26 February 2016

Marius Baranauskas: The Molten Thought

This week after lots of pottering about, I decided it would be nice to discuss some of the work of Marius Baranauskas. Some may remember I wasn't won over by his work that was recently premiered in GAIDA, but I was still positive about his overall output. This post will discuss one of the works I feel really shows off Marius with a real strength.

As I have been slowly gathering my thoughts about the thesis I will write next year, I decided to talk to Marius more directly about his work and influences and so forth. Firstly we discussed on a grander scale which composers influenced him, and almost without hesitation he pointed towards Scelsi, Lutoslawski, and Kaija Saariaho. These influences are quite obvious in his works, not to suggest he is a cheap imitation but more a response to this influence. I had also continued this by asking if composers like Grisey, Murail, or Messiaen had any impact on him; especially as his work is in the same sphere as many composers following after the French spectral works. Marius pointed out they had some impact but not as strongly as the three giants previously mentioned.

I told Marius that the one of the main reasons I wanted to include him in my thesis is he and Juste Janulyte have become probably the two composer's whose success has been shaped by Lithuania joining the EU. Lithuania's membership to the EU is far more symbolic than political as it opened up Lithuania to the world and it also places Lithuania on par with its partners in the union, which will obviously continue to impact Lithuanian music making for many years to come. In light of this I asked Marius how much influence has his native Lithuania had on his output. I thought it was an especially important question to ask when the rest of his major influences are far from Vilnius. Marius pointed to a few composers he admired, mostly for their skill and craft like Osvaldas Balakauskas or Onute Narbutaite; but he said his strongest native influence is his native tutor Rimantas Janeliuaskas. Marius said that the influence and impact of Janeliauskas on his work is extremely strong, and has heavily shaped who is he today.

Which brings me nicely to his orchestral work The Molten Thought (2006). The work like his earlier piece Talking (2002) uses orchestral instruments to replicate phonemes, in turn the piece is almost a prose recitation of a text. As The Molten Thought came later, it is a more elaborate use of this device. We had discussed when using this way of composing, does he ever focus on a particular language. Marius pointed out how pretty much all languages uses the same phonemes, with the exception of languages like Xhosi, the only difference is in Lithuania the phonemes are expressed in a single letter whereas English could take five letter for the same sound.
In this piece, the text being drawn on is by Rabindranath Tagore. The text comes from his Song offerings:
I was not aware of the moment when I first crossed the threshold of this life. What was the power that made me open out into this vast mystery like a bud in the forest at midnight! When in the morning I looked upon the light I felt in that moment that I was no stranger in this world, that the inscrutable without name and form had taken me in its arms in the form of my mother. Even so, in death the same unknown will appear as ever known to me. And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well. The child cries out when from the right breast the mother takes it away, in the very next moment to find in the left one its consolation. 

The text is very provocative and colourful, like many of the texts by Tagore. It is also fascinating to see how Marius and the late Jonathan Harvey have both drawn on similar ideas and influences (Speakings (2007/08) and Song Offerings(1985)). It is also curious they were both unaware both were doing similar things.  

The Molten Thought is a dark and brooding piece, which happily spends more time focusing on the phonemes it is trying to replicate. The result is quite poetic and colourful piece which has many parallels with Lontano by Ligeti. Both pieces were later uses of a new soundworld for the composer, but both have a much stronger elegance and purpose to it; due mostly to knowing how to get more out of the devices. Both move organically from one place to the next and just mesmerise with their use of colour and beauty. The Molten Thought does have the same raw impulse as Talking but there is just something about this work that grips me every time I listen. 

Enjoy the recording, and I'll be back with more next time!

20 February 2016

Juzeliunas the Birthday Boy

Today is the 100th birthday of the Lithuanian legend, Julius Juzeliunas. For those of you who are unfamiliar, I have written about some of his work here and here. He is a composer who has had such a strong and expansive influence throughout Lithuania.

Yesterday saw three event in the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre to celebrate the great man. The finale of which was a fantastic concert of the St. Christopher's Orchestra performing Juzeliunas's concerto for clarinet and string, his cantata for voice and strings Gėlių kalbėjimas, and his poem-concerto for string orchestra. These three pieces were fantastic discoveries for me and I was particularly impressed by the performance given by the clarinet soloist and orchestra.

