From the archive: Workers Union Ensemble

April 22, 2013

(Part of the Sounds New Festival, Theme GB last year, the Workers Union ensemble with Benjamin Oliver in concert.)

Under the baton of composer and conductor, Benjamin Oliver, the Workers Union ensemble performed an eclectic lunchtime concert programme which included Two Elegies Framing A Shout for soprano sax and piano, delivered with astonishing accomplishment by saxophonist Ellie Steemson and pianist Edward Pick. A lyrical first elegy for unaccompanied sax, requiring sustained control of lengthy phrases, is followed by the Shout, in which spiky gestures are punctuated by periods of tense silence, before opening out into a real tour de force for the saxophonist over restless piano riffs. The second Elegy is familiar from Turnage’s epic Blood on the Floor, a beautiful, jazz-hued movement with weaving melodic lines over rich jazz-inflected harmonies. Saxophonist Ellie Steemson demonstrated superb control of her performance, delivered with conviction and commitment and consummate lyrical skill. The piece as a whole is a fine riposte to all those who claim that ‘modern music has no melodies;’ next time you hear it, point them gently in its direction…

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In rehearsal

The programme also included Benjamin Oliver’s Ripped Up, for the complete six-piece ensemble. Delicate opening piano chords lead into a driving groove pitching four-against-three rhythms; an elegiac episode interrupts with a cluster-chord, and showed some careful textural writing in the creation of some effective woodwind and percussion sonorities. A ticking shaker sees time fragmenting in its erratic utterances, whilst the piano picks out some gossamer-thread shapes above hushed, low saxophone trills; but the rhythmic impetus is not to be denied, and returns with driving momentum. The faltering ticker interrupts once more, accompanied by haunting mobiles from the xylophone that fall across the barline, before a hesitant conclusion sees the piece finishing with wide-eyed expectancy.

A fascinating programme, delivered with real accomplishment by youthful former members of the Guildhall School. Expect to hear more from them, and from Benjamin Oliver in the future.

(And for anyone who couldn’t make the concert, here they are performing the piece in concert in 2011.)

Originally posted 14 May, 2012 by Daniel Harding

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From the archive: What the flock: audiences for contemporary music

April 10, 2013

(Originally posted on 13 March, 2012).

I was heartened by an article in The Guardian a few weeks ago, which proclaimed that ‘difficult’ concert programmes are attracting audiences in their droves, and that contemporary music audiences are actually in robust health (Audiences flock to ‘difficult’ contemporary classical music, 30 January; click here to read). Alex Needham`s article paints a portrait of people turning out in their droves to a plethora of modern works being programmed over the coming months, from a festival of Minimalism in Scotland to political opera in Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO and to the Glass/Wilson libretto-less marathon, Einstein on the Beach.

20130401-172847.jpgPeople have been proclaiming the decline of contemporary classical music ever since the avant-garde were thought to have lost touch with their audiences in the twentieth century. The image of the high-minded composer writing difficult works, deliberately antagonistic to audiences, and uncaring as to whether people came to listen to them or not, is an enduring one, trotted out whenever pundits want to paint a depressing picture of an art-form increasingly in decline. Or so they would have us believe.

But contemporary composers aren`t like that anymore. It may have been desirable, in the middle of the last century, to write music in Darmstadt that sought to alienate listeners, and, as Needham mentions, if your concert attracted more than thirty people in the audience, it had to be immediately rejected as populist and therefore deplorable; but these days, composers are striking a balance between pursuing their own inner vision which may indeed involve a challenging musical language, with finding ways actually to draw audiences in, instead of turning them away.

Turnage in particular has managed to combine a musical vocabulary rich in wild textures and shrieking harmonies with a self-confessed love of James Brown, Tower of Power, jazz-funk and pop tunes to create pieces which audiences notice; Blood on the Floor, with its improvising jazz trio at the heart of a modern ensemble; the piece Hammered Out at last year`s Proms wrong-footed a few critics, who failed to notice its roots in Beyoncé when younger audiences got it immediately. Fair enough, his choice of salacious, head-line generating subject matter in the opera Anna Nicole may have been a shrewd move, but within the brash music he wrote for the piece, there lurk some affecting melodies, deft jazz writing, and even a moving aria or two.

