Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"We start with a completely blank slate"

Charlotte Bray
Photo: (c) Nicholas Dawkes

Charlotte Bray's brand-new Triple Concerto, modelled after Beethoven's, is being premiered next week. A triple concerto is such an extraordinary format that one might wonder why there aren't more around. Well, maybe someone needs to commission them...  That someone, on this occasion, is the Investec International Music Festival in Surrey,  for the Sitkovetsky Trio - Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Wu Qian (piano) and Isang Enders (cello). I asked Qian, co-artistic director of the festival, to tell us more about the new piece - and about why it is SO important, and rewarding, to commission and perform new music in general. JD


JD: Why did you want to commission a Triple Concerto in particular?

WQ: This is something that we as a trio wanted to do for a long time. Apart from the Beethoven there are very few triple concertos which are in the mainstream repertoire and we wanted to play a small part in rectifying that. Most of the piano trio groups that exist today often perform as soloists with orchestras and so we really hope that this new concerto will be embraced for many years to come by as many musicians as possible. I was also incredibly thrilled when this opportunity came through the Investec International Music Festival. We felt that there was no better way to celebrate our 10th anniversary than by making our first festival commission and we were thrilled when Charlotte Bray accepted to write the new work. As an arts organisation we feel it is our responsibility not only to programme the music of the past, but also make a mark on the future and we are very excited that we have managed to bring this project to life.

Isang Enders plays Charlotte Bray's 'Suya Dalmak' for cello and tape (general rehearsal)


JD: What are the big challenges that this format presents - for performer and composer?

WQ: I think that writing for piano trio is less a challenge and more an opportunity. The possibilities are wonderfully vast because of the different natures of the three instruments and also the dual roles that each one plays in a trio. The piano trio formation is unique because it encourages the players to be both soloists and chamber musicians at the same time. In one moment you must breathe as a singular organism and in another, a leading voice can rise above the others and soar individually. Adding an orchestra to this already very varied colour palette only encourages more textures and opportunities to create a unique sound world, so we are very excited to see what Charlotte has done and can’t wait to hear it ourselves for the first time.


The Sitkovetsky Trio

JD: Why did you choose to commission Charlotte Bray? What qualities most attract you to her music?

WQ: Charlotte is someone whom we had thought about for some time as a composer that we would like to work with. Initially we considered to ask her to write a new trio for us, but when the conversation turned to a possible concerto commission, we didn’t hesitate to contact her. We loved her Cello Concerto that was premiered at the BBC Proms and we thought she would be the perfect person to ask. Charlotte has a unique voice amongst today’s composers with a very personal language that we find fascinating.

JD: What role do the performers play in the compositional process? Have you and your trio worked with her on the concerto, made suggestions about matters such as technique, balance, etc?

WQ: We know many musicians that like to be very hands-on with the compositional process, making suggestions and being very specific about what they want the piece to be like. In our case, when we talked to Charlotte about our thoughts for the piece, she came up with a brilliant idea to use tiny cells of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and to have the piece grow organically out of them. We thought it was a wonderful suggestion to make a link between the two concertos as it almost seems symbolic to have a new triple concerto sprout its roots from the one great Triple Concerto written in the 19th Century. That’s where Charlotte’s idea for the title 'Germinate' came from and we were so happy with it that we left Charlotte to it and tried not to interfere. The only thing that we mentioned was how we wanted to make sure that all of our instruments have a chance to sing, as we want to show the vocal quality of our instruments as well as the rhythmic.

The Sitkovetsky Trio plays the finale of the Ravel Trio at last year's Investec International Music Festival


JD: In what way is performing brand-new music different from performing standard repertoire? What are typically the different challenges and rewards for you as performers? 

WQ: Well, most importantly, we have a direct line to the composer where we can ask exactly what he or she had in mind in places where you are not sure about something. That is an incredible advantage. You can’t imagine how much time is spent in rehearsals discussing whether Schubert wrote an accent or an diminuendo, or the flexibility of Brahms’ tempos, which have always been a talking point. Also, there is the possibility for working through and possibly making changes if something is not working practically, or if something doesn’t sound as convincing as it should be. And, of course, bringing the piece to life for the first time is simultaneously the hardest challenge and the biggest reward. We start with a completely blank slate, no recordings to be influenced by, no “traditions” to observe or at least contemplate: just the musicians doing their best to give the most convincing interpretation possible.


JD: What would you say to those people who are still scared of contemporary music about why it’s important to keep commissioning new works?

WQ: I have found from experience that if you are performing for an audience who have never heard classical music before, very often a piece of extremely contemporary music might touch and connect with them more than a work of Mozart or Beethoven, so this just shows hoe powerful the impact of new music can be. Sometimes one feels that the experienced public comes to the concert already prepared to love Beethoven because they know how it sounds, so they are excited to hear a masterpiece that they already know. At the same time, they might be a little apprehensive about an unknown work that they haven't heard before. I would say: leave any preconceptions at the door and just listen to the piece as if you are hearing music for the first time. Whether you are moved and excited, or completely unfulfilled, at least you give the piece a fair try. 

The audience's role in the life of a new piece cannot be underestimated and, as we have already talked about, it is extremely important to commission new works. That is how we can secure music’s legacy for the next 300 years. So many musicians over the last 100 years have contributed to the incredible growth of repertoire that is now considered standard and mainstream and we must help that continue. At the same time, a new piece needs the chance for many performances, not just one, so this is something that I feel is extremely important to cultivate: a relationship between the artists, composers and concert hall promoters to continue to support the piece after the first performance so that it has a long life! That is the only way that the piece will end up in the mainstream repertoire.

Investec International Music Festival website: http://iimf.co.uk/