In concert – NEXT and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Past the Stars

bcmg-past-the-stars

NEXT [Joe Howson & Mikaela Livadiotis (pianos), Gavin Stewart (bass flute), Olivia Jago (violin)

Adams Hallelujah Junction (1996)
Saunders Bite (2016)
Mason When Joy Became Mixed with Grief (2007)

Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Geoffrey Paterson

Birtwistle Cantus Iambeus (2004)
Vir Wheeling Past the Stars (2007) – Songs 3 and 4; Hayagriva (2005) [UK premiere]

Town Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 20 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It might have taken 15 months plus a couple of false alarms, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (above) finally resumed live performances en masse this afternoon and with this wide-raging concert typical of its programming across more than three decades of music-making.

Not least with its throwing the spotlight onto players of the next generation, the opening half featuring NEXT musicians as mentored by their senior colleagues. Things got underway with Hallelujah Junction, John Adams’ alternately incisive and soulful evoking of a truck-stop on the California-Nevada border; along with a tribute to orchestra manager Ernest Fleischmann, which doubtless explains its heightened peroration. Nor, despite some occasional vagaries of coordination, was there any doubting the conviction of Joe Howson and Mikaela Livadiotis.

From two pianists situated amid tables in the stalls to a bass flautist just in front of the organ console: Gavin Stewart made the most of this unlikely context with a committed reading of Rebecca SaundersBite, less a setting than paraphrase of the thirteenth from Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing in which words or syllables are variously sounded in anticipation, or as consequence of the flute’s contribution. It certainly left a fragmented, even rebarbative impression compared to the seamlessness of When Joy Became Mixed with GriefChristian Mason’s contemplation of a sixth-century Jainist account over several ages of declining natural and human wonder; in which violinist Olivia Jago rendered the music’s gently enveloping pathos with unfailing poise, as well as a sure sense of where this deceptively understated music might be headed.

BCMG accordingly took to the stage for Cantus Iambeus, among the more recent of Harrison Birtwistle’s curtain-raisers for ensemble and arguably his most approachable in the unfolding of expressive contours and its frequently diaphanous textures; all underpinned by the role of iambic rhythm in promoting continuity through to an almost inviting final cadence. Nor was there a lack of that intensive interplay as has been a hallmark of this composer’s music from the outset, and to which these musicians responded with their customary precision and verve.

The other pieces (both included on a new NMC release) were by Param Vir, whose music has been a welcome if undervalued presence over four decades. Firstly, the latter two items from his song-cycle Wheeling Past the Stars after Rabindranath Tagore – the charm and vivacity of Grandfather’s Holiday then musing inwardness of New Birth, both eloquently rendered by Patricia Auchterlonie with Ulrich Heinen. Finally, to Hayagriva – the horse-headed being and mythological archetype behind a work whose headlong rhythmic energy suddenly moves, via an intricately detailed transition, to a final section whose subdued manner does not preclude music of fastidious textural variety emerging. The analogous sequence ‘red-green-blue’ was reinforced by overhead lighting, even if Vir’s musical trajectory is appreciably more subtle.

BCMG responded to Geoffrey Paterson’s direction with alacrity, not unreasonably pleased to be back performing for a live audience in an impressive indication of what can be expected from this ensemble during the 2021-22 season and barring, one hopes, no more false alarms!

You can find information on further BCMG activities here, while further information on Wheeling Past the Stars by Param Vir can be found at the NMC website

On record: Nashville Symphony / Giancarlo Guerrero – John Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives, Harmonielehre (Naxos)

Nashville Symphony / Giancarlo Guerrero

John Adams
My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003)
Harmonielehre (1985)

Naxos American Classics 8.559854 [69’03”]
Producer Tim Handley
Engineer Trevor Wilkinson

Recorded 5-7 October 2018 (Harmonielehre), 25-27 October 2019 (My Father Knew Charles Ives), Laura Turner Concert Hall, Nashville

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos adds to its coverage of John Adams with this release featuring two major orchestral works – the one among the most enticing of his latter-day output, the other among the most characteristic (and recorded) of the pieces that first accorded him international prominence.

What’s the music like?

