Talking Heads: Huw Watkins

It may not yet feel like it (in the UK at least!) but Spring is just around the corner. With a timely intervention, Huw Watkins (above) has not long had the first performance of a piece with that very title, given by the orchestra of which he is Composer-in-Association, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. When Arcana catches up with him, however, his thoughts are with a boyhood favourite, the Britten Piano Concerto – centrepiece of a concert he has curated for the orchestra.

Immediately Watkins is enthusiastic about the Britten performance, and the orchestra’s prowess. “I have to say the orchestral parts are sounding brilliant, and touch wood it’s gone pretty well. It’s a really fun piece to play, and I don’t think the orchestra have ever played this piece before. They are so quick to learn though, and the rehearsal we have just done was done in two hours rather than three!”

The Britten brings its own particular challenges. “I do play concertos but I’m a composer and chamber musician really, so I’m not on the regular circuit. It is always a bit nerve wracking playing with an orchestra again, but this is a work that I am familiar with and have known since university. I did it with the orchestra there, so got to know it very well. It’s a lovely, youthful piece, and the conductor Martyn Brabbins, who I’ve been working with, has done it a lot and knows it very well. He was really excited about this performance, and it was lovely to work with him. I play a lot of chamber music so you have to listen in a different way with the orchestra, leading rather than following.”

Watkins recalls for Arcana his first ever encounters with classical music. “It’s difficult to remember exactly, because music was always around. Paul was already playing the cello and piano, my dad was an amateur viola player, and mum was teaching in school. Before my teenage years I loved playing the piano but I had become a bit bored with it. Then I listened to Stravinsky’s Petrushka and it blew me away when I first heard it – and so did the Britten that I’m about to play! It’s so immediately likeable and fun.”

He then recalls the first meeting he had with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. “I remember that I’d written a piece in 2000, a Sinfonietta-type piece that they did with Grant Llewellyn. I’ve withdrawn it from publication now but it was a great learning piece. As a composer it’s hard to get access to an orchestra regularly so that was a really big thing. Shortly after I wrote my Piano Concerto, which I played myself with tonight’s conductor Martyn Brabbins. We go back a long way!”

How would he describe Spring in the form of a program note? “I didn’t really want to do what was just an aural picture, but the opening felt like that moment just before spring starts. A lot of pieces of music do that but it had a pregnant feel to it. Giving a title to a piece of music is really hard, because if you think of something poetic you become chained to it, but it’s nice to have something to think about in the audience. With this piece I think there is a sense of something blooming and broadening out. That was in my mind, and the idea of looking forward to spring.”

You can listen to Spring here

What are his own personal reflections on the season? “When spring comes you notice it getting lighter, and getting energy back. It would be nice to be able to have a break but the trouble with composing is that the deadlines come through thick and fast. I do need to plan a bit of a break, you can’t just keep churning it out. I do want to find time to listen to other pieces, it can be distracting to hear other people’s work when you’re writing so I generally choose not to. I’m lucky with the demand there is at the moment, the BBC NoW is a source of three commissions and writing for the orchestra is very enjoyable, if time consuming!”

Watkins divides his time between composition and the piano, and over recent years has shown himself to be an extremely quick learner. This has enabled him to record several discs of lesser-known British repertoire for cello and piano for Chandos. In partnership with cellist brother Paul Watkins, this was an experience he clearly enjoyed. “A lot of that repertoire was new to us, and I think the John Foulds Cello Sonata in particular is an absolute masterpiece. The York Bowen Cello Sonata was good too. We were lucky to do those discs. I find I’ve always been a quick sight reader but I can’t always rely on that as I get older! I want to spend more time on new pieces, but I want to concentrate on doing pieces more than once, to really get to know them.”

The challenge with such a busy schedule on both fronts is achieving balance between work as a performer and a composer. “My piano playing feeds into my creativity and my compositional life”, he says. “I think you lose a perspective if you’re not involved in live performance as a musician, and with how audiences respond.”

Some opportunities are just too good to pass though, including last year’s commission for a carol for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. “It was an incredibly inspiring thing to be asked to do. I wanted to write something simple, to write something pure and plain. The atmosphere in that service on Christmas Eve is amazing, and that’s probably my only chance to go to the service as well!”

You can discover more about Huw’s contribution to the service here

Later in the year Watkins the pianist will step forward as soloist in the Piano Concerto by Philip Cashian, an eagerly awaited world premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival. “Yes, that’s something we were preparing to do this time last year with the BBC Symphony Orchestra,” Watkins recalls. “We had three days rehearsing it with Oliver Knussen and he sadly became ill on the morning of the concert, and it had to be rescheduled. It’s a really good piece, energetic and athletic. Philip is great at writing fast and rhythmically lithe music.”

