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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!”

I passed these comments by Joanna – which, perhaps, was a little cheeky of me… – but OOTS is, after all, one big happy family: and such remarks are always taken at face-value! “I chuckled – and, to be honest, was a little unnerved – when I read that David said that my piece would be ‘challenging’,” she replied; but added that “I imagine it would be for any audience. It’s a curious situation, though. I do recognize that many listeners find elements like atonality – not that my music is atonal – bizarre, or sometimes even offensive; but having been exposed to it for many years, my ears hear atonality as tonal and clear! It’s familiarity, I suppose; but still a curious occurrence. I do worry, though, that listeners may think that composers are just being awkward on purpose to pursue such things. And I suppose some may be…. But my approach isn’t founded in that at all…!

The three commissions produced so far have all been refreshingly different in response: e.g. form, style, and nature: so I asked Joanna what had prompted her to produce a ‘dance suite‘. And – apart from sharing the solo instrumentation with the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds – if there were any other connections to its progenitor. (I also gave her the chance to explain her “approach”!)

“I always take account, albeit loosely, of all the companion pieces in the programme – namely whether this is a more traditional or contemporary concert; what the inspiration was for those pieces; as well as their genre. I then endeavour to place my piece within that framework to as much an extent as I can. For example, the use of the words ‘dance suite’ in my title – it’s a standard title for the Classical era; and the four movements of my piece are all inspired by some form of dance. However, this might be where the comparisons to the other pieces end!

“I do find it daunting, though, to be placed alongside such icons of music as Mozart and Haydn. They found perfection in their own voices – so I feel I would only set myself up for failure if I tried to mimic their music in any way. Therefore, I have to confess to also ignoring the other works in the programme to a degree!

“I know I have a slight rebellious streak. Playing the piano throughout my childhood, I wasn’t so much interested in perfecting a piece, but re-arranging it: even if it simply meant playing it (usually considerably) faster, or an octave higher. This is why I became a composer: I preferred pushing boundaries and trying new things. I played plenty of Mozart’s piano pieces, and I enjoyed his playful style; but I found greater affinity for composers like Debussy and Stravinsky. Indeed, upon being asked what ‘rules’ he followed, Debussy answered “mon plaisir”, or “whatever I please”. This approach went much further than following the experiments of the 1950s/60s avant-garde composers: who threw all rules out of the window! So I think you cannot pigeon-hole the styles of composers today, as their music is so varied… – but this sense of adventure, of finding your own voice and new possibilities remains.

“So, returning to what David said: I am conscious that this approach, and the musical style that it produces, may seem challenging – arrogant, even. But, actually, it simply stems from a desire to try new things, rather than something that has already been fully explored and perfected. Why rewrite what has already been done so well?”

Notes
* Blue Blaze – Dance Suite will be premièred at Stratford ArtsHouse, at 19:30, on Tuesday, 14 February 2017; and repeated at Town Hall, Birmingham, at 14:30, on Wednesday, 22 February 2017.
* You can read more of Joanna’s words on Fran Wilson’s wonderful Meet the Artist website.
* Joanna’s own website can be found here.