Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Concerto rising: Errollyn Wallen's new piece for Kosmos

Today violinist Harriet Mackenzie takes the floor to tell us about the new concerto for violin, viola and accordion [yes, really] that the fabulous Errollyn Wallen has composed for her Kosmos Ensemble. It's about to have its UK premiere at the Festival of Chichester.

If you can't get there, you can still hear the concerto: here's a video of its world premiere performance at the Jersey Liberation Festival in May, with Harriet on violin, Meg Hamilton on viola and Milos Milojevic on accordion. The Jersey Chamber Orchestra is conducted by Eamonn Dougan.

Kosmos performing in Brunel's Thames Tunnel Shaft in London

NEW WORLDS: A guest post by Harriet Mackenzie

It’s not every day you get a concerto written for violin, viola and accordion - in fact, this may well be the first ever - and when you throw in the fact that we asked Errollyn to include spaces for improvisation and to include vastly different styles, both hallmarks of Kosmos, it probably is an adventure worth writing about!

Not every new concerto starts with a Zen Buddhist saying, and I can’t grandly say that this one did. Not exactly. But there is a Zen Buddhist phrase that I have been trying to get to grips with lately - “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”. A superficial understanding of this seems to be: "If you believe you are on the road to enlightenment and you meet the Buddha then you must kill him, as once you think you have reached or understood enlightenment, you are no longer in the path of attaining it".

Somehow, I am also reminded of one of my dear violin teachers saying: "Once you are satisfied, then you are dead."  The nirvana is in the process, not necessarily a final destination. The urge to strive, to try, to improve, to be in the moment (the ubiquitous 'mindfulness' which has infiltrated newspapers and dinner-party conversations of late), to constantly be moving the goalposts,  seems to be a necessary aspect of being an artist, or even perhaps, a human.

Harriet Mackenzie in Jersey
Certainly, I feel as if I am constantly shifting the comfortable ground beneath my feet and Kosmos has been part of that. It was created as a madcap, personal moving of goalposts for myself and my fellow members - Meg Hamilton (viola player extraordinaire, winner of the prestigious Millennium Award and a renowned specialist in Jewish music) and Milos Milivojevic (one of the finest accordionists working today, winner of the Derek Butler prize contested by all the Music Academies in London, who couples his classical training with the Balkan music that flows in his veins). We all had our areas of expertise - for me, of course, that is classical - and we all wanted to stretch our creative muscles, to bring our ‘own’ areas together and see what would emerge from the collision. Personally, as a classical musician I had never improvised. Suddenly I found myself on stage, without any sheet music, regularly playing our own works, arrangements and improvisations where classical meets composition meets roots music meets world music. I was deliriously happy and terrified in equal measure. When the lights dim and the audience is waiting expectantly, there is nothing quite like the frisson of composing in real time in front of a discerning crowd. And the more we performed together, the more music we discovered and explored, the more a rich landscape opened before my eyes and ears.

When we came up with the idea of a 'Kosmos concerto', the first composer that sprang to mind was Errollyn Wallen. I have admired many of Errollyn's works - her cello concerto (written for Matt Sharpe), the percussion concerto (written for Colin Currie), her song cycle. Errollyn has a diverse musical palette. She has written acclaimed operas, concertos, chamber music and is fascinated by world music styles and jazz. She is also a great singer herself and in lots of ways she breaks boundaries (not least as the first black woman to be commissioned by the BBC Proms). So we approached her, asking - as if the job of writing a concerto for these particular forces was not unusual enough! - that she include the ethos of the group, so some form of world music influence and some form of improvisation.

Errollyn Wallen
This of course is a concerto, so we have the additional element of an orchestra. Adding those elements with all the orchestral players alongside, who necessarily have to know what they are doing at all times and be in perfect synchronisation, is complex and not a little daunting. But in a good way.

Errollyn took this all upon herself and has written us a truly unique work. There are jazz influences, a Venezuelan 'Joropo' rubs shoulders with a Byzantine Chant. There is not only improvisation, but at some point the orchestra, soloists and conductor all have to sing. That is something I have certainly never had to do in any of the other concertos I have performed!

So, and in no small part thanks to Errollyn, the Buddha yet lives! We are still on a path, with horizons uncertain. This piece had its world premiere in Jersey in May, but every performance of this concerto will be different and we hope that the UK premiere at Chichester Cathedral goes well. More than ‘goes well’, in fact - there are times when everything seems to hum and sing with the energy of the world, and when all the elements of Kosmos come together and we have great material such as that Errollyn has written for us it can be a kind of musical nirvana. And you feel - I believe athletes call it ‘in the zone’.

As well as my own journey in search of that elusive musical Buddha whom I must hope never to find (and kill), I hope that audiences are also on their own journeys, opening their hearts and ears to new sounds and experiences without prejudice. And should any of us find that Buddha, let’s not kill him. Let’s embrace him, and then change direction and carry on travelling, striving, looking, exploring, searching for new experiences, as I will too.  

Kosmos perform Errollyn Wallen's Triple Concerto at the Festival of Chichester, Chichester Cathedral, 5th July, 7.30pm, with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra and John Gibbons conducting. www.kosmosensemble.com

Harriet Mackenzie’s most recent recording was “21st Century Violin Concertos” (five world premiere recordings), with the English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods (Avie).

By way of encore, here's The Lark Ascending as you've never heard it before...