Talking Heads: Augusta Read Thomas

Augusta Read Thomas (picture (c) Anthony Barlich)

On an autumnal day, Arcana has time with composer Augusta Read Thomas, known affectionately as ‘Gusty’ to her friends. The nickname is more than appropriate, since Gusty is speaking to us from her Chicago home. In a year that has been testing at best, she has taken the time to talk through her new album The Auditions, released by Nimbus in October. The collection proves an ideal introduction to her music, including as it does pieces for brass quintet, carillons and a ballet score for ensemble, The Auditions – of which more later.

Our interview subject is bubbly, engaging and intensely focused – rather like her music. The bubbly aspect is in part related to the recently announced result of the US presidential election. “The year has been so out of body, as we both know in lots of ways, but I’m so happy about Biden and Harris. Then we hear about Pfizer and the vaccines, and as such I feel better. In Chicago we’ve been having record temperatures, and it’s been 75 degrees, like a July day! It has been perfectly sunny, day after day after day, the best November weather I can remember in 30 years, which is definitely a bonus. Right now it’s insanely beautiful outside!”

Is her work as a composer affected by the weather? “Yes, I think so – not so directly as writing dark music on a rainy day, but I do feel that the sun is really a giver of energy. I mean that globally, over a lifetime, not a day-to-day thing. There is energy from the sun that I feel. I don’t know how it translates into the music, but it is a real feeling in my body. For instance, sometimes in my little apartment there is a slant of sun that comes through and I’ll move my chair to sit in it. It feels so beautiful to be having that sunlight and then the slant is moving, so you move the chair a little bit. Then it goes beyond the window, but I will gravitate to sunlight!” The Auditions release encounters different forms of light as you journey through it. “Absolutely. I think that nature is really a great teacher. If you’re going to write a piece of music, you should just look at a tree, and it will tell you a lot. Look at the snowflakes and all the differences in their swirls, then a flower, or a garden – or even DNA, the way that cells reproduce; the ocean. I’ve been telling my students this for decades – look outside, there’s a great teacher right there in the window. It’s really true. If you were to go to my website and just read titles of my works on the alphabetical index, a lot of them are to do with the sun, the moon, nature or spirituality. It is the perfume of my whole catalogue. This CD has evocations of light, or ripple effects like those in the ocean. It is like the caprice of birds, and their beauty – the difference between hummingbirds, flying from the north all the way to the south, and the majesty of the swans.”

We move on to discuss the ballet itself. The Auditions is the idea of moving from this other spiritual space, which is the arcs nos. 1,3, 5 and 7 of the auditions, and then these very earthy, playful jazzy bits. It is like going from the cosmos down to the earth and then back up in the ending. You definitely feel the rise in those arcs. The ballet is modelled on the instrumentation used by Copland’s Appalachian Spring. “It was the 75th anniversary of Appalachian Spring”, she confirms, “and the commission was for an anniversary ballet, with the Martha Graham Dance Company set and costumes, which was amazing. Her choreography for Appalachian Spring was very stylized and of its time – a period piece which was wonderful and absolutely fabulous. Then there was an intermission and then The Auditions. I had to use more or less the same instrumentation, and I added the percussion, a trombone, and a saxophone, so that when you got to my piece it was like smelling a different kind of like world right away. The dance company has many bookings for the show with the two together, but of course they all got postponed. They are touring the show though.”

The list of composers commissioned by the Martha Graham Dance Company is a roll call of some of the 20th century’s finest. “Martha Graham really had a tradition of working with living composers”, she says, “and some great works exist in repertoire because of it. I feel really fortunate to have been receiving this commission. I spent a year on the piece – it’s so detailed, nuanced and sculpted in terms of the form. I worked really closely with the choreographer. In parentheses, there’s a broadcast going out to New York on Sunday night. One of them is going up on my website today, so a lot of people will be able to actually see what the dancing was like. I love it, and wish I could send it over!”