Knussen is a conductor Watkins has worked with before, and who has had a considerable influence on his life as a performer and composer to date. “I find him completely inspiring”, he gushes. “I’ve been lucky to do a couple of concertos with him, the Tansy Davies and Helen Grime (Huw’s wife). He’s brilliant to hang out with too, he knows and knew so many people. I hope he writes it all down! It would be great to read a book by him eventually, especially as he’s also hilarious and very good company. He wrote a piece for the violinists Tamsin Waley-Cohen and I recently. It was the first new piece he had written since 2010, so that was really special. I think this has started him back to regular writing, and it is a truly gorgeous piece. It was a real honour. We were getting e-mails with a page a day of this amazing, handwritten score.”

Watkins counts Knussen as a lasting inspiration. “He really is one of the towering figures of the last 50 years in the music of this country, a composer with such a brilliant ear. With him it’s really important that you play the right notes, because he has thought out the harmony so thoroughly. It is so beautiful to listen to. He is definitely very high up my list, and I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of contemporary composers. Gerald Barry is another I have really enjoyed working with, and I played in his opera The Importance of Being Earnest. I admire it greatly, although it is hugely difficult to play!”

There is plenty for Watkins to explore on the instrumental front, and for now he has plenty to get his teeth into with this relatively ‘traditional’ approach. “I don’t think instruments are ‘tired out’ yet, there is still so much you can get out of it. There was a Thomas Adès piece Seven Days, a kind of video ballet, and I thought that was absolutely brilliant. I wouldn’t rule it out in my own writing but there is still so much to do!”

His own music has a tonal base, with melodic points of reference, but continues to look forward int is approach, drawing a little on the past in form and function but introducing new melodic and harmonic thoughts. “That’s a nice way of putting it”, he says approvingly. “I don’t want to go back to something safe and cosy, I want to write fresh things. I’ve immersed myself in some out there music but I am now writing the music I really want to write. I get some writers who say it’s conventional but I don’t care to be honest! I think someone like Britten still did things with tonality that still make it new and fresh. If everything is self-consciously new it can be fake! It’s no good denying the tonal audacity and the hierarchy of the intervals with Britten – and shows that there are still things you can do. That’s not to say the other developments are not valid, but I wouldn’t dismiss it.”

We move on to discuss the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, now 90 years old. Watkins is hugely appreciative of their achievements and function. “I think the part I know is since the 1980s, when they became a fully fledged Symphony Orchestra. I can only speak from my own experience in the St David’s Hall, which was new then. It has become an incredibly good orchestra, but they also make an effort to go around Wales which I think is extremely important. Places like Abergavenny and Bangor would not always have a symphony orchestra near them, so it’s very important. They don’t have to worry quite so much about full houses so they can do stuff that’s off the beaten track, and it’ll also be on the radio.”

“That’s a very healthy thing. It’s good for composers to think a little bit commercially when writing, but also good that people like the BBC NoW commission these pieces. At the end of February I’m doing a workshop with young composers, and Martyn Brabbins is doing conductor masterclasses. That’s a real services because it’s hard for people to learn their craft. The orchestra does get better and better, we were so impressed with the Britten and I know that tomorrow it will be better still. Cardiff’s lucky to have the Welsh National Opera too, it improves the life of a city. I feel very lucky to be Composer in Association here, it’s been a very nice experience for me.”

Watkins will perform Philip Cashian’s Piano Concerto at the Aldeburgh Festival, part of a concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Oliver Knussen that will include Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Music For A Great City. For more details you can go to the Snape Maltings website

On record: John Pickard: Symphony no.5, Sixteen Sunrises etc (BIS)

Pickard Symphony No.5 (2014); Sixteen Sunrises (2013); Concertante Variations (2011); Toccata after Claudio Monteverdi (1998)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins



The fourth release in BIS’s survey of orchestral works by John Pickard (b1963), featuring his latest symphony and two shorter pieces which between them underline the expressive scope of his musical thinking; rounded off by his sparkling transcription of a Baroque perennial.

What’s the music like?

Pickard has long been established as a symphonist of stature, with the Fifth as resourceful as its predecessors – a 32-minute continuity which unfolds an uncompromising argument with real subtlety. A key factor is the writing for three sets of timpani, distributed spatially to the rear of the orchestra, that pursue antiphonal exchanges of motifs and chords but also evolve melodic lines to a degree seldom attempted. This is most evident towards the centre, where timpani lines are heard over dense string harmonies in music as audacious as it is mesmeric.

The piece arrives here via a series of interrelated faster and slower tempi, the latter gradually predominating without any tailing-off of momentum so that the greater prominence of faster tempos in the latter stages feels as if a process coming full-circle. Aligned with this is a four-movement outline – the initial Tempestoso segueing into a Prestissimo then a Maestoso, before the final section culminates in a return to the defiant opening gesture. This is followed by a coda that brings suspenseful calm while also intimating activity still to be encountered.

