others.
In the UK, the St. Magnus International Festival runs from 22nd to 27th June. It includes the chance to hear Marc Neikrug's harrowing Through Roses and Maxwell Davies' Miss Donnithorne's Maggot on the first day; Davies' Ojai Festival Overture, Alasdair Nicholson's Backward Glances on 23rd; Distance and Enchantment by Judith Weir, dansmusik by Alasdair Nicolson on 24th; and the world premiere of a new work by Arne Gieshoff on 26th and of Paul Crabtree's Utopian Visions on 27th. The Aldeburgh Festival, finally, runs from 8th-24th June. Highlights include Oliver Knussens's Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! on 8th June and, on various dates, premieres by Elspeth Brooke, Jonathan Dove, Oliver Knussen, Kurtag, Barnabas Dukay, Carter and even the European premiere of a Charles Ives' work, his vast, unconventially orchestrated and unfinished Universe Symphony. The complete programme can be viewed here.
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I've spent the last few days listening to a couple of new CDs. The first involves violinist Hilary Hahn, whose recording of Ives violin sonatas I reviewed a few months back. This time she has teamed up with pianist Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann) in a new recording on DG entitled Silfra, named after a geographical feature near Rekjavik, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. To some degree this is a metaphor for the disk, since it represents a meeting of two very distinct musical personalities. The disk is, however, a crossover with a difference. Hahn is leaving her normal comfort zone not so much in terms of genre: whilst Hauschka's recordings do owe a great deal to more popular styles such as house music (listen, for example to his incredibly catchy disk Salon des Amateurs), he is also linked to mainstream composition via his use of prepared piano in the manner of Cage. For Hahn, however, this represents new territory in that the recording is more or less improvised.
The partnership between the two began back in 2009 and in the intervening period they have been meeting for free-form improvising sessions. This disk is the fruit of that collaboration. Many will find much to admire. Perhaps taking the lead from the rich range of sounds Hauschka elicits from his instrument, Hahn responds by eschewing the warmth of her instrument in favour of a hard sound often devoid vibrato. Instead we are treated to almost inaudible pizzicatos, fleeting scrapings, high harmonics, tremolando sul ponts, relieved by only the occasional melody. The music is skilfully improvised, even if I found it often harmonically static and perhaps a little too reliant on textures that gradually accumulate counterpoints. The result is a pool of ideas that is, perhaps, a little too easy to take in one go. It's all very Zen and I can see why the marketing people are having a field day, trumpeting the release of a vinyl special edition and a world tour. To my own mind I prefer something with a bit more meat.
And if it is meat you're after, why not check out Jeremy Denk's premiere recording on Nonesuch consisting of Ligeti Piano Etudes Books One and Two paired with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor. It feels pointless trying to explain in words the brilliance of Ligeti's Etudes, so I'll simply say that, if you don't know them, go and buy this recording immediately. Denk plays with complete technical and aesthetic authority in this demanding repertoire and, whilst the recording doesn't supplant Pierre-Laurand Aimand's also superlative recording on Sony, many will prefer this disk because of the intelligent placement of the Beethoven mid-programme. Ligetians will want both.
Releases on Naxos include: a new recording of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop; Songs for Lada and To the New World by Belarus-born composer Alla Borzova; a disk of Richard Danielpour symphonic and choral music with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale under Gerard Schwatz; a new recording of Britten songs performed by Iain Burnside and Roderick Williams; Gorecki's Concerto-Cantata and other works with the Warsaw Philharmonic under Antoni Wit; three orchestral pieces by Morton Gould with the Seattle Symphony again under Schwarz; and Maxwell Davies' Symphony No. 2 and St. Thomas Wake with the BBC Philharmonic under the composer. As well as the 20x12 recordings mentioned in my last blog post, NMC have also released a recording of music, including Colossos or Panic, by Alexander Goeher with BCMG under Oliver Knussen. DG and Decca are also reissuing a number of interesting recordings at the moment that are worth checking out. These include: Cage Sonatas and Interludes, Birtwistle's The Triumph of Time, Berio's Sinfonia, Varese's Ameriques, Stockhausen's Gruppen and Steve Reich's Drumming.
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A summer of flag waving begins in a week with the official celebrations of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee on 2-5th June, followed, on July 27th, by the opening of the London Olympics.
For those who prefer their celebrations to be a little more cultural than bunting and beer, however, it's good to see that both celebrations have involved the commissioning of new music. The barge procession on the Thames on June 3rd will include the premiere of the New Fireworks Music by a group of film music composers that include Anne Dudley, Graham Fitkin, Gavin Greenaway, Christopher Gunning, Adrian Johnston, John Lunn, Julian Nott, Jocelyn Pook, Stephen Warbeck and Debbie Wiseman. I think some movements have already been premiered on Radio 3. I missed this, however, and so am looking forward to hearing it on the day. A recording of the work is due to be released on 28th May.
Given the amount of money that the Olympic Games has sucked up, one suspects, at least in part, from arts organizations, it is nice to see a few crumbs being thrown back to composers. A full programme of these events can be viewed here. One of the most interesting of the projects is entitled 20x12, and involves the commissioning of twenty new sport inspired works. More information, and the composers involved, which include CT's founder David Bruce, can be found on the NMC website. So far four of these pieces have been released as recordings (also available via Spotify): Howard Skempton's Five Rings Triples, Sally Beamish's Spinal Chords, Luke Carver Goss's Pure Gold: A 4x4 Relay Race and Anna Meredith's Hands Free. I especially enjoyed Beamish's work, a simple but effective setting of Melanie Reid's moving account of becoming paralysed. There is a chance to hear all of the 20x12 works at the Southbank Centre during the weekend of 13th-15th June.
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Susanna Eastburn has been appointed as new Chief Executive for Sound and Music. Eastburn is currently Director, Music, Arts Council England and has an impressive track record in the arts sector, including five years as Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, a fellowship of the Clore Leadership Programme, Executive Producer of London International Festival of Theatre and Chair of SPNM. She has also worked in music publishing and as a Governor of Leeds College of Music.
Given that her appointment comes at a difficult time for SaM, with falling funding and criticism from composers, there will be many watching her progress, especially since, as Chair of SPNM, she played a crucial part in its incorporation into the new organization. It is worth checking out this video from 2010 to hear her rationale for this move. Some may find her arguments unconvincing, especially given that she describes that with SPNM 'there was no immediate urgency to change our position. It was performing very well. It was doing a great range of activity. It had a clear mission and purpose'. The board's rationale, however, was that SPNM 'had reached its capacity...it was at the top of what it could do and could go no further and there was a sense that we wanted to do more for new music.' Many would say that SaM has failed in this mission. Susanna Eastburn's recognition of the good work that SPNM did and a presumed desire to see that its incorporation is a success might, however, mark a turning point for the organization.
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