Talking Heads: Emily Howard

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Meet Emily Howard, the featured composer at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. We will hear four works from her impressive canon – a new orchestral piece, sphere, receiving its UK premiere together with Magnetite in a program from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Mark Wigglesworth. This concert comes a day after Afference, her string quartet, which will be played by the Piatti Quartet.

Her biggest work to date, however, is a new opera, To See The Invisible. Developed with writer Selma Dimitrijevic and director Dan Ayling, it will receive three performances at the head of the festival. Arcana was able to chat with Emily to get her thoughts on the new pieces. As is traditional, however, I began by asking for her earliest recollections of classical music.

“I was lucky that it was always around me since I was young,” she recalls. “My dad, a medic, also played the cello. I was brought up in the Wirral, near Liverpool, and I remember going to see the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, and really loving it. I was taken to operas as well, and because my mum is a pianist too, I was around music all the time.”

Howard began learning her music in a traditional route, but soon realised composition was the discipline for her. “When I was really young I started learning the cello. I was never so good at very regular and disciplined practice – even then I was always more interested in exploring new sounds and tones. Composing came naturally in that way, at the age of eight or nine years old, and what I really wanted to do was write a piece for orchestra. I made a piece for the cello, and transcribed for orchestra. I wrote it all out and the composer/conductor Guy Woolfenden, who was a great influence, was really kind and got the orchestra to play it through!

Fast forward to 2016, when Emily’s Torus (Concerto for Orchestra) enjoyed its world premiere at the BBC Proms in 2016, her ‘home’ orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. It made a strong impression on those present (including yours truly). She declares herself “really pleased, overwhelmed” with the reaction. “The piece has won a British Composer Award since then, too. You can’t tell necessarily how these things are going to go but I was absolutely delighted!”

To See The Invisible is her biggest work to date, and she considers the challenges in writing such a substantial piece for the stage. “It lasts about eighty minutes in total. To be honest I have no idea how I managed to write something that long, but I suppose you’ve got the narrative and texts, which have helped to extend it to a length similar to that of Mahler’s Third Symphony. I had worked with Selma before on Zátopek!, a mini-opera I completed several years ago. We have been talking ever since, and with our director Dan Ayling, the approach has been truly collaborative, making it a very exciting and enjoyable experience. Composing abstract music is not a sociable activity necessarily, and I have found that throughout the opera process, it really helps when you share ideas with your creative partners, and take on board their viewpoints, often very different. Collaboration is a wonderful thing, and it does change you.”

The opera takes its inspiration from a short science fiction story by Robert Silverberg. “For ages Selma and I had been talking about writing an opera based on the experience of a person who is shunned by a society. The central character would be ignored, rather like being sent to Coventry. While Selma was writing the libretto, her brother said about the Silverberg story in which a character is sentenced to a ‘Year of Invisibility’ for ‘a crime of coldness’. It turned out that Selma had been partially remembering the story and we read it and the opera became an adaption. We were really knocked out by the Silverberg.”

She describes the setting in more detail. “It is a sort of musical deuce, where this person is somehow different, and the story plays on the isolation of people who do not fit the system and are excluded from society. Therefore I wanted The Invisible, the opera’s protagonist, to be vocally distinct from the other characters and I chose for them to be represented by baritone and soprano voice simultaneously, particularly in the character’s private moments.” The singers are required to have great flexibility and dexterity here. “The soprano and baritone have really wide ranges, together they are a meta-voice portraying an emotional journey, with the baritone often a lot higher than the soprano.”

Musically, the opera is about collisions between The Invisible’s world and the World of Warmth. “I have intentionally set up contrasting sound worlds with The Invisible’s language consisting of musical extremes, ranging from ethereal to anguished. The World of Warmth is much more traditional and tempered in feel.” The opera looks beneath the surface of these different worlds. “With the World of Warmth, we are all asking is this really the world of warmth?”

One of the many intriguing elements of Howard’s work is its fascination with the relationship between music and mathematics. This is perhaps best captured in a recent work, The Music of Proof.

A collaboration with mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, it began while Howard was writing another – Torus (Concerto for Orchestra) – itself a musical work influenced by mathematics. “I met Marcus through a friend when I was writing Torus, and we had a coffee at the Royal Albert Hall. We really connected about the piece, and about the doughnut shape of the hall’s construction. He immediately said the Royal Albert Hall is torus-shaped (shaped like a doughnut), and since then we have been meeting and working together on various projects.”

“We presented The Music of Proof at New Scientist Live in 2017, featuring a newly composed work entitled Four Musical Proofs and a Conjecture premiered by the Piatti Quartet, five miniatures for string quartet. Each miniature is related to a different style of mathematical proof and in order to compose them, I had asked myself the question “What if I approach writing music as though I am proceeding with the construction of a mathematical proof?” This was a completely different way of working for me and certainly helped me to brush up on some mathematical proofs I had all but forgotten! In the show, Marcus explains the proof, and I explain what I did in response – I have found very different ways to translate aspects of these proofs into music, and then you get to hear the music. We’ve recently repeated the show in Sheffield at Music in the Round.”