As to the remaining works, Sixteen Sunrises was written for the Nagoya Philharmonic and takes as its inspiration those sunrises observable over 24 hours from the International Space Station. Pickard conveys this through an intensifying sequence of climaxes whose subsiding into stasis feels more pronounced each time; a process enhanced by some of the composer’s headiest and most atmospheric orchestration. Not that this is in any sense a literal depiction, as his admonishment to listeners who might attempt to count the 16 sunrises makes plain!

By contrast, Concertante Variations was written for the Presteigne Festival (and premiered there by Orchestra Nova) and represents Pickard at his most urbane. Scored for wind quintet, strings and timpani, this unfolds as an introduction, five variations and fugal coda. The theme introduces each wind instrument in turn, then the variations (alternately fast and slow) feature them as ‘first among equals’, before the coda sees the strings assume centre-stage as the piece races towards its affirmative ending – albeit given a droll twist by the laconic closing gesture.

Commissioned by the BBC as the ‘fanfare’ to a festival celebrating four centuries of Italian music, Pickard’s transcription of Monteverdi’s Toccata (the extended version as heard at the start of the 1610 Vespers) includes tuned percussion in what is a scintillating curtain-raiser.

Does it all work?

Indeed, not least when the Fifth Symphony is given so powerful a recording (made right after the premiere) by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (spearheaded by truly heroic timpani playing from Steve Barnard, Christina Slominska and Phil Hughes) under Martyn Brabbins, who has championed Pickard over two decades. Other pieces are no less committed in what is a finely balanced programme.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The sound is arguably the best yet in this series (SACD benefits the depth and translucency of this music’s textures), while Pickard’s annotations inform and amuse by turns.

Richard Whitehouse

You can find more information on this release on the BIS website

Listen here on Spotify:

Under the Surface at the Proms – British composers

Prom 26, 5 August 2015 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka at the Royal Albert Hall


Ailish Tynan and Tadaaki Otaka performing Grace Williams’ Fairest of Stars at the BBC Proms Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

Only the BBC Proms could come up with a night like this, a programme of partially or wholly neglected British music flattering not only the composers but the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who had clearly invested a lot of rehearsal time.

Their greatest triumph came last, the Symphony no.2 of William Walton, written in 1957 but receiving only its fourth ever performance at the festival and its first since 1996. Walton’s First gets all the glory in his symphonic output, and understandably so – it’s bold, has strength of character, some terrific tunes and bright orchestral colours. Yet the Second deserves far more, as conductor Tadaaki Otaka showed us here:

Although it is a much more anxious and questioning piece it is tightly structured, its melodies unusual but somehow memorable too. The first movement tune has a steep incline to its melody but remains in the head, and certainly did so after this performance, beautifully coloured as it was with orchestral piano and glockenspiel. The second movement had softer colours but was equally worrisome, while Walton, thumbing his nose at ‘serial’ composers who had opted out of tonality, uses all twelve tones in his theme for the finale, in a tuneful sense. Here they were hammered home in orchestral unison, and the climax of the work was hugely impressive.

Earlier we heard some better known works from Walton – a bracing Spitfire Prelude and Fugue – and Elgar, his first orchestral work the Froissart Overture, played with a smile on its face.

Then it was over to do two very different Williams. Ralph Vaughan Williams completed his Concerto accademico, for violin and string orchestra, in 1925. It pays explicit homage to Bach but not in the way Stravinsky and co liked to do at the time. The composer saw this as a much more tuneful exercise, using folk-based material in the process. Listen here:

Despite a good performance the piece remains a curiosity. The first movement was dogged and rather foursquare, the music pressing on rather grimly, so it was left to the second movement to bring what felt like more genuine emotion, bringing to mind the slow movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.1 as it did so. Chloë Hanslip, the excellent soloist, was rich in tone both here and in the finale, which reverted to brisk music but in a much more accessible way this time, with a soft-hearted closing section. This was, for me, not the composer’s best.

Grace Williams, a Welsh composer who was a pupil of Vaughan Williams, is not heard much in the concert hall – but Fairest of Stars, for soprano voice and orchestra, suggested she should be. Her writing for the voice was elevated by Ailish Tynan, who looked ready to burst into song as soon as she appeared on stage. Tynan’s voice was the perfect foil for this music, soaring above the clouds brought by the orchestra, and although the words were not always abundantly clear because of the thicker scoring, very much in the Richard Strauss vein, their sentiment was. The top ‘C’ Tynan hit before the end had to be heard to be believed, the crowning glory of the concert’s first half. Listen to the piece here:

The last few years have seen the Proms bring a number of major but neglected British works in from the cold – we have had music by Moeran, Alwyn, Havergal Brian and Howells to name just a few – and it is heartening to see them continuing that tradition. This night was a great success; let’s hope many more will follow.

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival