Sunday, January 22, 2006

John Tavener changes his tune

In 1980 Peter Pears commissioned a song cycle from the 'holy minimalist' composer John Tavener. Pears suggested the texts should be taken from the writings of the Greek poet Cavafy. But to quote Tavener's biographer Geoffrey Haydon: "Tavener found Cavafy's poetry too blatantly homoerotic. Instead he chose six lyrics about love and death from an anthology of poetry written in Baghdad during the Abbasid dynasty" (1).

On January 20th 2006 the Tallis Scholars gave the world premiere of a new choral work by Sir John Tavener, commissioned by Symphony Hall, Birmingham where the first performance took place. The title of the new work is Tribute to Cavafy, and to quote the Symphony Hall web site it "draws on the writings of the famous Greek poet."

And completely unrelated to that is the following story. Once when Horowitz was scheduled to give a concert in Providence, Rhode Island he asked his friend Rachmaninoff if the acoustics were good there. The answer was "If the cheque is good, the acoustics are good" (2).

Sources: (1) John Tavener - Glimpses of Paradise by Geoffrey Haydon (Gollancz ISBN 575057033)
(2)
Horowitz, a biography by Glenn Plaskin (Macdonald ISBN 9780356091792)
Image credit - Portrait of John Tavener from
Richardhaughton.com, and I swear I didn't use Paint Shop Pro.

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3 comments:

Pliable said...

And some background from The Birmingham Post in which Peter Philips says Tribute to Cavafy was 'sponsored' not commissioned, despite the Symphony Hall web site listing it as a commission. Oh, the semantics ...

Polyphonic spree Jan 19 2006

Tallis Scholars director Peter Phillips talks to Terry Grimley about the group's much-delayed Birmingham collaboration with Sir John Tavener and Vanessa Redgrave...

Originally commissioned by Symphony Hall to launch its 2002-3 season, the world premiere of Sir John Taverner's Tribute to Cavafy finally takes place there tomorrow night, a mere four years late.

The 45-minute setting of words by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) was to have teamed American diva Jessye Norman as soloist and Vanessa Red-grave as narrator with world-renowned Renaissance vocal group the Tallis Scholars. But this heady, if somewhat incongruous, mix unravelled when Jessye Norman withdrew.

"She had undertaken to sing the solo part, which is about a third of the total work, and as we got nearer the time she pulled out," recalls Tallis Scholars director Peter Phillips.

"The hall had sold on her name, rather, and they weren't able to find a replacement. We're now doing it with Sarah Connolly and because she's a mezzo rather than a soprano John has slightly rewritten the part."

The history of collaboration between Tavener and the Tallis Scholars pre-dates his emergence as a bestselling contemporary British composer. He featured on two of their discs in the early-tomid-1980s, one a compilation of Russian Orthodox pieces, the other, Ikon of Light, devoted entirely to his music.

"The project came about because one of the movements, number 2, John wrote for us as an anniversary piece when the group was 25 years old in 1998. Because John and I have been on holiday together in Greece and shared an interest in Greek things we hit on Cavafy as a perfect medium between our two worlds.

"I don't read a lot of poetry but Cavafy is someone whose idiom gets through to me - its highly suggestive but restrained style.

"We chose this poem In the Month of Athyr and did it with Sting as narrator for our 25th anniversary concert. Subsequently we did it with Paul McCartney, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Baker and various other people. We've done it about ten times.

"It's a nice opportunity to get someone famous, and all they have to do is read a poem.

"It went so well and I loved the piece so much that I thought of the idea of extending it. Sure enough, at the drop of a hat more or less next morning John had written the whole thing, without commission. Then we had to find someone to sponsor it, and Symphony Hall thought it would be an interesting thing."

Unexpectedly, Phillips cannot pretend to be all that enthusiastic about the piece. It's not that it's not good music, more that he doesn't feel that it has been tailored to the Tallis Scholars' distinctive sound.

"John got an idea and went his own way, which he's entitled to do," he says.

"The really interesting thing about this is what Vanessa Red-grave has to do. She has to read a lot of poetry by Cavafy. What we're doing as a choir - and we are a choir in this and not a chamber group - is sing ooh-aahs in the background. Effectively we are creating an atmosphere around what Vanessa Redgrave is reading.