That must be a boon in these times where performances have been scarce or even non-existent. “Absolutely”, she agrees. “One of the other pieces on the disc is Plea For Peace, and there is a version where the solo is played by flute, trumpet and violin. That version just aired on 55 television stations all over the country! That’s a big deal in America, to have things out on the television, but in a pandemic it’s just golden.”

Read Thomas studied with two figureheads of 20th century classical music, Oliver Knussen and Pierre Boulez. “I believe that Oliver Knussen is an ‘A’ list composer”, she says affectionately. “I would put Chopin and Debussy and Ravel on that list, all the greats. I want to say that as loud as possible and I also think, amazingly, he was a great conductor and teacher – he was unbelievable. All of that stems from the central core of being a great musician. Very few people are both – you have some conductors who compose OK, and then you have some composers who conduct, but he was both.”

She fondly remembers their meeting. “When I was in second year college in America, I would have been 21-22 say, he heard a bunch of my music. He invited me to be a fellow at Tanglewood, which in America is a very big deal. So, I was at least ten years younger than the other fellows. We would go through my scores and we would sing the lines, and he taught me a lot about nuance and form and when he was very detailed. Then he brought me back for a second year at Tanglewood, because normally you’re only allowed to go once, and then a third year. I learned a lot from him, and then we continued our friendship. I commissioned his piece Requiem: Songs For Sue, and I brought him to the Chicago Symphony. I have a beautiful score he wrote to me and we would share CDs of people’s music. He did my Helios Choros with the Cleveland Orchestra and also the National Symphony, and he brought my piece In My Sky At Twilight to the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the London Sinfonietta. He just supported me over all those years, and in my little modest way I tried to support him too. We could speak on the phone for a long time about pieces of music. It was a friendship, but I do consider my teacher because in the time I had with him, he taught me a lot but I learned a lot from his music. I studied his music and I teach it too. He was just a great artist.”

Having been fortunate to see Knussen in concert at the Proms, with his visionary programming, it was clear how music was a sharing experience for him. “Totally”, she agrees. “Towards the end of his life, when he did the Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy, he called me up and said, ‘You’ve got to hear this!’ It had all the extra players and stuff, so of course I listened and then I listened again. And then after a step I listened again to that Prom. At the end he did the Piano Concerto by Phil Cashian. For many summers I taught at Tanglewood, and he was a frequent guest. A great, great person.”

Of Boulez, Read Thomas is similarly enthusiastic. “The Chicago Symphony invited me to be their composer in residence, and that came about because Boulez and Barenboim reportedly liked my music. I was young, and it was in the mid-1990s. I was 32 or something like that. Just before that I was commissioned to write a piece, called Words Of The Sea. It’s a four movement piece for orchestra, and it’s easy to find the audio of it. I sent in my manuscript on huge pieces of paper and rolled it, and Xeroxed it, rolled it into the tube and sent it off. I got a call saying they had sent it to Boulez with about twelve other pieces. Then about a month later they called up and said ‘Out of a pile of 12 he’s only going to play one…but it’s yours!’”

Boulez conducted the world premiere of Words Of The Sea, and the two met over the manuscript. “It was a great premiere”, she recalls, “and then that night we had this dinner party with the orchestra, and he turned to me and said he would like to commission another piece. So I did a piece called Orbital Beacons. He was so generous, like he bothered to look at my piece and program it, and it was around this that they invited me to be a composer in residence. He nominated me for a prize for the Siemens Foundation, which I won. It is a generous prize! Then he did the premiere of In My Sky At Twilight, and recorded it as well as taking it to Lucerne. There were lots of different projects.”

Read Thomas’ stories are given with great affection and gratitude. “What I liked about him, and also Knussen, is that they would play my tempos. They were both so precise. I remember with Boulez there was one little thing with In My Sky At Twilight, and he said, ‘I think you have the oboe as mezzo forte there, I think it should be mezzo piano.’ I looked, and said, ‘I think you’re right. So the whole group is sitting there and I remember he had this little box with his pens, so he went into his pen box and opened it, looked around and then he took out the red little red pencil. Then he went on to the score and crossed it out and changed it to mezzo piano. It was very precise, and all about getting it right. The players loved him. They played perfectly and with such artistry. It was a teeny change but it was reflective of the fact that my scores are so detailed.” Knussen’s operating method were not too dissimilar. “Olly was also very precise. I remember when we did In My Sky At Twilight at the South Bank Centre, I said to him, ‘Ollie, it feels too slow – can we keep it going so many bars?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Let me think about it.’ Then, at the show, he did it slower! He came up to me afterward, and said ‘I did it slower! You see, it really works!’ He went with the musicality, and the harmonic rhythm of things.”