The success of the collaboration has filtered through to Howard’s tuition work at the Royal Northern College of Music. “At the RNCM, we have started PRiSM (which stands for Centre for Practice & Research in Science & Music), and we are encouraging collaborations between music students, scientists and mathematicians. I feel that there are real links to be explored: for me both music and maths are about pattern-making.”

“As a composition student, I had wanted to take ideas from mathematics and science and create musical shapes with them, and to begin with I found this difficult. As my musical craft has grown, I feel as though I’ve become more successful at translating ideas from mathematics into musical ideas on which to base my work. For instance, when I created Torus, I imagined I was on the surface of the shape, travelling around and around in one direction, and encountering different landscapes as I went. Around 14 minutes into the work, there is a significant shift and a complete change of musical soundworld, and this is where I had instead imagined a rotation in the other direction. So considering mathematical shapes in this way does help me to define musical shapes and structure in my compositions.”

Returning to the Aldeburgh Festival, Afference – completed in 2014 – represents a significant foray into chamber music. “That was a very difficult piece to write”, she admits. “I had written several orchestral pieces and I really wanted to write some chamber music. I spent ages on it and it’s helped me a lot to write that piece. Perhaps with chamber music in general and certainly with this work, everything feels much sparser and I find that every note, every gesture has a poignant significance. The Piatti Quartet are playing it at the festival, and it will be very interesting to hear them perform another of my works – they’re such fantastic players. They’ve put in an incredible amount of work on the piece.”

Howard is naturally delighted to be given such a prominent role in this year’s festival. “It’s an honour, I’m really proud of being Composer In Residence, alongside esteemed colleagues such as Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt, and of course it’s Benjamin Britten’s festival. It’s a wonderful festival and a magical place – especially for opera. In fact we developed To See The Invisible in Aldeburgh, so the piece has grown up there!”

For more information on Emily Howard, visit the composer’s website

Get behind the Classic BRITs

On Wednesday night the Classic BRITs returned for the first time in five years, back in the Royal Albert Hall.

While they have been away, several things have changed in classical music – and the most striking of those, on this evidence, is an increased diversity. The award winners were led by cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a remarkable talent – and also a remarkable young man. His debut album Inspiration meets the expectations of a major label without compromising his own ideas, such as arranging Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry for solo cello. It works much better than you’d expect!

The inclusion of Marley, just a couple of tracks after Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no.1, shows the influence playlists on streaming services have had on album planning, but also demonstrates a refreshing approach to bringing music of all forms together.

Tokio Myers also blends different styles, giving an intense live performance at the ceremony that included a barrage of drums, a soft Debussy reverie and some powerful electronically based music with its roots towards grime. Myers used to play in Mr Hudson & The Library among other groups, and he uses his experiences to bring a really satisfying urban grit to go with the purity of the piano.

Elsewhere it was gratifying to see winners young and old credit their teachers and musical education, and stress the importance of music in schools. Jess Gillam, deserved recipient of the Sound Of Classical award, did this – and so did Nile Rodgers. The guest presenter who was originally a classical guitarist playing the works of Fernando Sor – but who felt out of place in that sphere and went on to be a great guitarist elsewhere.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber went further, taking the government to task, but both Sheku and Myers were more subtle, thanking their teachers by name. Amanda Holden, who presented Myers with his award, recounted a visit he made to her daughter’s school, which has doubtless stayed with them.

Musical education is so important. I would not have been able to afford cello lessons at the age of eleven if the school hadn’t paid for them, and even towards the end of my grades my funding was dwindling and my parents were really having to dig deep to support me. I will be forever grateful for that, as I would not have been put on a musical path without it! It goes to show how it is not just the frontline performers who benefit from a musical education, but those much further down behind the scenes too.

Back to the BRITs, which also featured a wonderful performance of the theme and first of Bach‘s Goldberg Variations from Beatrice Rana – a shame we couldn’t hear more than we did! My only big criticism would be directed at the album of the year shortlist. While it is fine to include musicals, shows, film and middle of the road albums none of the shortlist had an obvious classical music connection. It is a thought for the future, where it might also work to have a ‘Best electronic’ category, recognising the likes of Nils Frahm, Bonobo and other classically influenced music that 6Music serve so well.

These are minor gripes though. We should get behind the Classic BRITs and support it, because it gives people a way in to classical music, pointing them forward towards the joys of the genre should they wish to look around further. There really should be room for everyone, and at the very least when I watch on Sunday night I shall be grateful for my musical education!