Sadly I was unable to find recordings of these pieces, so I will simply show a wonderful recording of Juzeliunas's 2nd Symphony. A wonderful early work full of energy and character. I don't think I need to dwell too long on this piece. Enjoy! And I will write more next week!

And Su Gimtadienu Juliaus Juzeliuno!

A quick glance at the Vale of Glamorgan.

Very recently the Vale of Glamorgan festival announced its programme for this year's festival. When I was a student in Cardiff, the festival was always a great thing to witness and it was also this festival that really opened my eyes to the wonders of the Baltic. This year sees the festival focusing on three birthday boys who are celebrating significant ages, they are John Metcalf, Steve Reich, and Peteris Vasks (I don't know if they would want me to advertise their age, so I shall let you search for yourselves).

Steve Reich is Steve Reich and there is tons of coverage of him, so I need not say another word. John Metcalf is a lovely Welsh composer, whose music has a wonderful fragility and modest elegance to it. The inclusion of Peteris Vasks is wonderful, one because his music is magnificent, but it also brought in a few other stunning Latvians to join in the festival including Eriks Esenvald.

For me the following concerts will be fantastic to witness:

The opening concert, full details can be seen on the link, but the performance of beautiful works like Fruit of Silence by Peteris Vasks will be wonderful to behold. Also the Latvian Radio Choir are a remarkable ensemble, so I would be excited to see them perform anything. A little teaser of what you will hear is below:

The first of the two BBC National Orchestra of Wales concerts looks like a wonderful event. Three works will be performed, Guto Puw's violin concerto, a new work Ghyll by Mark David Boden (a very fine composer who definitely needs to be listened to), and the UK premiere of Sala by Peteris Vasks.

Quatour Tana and Andreas Borregaard will give two performances of works for string quartet and accordion. The concerts includes works by Reich, Mark David Boden, and Bent Sorenson to name a few. The first concert with Sorensen and Boden together will be a gem for sure!

Robert Court and Jose Zalba-Smith are delivering a concert of mostly Vasks. Vasks's organ music is truly wonderful and will be a nice lunchtime treat for anyone who witnesses it. 

The wonderful Ensemble MidtVest return to the Vale of Glamorgan to perform a concerto with mostly works by John Metcalf. The repertoire for the whole event looks glorious, and I am particularly excited about the performance of the Piano Quartet by Vasks.

The finale for the festival will see BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform a world premiere of the upcoming Viola Concerto, I am very curious to see the result of this. The finale also sees a performance of Vasks's Cantible and John Metcalf's Cello Symphony, both will be great pieces to witness. 

Overall it looks like a really wonderful festival indeed, I just hope I can get there to witness it!

More information can be found on the fesitval's website

15 February 2016

NIKO's visit to LMTA

Today's post is another review of a concert, it has been a while but thankfully many are on their way, so watch this space. The concert in question is a performance by the ensemble NIKO, a string orchestra of sorts conducted by the composer Gediminas Gelgotas. Many of you who have read most of my posts, know I was not the greatest fan of Gelgotas's piece that featured in GAIDA; but I wanted to come along one to not just judge a composer by a single piece. 

My other reason for coming to the concert was because it was a collaboration with the Icelandic string quartet SKARK. This ensemble brought with them some Icelandic influence to add to the proceedings. For those who don't know, Lithuania holds Iceland in very high regards as Iceland was the first nation to officially recognise the Lithuanian state. The collaboration which was rounded off by today's concert was to mark that bold gesture, as well as to celebrate the 25th anniversay of Lithuanian independence. 

The first thing that struck me with the ensemble was their ability to perform without written music in front of them. This is by no means a new feat, but it must be acknowledged for classically trained musicians this is a bold and daring venture. The ensemble play with gusto and it is obvious they and their conductor know each other's nuances. 

Skark were an impressive bunch too, I was a bit sad to not see them more heavily featured as they were a very tight nit group. Their connection to the folk tune they performed was very strong and they had an understanding of the piece that only a native could really get. The rendition of Timinn lidur, trudu mer was as touching as it was playful, a charming charismatic gem indeed. 