Adams has long expressed a penchant for the music of America’s great visionary of the late-Romantic era, and My Father Knew Charles Ives is his oblique while affectionate homage to the composer who gave American classical music its aesthetic basis. Not that the title should be taken literally – rather, the work’s three movements add up to an inclusive portrait of Ives in a way not dissimilar to that of the composer’s orchestral sets. Thus, the opening Concord deftly identifies the cultural environment behind Ives’s thinking besides alluding to some of his most inimitable music, while The Lake builds upon this with evocative and atmospheric writing whose concertante role for piano also finds resonance in the senior composer’s music. The final and longest movement, The Mountain returns to those transcendental strivings as infused Ives’s creative maturity, though its finely sustained initial pages are not followed up by the falling back on well-rehearsed minimalist routines that ensue. Conversely, the closing pages inhabit an ethereal introspection as makes for an understated and affecting apotheosis.

Hard to believe it is now 36 years since Harmonielehre first blazed a trail over the Western musical landscape, or that what once provoked extreme reactions (causing a near riot at the 1987 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) should have come to represent a musical lingua franca imitated many times in the interim. That this earliest of Adams’s ‘symphonic’ works remains among his most representative is fully reaffirmed here. Giancarlo Guerrero finds a viable balance between drama and lyricism in the lengthy opening movement, then builds the mingled Wagnerian and Mahlerian resonances of The Amfortas Wound toward a climax of potent anguish (if such is the music’s intent). The luminous opening of Meister Eckhardt and Quackie demonstrates the best in the Nashville Symphony – as with its superb release of Christopher Rouse (Naxos 8.559852) – and while even astute pacing cannot make the closing peroration sound other than manufactured, the approach yields a methodical and eventful sense of purpose as makes its ‘travelling in hope’ more compelling than any arrival.

Does it all work?

It does, from the perspective that Adams often makes his larger-scale works cohere through sheer force of impact more than formal ingenuity – his trademark post-minimalism proving renewable at almost every turn. Guerrero’s take on My Father Knew Charles Ives is certainly preferable to the composer’s rather calculated account with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Nonesuch), while his Harmonielehre can rank high among the seven available recordings of this piece – among which, Kent Nagano with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra (Decca) currently leads the field.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least when recording and annotations are first rate. Hopefully, future Naxos releases of Adams will explore further his extensive back catalogue and revive such as the impressive ‘symphony’ El Dorado, which still awaits its second recording after virtually three decades.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Naxos website. For more on John Adams, the composer’s website is a great resource. Meanwhile the Nashville Symphony website is here, and you can visit conductor Giancarlo Guerrero’s website here

On record – Yuja Wang, LAPO / Gustavo Dudamel: John Adams – Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (DG)

Yuja Wang (piano), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Gustavo Dudamel

John Adams
Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (2019)
China Gates (1977)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838289 [32’05”]

Recorded November 2019, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, USA

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is John Adams’ first major work for piano and orchestra since 1997. Its world premiere took place in 2019, with dedicatee Yuja Wang taking the solo part in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The same team are on the money here with the first recording of the substantial new piece – with a contrasting makeweight, as Wang offers one of Adams’ much loved shorter works, the solo piano composition China Gates.

What’s the music like?

In a word, dynamic. The composer’s direction for the first of the three movements of Must the Devil…says a lot – Gritty, Funky, But in strict Tempo; Twitchy, Bot-Like. It describes the music perfectly, for as Yuja Wang drives the music forward with big, block chords there is a great deal of positive mechanical energy – and indeed a bit of funk. The ‘good tunes’ are not quite so obvious, with the through-composed nature of the piece masking any obvious hooks, but there is a strong and assertive drive forward, like the relentless surge of traffic along a Californian freeway.

The frenetic activity subsides towards the end of the first movement and we get a closer look at Adams’ soul, glimpsed through luminous string textures and sensitive, nocturnal piano writing. The mechanical grind is temporarily forgotten and a tender, thoughtful mood evolves. This leads to the Gently, Relaxed direction, which effectively becomes the concerto’s slow movement, with music of serenity and beautiful colours. As the movement progresses the lines become a little more angular, the strings and piano working together while complemented by softly spoken wind and brass choirs.

