Talking Heads: Elena Langer

The composer talks about her new work for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a revival of her opera Four Sisters and how the Russian-born, UK-based composer channels her feelings on the conflict in Ukraine.

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Arcana is in conversation with composer Elena Langer. Born in Russia but moving to study in this country two decades ago, she is full of anticipation at the weekend she has coming up. On Saturday 18 March the London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, together with soloist Kristina Blaumane, will give the first performance of The Dong With The Luminous Nose, a major new piece for the forces.

Exercise is uppermost in Langer’s mind when we are connected to our call, however. “I’m rehearsing with the chorus tonight”, she says, “and after our call, I’m going to have a swim. I love cold water swimming, and I go to Hampstead Heath, where there is a well-known ladies’ pool.” Given the temperature on the day we talk is a little above freezing, this is a brave move. “Yes, it’s cold – but it will be a quick swim, and it gives you a kick for the rest of the day. It means I will be nice and well-behaved with the chorus!”

As you will have gathered, Elena has a healthy sense of humour, and a zest for life too. The primary reason for our conversation is to talk about a major new choral piece receiving its world premiere in the Royal Festival Hall soon. The Dong With The Luminous Nose is a setting of a nonsense poem by Edward Lear (illustrated below), though as we quickly establish it is a work of several layers. “It’s not nonsense as such, it is a love story”, she explains. “The Dong is broken hearted, and went mad – but it’s told in the right way.”

She recalls her first encounter with the poem, “maybe about 10 years ago. A journalist friend introduced me to it, and I really liked it – and then forgot about it. Then at the right time I remembered, because when I was asked to write this piece for chorus and orchestra I found it difficult to find the right text. Often composers set religious texts that don’t resonate, and I love setting poems, but poems for the chorus quite often feel wrong – the words never quite come across as they should. With The Dong it is a poem, but it’s a little opera for chorus. It tells a story, and you follow it, and it felt like the perfect vehicle for the task.”

The opening lines of The Dong set a telling scene: “When awful darkness and silence reign over the great Gromboolian plain”. Elena reveals how she set them to music. “I started with a big solo cello, a concentrated line. The cello represents the Dong or his longing, his soul. She is playing that solo, and that tells the story in music from beginning to end. Then the music continues in the very low registers of the orchestra, tremolo – and tam-tam, with low bassoon and trombones, low double basses too. I only used the basses in the beginning and introduce the timbres of the chorus gradually. The story is told by the basses, and then the tenors, who begin on the word ‘light’, and then all the female chorus only appears when it says “The Dong, The Dong”. We are introduced to every layer of the piece gradually, because there are lots of layers, all with the big chorus and the cello.”

With so many forces at her disposal, is it tempting to use them too much? “I have them and I like using everything a lot, but obviously it should make sense. The cello tells the story and follows the climaxes and moods of the text. It’s a strange genre – a cantata on one hand, but at the same time it’s a cello concerto because sometimes the cello is in competition with the chorus or the orchestra, and there are some instrumental bits which make it slightly symphonic.”

Rather than copy established formats, Elena has sought an original approach. “I tend to not think about what genre I’m writing in, like making new film”, she explains. “It’s not a romantic comedy, or a drama – it has everything – a bit like a good salad! This approach runs through my operatic work, when you have these resources and you use them as tools to make the drama and to have an effect on the audience. I want to tell the story as precisely as I can with my resources.”

The cello part is written for Langer’s good friend Kristina Blaumane, principal cello of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. “She’s an old friend of over 20 years, and she has this passionate, romantic side to her personality, with big emotions. I hope the cello part does that – it’s quite virtuosic, and it requires this soulful, deep, rich sound, which she has in her instrument. She looks wonderful on stage and tells the story in a dramatic way!”