Moving back to The Auditions, we discuss the programming of the CD release itself. Was it tricky to get in the right order? “You’re absolutely right. I sat with the engineer and we tried it in lots of different ways. We decided to start with the brass quintet because it’s such a good performance, and it’s very hard! They make it sound easy, but it’s tricky – and it just blasts out of the machine. I’ve been listening to jazz my whole life, so while I am a classical composer, I speak a lot about jazz and my process is very full of improvisations and so forth. What I like about that is starting with be-bop. When you put it in a brass quintet, it’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ You know, there’s no other brass quintet that sounds like that piece, there are no folksong arrangements or church chorales. It’s pure protein in terms of material, a bite size thing that shows lots of different sides of me. The chords are jazz chords, but end up sounding like Stravinsky or Messiaen in this context, like Bebop meets Ravel.”

The next piece presents a contrast. “We thought after the intensity of that to go for the intimacy of Plea For Peace. It’s a beautiful recording, made by Chicago Symphony Orchestra members. You go into this other world, and for the contrast that seemed to be a good place to put that reflection.”

“It’s Ripple Effects next!” she says excitedly. This is a piece for 72 bells, and Renske Vrolijk’s wonderful picture above should be examined when listening to the piece, where each player is clambering over one another to get all the notes played in the final chord. “Some of those bells wouldn’t fit in my room!” she laughs. “One of the interesting things about this piece is that most carillon players play solo. They climb all the way up the tower and they sit there alone, they don’t see their audience, and by the time they get down whoever heard them as walked away. It’s very lonely, and there’s not much repertoire that’s not for solo carillon. Also, a lot of the repertoire is arrangements of a chorale or a song or something. What was really interesting to me was that the first version brought all those people together. The humanity made it very special for that instrument. The two player version is on this recording. It’s tricky, they’re going non-stop with their feet and hands. It multiplies in a way, it sounds like an orchestra in the way it goes, because of the way the bells ring. It’s such an interesting sound world, and again, like the brass quintet, there is no piece that sounds like that – it’s very singular in the carillon repertoire.”

While these pieces are for very different instrumental forces, Read Thomas notes the importance of a connecting thread. “I try to imbue all my pieces with the ‘Gusty’ personality, so if you hear a piece of mine you’re not going to say, ‘Oh well, that sounded like warmed-over minimalism, or retro movie music, or spectralism layer three. There are no categories, it’s just my music. With Plea For Peace, what’s interesting about that piece is it’s just a crescendo, but when you use a text, like post-Hiroshima, or an ancient poet, or a political figure, it narrows. When you make it just a vocalise, the piece means the same in South Korea as it does in North Korea, and as it does in Africa, Azerbaijan or Kansas. That was a big decision, to make it a vocalise, but I think it cuts so much deeper. It feels risky to do it, but in the deepest human way it is like a cry from the heart. While that piece is very total, I still think of it as very singular.”

The Auditions roll-call continues with Two Thoughts About The Piano, with Read Thomas effusive about her soloist. “Daniel Pesca was fabulous. His technical skills are outrageous, but he’s an artist, he sculpts the form as crescendos, and also the repeated notes are hard. He really did a great job. I appreciate his touch.” That is followed by Selene, arranged for percussion quartet and winds. “This is an arrangement that Cliff Colnot made”, says Read Thomas. “He took the string parts and put them in the winds, but the percussion parts are identical. I do think it works, there are certain things like when you get those bass clarinet and bassoons, it’s such a cool colour. I think it’s a very successful arrangement; the credit for it should go to him for the wind parts.”

From vivid experience, Read Thomas’s music consistently creates a picture in the listener’s mind. “One of the things that’s also really interesting to me in my practice and life, is how much, for example, Johann Sebastian Bach can fit into two minutes. If you take one movement of The Well Tempered Clavier, one of the Preludes and one of the Fugues – it’s two minutes, but there is a whole universe there. It starts and there’s just not a note out of place. I’ve really taken that to heart in my music, like the first movement of the Brass Quintet – four minutes is it, that’s all you need to paint the picture. We are matching the material to the duration, and to look at Bach’s Goldberg Variations, some of those movements are less than a minute, but there’s a whole universe there. I guess if I had to summarise, generally I’m a poet and not a novelist. I write shorter pieces with every word in place, every dash, every thought, and every line break to use a poetry metaphor, every adjective too. It’s only four minutes but that really interests me. This CD in a way brings out the poet side.”

The same tenets apply with music of longer duration. “The Auditions is a longer piece, but it still breaks down into much shorter sections”, she explain. “It is a kind of pure, protein poetry. You have to edit and sculpt move the comma, so to speak. I really believe that form conserves energy, and I say that to my students all the time. It’s three words but they’re very important. If you have the material and form that are allied, a four minute piece – like Plea For Peace – projects out to a universal statement that is 20 minutes, but you say it in a very short time. That kind of craft, for lack of a better word, I learned from Oliver Knussen. He was a miniaturist also, and so was Boulez. My main model would be Bach but those other two were the same.”

Our conversation pans out to consider the past year and all its challenges. Has it been difficult a a composer? “I will answer that in two layers, if you don’t mind”, she says thoughtfully. “The first layer is that I’m very mindful that we have a lot of people on this planet without shelter, water, healthcare and food, and so on. Also, in my opinion, the systemic racism is outrageous and should have been set right centuries ago. I would like to say loud and clear, that black lives matter. There is a whole social conscience side, and it is important to state that before I say number two, because they are very much interlinked. I think that when we look back in 10 years of what was created in COVID, there is going to be a burst of creativity, which is great. For me, typically, I travel every week. For 200 days a year I’m just zooming around all the time, and I’ve been doing that for 25 years. Then, all of a sudden, I stopped, and when I was cancelling travel and hotels I was thinking, ‘how did I do this?!’ To be honest with you I have been writing, non-stop, and have had enormous focus. It has been a huge boon. I’ve also continued with online teaching, so it has been really busy. I can’t wait to share what I’ve just made with people.” It is reassuring to hear a positive benefit to the imposed isolation, but not surprising when you consider the creativity such adversity can often inspire. “It is, but for me it’s not the adversity, because I’m really trying to help in whatever way I can. For 30 years I wish there was more than 24 hours in a day, and I typically work like 16 hours a day because I like to. I like to get at least eight or nine hours’ composing and then maybe five hours of teaching and then citizenship work. I think after this, with the whole work / home / travel thing, I think a lot will change for big corporations, and for artists. We realise now that certain things really can be done.”

Finally, I have to ask about the origins of Gusty’s nickname. She smiles warmly. “I have been called that since I was a little girl, because we had ten kids in the family and I was the tenth. Since I’ve been about two it was always my name. Then, as my life developed, then it seemed better for the public to have my formal name, which was fine given name at birth. So we just ended up using that. By coincidence the initials are A-R-T. It just fell into place!”

Augusta Read Thomas’s new release The Auditions is available on Nimbus Records. To listen to clips and for purchasing options, visit the Wyastone website. The composer’s own website contains a great deal of information behind the music, with multimedia and details of future performances. To read more, click here

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 8: Knussen Chamber Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth – A Tribute to Oliver Knussen

Knussen Chamber Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)

Knussen …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell (1995) (from 2:15 on the broadcast link below)
Birtwistle Fantasia upon all the notes (2011) (9:29)
Freya Waley-Cohen Naiad (2019, world premiere) (20:14)
Knussen Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ (1972, rev, 2018) (30:54)
Abrahamsen Herbstlied (1992, rev. 2009) (38:58)
Alastair Putt Halazuni (2012) (47:36)
Knussen Songs without Voices (1991-2) (tbc)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 9 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The BBC Proms’ 800-year odyssey of music over eight weeks at the Cadogan Hall reached the present day in the company of the UK’s newest orchestra.

The Knussen Chamber Orchestra took its bow at the Aldeburgh Festival this year. Created specifically in memory and celebration of Oliver Knussen (above), it is an ensemble for commission and festival appearances, unrestricted in the repertoire it will perform – in that way very much reflecting the approach of its dedicatee. Comprising orchestral principals and budding young talent, it also reflects Knussen’s ability to communicate with musicians regardless of their standing.

Knussen is still greatly missed, a towering figure in British music in the latter part of the 20th century and the 21st until now. Tales have emerged not just of his mentoring of young composers and influence on the established writers, but of a sparkling personality and wit, a dinner companion par excellence. As a conductor he made several richly inventive programmes for the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Ensemble, and as a composer his small but perfectly formed catalogue is required listening for any budding contemporary composer of today. Like the composers he adored, particularly Stravinsky and Webern, his is a musical language that speaks directly through an economy of means.

That much was immediately evident in the three and a half minutes of …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell, which used the colours of clarinet, violin, cello and piano to lasting effect. Knussen moved the omnipresent middle ‘C’ – the ‘one note’ – around the parts effortlessly, enjoying the harmonic diversions possible around it and alternating solemnity with mischief. The piece proved both a homage to Purcell and a brief spark of invention, and was ideally weighted by the soloists.

Birtwistle’s Fantasia upon all the notes has potential for mischief in its title but is in effect a typically serious piece. Written for an ensemble of seven players this was led with authority by harpist Céline Saout, who effectively drove the piece through its initial jagged outlines. The colours available to Birtwistle were exploited through music of stern countenance, its few tender asides to be cherished as the exception rather than the rule. Only at the end, with little points of pitch from solo instruments, did the mood lighten.

In a charming conversation with BBC Radio 3 host Petroc Trelawny, Freya Waley-Cohen revealed Knussen’s qualities as a tutor and a ‘wonderful person’. Naiad (20:14 on the broadcast) was a fitting tribute, fulfilling Cohen’s description of reflections from the scales of fish and dew on a spider’s web with music that cast a rarefied light, such as the sun does this time of year. The attractive melodic cells rippled with a slight chill, piercing moments of clarity from the woodwind contrasted by fuzzier asides from the strings. Although Cohen’s description of a slow piece and a fast piece rubbing up together was more difficult to follow, that did not mar in the slightest an enjoyable and meaningful piece, whose last few bars had a lilting four-note melody that hung on the air, leaving an enchanted atmosphere in its wake.

Bassoonist Jonathan Davies then stepped forward for Knussen’s highly virtuosic Study for Metamorphosis (30:54), based on Kafka. There were some extraordinary sounds here, the composer exploiting the cartoon-like persona the bassoon can elicit but also reminding us of the instrument’s versatility, its ability to paint pictures both happy and sad. Davies was superb and clearly enjoyed the experience.

Hans Abrahamsen’s Herbstlied followed (from 38:58), an extended arrangement and combination of a Danish song and two J.S. Bach subjects from The Art of Fugue. This instrumental version was unexpectedly moving, its picture painting of leaves ‘falling as from far…’ most apt for the time of year and given a vivid account by the five players. The cor anglais of Tom Blomfield added a unique sourness to the tone, and the downward motion of the melodies indicated sorrow, but there was still a sweeter melancholy here that stayed with the listener long afterwards.

We moved into Alastair Putt’s wind quintet Halazuni (47:36) without a break. This was a less affecting piece, more calculated in its depiction of a spiral (its title is the Persian word for spiral) The colours of the instruments – flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon – were frequently attractive, and while the music did on occasion feel predetermined, there was a clear end goal.

The best was saved until last in the form of Knussen’s Songs Without Voices (not yet linked to the broadcast on BBC Sounds). A group of four pieces for an ensemble of eight players, the Songs use vivid colour combinations which bring the composer’s imagery to life. The melodies, though short, are incredibly meaningful.

