Monthly Archives: January 2016

CD review: Isidora Žebeljan’s chamber music

First published in Gramophone, January 2016 issue

Brodsky Quartet & other artists (CPO)

Serbian composer, pianist and conductor Isidora Žebeljan (b. 1967) grew up in a rural part of Serbia near the Carpathian mountains, where folk music crisscrossed between Hungary, Romania and the rest of the Balkans. Her works are packed with fiery energy and the tricksy dance rhythms of home; she has orchestrated music from Emir Kusturica films and shares that director’s panache for hectic zaniness and heightened reality (think Black Cat, White Cat or Time of the Gypsies). Her music spins off impetuously, unpredictably, with an unshackled verve that this chamber collection taps into with the exactly the right kind of abandon.

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CD review: Cage after Cage

First published in Gramophone, January 2016 issue

Matthias Kaul (Wergo)

Percussionist Matthias Kaul comes at Cage from a background in rock and jazz drumming and it shows, there in his sense of freedom, his agency, in the range of sounds more visceral than many interpreters dare. Cage often leaves instrumentation up to the performer and Kaul tends towards the gentle, mellow, quirky and mysterious. He keeps his touch light and his timbres tactile. He has a knack for making percussion instruments sound like human voices, which can be uncanny, or like natural elements, which can be evocative and pictorial. In the sleeve notes he admits to stretching Cagian ‘legality’, but I like it.

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CD review: Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields

First published in Gramophone, January 2016 issue

Bang on a Can All-Stars & Choir of Trinity Wall Street  (Cantaloupe)

Anthracite Fields is the Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio for choir and six-piece amplified ensemble (specifically the Bang On a Can All-Stars) by New York composer Julia Wolfe. Its subject is early 20th century coal mining in Pennsylvania, where Wolfe grew up in the 1960s. The text comes from accident indexes, newspaper ads and political speeches. Anthracite is the purest form of coal, the diamond in the rough that is dirty, loud and dangerous to mine — Wolfe’s music is never shy about its symbolism. She visited pits and museums and retired miners for her research and their claustrophobia and hard graft is writ plain in the score. This is social history in music, which I suspect ticked several boxes for the Pulitzer judges.

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Inteview: Antonio Mendez

First published in The Herald on 13 January, 2016

The day before I meet conductor Antonio Mendez at Media City in Salford, he takes a taxi from Manchester airport to the BBC Philharmonic’s rehearsal studios and gets chatting. The driver wants to know: what exactly does a conductor do? “So we end up comparing it to football managers,” Mendez says. “After Alex Ferguson, Manchester United had the same players, but they did not have the same results.”

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Review: BBCSSO, Matthias Pintscher

First published in the Guardian on 11 January, 2016

Every Western composer has to deal with Wagner one way or another. In a glassy score called Secreta Desolacion by Joan Magrane Figuera — not yet 30 and already confronting the giant head-on — Wagner’s Parsifal prelude is quoted, then exploded, then sublimated. The piece ends with a few gurgles and hiccups, which is one way of doing it.

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Interview: Steven Isserlis

First published in The Herald on 6 January, 2015

“I think of music like a religion and a science,” says cellist Steven Isserlis, sipping at a gin and tonic and waving his hands in big, wafty gestures that imply the point he’s making is really rather obvious. “Religion because the music has to be sacred, naturally. There is a genuine moral duty to do justice to what you see as the composer’s vision. Science because if you look at the score, if you really read it properly, it’s saying detailed things and you can deduce what the composer meant. It’s like detective work.” He looks up in anticipation of my next question. “And no, there is no tension between the two.”

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Harpa, Iceland, Dark Music Days

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First published in The Herald on 1 February, 2012

Reykjavik’s new concert hall was two-thirds finished when credit crunch hit. The building, a hulking glittery iceberg of a thing that juts out into the city harbour, had been privately bankrolled by the director of Iceland’s Landsbanki; when the banks crashed in 2008, local and national government had a tricky call on their hands. Should they leave the structure incomplete, a monument to capitalist growth gone wrong? Should they admit failure and rip the foundations down? Or should public coffers step in and finish the job.

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