Festival programmers are responding to this desire for new music. The ravishing orchestra-meets-electronics vision of Jonathan Harvey was celebrated in a `Total Immersion` weekend at the Barbican; one is also devoted to Australian composer Brett Dean, and a similar festival will focus on the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt.

As the composer John Adams observed in his autobiography, there was a time when nineteenth-century concert-going audiences expected to hear new works at concerts, and were actually disappointed when they didn’t (Faber, 2008:48). Some shrewd programming by Simon Rattle, when at the helm of the CBSO, would see him sandwiching challenging modern works between classical staples of the repertoire, such that he was able to champion composers such as Turnage, keeping this tradition alive and cannily using programmes of better-known works to introduce audiences to contemporary pieces at the same time.

People will always proclaim the ‘death of classical music’ or harp on about its dwindling appeal and declining audience numbers. But a closer look at what’s happening across the UK – with festivals of contemporary music ranging from here in Canterbury in the south across to the Huddersfield or Edinburgh Festivals in the north – suggests that the truth may be a lot healthier than you think.

Posted by Daniel Harding


Dazzling display from Park Lane Group artists

May 7, 2012

Young artists from the Park Lane Group demonstrated talent far beyond their years in the lunchtime concert earlier today, Sprite!

Taking the concert’s name from Patrick Nunn’s puckish and mischievous piece for solo piccolo which appeared in the programme, flautist Rosanna Ter-Berg and pianist Leo Nicholson displayed a degree of technical mastery which was, if you’ll forgive the pun, simply breathtaking in scope.

The programme opened with David Matthews’ Duet Variations, a piece full of rich colours and lush textures that shows Matthews to have a foot equally in both the Romantic and modern traditions. The composer himself, present at the occasion, took to the stage afterwards to receive warm applause.

The première of Thomas Oehler’s Prelude followed; inspired by Debussy’s sets of piano preludes, the title of the piece was printed at the end of the programme; ‘Les yeux du chat, à nuit (The eyes of the cat, at night)’ and was full of supple, lithe figures in both instruments, skirling passages full of feline grace and agility. Oehler himself was also at the concert, and was clearly pleased with the performers’ realisation.

The first solo piece, Turnage’s Tune for Toru for piano, is an elegiac miniature, dedicated to the great Japanese master who died in 1996, and was delivered by Nicholson with thoughtful control. In contrast, Jonathan Harvey’s Nataraja which followed was a treasure-trove of extended woodwind techniques and a tapestry of sounds that reached far beyond that of the normal sound-spectrum typical of works for flute and piano. Ter-Berg delivered the full range of sounds with astonishing accomplishment.

Patrick Nunn’s programme-titling piece is full of impish humour; written 1998 and dedicated to his then six-month old nephew, it bristles with waggish impudence, which was realised in Ter-Berg’s spirited performance.

The most colourful piece, The Colour of Pomegranates by Julian Anderson, displayed Anderson’s trademark rich, sumptuous harmonic palette (heard elsewhere, for instance, in his evocative choral epic, Heaven is Shy of Earth); shimmering textures shrouded the warm sound of the alto-flute, and in a marvellously unpredictable yet effective ending, the final sounds faded away into the sound of birdsong outside the venue, a wonderfully unintended moment of chance. Sky and Water by Emily Howard had one or two effective gestures in its impressionistic textural explorations, and was followed by the final piece, Flute Music with Accompaniment or Solo Flute, in which tiny segments of ideas are developed and extended by both the players, opening out into a broader final section before closing with a small, deft gesture.

The musicians were treated to warm and sustained applause from an enthusiastic full house at St Gregory’s, an acknowledgement richly deserved as the listeners responded to two accomplished young performers, who will surely be ones to watch out for.