The composer Daniel Bjarnason was the only Icelandic composer featured, I was curious to hear him; especially as embarrassingly my knowledge of Icelandic classical music doesn't extend much beyond Jon Leifs, Bjork, and Olafur Arnalds (even as I say this, my old friend Solveig, who played viol alongside me and other nerds in my RWCMD days, would not be impressed with my lack of knowledge). Getting back to the point Bjarnason was a wonderful discovery, the piece Air to Breath was rich in its stills, beautiful in its austerity. The melodic line that was slowly passed from cello, to viola, to violin was done seamlessly, with an aching harmonic backdrop which with every resolution felt like a breath of fresh air (no pun intended). The colouring and power of the work far outweighed its modesty and sincerity. The highlight of the concert by miles (or by kilometres). 

This however strongly contrasts the works by Gelgotas, who in their naivety and crassness  was just infuriating. The first work Sacred Unreligious Soul started with dark colours and 'brutal' gestures from the ensemble, but always felt half baked. The calm moments was even weaker in comparison because there was no real sense of journey towards, or necessity for them. The climax of the work ultimately was ripping of the harmonic language of Peteris Vasks, combined with the hammering bass of a metal band, but ultimately lacked the substance of Vasks and the sheer essence of any metal band worth their clout. I am not suggesting because he is a classical composer he can't do metal, but if he was raw and brutal he should look at Iancu Dumitrescu, if he wants metal on classical instruments he should look at Apocalyptica, and he was wants Vasks he should study Vasks. As I write this, I also realise Gelgotas should also take some notes from Erkki-Sven Tuur, a dude who had his own progressive rock band before being a 'proper' composer and he nails both.

The second piece of Gelgotas to be featured was a reorchestration of Mountains.Waters. (Freedom). I hoped the reorchestration may highlight something that the orchestra that premiered the larger scale version failed to do so. But ultimately the new ensemble of the piece does not rectify it, if you want to see all my thoughts check here.

The final piece of the concert was Gelgotas's Extracadenza, a piece that was very much a finale piece which is did with bells on. Sadly it wasn't as positive as it could have been. The music was just boring and narcissistic, it felt like it was constantly clambering for attention. The work also featured a 'choreography', which ultimately they walked around as over played performing. This is not a new thing, two very examples Cirque du Soleil and Mittwoch by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Both these examples use choreography and daring feats from the performers, even in the premiere of Mittwoch many of the performers were also performers for Cirque du Soleil. When something isn't new, a composer has to ask why are they doing it? If they are going to do it, it needs to do something for a reason and with purpose, but sadly it felt more like attention grabbing novelty. Also on a whole reflection of the concert, Gelgotas's conducting wasn't something I'd be dying to see anytime soon. Throughout I got the distinct impression the only reason it looked good was because the ensemble knew him well and his gestures functioned well for his kind of music, this is problem very apparent in Eric Whitacre, yes they both have style, but where is the substance?

With the exception of the Icelandic works, this concert was a bit depressing. Normally I am not too negative about concerts I don't like, I know I am picky with an obsessive eye for detail. But this concert was a musical collaboration between two nations, a wonderful gesture of solidarity between them both. Personally these kinds of events are a great place for contemporary music and it starts a dialogue between nations with living people working together. A beautiful thing indeed. But my final impression at the end was, the concert was only really put together for the composer's own need to sell himself. It is a shameful path and I hope Gelgotas finds some substance.  

12 February 2016

Toivo Tulev: Songs

This week  I wanted to chat about a wonderful work that I have been eager to talk about since I started this blog, but needed the right kind of time for it. The composer in question is Toivo Tulev (1958*) an Estonian composer whose music and personal evolution has fallen at one of the most potent times of Estonia's history.

Toivo Tulev is part of the generation composers just after giants like Arvo Part, and who was a part of the generation setting the stage for Estonia post-Soviet occupation. His music draws on many influences including hard rock, Gregorian chant, sonorism, and minimalism. This collection of influences is almost the epitome of Estonia since the 1990s, everyone freely drawing on everything that they can. The result has meant many profoundly strong composers have come out of the tiny Baltic nation.

