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Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies at 80: summer events

(June 2014)

Two modernist masters, enfants terribles of the 1960s, now knights of the realm, pass the 80 years mark this summer.

Born in 1934, Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies both reach their 80th birthdays this year, on 15 July and 8 September respectively. Musical celebrations around the world embrace festival features, concert performances and opera stagings, new books and recordings.

Summer festivities for ‘Harry and Max’ began last month with a major five-concert Birtwistle retrospective at the Barbican in London and a focus at the Brighton Festival. Maxwell Davies’s music was featured at the Bath Festival, and takes centre-stage this month at the St Magnus Festival, which the composer founded after moving to the Orkney Islands in the 1970s, including a concert of his music performed by local school children.

The focus shifts to the BBC Proms in London between July and September with performances of 21 works shared between the composers. Birtwistle highlights include two distinctive orchestral works: Night’s Black Bird exploring themes of Elizabethan melancholy (30 July) with the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena, and the millennial Exody, foreshadowing The Minotaur with its labyrinthine journeys and points of return,  performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton (10 September).

The Proms played host to the historic premiere of Maxwell Davies’s Worldes Blis back in 1969, which signalled a radical shift in British contemporary music, and the BBC Symphony revisits the work in a Maida Vale Studios birthday concert (19 June) as an upbeat to the summer season. Proms events include an all-‘Max’ matinée by the London Sinfonietta with A Mirror of Whitening Light, rich in alchemical permutations (30 August), and a late night Prom on Max’s birthday itself by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra featuring the London premiere of Concert Overture: Ebb of Winter and An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise complete with bagpipe finale (8 September). This programme is heard again in Glasgow's Concert Halls on 14 September, as the culmination of 'Max at 80: A Celebration' containing three concerts and the composer in conversation.

Both composers have redefined opera for smaller portable forces, and the 80th year has brought productions of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy [published by Universal Edition] in Berlin and Vienna, plus the Australian premiere of The Io Passion to be staged by Sydney Chamber Opera in November. Maxwell Davies’s music theatre classic Eight Songs for a Mad King has been programmed extensively, from the Gard du Nord in Basel to a barge on a Parisian canal, and Vesalii Icones has been presented by ContempoArtEnsemble at the Maggio Musicale in Florence and travels to the Venice Biennale in October.

The 80th year sees the Maxwell Davies discography restored thanks to Naxos nearing completion of its reissue of Collins Classics discs, and authoritative discs by The Fires of London and the SCO are to reappear on the Treasure Island label drawing on the Unicorn-Kanchana archive. Important surveys of Birtwistle’s choral and chamber music have been released by Signum and ECM, NMC has reissued Gawain [UE], and Faber has published Wild Tracks, a book of conversations between the composer and Fiona Maddocks.

The autumn unveils Birtwistle’s new piano concerto, Responses, written for Pierre-Laurent Aimard and bearing the subtitle Sweet disorder and the carefully careless. Following its premiere on 24 October to open the Musica Viva series in Munich with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stefan Asbury, the work travels to Casa da Música in Porto on 1 November. The UK premiere at the Southbank Centre on 6 December with the London Philharmonic Orchestra is part of a four-day Birtwistle focus in London to round off the 80th year. The US premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra takes place on 12 February.

> Birtwistle: future performances
> Maxwell Davies: future performances

Birtwistle photo: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL; Maxwell Davies photo: Gunnie Moberg

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