Delving deeper into the story itself, the title – The Dong With The Luminous Nose – brings up a parallel with the young Shostakovich, and his first satirical opera The Nose. Would the story have appealed to him, possibly? “The plot is the opposite, as the nose disappears”, points out Langer, “so you have two noses! But you’re right, I love this in Russian literature where you get this fantastical thing which comes from Gogol, and runs through the work of Daniil Kharms, a Leningrad poet who behaved in a very eccentric way, and who I’m sure was influenced by the English tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. It’s fantastical and surreal, but at the same time dramatic and real. All kinds of political, horrible things are happening around us, and I don’t feel like the kind of artist who comments directly on direct events.”

Elena qualifies her observation. “My survival technique is escapism, using music as something that when I write I am in control of my notes. I build this world, but I’m not in control of the rest of the world. The events – the real events – seem like a dream. In a way it’s my lament, to comprehend the world and what’s happening, done through this crazy little creature The Dong, who goes mad and loses what’s important to him.”

Inevitably, talk turns to the conflict in Ukraine. Elena may have lived in the UK for over 20 years, but the links are still strong. “I love being here, and I am in some way detached, but in some way not. I still have friends in both places, but I don’t want to run around with flags. I want to express how I feel in my own way.”

Langer’s music is indeed deeply expressive, as attendees to the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, heard at the Queen Elizabeth Hall recently, will attest. Soprano Anna Dennis, oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist John Reid gave a moving performance of her song Stay, Oh Sweet. It confirmed Langer’s intensely vocal approach to composition – even when writing for voices. “Yes, I think so”, she agrees, “and my cello writing for Kristina proves that. I see every instrument of the orchestra as a voice, rather than some composers who work the other way round.”

Coincidentally, on the night The Dong receives its premiere, Langer’s one-act opera Four Sisters will be performed in a new production by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. It is part of an appealing program, the 2012 opera paired with César Cui’s A Feast in Time of Plague.

“It should be fun!” she says with amusing understatement. “Four Sisters was commissioned 12 years ago by Dawn Upshaw, who had a class at Bard College in the Fisher Arts Centre, in upstate New York. They have a conservatoire there, and Dawn had a nice class there, mostly of girls. She asked me to write something that would involve more girls, as they needed parts for everyone. I thought of a funny mix of Three Sisters by Chekhov and something like Sex And The City! Each part is equal, there are no prima donnas!”

Langer studied briefly with Upshaw, but the pair’s connection goes back still further. “In 2009 I was invited to participate in the project writing for Carnegie Hall writing songs with Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentinian-American composer. I spent a week or more with Dawn and some singers, and she liked my work – hence the commission. She is a very good teacher, she teaches to sing and to understand what you are doing, what you are thinking about – not just the notes.”

Elena does not sing herself. “Oh no, I have a terrible voice!” she laughs. “I can play on the piano and play my pieces if I need to show them to directors or to performers, but never singing!”

On her arrival in the UK from Moscow, Langer spent one year studying with Julian Anderson, and then moved to the Royal Academy of Music for her PhD. “I saw Simon Bainbridge there, and he was very encouraging, a pleasant presence. That’s also where I met Anna Dennis, who has been my muse since then. When I write for sopranos, I have her timbre in my ears. She is very versatile, and a good musician too. She can play cello and piano.”

After the recent flurry of activity, “like a wave”, Langer is planning to take a short break. “I wanted to have a short break to stop the conveyor”, she says, as I have only just finished the arrangement that we made of Stay My Sweet for the awards. It was originally written for string trio, harpsichord and voice, and I arranged it for voice, oboe and piano. The original is recorded on Harmonia Mundi.”

Her musical thoughts are still active, mind. “It is my week off, but I’m already thinking about a Trumpet Concerto! I was working in November, and had a fantastic concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who were doing a suite from my opera Figaro Gets A Divorce. They have a fantastic, very bright brass sound, polished and very smart. Their trumpeter asked me if it is possible to write a Trumpet Concerto for him and the chamber orchestra, so I agreed – and now I imagine a kind of quasi-Baroque piece, bright and energetic. I will probably write that next.”