The mood of Tulev's works owes a lot of the Arvo Part, I don't say this in the sense that he is a bland copy of Arvo Part, but more that Part opened the door for Tulev's music to really shine. The focus and meditative atmosphere is always beautiful be it in a piece for piano lasting 3 minutes or a half an hour long work for choirs, orchestra and soloists.

This brings me very nicely onto Songs (2005). Songs was commissioned by Paul Hillier while Toivo Tulev was composer in residence with the Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Choir. To quote Hillier's words in the CDs sleeve notes:
...I proposed that he write an extended new work for us, and ventured to suggest that it might be a polychoral piece with various groups of singers and instruments distributed around the concert venue... Paul Hillier

 So in short, the work is meditative collage of religious texts from a multitude of sources including Song of Songs, Cantico espiritual, and Coplas del alma que pena que por ver a Dios. The works are all connected by the sense of yearning; a spiritual longing to be closer to God. The setting of the text is in three languages English, Latin, and Spansh, which gives the sensation of constant reflection and revaluation of what has been said, forcing you to remain mindful.

The ensemble is laid out like so:

                                                           Coro Lontano

Orchestra I                                                 Soli                                  Orchestra II
Coro I                                                     Conductor                                   Coro II
                                                         Organo Lontano

This layout surrounds the audience and fills the space with this meditation. To add to the colour of the ensemble is the use of Duduk, an instrument native to Armenia which is renown for its mournful colour and beauty.

The work can be divided into 8 sections and in the recording produced by harmonia mundi is divided as such.

I - By Night - Starts with dark rustlings and building from the ensemble, before we hear the first quotation of the text 'By night on my bed I sought him Whom my soul loveth I sought him, but I found him not'. This movement focuses around the larger ensemble, with the text being sung by the choir. 

II - Where have you hidden, Beloved - The next section starts with repetitions on singular pitches oscillating around each other. It is very focused and very still and wonderfully hypnotic. 

III - This life that I live - Is the first section to feature a soloist. The beautiful flying lines from the soprano mystify and mesmerise. The lightness and nimble soprano in the recording really hits the point home, I am a bit in awe of it. The stillness of the orchestra holds the atmosphere allowing the soprano to ring like a beautiful siren.

IV - Nigra Sum - This movement starts very boldly and strong, full of colour and energy. The entrance of the Mezzo soprano soloist is still filled with rippling energy which holds her like the sea holds a ship.

V - Behold, thou art fair - Is the longest singular segment, and is lead by the tenor soloist. Despite sounding very still, the music is still full of yearning and a potency you feel may suddenly explode uncontrollably. The entrance of the choir is haunting and just emphasise the power of the tenor.

VI - I am come into my garden - This is my favourite movement, mostly because I find when a counter tenor is good it is profoundly beautiful. Robin Blaze really brings out the ephemeral nature of the text and music and just draws a listener in closer almost being absorbed by the text and the singing.

VII - Reveal, reveal your presence - This movement begins to build with energy the movement. Despite the long lines in the instruments and singers there is a sense of a building tempi and the the sparky soprano solo adds to the deeper potency of the movement. Allowing it to build and build.

VIII - Mira que la dolencia de amor - The final sees reiterations of older texts as well as the inclusion of the new Spanish text. Despite being a finale, it is by no means a release or a conclusion. There is a greater sense that the souls have gone unsatisfied and with an uneasy breath out the piece ends.

This powerful and potent work is just magical and I can spend days listening to it. The CD by harmoni mundi is definitely worth buying, not just for this singular piece, but also for the collection of other works by this wonderful composer.

Until next week!

