Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Cherry Blossom arrives in Tongyeong

Yesterday, overnight all the trees in Tongyeong, South Korea, suddenly exploded in a riot of cherry blossom - by the time I arrive back in Cardiff on Friday evening, it will have gone.

Here is a short haiku by Issa from 1804

cherry blossoms
tree after tree
of good karma

And here is the view from Tongyeong's concert hall

To read other blogs on the ISCM Music Days in Tongyeong see here and here.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

ISCM World Music Days

The ISCM World Music Days are now in full swing in Tongyeong, South Korea, where delegates and composers from all over the world are attending meetings and performances of 67 different works over a period of five days.

The performances are being given as part of the Tongyeong International Music Festival at the city's magnificent concert hall, positioned on the tip of the peninsula of South Korea, overlooking some 190 islands.

The festival was started to commemorate the composer Isang Yung (1917-95), born in Tongyeong and the first international Korean composer to come to prominence. Despite the composer's stormy relationship with the country of his birth, a concert of his music was mounted in 1999 when he was still seen in South Korea as a divisive presence which was later to blossom into the present festival.

The first ISCM World Music Days were mounted in 1923 and consist not only of concerts of music from over fifty countries, but also of meetings of delegates from those countries to discuss the society's plans and strategies. Here is a photo from one of today's meetings.

And a reception for the composers and delegates this evening.

The world music days are hosted by a different city every year, who undertake to raise the budget to pay for the days. One of the most exciting aspects of this year's festival have been the assured and polished performances by relatively recently established Asian ensembles and orchestras, including the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, the Changwon Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Music Ensemble and the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra.

There are also several installations including Robert Cahen's meditative film of Boulez conducting his Memoriale, filmed as recently as 2011. Watch an extract here.

There is also this playful installation by the Chinese composer Hui Ye: It was so quiet that the pins dropped could be heard - a small fitting attached to the ceiling in which a mechanism constantly causes small pins to be dropped.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

New Music in Tongyeong

After 26 hours of travelling, I've arrived in Tongyeong, South Korea, where I'm delighted to be representing Wales as a delegate at this year’s ISCM World Music Days. The International Society for Contemporary Music held their first annual World Music Days back in 1923 and each year presents music from over fifty different countries. Last year Wales became the latest country to join and will have its music represented at the days from 2018 onwards. I'm here attending the conference and concerts at this year’s music days in the coastal city of Tongyeong on the southern tip of the Goseong Peninsula. 

Before the opening reception at the city's concert hall, I had a chance to spend a day in the brilliant Easter Sunday sunshine visiting the seaport city itself. Down in the harbour there's no doubt that this is a fishing town.

Here's the entrance to the fish market where people sell fish traditionally as they probably have here for hundreds of years.

Korea is very modern - on a two hour car journey to get here I did not see any building that looked more than fifty years old. It is full of bright primary colours, the landscape scorched and, on the southern peninsula at least, the cities and towns surrounded by mountains that remind one strongly of Hokusai. But in Tongyeong, despite its size (the population is 120,000), there is not one apartment store and virtually no international chain stores (apparently they had two Starbucks, but one has just closed). Instead it is riot of small little shops with bright eye-catching signage.

Unlike Britain where one would never know that a contemporary music festival was happening (because signs and banners cost so much), here there are signs and banner everywhere proclaiming the Sounds of Tomorrow Festival

At 5pm there was a reception at the concert hall here with about a hundred composers squeezed into a small room where Philip Glass made a speech and Unsuk Chin arrived for the festival. Take a look at the photos on the ISCM's Facebook page. Tomorrow my work as a delegate begins - fourteen hours of meetings and concerts with over 50 pieces of contemporary music.

You can find out more about the ISCM here and more details of this year’s festival here. Look out for more details of the visit over the next few days.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Vindicated After 45 Years

Steph Power's review in Wales Arts Review today of Grace Williams's Missa Cambrensis at St David's Hall, Cardiff on 1 March (read it here) reminded me to go back and listen again to the broadcast (courtesy of Radio 3's website): a vindication of a work that had all but disappeared after its first performance in June 1971. Commissioned for the Llandaff Festival in 1966, it was to have been Grace Williams's most ambitious score - a setting of the mass with interpolations for choir, boys' choir, four soloists and a large orchestra. The premiere itself was a disaster (as can be heard on a recording of that night) with the choir and the orchestra struggling with the work's tough and demanding writing. You can hear a very moving account here of that first performance as part of a link in Ty Cerdd's recent newsletter here which also gives some fascinating background to the work. The composer, by all accounts, wept all the way home to Barry in her taxi.