Then the energy returns, and we move into the finale with clumps of percussive chords from Wang, leading the orchestra in a section marked Obsession / Swing. The cross rhythms sway, generating exciting momentum between piano and orchestra, and Wang throws her all at the piano as it issues massive, repetitive statements, the obsession growing ever greater towards the end and the sound of a bell, with which Adams brings an end to the three rounds.

China Gates is a much-needed repose, its meditative thoughts given in an unbroken, fluid stream.

Does it all work?

Yes, and is hard to fault in this performance. The musical language is familiar – recognisably John Adams in its long lines of busy activity – and it could be argued some of these statements are familiar too, closely related to previous large-scale utterances. But the performance is ideal, a white knuckle ride in the faster sections and a cool reverie in the memorable slower parts. China Gates is the ideal foil.

Yuja Wang is brilliant throughout, a whirlwind of energy in the fast music of Must the Devil…and a model of sensitivity in the quieter music.

Is it recommended?

Fans of Adams’ music will not hesitate – and nor should newcomers either, for not only is the music very listenable it is presented in terrific recorded sound. A DG release with all the fireworks for sure, and if there are no recognisably good tunes to hum afterwards there is plenty to enjoy. John Adams’ positive energy wins through once again.

Listen

Buy

You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Deutsche Grammophon website

Playlist – Sound of Mind 7: Strings and things

Here is another playlist for your delectation, in the new age of ‘staying in’.

This one features works for strings of very different character, from the energetic works by John Adams and Tchaikovsky to a more reflective, serene approach from Philip Glass and Sir Edward Elgar. You get an idea here of the versatility of the string orchestra, which can be by turns sombre and bracing.

Enjoy the music!

Ben Hogwood

Talking Heads: Ryan Teague

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Asked to describe himself, Ryan Teague could easily offer the text of his website biography as a succinct summary. Here the multiple disciplines of composer, sound designer and multi-instrumentalist are listed, with the declaration that the Bristol-based artist ‘combines acoustic sources and arrangements with electronic synthesis and processing to create unique contemporary soundscapes’.

What we could add to that is that over nearly fifteen years of commercially released albums he has travelled through a number of very different styles, rarely visiting the same one twice. We have been able to marvel at his treatment of acoustic instruments in a style that allows the influences of minimalism and the gamelan to be heard. More recently, on the new album Recursive Iterations, he has started to look at algorithms and their use in electronic music.

It is a very distinctive style, as though Teague has joined up a series of different statements that travel round in circles, and each time they pass the listener something has changed. As we talk about his music, he agrees with this first point. “Yes, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. The algorithm is exactly that, a 360 degree rotation, with every variation possible within the parameters. It’s not always obvious, and some come around more often than others.”

The press release is helpful here, describing how ‘the musical structure is derived from a custom–written algorithmic system that sequences harmonic and rhythmic events in ever-shifting patterns. Hyperreal electro-acoustic phrases and digitally synthesised fragments come and go in continual rotation, re-framed and re-contextualised by their proximity to other events in the sequence as the compositions evolve. The effect evokes a minimalist bricolage, hypnotic and kaleidoscopic in nature, and calls to mind artists such as Oneohtrix Point Never, The Haxan Cloak and Ital Tek‘.

In spite of this detail there is plenty of room for manoeuvre and expression. Some of Teague’s melodies and harmonies are playful, and some are left open-ended, as though he were facing outwards. “I think there’s a sense that it’s constantly leading you somewhere but never quite arriving,” he says. Picking the second iteration as an example, he cites the use of “sounds off an old radio from the 1950s, together with a Hawaiian guitar. They kind of fit together. Getting them to work coherently together is a challenge but one that I really enjoy.”

He has a wealth of experience of music in the longer form – substantial instrumentals on his albums prove that – but also in the shorter attention span world of advertising and TV. Has that helped him with what is a concentrated approach on Recursive Iterations? “It has a bit, but I think the relationship is more derived from exploring certain aspects rather than the film or advert work. It’s getting to the bottom of sound design and pushing sounds to their limits, so that you are finding the very bottom and the very top of each. I guess working in TV stuff you have to get proficient at very broad briefs and sonic requirements, but this was more of a personal point. It helped that I have been working with a really good Hi Fi system and seeing how far I could push it. I have an ARCAM amp and B&W speakers, and on those it has been a real revelation to hear things in such a different way so it informed my work in more recent times.” It also explains why the new album comes into its own on headphones, the full range of its frequencies revealed.

