Monday, 7 December 2009

Simon Holt- - Witness to a Snow Miracle

Simon Holt's Witness to a Snow Miracle (23 mins) features on Hear & Now, the BBC Radio 3 new music programme. It's a wonderful, lively, imaginative piece of great emotional depth. Simon Holt's one of the top British new music composers, and everything he does "needs" to be heard, but this piece is one of the his best so far. It uses contrasts: a girl gets burned alive because she won't conform, and suddenly, in Spain and in June, snow falls to ease her agony. And who are the witnesses? The perspective changes, so it's never too obvious or explicit. Listen HERE for the link. It can be heard on the BBC Radio 3 website on demand until late Saturday night GMT.

"Good music doesn't ever get finished," says Holt. Good composers don't stop thinking. Holt's big hit back in 2004 was the music theatre work Who put Bella in the Wych elm? based on a mystery in the 1940's when a woman's corpse was found in a tree associated with witchcraft. The case is still open because it defies solution, it's beyond easy explanation. Was the woman a witch or a sacrifice? A medieval event in modern times. Perhaps that's why it still grows in Holt's creative imagination. The Sharp End of Night refers to the moment the evil deed is done. Exquisite playing by Chloe Hanslip. The violin can sound elusively sensual, seductive, yet evoke demonic madness. No wonder the fiddle is associated with the Devil.

Holt's revision of Syrensong can be heard too, and his very early Minotaur Games. The concept may sound sub-Birtwistle, but musically it's very different. (It was commissioned by Peter Maxwell Davies).

Holt's music has a way of growing on listeners too. I resisted his music theatre piece Sueños a few years ago because it seemed too explicitly a reference to film noir and Buñuel in particular, but it was memorably sung by Roderick Williams, who has taste when it comes to good music. Gradually it fell into place for me and now I'm desperate to hear it again (perhaps without staging). I was less impressed with Troubled Light at the Proms, not every work has to be a masterpiece. Last year, Holt's Disparate was the first piece heard at Kings Place,. Ther building was so new, the builders were still at work, so Melinda Maxwell's solo oboe had unplanned percussion interjection throughout! The delicate elegy was a tribute to Maxwell's mother who had passed away, so in a way the unintended hammers added a note of protest. Good things shouldn't end.

Good in-depth programmes like this are important especially for new music which otherwise doesn't get an audience except live. Composers need exposure to grow and improve. Recordings take years to catch up. In fact, apart from NMC's Boots of Lead, Feet of Clay there isn't all that much even though Holt is a big name. Listen to clips of the music there on the Chester Novello site, and of course the NMC site.

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