Wigmore Mondays: Trio Wanderer & Christophe Gaugué play Fauré & Haydn

Trio Wanderer (above – Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Vincent Coq (piano); Christophe Gaugué (viola)

Haydn Piano Trio in A flat major HXV:14 (1790) (1:47-20:05)
Fauré Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor Op.45 (1886) (23:34-54:44)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 11 June 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The piano trio is a common means of expression in chamber music, but in the last few years its live profile has taken a hit, with the retirement of the legendary Beaux Arts and Florestan Trios.

Having achieved 25 years together as an ensemble, Trio Wanderer have a very important role to play in keeping this music visible (and audible!) to concertgoers, and at the Wigmore Hall they demonstrated why they are such a highly regarded act.

It is gratifying to note their most recent recording goes back to Haydn, and a choice selection of his Piano Trios. The composer – acknowledged godfather of the symphony and the string quartet – played a similarly important role in raising the profile of the Piano Trio. Initially his works viewed the violin and cello as accompanying forces rather than dominant melodic instruments, but by the end of his forty or so works in the genre he was showing signs of bucking that trend.

The Piano Trio in A flat major is numbered relatively early in the catalogue and dates from the composer’s second visit to London, where the pianist in its 1792 premiere was the fledgling composer Johann Nepomiuk Hummel. It is a highly appealing work, and here enjoyed a performance of sunny disposition from Trio Wanderer.

They were however alive to some of the work’s unexpected diversions, noting the surprise of the two-bar silence in the first movement (from 1:47 on the broadcast), and the uncertainty of its central section as the main theme underwent some quirky development.

The slow movement (9:40) took the form of an aria, with a sweet tone from violinist Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, and this led straight to an exuberant finale (14:44), with nimble passage work and cross rhythms from pianist Vincent Coq. This was one of Haydn’s forays into a ‘rare’ key – A flat major being difficult for strings to play in – but the Wanderer made it a highly enjoyable one.

The Fauré Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor was a tour de force. This is a wonderful piece, bursting with energy and passion but also taking time in its slower movements for deep, romantic thought. The stormy outer movements were contrasted by a slow movement that here vividly recalled the sleepy church bells of the village of Cadirac, on which Fauré’s writing is based.

The surging opening theme (from 23:34) set the tone, perfectly phrased, with the balance – often tricky to weight with such an active piano part – ideally set. Christophe Gaugué’s viola delivered a beautiful second theme (24:27), while the ensemble in unison found a rare moment of tenderness in this movement for the third (26:21). When the main tune returned (29:36) there was even more intent and power behind it, brilliantly conveyed.

The scherzo (33:50) was dazzling, Vincent Coq somehow phrasing a really tricky theme to perfection, with precise rhythmic accompaniment from the three strings. The slow movement (37:34) undulated softly, bringing visions of hazy fields in hot weather, before the reverie was abruptly shattered by the finale (46:57), back into the passionate groove, delivered with impressive intent by the ensemble. Tempo choices were assertive – just the right side of aggressive – and the final sweep towards the finish carried all before it!

Further listening

You can hear recordings of these works made by the Trio Wanderer for Harmonia Mundi. The Haydn has only just been released as part of a double album of some of the composer’s finest Piano Trios; the Fauré is recorded with Antoine Tamestit and dates from 2010.

Fauré has more wonderful chamber music up his sleeve, and if you enjoyed this performance of the Piano Quartet no.2 then the Piano Quintet no.1 is highly recommended as a next step:

Yuki Ito & Sofia Gulyak play Rachmaninov at the Wigmore Hall

Yuki Ito (cello, above), Sofia Gulyak (piano, below)

2 Pieces for cello and piano Op.2 (1891/2)
from the Morçeaux de fantaisie Op.3: Élégie; Mélodie; Sérénade (arr. Ito, Mélodie arr. Vlasov (1892)
Prelude in G flat major Op.23/10 (arr. Brandukov) (1903)
Lied for cello and piano (1890)
5 Songs: Morning Op.4/2 (1892), I the silence of the secret night Op.4/1 (1892), Lilacs Op.21/5 (1902), How fair this spot Op.21/7 (1902), Spring Waters Op.14/11 (1896) (arr. Ito)
Cello Sonata in G minor Op.19

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 2 June 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

Rachmaninov’s music for cello and piano dates from the early part of his life, starting in teenage student years and working through to the mature sonata of his late twenties. With the addition of some judicious arrangements, Yuki Ito and Sofia Gulyak built a most attractive program for this concert, the last in the AVEX Recital Series at the Wigmore Hall for 2017-18.

They began near the start, with Two Pieces published as Op.2 in 1892. Rachmaninov’s gift as a melodist was already clear, as was his affinity with the piano, which already had a few demands placed on it here. Gulyak, as she did throughout the concert, proved an ideal partner, reining in the big textures where appropriate in the second piece, an attractive Danse orientale, so that Ito’s probing melodic line could still be heard.