Grace Williams with Sir Charles Groves and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra

The performance by the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales under Tecwyn Evans (the chorus trained by Adrian Partington) finally proved that the work was both fully viable but also established it beyond doubt as possibly the greatest and most ambitious large-scale choral work to have yet emerged from Wales. It was an act of faith on behalf of the BBC, but would not have happened had not Keith Griffin commissioned a new edition of the work several years ago whilst still at Ty Cerdd, brought to fruition by Chris Painter at Oriana Press and Graeme Cotterill who edited the work for his PhD at Bangor University. Here is a page from the manuscript vocal score.

The piece itself is far from being a 'comfortable' listen. It sustains a highly wrought, intense and unremitting musical language for over an hour and is far from perfect (the structural purpose of the solo vocal writing remains difficult to see) - yet in this respect, it is quite unlike much else in Welsh music and this gives it its unique power. It is still available until the end of the month on the BBC website here - do listen now.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Peter Maxwell Davies

There had been so many reports of Peter Maxwell Davies’s illnesses in recent years that the news of his death yesterday should not have come as a surprise. Yet somehow he always seemed immutable; a figure one thought would always be there. 

Photo: Ros Drinkwater

From the age of fifteen or so his music provided many landmarks in my life. Hearing a broadcast of St Thomas Wake in 1973 was my first real experience (that I could relate to) of contemporary music. Eight Songs for a Mad King from the 1976 Proms provided a frisson of teenage rebellion against more established musical norms and the first broadcast of his opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus from the 1977 St Magnus Festival was a revelation. The money I received for my twenty-first birthday was spent on the newly published score of his First Symphony, which then felt at the very cutting edge of contemporary music. Early performances of The Lighthouse and the Second and Third Symphonies were red letter days and I devoted a large part of my MA studies to the music of his early years. I travelled to the National Sound Archive to hear a tape of the notorious 1969 premiere of Worldes Blis at a time when it was the only way to hear it and was thrilled when the Royal Opera revived Taverner in 1983. 

Broadcasts and recordings were important ways of keeping up with Max's work, but some of the deepest musical experiences came with hearing his own performing group, The Fires of London, live. Concerts they gave at Cardiff University in March 1978 and at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival later that year were opportunities to experience the almost physical impact of new pieces inspired by the land and seascapes of the Orkneys where he set up home in the mid-1970s, The Hymn to St Magnus and Ave Maris Stella made a particular impression as did the presence of Max's conducting. Orkney became a place of pilgrimage resulting in a visit in 1981.

In 1983 and 84 I sat in on his classes at Dartington and encountered an analytical and compositional rigour that was revelatory. Students turned up at 9am for four hours of analysis and were then sent away for the afternoon to write a small piece based on structural ideas that emerged during the morning classes – score and parts to be ready for performance by 4pm! A lot of the music I wrote at that time was based on the techniques I picked up by studying his music and the structural principles he taught in his own classes. The floor of my work room was covered in magic squares and many of my scores tried hard to imitate the atmosphere of Worldes Blis, the Second Taverner Fantasia or great slow third movement of the First Symphony.

There were later performances that recaptured something of that early excitement: WNO’s premiere of the Doctor of Mydfai in 1996 was one such occasion, especially when Simon Rees asked me to interview Max for the programme book at Judy Arnold’s home in London. Inevitably, I suffered a reaction against the music and still feel that there was a dropping off in intensity and quality of the later music after the Violin Concerto of 1986. But it is also possible, once that initial love affair was broken, that I was incapable of finding my way into that world again. I hope I might change my mind in the future. But there is much to be grateful for: the music certainly, but also the man himself who was endlessly fascinating and a real beacon to young composers in terms of support, applying rigour to one’s craft and celebrating the sheer adventure of composing. Many thanks Max