Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Fauré Requiem, up close and personal

Portrait of Gabriel Fauré by John Singer Sargent

I had an extraordinary day a few weeks ago, heading for Paris and the Bibliothèque National with the composer and conductor Bob Chilcott, the presenter Frances Fyfield and the producer Tom Alban to meet the manuscript of the Fauré Requiem. BBC Radio 4's 'Tales from the Stave' is a fascinating series which explores the hidden stories within the composer's handwritten scores, and ours will be on today at 11.30am, and repeated on Sunday.

We found, among other things:
...some coffee stains;
some intriguing corrections;
some elaborate crossings-out;
some later changes and slightly wobbly phrase marks;
a few bits where he'd started writing on the wrong line, probably because he was scribbling too fast or was completely knackered;
in general, a very practical, down-to-earth working score for this other-worldly work of genius.

I was mildly disappointed that he hadn't doodled caricatures of Saint-Saëns in the margins, but needs must.

Hope you enjoy the programme. You can hear it here.

Monday, June 11, 2018

MAGIC: Swan Lake

SWAN LAKE. What else?!
Photo: ROH 2018, by Bill Cooper

I thought I could get into the Royal Opera House's new Swan Lake on a press seat, having written a big article about it, but it turned out I couldn't, certainly not at short notice. Tickets for Liam Scarlett's production are like the proverbial gold dust and it seemed that checking back continually for returns was the only way. Therefore by chance I landed one of the best seats I've ever had: possibly not to everyone's taste, but wonderful if you like being almost on the stage, right over the French horns and harp and able to see every detail, including the evil glares of Von Rothbart, without opera glasses. Which I do.

Ballet heaven doesn't even begin to describe what followed.

John Macfarlane's designs are more than just detailed and opulent: they create a whole world that pulls you in and, however fantastical the drama, feels consistent and convincing. The lavishness of the pink marble and glowing gold ballroom scene caused a gasp and applause on curtain-up - not something I've heard at a ballet for a good while - and the parkland and palace gates of Act I similarly balance beauty and a sense of oppression. The lakeside, with lurid moon for act II and dappled clouds for act IV, is suitably gothic. The swan tutus are full of feathery loveliness - and the Hungarian princess, one of the four seductive young royals attempting to snare Siegfried's affections, seems to have half the foyer of the Franz Liszt Academy stitched into hers (quick solution to swan dilemma: go off with her instead?).

Cross Hamlet with Dracula and Giselle: the storytelling of this version leaps into focus. Rothbart is human(ish) by day, demon by night; when we first see him, in a new prologue set to the overture, he captures and transforms the unfortunate Odette, cradling her in his arms à la White Swan pas de deux, but looking as if he's about to sink his teeth into her long white neck. The pose creates resonances around that "iconic" image, normally just a passing (if wonderful) moment in act II. Several times before that when Siegfried tries to fold Odette's wings into an embrace, she resists, and that's probably why. When their cuddle is finally achieved, it has extra meaning.

Next, Rothbart is incarnated into the Queen's adviser, dressed from head to foot in black, exerting sinister control over the court - which he wants to infiltrate and destroy. Siegfried, brooding and mourning, loathes him. What happened to the King? Has the 'adviser' perhaps poured poison in his ear while he slept? Siegfried, refusing his instruction to go back to the palace at the end of act I, could witness Rothbart's twilit transformation if he bothered to turn around at that moment. Given his predatory hold over Odette and her companions, perhaps the creepiest moment of the whole production is when we see him escorting Siegfried's two little sisters into the ballroom. Will they be next?

So to choreography. Scarlett's own additions mostly integrate amid the original without jarring any sensibilities, idiomatically classical with an excellent feel for musical detail and cross-phrase imagination. The Act I Waltz and Polonaise are a huge improvement on the last production (I always felt that waltz was a mess - can't remember who choreographed it), even if I still hanker for the old Frederick Ashton ones from pre-1987. There's a beautiful solo for Siegfried set to the entr'acte - which in a way makes so much sense that one wonders why it wasn't done before. This one wins over the gorgeous Ashton solo, because frankly nobody could ever dance that one as well as Anthony Dowell. National dances are fun and full of "authentic" Czardas and Mazurka touches, though, to sound sour for a second, I found the Spanish number vaguely kitschy; and very glad that Ashton's Neapolitan Dance is still in place, as it's possible there would have been a balletomanes' rebellion had it been chopped.

Act IV is chiefly Scarlett with a centrepiece of a new pas de deux for Siegfried and Odette: it is woven out of a high-classical deconstruction of moves from the White Swan pas de deux as the pair try, hopelessly, to recapture that 'first fine careless rapture'.

Rehearsal of the new pas de deux

And the ending? Odette throws herself off the rock; the swans are saved; Rothbart dies; but Siegfried lives on, cradling the body of the drowned Odette. One can't deny that it prompts tears. But do we feel a sense of redemption? Not really - even though the music tells us it should be there. Siegfried has learned a lesson about love and loss, but he hasn't given his life for it. This matters. Perhaps they could usefully consider revising the idea in a future revival.