Is the Baroque period an inspiration for her work? “It’s one of the colours which I have. My taste, as you can probably tell from my music, is very eclectic. I like all kinds of music, like Baroque and Rossini, Donizetti, Strauss, Wagner and Handel. I get excited by music! The Baroque period I like, and have written a lot for harpsichord and oboe, partly because Anna has sung a lot of Baroque music. I have been commissioned through her – and soon in Aldeburgh, at Snape, they will perform another of my compositions, Love and Endings. They are three songs based on Middle English poems, and they’re written for Anna, Mahan Esfahani and Nick Daniel. It’s going to be performed at Easter.”

She is intrigued by Esfahani’s approach. “It’s going to be the first time that I work with him. While I was writing the new songs, I went to Oxford to visit his harpsichord, and I played the instrument which was specially built for him. It is much more resonant than your normal Baroque instrument, and has more notes. It has a very thick and groovy bass!”

As well as the wide range of classical music above, Langer also encounters pop music through her son. “He’s 17, and sometimes when he’s in a good mood he shares some music that he listens to. I love a lot of it, rap and RnB. He played something that was a crossover between Muslim prayer, and rap, and something else, made in East London. I like this kind of thing, and also older jazz from the 1920s to 1950s. My favourites are Ella, Miles Davis, Coltrane and my favourite, Oscar Peterson.”

Returning to her own compositions, a glance at Langer’s list of works on her website reveals that The Dong has the biggest orchestral group she has used so far. “I’ve never used chorus and orchestra like this, it’s the first time, other than in my operas. I was a bit worried about it, as it’s completely different.”

She will hear the piece in full two days before the concert, “but tonight I’ll rehearse with the chorus. We are rehearsing in bits, to give the chorus more time to prepare – and then Kristina will join the chorus, and only then will we have everyone. I hope it works!”

She laughs, nervously – but also modestly. “This whole thing, you spend so much time orchestrating, doing the parts and this and that, and you just hope it sounds right!” With experience, she is less often surprised by the results. “The older I get, the more close it is to the initial idea. I think it’s a part of being a bit more skilful, although when I studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire some of our teachers would say we must take risks and write something where we don’t know what the sound will be. I don’t want that, as I have a vision. I want it to be like a well-built house, it should not have anything unpredictable.”

The Dong With A Luminous Nose will receive its world premiere on Saturday 18 March at the Royal Festival Hall. For ticket information and purchase, visit the London Philharmonic Orchestra website. Meanwhile you can find information about the performance of Four Sisters at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland website

Wigmore Mondays – Alexei Ogrintchouk and friends play music for oboe and string trio


Picture used courtesy of the BBC

Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe), Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Maxim Rysanov (viola) and Kristina Blaumane (cello) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 October 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 18 November


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. Alexei Ogrintchouk has recorded the Mozart, while available versions of the Haydn, Britten and Schubert pieces are also included.

What’s the music?

Attributed to Haydn: Divertissement in B flat, HII:B4 (not known) (10 minutes)

Britten: Phantasy Quartet, Op 2 (1932) (13 minutes)

Schubert: String Trio in B flat, D471 (1816) (8 minutes)

Mozart: Oboe Quartet in F, K370 (1781) (14 minutes)

What about the music?

Often in chamber music the strings get a lot of the glory, so it is good to report on a concert where the oboe is invited to take centre stage. The instrument is on occasion associated with sad music (Midsomer Murders use it a lot!) and it is perfect for autumnal listening, but it should be remembered that the oboe is also responsible for a lot of happy music too, as Mozart’s Oboe Quartet testifies.

This piece is a beauty, seemingly free of any constraints in its outer fast movements, while the inner slow movement is short yet poignant, set in the minor key. Mozart wrote it for the virtuoso Friedrich Ramm, and composed the oboe line to sit above that of the violin, thus using the higher register of the instrument a lot.

Britten uses a wider range of colour in his Phantasy, written as a competition piece when he was at the Royal College of Music. Thanks partly to the advocacy of the legendary oboist Leon Goossens, but also to his musical craft, the piece won its competition in Paris. Set over nearly 15 minutes, it has a dramatic profile, beginning as a march that seems to process in from nothing – started by the cello – until the sweep of lyrical oboe and punchy strings together is striking.