The first three Songs are wordless settings of texts by Walt Whitman, starting with Winter’s Foil, which was alive with bird calls and blustery winds. As elsewhere Wigglesworth secured playing of great poise and personality, led with characteristic authority by violinist Clio Gould. Prairie Sunset showed off the colours of the ensemble both separately and in combination, before the delicate outlines of First Dandelion were revealed. ‘simple and fresh and fair’.

Finally we heard Elegiac Arabesques, Knussen’s tribute to Polish-English composer Andrezj Panufnik. This wove an incredibly poignant thread, suitable in its own way as a memorial to the composer-conductor commemorated with such grace and feeling here.

Listen

The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:

A playlist featuring works both composed and conducted by Oliver Knussen can be heard below. It includes …upon one note from this concert, though not the Songs Without Voices – which are in fact available on the Erato label:

Wigmore Mondays – Leila Josefowicz & John Novacek play Sibelius, Prokofiev, Knussen, Mahler and Bernd Zimmermann

Leila Josefowicz (violin), John Novacek (piano) (photo: Hiroyuki Ito for the New York Times)

Sibelius arr. Friedrich Hermann Valse triste (1903-4) (2:10-6:40)
Prokofiev Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.80: 2nd movement Allegro brusco (1938-46) (6:45-13:21)
Knussen Reflection (2016) (15:17-23:44)
Mahler arr. Otto Wittenbecher Symphony no.5 in C sharp minor: 4th movement Adagietto (1901-2, arr. 1914) (25:45-34:00)
Zimmermann Sonata for violin and piano (1950) (34:51-48:11)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 21 January 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

On paper, this was a strange programme for an hour-long lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall. Yet that in itself is refreshing. Why should programming have to be conventional and fit a particular blueprint all the time? So while I may not have necessarily warmed to their choices initially, on reflection Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek gave us something different. There was a chance for those attending and listening on BBC Radio 3 to hear two very familiar pieces out of context, complemented by music such as the Zimmermann Violin Sonata that we may not have heard before.

Josefowicz and Novacek begin with a highly charged account of Valse triste (2:10 on the broadcast link), the third number from Sibelius’s Kuolema Suite. This is normally heard in the hands of a string orchestra, but the arrangement here – and the ardour with which Josefowicz plays the violin line – especially when doubled with the piano – brings a striking dimension to the piece.

It would have been lovely to hear Josefowicz and Novacek take on the whole of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.80, for this is a dramatic piece indeed with a chill to its writing that would have matched the weather outside. Sadly the second movement was all we had time for (from 6:45), and it felt disjointed outside of its familiar context, despite the passion invested in it by both performers.

Of far greater meaning was Oliver Knussen’s Reflection (15:17), one of his last completed works. Josefowicz was a close acquaintance of the composer, and he wrote his Violin Concerto of 2002 for her. The Reflection is not necessarily what you would expect, a reminder that not all reflections are calm and reflective. It begins urgently, the violin ascending before being joined by the bell-like sonorities of the piano. Some of the reflections are jagged, and most are urgent – and typically for Knussen there is a great deal of interest in the melodies and textures, a style that is compact and extremely listenable but also forward-looking. It finishes abruptly.

The excellent writer Paul Griffiths clearly had trouble finding any information on arranger Otto Wittenbecher, let alone anything to do with his version of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony no.5. This famous excerpt transfers surprisingly well to the reduced forces here, helped by sumptuous tone and control from Josefowicz, whilst Novacek distils the orchestral parts into something surprisingly manageable. Played with soft affection, the main theme leaves its mark, even though the arrangement is taken at quite a quick pace.

