Some Notable Premieres at this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival

Cheltenham Music Festival 2011  : Premieres by Venables, Bray, Butler, Sierra, Berkeley, Phibbs, Kendall, Higgins, Rushton. (RJ)

Right from its inception on 1945 the Cheltenham Music Festival has gone out of its way to promote new British music, and this year had its usual crop of premieres.

The first of these, Ian Venables’ cantata Remember This, I have already reviewed on this website. This is a setting of Sir Andrew Motion’s poem on the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Looking back on it I feel sure that this will fhave staying power thanks to the close match between words and music and its association with a much loved public figure.

The day after a winner of  the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize in 2010, Charlotte Bray, heard the first performance of her newest work, Replay. Its structure  “was prompted by looking at diferent images of spherical trigonometry” – according to her programme notes, and as one who had his last maths lesson a few decades ago I was apprehensive as to how I would cope with it. Fortunately it made sense in musical terms; the one-movement work presents three ‘identities’, the first notable for its grace and agility, the second for its brusqueness, and the third exciting and intense. The themes are then presented (or replayed) for a second time having undergone a transformation. This proved to be an attractive work and was given a convincing performance by Huw Watkins (piano), Alexandra Wood (violin), Cian Ó Dúill (viola) and Robin Michael (cello).

The Dante Quartet swapped their second violin for a double bass player when they teamed up with the New London Chamber Ensemble to premiere Martin Butler’s Nonet: Rondes d’Automne. Butler’s four years’ sojourn in the USA engendered a fascination for American folk music, although no actual melodies are quoted in this work. It is episodic at first with a strong sense of melanchoiy and wistfulness but develops later into a perpetuum mobile. In the second part there is greater interaction between the different string and wind instruments and the tonal colours created are gorgeous. Eventually the music calms down and dies away. Rondes d’Automne will no doubt be compared with Butler’s American Rounds and Spring Rounds with which it has a common heritage. The nine musicians gave it an excellent send-off and it offered a pleasing contrast to Beethoven’s Septet in E flat (Op. 20) which had preceded it and Spohr’s Nonet in F (Op. 31) which followed.

The Carducci Quartet are enthusiastic promoters of new music. At their own festival at Highnam in May of this year they gave the first performance of Lost and Found in the Forest of Dean, Sally Beamish’s new setting of four poems by David Pownall for narrator and string quintet.  If the title sounds familiar it is because a different version of the work was performed by the King’s Singers at the 2006 Cheltenham Music Festival. The first of the poems, Porin Trow, describing an odd encounter between a newcomer to the Forest and a local resident has minimal accompaniment, and the second, Weather Report, sounded uncertain – even sinister. Then came a scherzo-like musical interlude which lightened the mood and we proceeded to New Year at the Dump  with its recurrent waltz theme –  a far from idyllic scene where discarded rubbish awaits “the pomp of burial by bulldozer”.  The final poem, A Walk, presents more of a picture postcard view of the Forest, its musical accompaniment evoking perfectly a stroll through the woods and over the hills to the summit wreathed in silence and awe.

The Carduccis’ contribution to the Cheltenham Festival was the European premiere of Insects in Amber by the American composer Arlene Sierra, currently head of music at Cardiff University where the Carducci are quartet-in-residence. Her childhood in Florida had alerted her to the sounds of the natural world and she is clearly inspired by Messiaen and his reponse to the sounds of nature. Her approach to nature is unsentimental and her music is informed by transcriptions of insect calls and scientific research into insect behaviour.

The first movement, Gryllus Integer, is based on the calls of the Western Stutter-Trilling Cricket. Here the male members of the quartet, Matthew Denton (violin) and Eion Schmidt-Martin endeavoured to entice Michelle Fleming (violin) and Emma Denton (cello) with their mating calls. It was difficult to measure which of the two was more successful: the flamboyant Matthew or the more reticent Eion. The Double Viols movement evoked a past age and produced some nice sonorities; while the final piece, Fig Wasps, was notable for its hopping rhythms produced by the percussive action of glass rods against the strings. This was an interesting and unusual work, which will cause me to listen more intently in future to the bees and other insects that buzz around my garden.

For the sake of completeness I will briefly mention some other premieres heard at Cheltenham. Michael Berkeley’s short Ode – In Memoriam was written in memory of Lesley-Ann Sayers who died last year. A single movement work it makes reference to Bach’s solo suites and was given its concert premiere in Bredon village church by Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin) and Gemma Rosefield (cello).  A concert given by Dame Evelyn Glennie and the Festival Academy featured two premieres. The first was Joseph Phibbs’  Bar Veloce, a sequence of twelve musical cocktails “depicting a progression from morning to night and set inan imaginary ‘sound bar’ in which a cocktail shaker serves to shift gear between drinks” – to quote the composer. This sounds the ideal accompaiment to a boozy night out!  The second was Hannah Kendall’s Citygates, a musical description of her journey from Highgate to Moorgate in the City of London. One critic praised the piece for “its snap pizzicatos and changes of texture, harmonies and tempi”.

Gavin Higgins’ Endgame was premiered by the saxophone quartet Flotilla, and the final morning of the Festival saw the first performance of Edward Rushton’s Pandora, Organic Machine. This is a reworking of the Greek myth and used a narrator (Donald Maxwell) and Counterpoise, a quartet consisting of Alexandra Wood (violin), Kyle Horch (saxophone), Iain Farrington (piano) and Deborah Calland (trumpet).

No orchestral work was premiered at this Festival but this omission will corrected on September 11th. That will be the tenth anniversary of the horrific attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, and to commemorate the event the Festival will be presenting the first performance of a new work by Richard Blackford entitled Not in Our Time. Commissioned by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus to celebrate their centenary, the work explores the theme of war from the time of the Crusades to the present day, and will be performed by the Chorus and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Cheltenham Town Hall.  We hope to feature a preview on this major work in due course. Watch this space.

 Roger Jones