The first piece in the concert is a two movement Divertissement attributed to Haydn but, it is not wholly certain who actually wrote it. To my slightly untrained ears it sounds like it could be earlier than Haydn, but regardless of who the composer is the music is polite and attractive, the four instruments set in close dialogue.

Schubert’s single movement for String Trio is in the same key – B flat major – and has a similar profile, though does make the most of a striking descending motif throughout. Originally Schubert wanted this to be the first movement of a bigger piece, but after sketching some bars of the slow movement he stopped writing.

Performance verdict

Over the last few years Alexei Ogrintchouk has developed from a very promising musician to an oboist right at the top of his game – and that was evident throughout a highly enjoyable concert.

The peak was undoubtedly reached in the Mozart, where he met the virtuosic demands of the piece head on but without losing the airy, lyrical approach that makes the Oboe Quartet such a charmer. The performance of the Britten dug in much more firmly, the strings encouraged to project outwards, and this they did with impressive power when the march took hold. Britten’s genius in working with small forms was evident even at this point, and not a note was wasted in the performance.

Both the Haydn and Schubert performances charmed, the Schubert nicely placed so that the strings had a brief moment in the sun – which they enjoyed, with lightness and dexterity, clearly listening to each other.

What should I listen out for?


2:01 – this light hearted piece begins with an oboe-led melody, while the cello supplies a chugging pulse. The music is polite and attractive. At 5:13 a central section begins, based on the melody from the start.

7:50 – a slightly slower second movement, a courtly dance – in the form of a rondo, which essentially means the same theme recurs at regular intervals. The violin and viola assume greater importance in this movement. The theme itself makes a final appearance at 11:02.


14:25 – the beginning is almost imperceptible, a little phrase from the cello which is gradually joined by the other two stringed instruments. When the oboe joins at 15:07 the tone is songful, though the spiky accompaniment continues, leaving some tension until a firm statement of the main tune at 16:12. Then a different section takes over, with heavier string writing.

20:25 – the writing now has a softer, hazy hue, as the strings enjoy a slower and more obviously lyrical section. At 22:30 a higher melody from the oboe floats above the texture.

24:52 – the main march idea makes a reappearance, striding forward purposefully – until the music fades, as though it were walking over the horizon and out of earshot.

You can read more about the Britten Phantasy on a blog entry I made two years ago here


29:52 – the Schubert String Trio, set in one movement, begins with an attractive melody led by the violin. There is a distinctive downward sweep that is heard from 30:40, and which becomes an important part of the piece. The three instruments stay closely aligned throughout. After developing his main tune, Schubert restates it at 35:22.


40:04 – the oboe is already high in its register when the distinctive tune of the first movement is heard, top of an extremely light texture. The strings are busy in their accompaniment. Mozart then proceeds to manipulate his memorable tune through different methods of presentation, until a slight lull at 43:53 – and the return of the main tune at 44:57.

46:44 – A slight shadow falls over the music for the second movement Adagio, where the strings are softer and the oboe a little mournful if still beautiful in its first melody. At around 48:57 the oboe is left exposed in a kind of cadenza, leading up to the thoughtful end.

49:57 – once again the brightness in this music is evident as a light hearted theme sways between oboe and strings. The oboe enjoys the recurrences of its tune, with Mozart subtly varying the accompaniment each time before finishing on the high ‘F’ of the oboe at 54:00.

Further listening

If you enjoyed the sound of the oboe, then a logical next step is a couple of orchestral pieces, added to the bottom of the playlist, that use the instrument to its fullest capabilities:

First of all is Ravel’s subtle but gorgeous Le tombeau de Couperin, the oboe taking up the first theme in the Prélude and also enjoying prominence in the slow Menuet.

Then we have Vaughan Williams’ beautiful, autumnal Oboe Concerto, heard here in a new recording from the oboist Nicholas Daniel. The wistful quality perhaps gives away the fact this piece was written in the Second World War. Daniel’s disc is reviewed on Arcana here