The main work of this recital, Bernd Zimmermann’s Violin Sonata made a strong impact. In three concise movements, it manages to explore the outer realms of twelve tone writing without compromising its composer’s folk-inflected style. From the outset at 34:51 Josefowicz and Novacek carry the urgency of the piece as though it were hot in their hands. The inflections are reminiscent of Bartók but have a more jagged melodic style; the punchy percussive approach from the piano is similar however. The slow movement (39:00), is written in a 12-tone form (that is, each of the 12 pitches has to sound before it can be heard again). It is however surprisingly tonal, with its stress on the pitches of ‘C’ and ‘F sharp’ giving the music a restless base. The nocturnal scene again recalls Bartók but is resolutely Zimmermann’s own, with passionate lines from the violin. The busy third movement (44:07) revisits the mood of the first, with terse but meaningful statements from the duo.

As an encore the duo added Charlie Chaplin’s Smile (50:06) in an initially eerie, high-range arrangement made by Claus Ogermann.

Further Listening

Most of the music in this concert (with the exception of the Knussen) can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

For further insight into Josefowicz’s clever programming, her disc with Novacek For The End Of Time provides ample evidence, bringing together works by Falla, Messiaen, Grieg and Bartók:

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: Colin Matthews: Violin Concerto, Cortège, Cello Concerto No. 2 (NMC)

matthews

Colin Matthews: Cortège (1988)*. Cello Concerto No. 2 (1996)**. Violin Concerto (2009)***

***Leila Josefowicz (violin); **Anssi Kartunen (cello); *Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly; BBC Symphony Orchestra / **Rumon Gamba and ***Oliver Knussen

Summary

A welcome (and timely!) release of three major pieces by Colin Matthews, who celebrated his 70th birthday last year and whose involvement – as producer and promoter – in British contemporary music has sometimes obscured his considerable contribution as a composer.

What’s the music like?

The three works offer a viable overview of Matthews’s orchestral output over two decades. Earliest is Cortège – written for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and its then Music Director Bernard Haitink, and a notable instance of the Mahlerian strain in this composer’s thinking. Unfolding over an inexorable tread, this diversifies incrementally for a convulsive central section as duly brings an intensified resumption of the initial music and an explosive culmination before subsiding into nothingness. Under Riccardo Chailly, the Concertgebouw gives an impressive account of a ‘processional’ such as has featured prominently in modern British music (Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time and John Pickard’s Channel Firing come immediately to mind), and which here sustains its monumentality with impressive purpose.

Although by no means an understated piece, the Second Cello Concerto is appreciably more varied in mood and diverse in its formal construction. Its five movements play continuously – the angular central ‘Scherzo’ framed by two ‘Song without text’ movements of an arioso-like expressiveness; these, in turn, are flanked by a ‘Declamation’ whose recitative-like austerity is transmuted in the final ‘Resolution’ towards an incisive resolve. Written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich (whom memory recalls played it rather poorly), the piece finds an admirable exponent in Anssi Karttunen, who audibly appreciates the underlying subtlety of a conception more ‘concertante’ than ‘concerto’ in its emphasis. Hopefully this belated release will encourage further hearings of one of the finest such works from the past quarter-century.

The most recent piece here, the Violin Concerto (2009) was commissioned by Birmingham’s Feeney Trust, whose portfolio amounts to a fair conspectus of post-war British music – one to which this concerto is a notable addition. Its harmonic basis may stem from Mahler and Berg but its rhythmic incisiveness, notably the tensile solo writing, recalls Prokofiev and Walton. The first of two movements elides twice between slower and faster material with understated intent, so allowing its successor to open-out expressively via an acceleration from measured intensity to headlong propulsion at the close. The work is finely realised by Leila Josefowicz, her rendering of a solo part virtuosic for all its lack of display highlighted against an orchestra which features a diverse percussion section and duly yields an enticing interplay of sonorities.

Does it all work?

Yes. Matthews has long been a composer fighting shy of stylistic straitjackets, with the result that his diverse output sometimes lacks focus or consistency. Not so the three pieces featured here, demonstrating a keen handling of form and an equally well-integrated expressive range.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound leaves little to be desired, while the booklet notes are informative and not unreasonably enthusiastic. A pity, even so, that it has taken so long for at least two of these recordings to be made available: musicians and listeners alike need to be aware of this music.

Richard Whitehouse

Further information at the NMC website