"It's in huge chords, taking up whole pages, real choral society stuff. I've had to book 24 singers to sing all the notes rather than our usual ten. I don't know how it will sound yet, because I haven't heard it. I've looked at it, but it's not the same thing. But I'm not saying the music is not successful - I'm sure it's going to come out really well."

Tribute to Cavafy is actually the second of two premieres in tomorrow night's concert, the first being the Missa Tempore Paschali by the little-known Flemish composer Nicholas Gombert (c1495-c1560). To be more precise, it's the premiere of a new edition of the Mass commissioned by Peter Phillips from an American musicologist.

He explains: "It only exists in one manuscript and especially in the Agnus Dei it's cobbled together and doesn't work. You have to delete whole parts because they're just singing in octaves which is not acceptable. So it's the first performance of the new edition."

Gombert is part of a largelyoverlooked group of composers who come chronologically between two giants of Flemish polyphony, Josquin and Lassus.

"There's a bit of a gap between Josquin and Lassus and in that group come Clemens and Gombert and a whole host of others who all died about 1560. They all claimed to be Josquin's pupils, and Gombert could have been in terms of his age.

"This piece is very involved with counterpoint - eight parts operating within quite a narrow band, pitch-wise, so it's very thick to listen to. That requires real technique and an extraordinary ear. The Credo is in eight parts and the Agnus Dei is in 12. That's really big. I'm able to do it because we have all these singers for the Tavener."

Over the 33 years since he founded the Tallis Scholars Phillips has seen the interest in Renaisance polyphony expand considerably, and the group's live performances and 90-odd CDs can surely claim a share of the credit. So despite tomorrow night's world premiere he does not feel a compelling need to diversify into contemporary music.

"We don't exist to sing that, there are other groups that do it," he says. "I think we've got enough to do. We've been to Symphony Hall repeatedly and more or less filled it with more or less obscure composers. We don't have to do Tavener."

* The Tallis Scholars perform music by Gombert and Tavener with Sarah Conolly and Vanessa Redgrave at Symphony Hall tomorrow night at 7.30pm (Box office: 0121 780 3333).

Pliable said...

And here is the Guardian's review ...

Tallis Scholars/Phillips
3 stars Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Rian Evans
Wednesday January 25, 2006

The two works in this Tallis Scholars concert, although separated by over four and half centuries, were given their UK and world premieres tonight. Nicolas Gombert's Missa Tempore Paschali was written in the first half of the 16th century in a style that represents Renaissance polyphony at its grandest and most highly wrought. Based on Easter plainchants rather than motets or chansons, the mass has as its most striking feature the tight and intricate interweaving of the voices.
Achieving a dancing lilt in the triple-time sections, director Peter Phillips maintained remarkable clarity: even in the closest of the 6-part harmony, the frequent dissonances emerged with sometimes startling effect. Gombert set a second Agnus Dei for no less than 12 individual parts, further enriching the textures. With the Scholars accordingly doubled to their full complement of 24 voices, this produced an unforgettable sound, the ripples of overlapping lines resonating with a sensuous beauty.

Pairing the mass with John Tavener's Tribute to Cavafy had a piquancy that the early-20th-century Greek poet might have appreciated. Gombert was exiled from emperor Charles V's chapel and condemned to the high seas for violating a choirboy; Constantine Cavafy's homosexuality effectively lay behind his self-imposed exile in Alexandria.

Adding five poems to the setting of Cavafy's poem Ithaka, Tavener's tribute embraced the Hellenistic culture that was Cavafy's prime inspiration, though his typically nostalgic eroticism coloured the opening poem, Days of 1903. Vanessa Redgrave's narration had a certain prosaic dignity, which chimed with the chorus's austerity, but it was the halo of bright sound provided by mezzo Sarah Connolly that shone out. Whether Tavener ultimately reflected what WH Auden described as Cavafy's "unique tone of voice" is more open to question.

Linda Rogers said...

It was my great pleasure to produce a concert of John Tavener's works in Toronto in 2002 as General Manager of Soundstreams Canada. I was greatly impressed with the sincerity and intelligence of the man, not to mention the power of the music. I've since lost touch. It was great to come across the recent news and reviews here.