Contrary to expectations, Teague’s training has not been formal. “No, not strictly”, he says. “On my very first press release someone put that I’m classically trained. I’m not, but I went to art school and studied sound intensely. I find that I’m more interested in structures, and I play classical guitar, but I’m not formally trained. I would say I have a good understanding of harmony, and also that I was always ambitious with sound. As a kid I was really making dance music, and that’s what I always thought I would be doing for a while. I have ultimately found beats to be restrictive though. There was a linear path that I had to get off in my early 20s, and I wanted to find ways I could express myself.”

Teague approaches his structures “more through clarity of vision of ideas, and I literally see them visually. I know what I’m going to do before I start. For me the timbre is very visual, so that when I’m working on a metallic piece, I am focused on achieving a particular sonic effect. It’s architectural rather than sitting down at the piano. When you get to constructing harmonies, that’s where you have to sit down and work it out.”

A common mistake from reviewers and interviewers – this one partially included! – is that Teague is influenced primarily by the music of Steve Reich. Yet while he fully respects the work of the master minimalist, Teague’s references spread further afield. “The Reich reference comes up a lot, probably in every review I’ve ever had, but if anything I was much more interested in the work of John Adams, and his sense of structure and development was much more in my early references. Colin McPhee was a big inspiration to me too, because I went on to study the gamelan myself. He achieved things more than 50 years before the likes of John Adams and Steve Reich came along, and is tragically not really credited for that.”

Post-tonal music also exerts a pull, though more in its instrumentation and concentration than its actual harmonies. “Webern is a very strong influence”, says Teague, “distilled down to his element. What he does in his music is not to be afraid of silence, and to use the space between notes to make the maximum impact. For me Webern is incredibly innovative, and massively overlooked. I would also check Morton Feldman, for his use of time, space and colour. A lot of electronic music too. I don’t tend to keep up with what’s going on at the moment, but I do have my comfort music.”

He thinks on, and another name comes to mind. “One reference especially relevant to Recursive Iterations would be Richard Skelton. He pretty much works solely with acoustic instruments, with beautiful strings, drones and treated piano. He sets up a few things that keep happening at various points, using beautiful, shimmering music without being too cheesy. That is a challenge that I set myself, asking how can I set things on their own cycles without getting in their way?”

As befits a composer of several disciplines, Teague is working on a number of different projects concurrently. “I have a TV thing and a film thing, but can’t say too much about either unfortunately. The album was only finished back in July so I’m formulating my next project, which will be very different. I am thinking perhaps of something in the live arena with a different energy. The studio can be a bit lacking on its own so I’m keen to open things up and take in a different energy. I have ideas forming in that area!”

He agrees that Recursive Iterations is very different to previous albums, “I’m never a good judge of that sort of thing, but that’s happened before. It is certainly very different to the kind of guitar-based stuff I did for Causeway or when I worked with the gamelan for Storm Or Tempest May Stop Play. That has been dance music with acoustic instruments.”

“I could almost have different audiences for different projects”, he considers, “because I go through different phases of different styles and I’m quite clear about the sonic worlds those things inhabit. Recursive Iterations sounds more electronic, and thinking back I guess Burial would be another key reference. Sometimes I think I’m not representing myself very well, with such different styles!”

At this point the music of a composer such as Beethoven comes to mind, the composer able to move between such contrasting forms as symphony, string quartet, piano sonata and song. “I think it changes as the scene evolves, thinking of the present day”, says Teague. “With the post-classical scene my involvement was back to 15 years ago, with the Six Preludes but more recently it’s gone nuts. I’m trying to do something else now. Maybe I could cash in and do loads of piano music now, so that we could play it to people in offices and pacify them! These things all get capitalised on and it becomes a business. So many labels are jumping on that and it’s a bit too late now. The album I’ve just finished was a bit of an antidote to that for me, with the idea to do something bolder sonically.”

Ryan Teague‘s new album Recursive Iterations is self-released on Friday October 25. It can be heard and purchased from his Bandcamp site below:

Stay tuned for a special playlist from Ryan, exclusive to Arcana, in the coming days!