5 February 2016

Vytautas Bacevicius: Septintas Zodis/Septieme Mot

After a few days flitting off to Scotland, I am back in Vilnius and ready to write more. This week's installment is a particularly powerful Lithuanian gem, Vytautas Bacevicius (1905-1970). Brother of the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz, Vytautas is a particularly remarkable figure in Lithuanian music and the wider sphere too. Bacevicius is one of the most significant names in Lithuanian history, and a figure who will continue to inspire composers today. Musically he is often compared to Scriabin, but I find this comparison a bit tedious, mostly because Bacevicius can stand on his own two feet and doesn't need to be similar to a famous figure to be significant. I also find the comparison a bit short sighted as when you compare him to other composers of the period, Andre Jolivet (1905-1974) is a much better fit. The flowing free tonality and poetic nuances share a very similar character. I also find comparing Bacevicius to Jolivet more significant due to the fact both composers are on the larger scale pretty well hidden gems often over shadowed by other composers of situations.

Vytautas Bacevicius, was born and lived during a period of constant shifting. Firstly being born in Lodz (formerly Russian Empire, now Poland), but identifying himself as Lithuanian, he initially studied in Lodz conservatoire under Kazimierz Sikorski and Kazimierz Wilkorimski. He then moved and studied in Kaunas before moving to Sorbonne University where he studied philosophy. In 1932 he returned to Kaunas and taught. During the time of his return and the outbreak of war he founded the The Society of Lithuanian Music Progressists and in 1936 was the leader of Lithuanian section of the ISCM. In 1939, he was touring South America, when world war two broke out he emigrated to America and lived there for the rest of his days.

His music can be seen to be in three distinct periods, his early period closely linked to the impressionists and late romantics. His middle period is referred to his Lithuanian Period; most likely due to the fact of being based in Lithuania during this time and working so much within the musical landscape. This middle period is far more modernistic in its construction and drawing influence from the expressionists. Around the time he moved to the US his music took a more conservative tone; simply to build a reputation as composer, but as this became rather stifling Bacevicius abandoned this approach. His final period is referred to his Cosmic Period which is where I find him as his most powerful and unique. This period is referred to as his cosmic period as he was trying to find a balance between absolute music and the cosmological nature of things. So this was an attempt to transcend music, with a supreme form of musicality that could touch all sentient beings as well as tapping into the very essence of the universe.

Throughout his life, Bacevicius had been working on a series of works called Mot/Zodis (Words). This series of seven pieces was written for a variety of keyboard settings, mostly for one piano; but Deuxieme Mot was composed for organ and Septieme Mot was composed for two pianos. Today we will focus on just the Septieme Mot (1966), mostly because I have the score and I do love it so much.

The work is in three movements; Allegro moderato - Larghetto misterioso - Allegro con fuoco. These three movements are very colourful and flowing with ideas flying and suddenly disappearing. The first movement is extremely violent and potent with running figures being juxtaposed with strong stabs. The harmonic language is unpredictable but stable, the chords no matter how dissonant are never jarring but liberally shift from one place to another. The interaction between the two pianos is pretty magical as they always seem as an extension of each other and never and competitor to each other. The first movement can be heard here:

The second movement, is wonderful still and motionless. Spacious melodies move seemlessly before a reiteration of a strong powerful gesture fades into the nothingness. As the movement progresses it becomes more animated, but never feels rushed or energetic, almost like a candle glittering. The gestures and motifs hang like stars in the sky. Many musicologists like to discuss the fact there are no barlines like it is a brand new idea, but I find in this piece that lack of barlines is almost akin to works of Byrd and other composers of the period; the barlines don't matter, the music will just flow. This movement does exploit that beautifully. The second movement can be heard here:

The final movement is the most potent and fiery. With the rhythmic ideas bouncing full of momentum. The polyphonic texture brings in many lines and colours together but the music keeps getting interrupted by a returning figure which almost becomes more and more sarcastic as the work progresses. And as it progresses sarcasm slowly turns into an almost brutal nagging which ultimately ends the movement in quite a strong strop. The violence and energy in this movement is remarkable and I am surprised this work is not adopted by more piano duos the world over. You can here the final movement here:  

The Septieme Mot is a truly remarkable work from a composer towards the end of his life, but it must be mentioned his works for orchestra like Graphique or Poeme Electronique or his concerti are extreme too and are always worth a listen. Also the other segments of Mots are definitely worthwhile and I feel should be a beautiful edition to any pianists repertory. Toccata Classics have done a wonderful job by recording the entire set onto CD. Definitely worth buying.