Ask someone to name a 20th century Japanese composer and they’ll probably answer Toru Takemitsu. Ask someone to name two or three 20th century Japanese composers? They’ll probably answer with an awkward silence. This isn’t because Takemitsu was the only composer writing interesting music in Japan during the last century. According to conductor Ilan Volkov, it’s because of what he calls â€œthe Western propensity to pick and championâ€.
First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2013
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Schumann’s symphonies don’t require any vast choral forces or orchestral overtime pay, but to underestimate their unique challenge is to deny the world of riches they contain. Schumann doesn’t always finish his sentences or dress up his impulses in formal rhetoric, and yet (or maybe therefore) these works reveal his entire experience of life â€“ and something of our own in the process. How to do justice to his fantastic stream-of-consciousness in a way that hangs together and makes more than the sum of its extraordinary parts?
First published in the Guardian on 22 November, 2013
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Andsnes
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
If ever proof was needed that the ethos of an orchestra affects the sound it makes, look no further than the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It’s been 16 years since this exceptional ensemble grew out of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. It still lives by its founding principles of democratic decision-making and its sound is full of vibrancy and youthful spark. Despite a measly audience turn-out (the Usher Hall can’t have been more than a third full for one of the world’s classiest chamber orchestras), there was a sense of drive and ownership from every musician on stage: rank-and-file string players as much as pianist/conductor Lief Ove Andsnes.
First published in The Herald on 21 November, 2013
Red Note Ensemble
St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield
Red Note’s residency at the 2013 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is a major feather in the cap for Scotland’s five-hear-old contemporary music outfit. They’ve done plenty of excellent community and education projects (Framed Against the Sky; Noisy Nights), daft music theatre (Pass the Spoon) and ambitious site-specific one-offs (songbirdsongs; 1000 Airplanes on the Roof; Tantallon!). Now these three Huddersfield concerts were a declaration, before the great and good of the contemporary music world, of their international calibre as a ‘serious’ new music ensemble.
First published in The Herald on 20 November, 2013
Towards the end of his life, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen decided that he came not from Earth but from the planet Sirius. He believed that he was in contact with angels, like William Blake. Stockhausen was a strange man. He designed his own house with no right angles and lived there with two women at once. He wrote music that required three orchestras and four helicopters. He could be shockingly rude or utterly charming. The composer Jonathan Harvey thought of him as a sort of shaman. Luigi Nono described his methodology as â€œspiritual suicideâ€. The Fluxus movement picked outside his concerts with banners reading: â€œSTOCKHAUSEN â€“ PATRICIAN ‘THEORIST’ OF WHITE SUPREMACY: GO TO HELL!â€ When the conductor Thomas Beecham was asked whether he’d heard any music by Stockhausen he replied, â€œno, but I think I’ve trodden in some.â€
Gay rights activists have been protesting at concerts given by the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev in London and New York. The underlying issue is legislation recently passed by the Russian president Vladmir Putin that bans the promotion of homosexual â€œpropagandaâ€ in Russia â€“ legislation that amounts to institutionalised homophobia in a country where hate crimes are already all-too frequent. The reason that protesters are targeting Gergiev is twofold. First, he publicly supported Putin’s re-election in 2012, thus in the words of activist Peter Tatchell â€œcolludes with a tyrant and shows little respect for freedom and equalityâ€. Second, he did not renounce the Duma’s new laws and, when asked by about them by a Dutch newspaper, seemingly equated homosexuality with paedophilia.
First published in The Herald on 12 November, 2013
It’s been a long year under the spotlight for Benjamin Britten, whose centenary celebrations reach their zenith next weekend around the big day itself (22 November). Since the beginning of 2013 there have been special performances of Britten’s music great and small, famous and obscure, from Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh to Billy Bud in Rio de Janeiro to multiple accounts of the War Requiem for Remembrance Day. The personal life of the man routinely described as the greatest English composer since Henry Purcell has been dissected and re-dissected in various new biographies and countless column inches. How many 20th century composers could survive such an onslaught of attention and come out standing? Very few as robustly as Britten.
First published in the Guardian on 12 November, 2013
City Halls, Glasgow
Peter Maxwell Davies describes his latest work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as â€œa reaction to the Orkney climate and influenced by Orkney folk musicâ€. Ebb of Winter â€“ the name refers to a bizarrely mild period on the islands in early 2013 â€“ isn’t an outright tone poem or a medley of traditional tunes, though. It’s a birthday commission for the SCO’s 40th anniversary but neither is it particularly celebratory. If anything, its atmosphere is reflective and wistful.
First published in the Guardian on 11 November, 2013
City Halls, Glasgow
Andrew Manze’s Vaughan Williams cycle with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has been a powerful journey so far, scaling the vast terrain of these symphonies with lucidity, steel and some mighty orchestral sounds. Here they arrived at the Seventh: the great Sinfonia antartica, composed by Vaughan Williams in the early 1950s out of his film score for the Ealing Studios epic Scott of the Antarctic.
First published in the Guardian on 8 November, 2013
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
â€œThe mighty fugue!â€ cried Chris Thile, devilishly dexterous and eclectic American mandolin player, as he polished off the second movement of Bach’s G minor Sonata for solo violin. The 32-year-old has been on stage since about as long as he could hold up an instrument and it shows: he’s a consummate performer, not just in his flash mandolin licks but in his deftly loveable stage patter. He’s funny, a bit wacky, and he held this crowd rapt for two hours straight.