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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Concert review: The Sixteen, York Minster, Sunday 9 July

I thought I should write a bloggette, a short essay on the music of Dobrinka Tabakova who was commissioned by Harry Christophers to write two short 'partner settings' of texts used by William Byrd. It is the 400th anniversary of the great man's death, celebrated by The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage: A Watchful Gaze. 'The programme explores the music of his influences, colleagues and pervading faith.'

Dobrinka Tabakova is a composer of ‘exciting, deeply moving music…’ (Washington Times), ‘with glowing…’ [biog here]

‘I have long been an admirer of the works of Dobrinka Tabakova, and I was drawn to her by something the broadcaster and writer, Tobias Fischer, said about her*: “The term Photograph: Marco Borggreve ‘avant-garde’ is changing and Dobrinka is one of those lending it a new meaning. Her credo…consists of a simple basic idea: that something new can always be found, even in the most familiar places.” As a result, I commissioned Dobrinka to write settings of two of the texts Byrd had used all those centuries ago. By her own admission she said that providing partner settings carries a set of advantages and challenges. I can safely say that Dobrinka was up for that challenge and has produced for us two exceptional works which will delight listeners for years to come and bring solace to many. ‘ (Harry Christophers) *no idea what the quote means...

These were my first impressions of the two commissioned works when reviewing The Sixteen concert (York Early Music Festival, York Minster, Sunday 9 July):

‘I thought the new works were not particularly standout pieces, but pieces with standout moments. There was a richly melismatic soprano solo (an excellent Julie Cooper) in Arise Lord into thy rest. The opening of Ms Tabakova’s Turn our captivity, O Lord, the stronger of the two works, was both distinct and beautiful. The high unison soprano line decorated with ornamental, quite eastern-influenced decoration was simply gorgeous and persuasively delivered. I did think that composer’s decision to go for a “distinctly homophonic texture, to contrast with the layered polyphony of Byrd’s exquisite settings” was the correct one. The juicy chordal dissonances not only delivered contrast, but also distance.’

I think this was fair and reasonable. The YouTube rehearsal link is much clearer in every respect than the live performance at York Minster. And consequently, more rewarding. I thought the pieces were well written, intelligent, and worked well in the concert programme. But they didn’t stand out as a recognisably distinct voice, a composer who brought a fresh set of cutlery to the table. So I decided to investigate further, to have a listen to more of Ms Tabakova’s work.

The first piece I looked at was the Suite in Jazz Style, which was probably a mistake. Why don’t classical composers leave jazz alone, it never begins, middles, or ends well, and this was no exception.

Suite in Jazz Style (viola and piano), 2009

Ok, it’s a early work. Here is Ms Tabakova’s programme note (Suite in Jazz Style) and here’s Roger Jones’ review (MusicWeb):

‘Violist Maxim Rysanov is fortunate in having a tame composer at his beck and call in 29-year-old Dobrinka Tabakova who has already had works performed at Cheltenham. Her new Suite in Jazz Style for viola and piano was both accessible and engaging. The first movement, Confident, evoked the smoky atmosphere of jazz bars, but the second was more classical in mood with just a hint of the jazz idiom. The final movement, Rhythmic, played with zest by Maxim, had much in common with the energetic dances we tend to associate with Eastern Europe and Ms Tabakova's native Bulgaria.’

Firstly, the performance is outstanding, clearly Maxim Rysanov (viola) is at the top of his game (the very fine pianist in the YouTube link is Jong Hai Park). I thought Mr Jones brought as much insight here as I did, that is, very little. ‘…evoked the smoky atmosphere of jazz bars.’ What crap and no it didn’t. But it was ‘both accessible and engaging.’ However, Roger did describe Ms Tabakova as ‘a tame composer’ which Collins Dictionary defines as ‘not interesting or exciting.’ Hm

The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings (String Quartet), 2019

Here’s a programme note by Magnus Holmander (European Concert Hall Organisation), the recording link (The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings) features Georgy Valtchev (violin), Nikola Takov (violin), Rumen Cvetkov (viola) and Wolfram Koessel (cello).

‘The work takes its name from Joan Miro’s painting of the same name, though it is not meant as a musical representation of the artwork. If there are any similarities with the painting and Miro’s work, they would take broader themes such as the relationship between the linear and horizontal and the interplay between used and free space on the canvas… the music itself aims to be a story told in music. The elaborately rhythmic opening and flowing, unpredictable melody set the scene, before chorale-like middle section and a transformed melody at the end.’

Again, very attractive, ‘folksy’ sound, simple A-B-A structure, nothing wrong with that. But a no to any ‘transformation’ and what the hell does ‘…if there are any similarities with the painting and Miro’s work, they would take broader themes such as the relationship between the linear and horizontal and the interplay between used and free space on the canvas…” mean? But for all its quirky, haunting charm it didn’t make me sit-up, or want to particularly hear a repeat performance.

Simple Prayer for Complex Times (solo piano), 2020

Here it is performed by Vicky Chow as part of the excellent Bang on a Can Marathon. There is an interview with Dobrinka too: Simple Prayer for Complex Times.

I thought it incredibly unoriginal, derivative and, frankly, dull. But I am now going to listen to as much as I can to find something I think is distinctive and grabbing. Wait there a sec.

I really enjoyed the cadential, tonal drive of the Double Piano Concerto (2017), here performed by the Jussen brothers: Romantic, echoes of film music and the shadow of Frank Martin’s Harpsichord Concerto. Maybe. Also impressive was the Concerto for Cello and Strings (2008), here performed by Julian Schwartz and the (delightfully named) Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra, conductor Thomas Cunningham. The rhythmic minimalist drive, simple canonic imitation and echoes of early Tippett, what’s not to like. Exactly. But I loved the hypnotic minimalism of Desert Swimmers:

Desert Swimmers (percussion and multitrack), 2020

Inspired by The Cave of Swimmers as found in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Desert Swimmers is performed by the brilliant Joby Burgess playing marimba, kalimba, and vibraphone.

‘Beneath the scorching sun, in a corner of the Sahara Desert lies the story of a long-forgotten world. Where now there is sand, there used to be grass; where there are dunes, lush forests covered the land all the way to the horizon. Snakes and insects once lived alongside cheetahs and giraffes, and the sandy valleys were filled to the brim with water. People travelled far to bathe and swim in these lakes. All that is left of the oasis now are the cave drawings - The Cave of Swimmers’ (Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient).

Here is the composer in her own words:Dobrinka Tabakova - musicians are sprinters, composers are marathon runners.’

Here is a link to purchase the album: A Watchful Gaze

The review is published at:

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