Tuesday, 6 June 2017

An old friend of OOTS…

Whilst writing the programme notes for the last concert to contain a commission written for OOTS’ 21st Anniversary seasonViola and Double-Bass Take Centre Stage! – I had a brief email conversation with composer Julian Philips: who has produced an immensely beautiful work, Ballades Concertantes, for solo viola, double-bass and chamber orchestra, as a companion piece to Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Sinfonia Concertante for Double-Bass and Viola.

The words which follow are all Julian’s; the musical excerpts are the first lines of each of the four Machaut Ballades that inspired him.

Ballades Concertantes developed out of an engagement with two different historical traditions – the late-fourteenth-century Ballade of Guillaume de Machaut, and the later eighteenth-century sinfonia concertante, as developed by Haydn, Mozart or Dittersdorf. Machaut, because my recent opera The Tale of Januarie – based on Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale – had engaged with late medieval music; and the music of Machaut – who was the great figure of his day, and very much known to Chaucer – was still in the air. The sinfonia concertante, because David and the orchestra were keen to celebrate their twenty-first anniversary by reviving a form which gives solo spots to individual orchestral players. In this case, the viola and double-bass.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Weaver of moonbeams…

Ahead of his two concerts – in Stratford-upon-Avon and Birmingham, conducting Orchestra of the Swan with this year’s Associate Artist, cellist Laura van der Heijden – I went to meet Julian Lloyd Webber: now Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, and steering it through some exciting times as it prepares to move into its purpose-designed new home.

Entering his office in the old building – sadly nearing the end of its productive life, in the centre of the city – one cannot fail to be reminded, though, of his previous career as one of his (and my) generation’s greatest, and most successful, solo cellists: with posters of some of his most memorable achievements scattered throughout the room. Indeed, above his desk – in pride of place, perhaps – he points out a large framed copy of the cover of the CD I am nervously clutching between my fingers: a recording which confirmed his status of hero for me, and for many others. But more of that later: because, as he welcomes me in, and shakes my hand, there could not be a more genial and gracious interviewee. (As I am rapidly learning – as my first year of being OOTS’ Writer-in-Residence comes to a close – the majority of classical musicians are incredibly generous people: open, willing to chat, to treat you as an equal, to spend time with you… – they just happen to be incredibly talented, too – although no mention of this will ever pass their lips.)

Monday, 20 March 2017

The greatest and most satisfying manifestations of human expression…

On Thursday, 13 April 2017, “internationally acclaimed clarinettist, recitalist, chamber musician, recording artist and lecturer” Emma Johnson will be joining OOTS for an evening of sublime 18th century music in the Forum Theatre, Malvern. Although in the middle of a busy concert schedule, Emma was kind enough to carry out the following interview, via email.

There don’t appear to be many famous classical clarinettists in the world (indeed, at any one point in time). Is this because of the lack of mainstream repertoire – especially, say, compared to that for the piano or violin?
The solo repertoire for violin and for piano is far larger than that of any of the woodwind instruments, and that is why the clarinet is usually considered an orchestral instrument. When you are nine years old and picking an instrument to play, you don’t know these things. But once it became clear I wanted to be a musician, it was naturally assumed I would try to play in an orchestra.
     However, I gradually discovered that the solo clarinet repertoire is richer than people realize: spanning from Mozart, Weber, Brahms and Schumann, to Finzi, Poulenc, Copland and many modernists; as well as playing a pivotal role in jazz. There is, in fact, ample material for a clarinet soloist; and I have expanded the repertoire, too: by making arrangements and transcriptions, and commissioning new pieces.
     In addition, winning BBC Young Musician at the age of 17 allowed me to think differently, and to develop my clarinet playing so that it had the variety and range of a solo recitalist. Because of the opportunities the competition opened up to play solo, it enabled me to realize a vision I had of how a solo clarinettist could be.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Commissions accomplished…!

As part of OOTS’ 21st Anniversary season, four composers, who have all worked with the orchestra before, were invited to write “companion pieces” to classical ‘concertante’ works – which they would then be premièred alongside – an idea conjured up by orchestra trustee Tim Richards. As David points out, “this gives our principals the opportunity to shine, as well as thanking them for their commitment”; adding that pairing music in this way “gives the orchestra, soloists, audience and composer both context and inspiration”.

Last year’s commissions – Douglas J Cuomo’s Objects in Mirror and Paul Moravec’s Nocturne – were both instant hits. (In fact, I described the Cuomo as “a cracking work: the perfect foil to the Bach that inspired it”; and reported that Moravec’s “left me with a mammoth lump in my throat, and several large somethings in both eyes”.) I am therefore certain that this year’s will follow in their winning footsteps.

Julian Philips’ composition (to be premièred in June) is for viola and double-bass. David commented that “Julian is an old friend of OOTS, and I expect something slightly more ‘traditional’. Because he knows us so well, I’m sure he will want to capitalize on our distinctive string sound.”

Asked about Joanna Lee – whose Blue Blaze – Dance Suite will be performed this month – David explained that “Joanna is relatively young: and OOTS believes in championing emerging talent.” He went on to say: “I have always been struck by her inventiveness and highly individual voice: so her work is likely to be quite challenging for audience and players – fully exploiting the characteristics of the solo instruments – but also very witty and light-hearted!”

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

“What harmony is this? My good friends, hark!”
An introduction to the music of Paul Moravec…

Marvellous sweet music!
A few weeks ago, I interviewed composer Paul Moravec, by email. My principal aim, as OOTS’ Writer-in-Residence, was to learn more about Nocturne – which will be premièred at the next ArtsHouse concert on 6 December 2016 – and gather enough material from our discussion to produce a programme note. However, until very recently, I hadn’t really known much about his music – or the man. So, in preparation, I spent many, many hours listening to all of the available recordings I could unearth of his music; and reading liner notes, previous appraisals, and previous dialogues.