A series of arrangements – maybe a couple too many in context – followed, several of them made by Ito himself. Rachmaninov’s songs have a register that fits the cello perfectly, as do the early piano pieces – and the Elegie and Sérénade, both Ito arrangements from the Morçeaux de fantaisie published as Op.3, worked well alongside a Mélodie arranged by Alexander Vlasov.

Of the following pieces the rich lower register of the Lied, an original cello piece, was beautifully brought to the fore by the Japanese cellist, while in the song arrangements the ardour surrounding In the silence of the secret night was nicely complemented by the higher arrangement of How fair this spot, and the onrush of the Spring Waters, where Gulyak’s control was exemplary.

And so to the Sonata, by far Rachmaninov’s biggest chamber work. It represents the culmination of his friendship with cellist Anatoly Brandukov in 1901, and is packed full of big tunes and tempestuous fast music. Once again the control and phrasing of Sofia Gulyak was key, and she was extremely attentive to Yuki Ito’s sensitive phrasing in the big-boned statements of the first and fourth movement in particular. The second movement scherzo, fleet of foot, had a tense drama about it, while the slow movement’s romantic tunes were lovingly delivered by Ito. The players returned for an encore, which was naturally more Rachmaninov – the Vocalise Op.34/14.

This was a fine chamber music concert, full of good things, with both players receptive to Rachmaninov’s style, phrasing and emotion. Yuki Ito is a fine young cellist, and has great things ahead of him – and as long as he continues to surround himself with musicians of the calibre of Sofia Gulyak, he will surely do extremely well.

For more information on Yuki Ito and Sofia Gulyak’s new disc of Rachmaninov, head to the Champs Hill website or listen on Spotify below:

On record: Lars Anders Tomter, Aarhus Symphony Orchestra – Poul Ruders: Viola Concerto & Handel Variations (Dacapo)

Ruders Viola Concerto; Handel Variations

Lars Anders Tomter (viola); Aarhus Symphony Orchestra / Marc Soustrot (Viola Concerto), Andreas Delfs (Handel Variations)

Viola Concerto
Handel Variations

Dacapo 8.226149 [65’53”]
Producers Preben Iwan, John Frandsen
Engineers Preben Iwan, Henrik Winther Hansen
December 11/12 2015 (Viola Concerto) and March 18-20 2017 (Handel Variations) at Symphonic Hall, Musikhuset, Aarhus

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Two sizable orchestral works from Poul Ruders (b1949), long among the most prolific of contemporary composers. In their very different ways they attest to a continuing musical evolution as inclusive as it is unpredictable, while never less than fascinating.

What’s the music like?

Not previously recorded, the Viola Concerto was composed during 1993-4 and premiered at the 1994 Proms. Although the lukewarm reception was ostensibly because of Yuri Bashmet’s less than committed rendering of the solo part (an early indication of his increasingly cavalier attitude in live performance), Ruders harboured doubts as to the success of the work itself and opted for a thorough revision in 2013. This involved scaling back the central movement, so it now forms an intensifying interlude between a first movement which unfolds as a continuous polyphonic texture, then a finale that elaborates on earlier material before coming full-circle in a pensive yet by no means tranquil coda. The favourable impression this piece now makes is also owing to Lars Anders Tomter’s assured handling of a solo part the more testing for its understated character, notably the cadenzas that alter the course of the latter two movements.

By contrast, the Handel Variations is Ruders at his most sardonic and even demonic. Written in 2009 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, this substantial 39-minute piece takes its cue from the Bourrée of Handel’s Water Music Suite no.1. The composer relates he had initially intended to write 74 variations on this briefest and most unassuming of themes (one for each year that Handel had lived), but the process of putting it ‘through the wringer’ proved so involving it took 90 variations before this had been played out. The result is among the most quixotic of Ruders’ latter-day works, as it runs the gamut of expressive possibilities while securing continuity by the follow-through of these variations. They also seem to merge into cohesive sub-groups, on their way to a climactic sequence whose affirmation is undercut by the lengthy final sequence which forms a conclusion of decidedly deadpan humour. Such fatalism is itself offset by the always inventive virtuosity of what might plausibly be heard as a large-scale ‘concerto for orchestra’.

Does it all work?

Almost certainly. If momentary doubts persist as to the overall focus of the Viola Concerto, these will likely prove illusory now that this piece has received the sympathetic rendering it needed, while the Handel Variations gives us the essence of an always arresting composer.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The playing of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra is well attuned to the very different emotional compass of both pieces and is idiomatically directed by conductors of whom it would be good to hear more in the UK. Stephen Johnson provides the informative if occasionally glib booklet notes.

You can read more about this release at the Dacapo website, while for more on Ruders himself, visit his website here