Our Odette/Odile on Saturday was Natalia Osipova, demonic and aflame in the Black Swan (no fouettés, mind - instead, a dizzying speedwhirl round the perimeter) and a suitably touching, dramatic Odette. Her prince was Matthew Ball, one of the company's rising stars: a perfect Hamlet-style Siegfried with  notably beautiful control of multiple spins and a meltingly lovely, blended and complementary partnership with Osipova. It's just been announced that he will join Matthew Bourne's New Adventures to dance the Swan in their next tour of that famed version. Meanwhile the mesmerising presence of Gary Avis as Count Dracula, er, Rothbart, just could not have been bettered.

The orchestra, meanwhile, was on splendid form, though Valery Ovsyanikov's conducting smoothed out some of the punchier edges at times and the slowish tempi can be a bit of an issue, but in staged ballet, that's probably inevitable. I do have a mild allergy to that thing where the tempo suddenly changes completely in the middle of a piece so that another dancer has a turn doing something different.

All I wanted to add - other than perhaps a different ending - was slightly deeper characterisation, as everybody is slightly one-dimensional except, intriguingly, Siegfried's mother, the Queen, with Elizabeth McGorian creating a whole wealth of personality and experience with a minimum of gesture. Some neater bows might help to secure the loose ends: what happens to Benno and the little-sister princesses when Rothbart takes the court into dry-ice, black swan-populated meltdown at the end of act III (or maybe something happened to them on the extreme right of the stage, which I couldn't see)? All this can be tweaked, added to, reinterpreted, etc, in due course if Scarlett and company wish to do so. For the moment, it's simply that I want to say something more constructive than merely I loved the whole thing to bits and pieces, it's total magic and I can't wait to see it again, which is also true.

Tomorrow's performance (12 June) is being beamed into cinemas worldwide. Go see.

Friday, June 08, 2018

The Invisible Opera

Composer Emily Howard's first full-length chamber opera, premiering today on the opening night of the Aldeburgh Festival this week, is based on a science fiction short story in which the crime of coldness is punished by invisibility. I could say a few things about the symbolism of this theme and how very much one wishes it could be true for certain people in public life, but you can work that out for yourselves. Instead, let's go over to Emily for her insights into the creative process. Toitoitoi for the performances! JD

The Invisible Opera
A guest post by Emily Howard

My first full-length chamber opera To See The Invisible[trailer] premieres this week on the opening night of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, and we’re nearing the end of the production period. In the next few days we’ll have stage and orchestra rehearsals followed by the dress rehearsal and I can honestly say that these last few weeks have been a real eye-opener for me. Before now, I actually had no idea that there would be so many people involved in making an opera work. I’ve enjoyed working closely with librettist Selma Dimitrijevic, director Dan Ayling and music director Richard Baker for some time now, and in addition to this, collaborating with a wonderful cast of singers, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, a full opera production team as well the Aldeburgh staff over the last few weeks has been an amazing experience. That’s a lot of people and I’m delighted to have learnt a whole lot of new information.

I wonder how many other composers have had a similar experience during the production of their first opera? The feeling that in fact you are part of a giant machine and that there are many more cogs in the system than you had possibly imagined? Set Design, lighting, costume and the most amazing number of very practical considerations that in some cases can end up re-shaping your music in places. I love it. I love the collaborative nature of working as part of an opera team, and the fact that the problem solving involved has to factor in so many dimensions, with music being one of them. 

My first outing in opera was a mini-opera Zátopekcommissioned by Second Movement for New Music 20x12, part of the London Cultural Olympiad. I created this with writer Selma Dimitrijevic and we were keen to work together again. We began to discuss the idea of shunning as a central theme for an opera at least five years ago in 2013, and this was the starting point for To See The Invisible.

In 2014 Selma and I linked up with director Dan Ayling, and we all decided that it would be beneficial to approach opera development in a tripartite fashion: composer, librettist and director in discussion from the outset. In particular, we spent significant time together on artistic residencies at Snape Maltings developing materials and ideas, a period that I believe was hugely valuable for the opera. We are all very strong-minded and the three-way conversation enabled us to discuss the many layers of the opera from very different perspectives. 

To See The Invisibleis loosely based on a short sci-fi story To See The Invisible Manby American writer Robert Silverberg. The way we came to discover this wonderful short story is worth telling. Selma was working on the libretto in 2016 and staying with her brother in Croatia. One day she described the story that she was working on to him, and he said “that reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s short sci-fi story” and directed Selma to his bookshelf. Selma then realised that this was a story she had read in her childhood and that it was now resurfacing in our opera! We had been searching for the ‘crux’ of the theme of shunning, and what the crime would be – and finding the Silverberg story clarified this complete for us, as we encountered the concept of the crime of coldness around which his story hinges. 

In the opera, like in the Silverberg, our protagonist, The Invisible, is sentenced to a year of invisibility for committing a crime of coldness. The Invisible’s physical journey through the world of warmth, and emotional journey from hope to despair are also rooted in the Silverberg short story. But there are significant differences as well: the opera begins a lot earlier than the story: we see the arrest, and there is a court scene where The Invisible receives the sentence. In the opera, we also experience the toll this takes on The Invisible’s family.

In my concert music as well as my music for stage, I am always excited by the collision and union of disparate ideas from diverse sources: the subsequent translation of these hybrid ideas into sound is the crux of my creative process, and never more so than in the musical score for To See The Invisible. In the opera, it has therefore been my aim to create hugely contrasting types of music that interact with each other in unexpected ways. 

Writing concert music is deeply rewarding in a completely different way from writing music for the stage and over the last decade I’ve written a number of works using ideas from science and mathematics as creative catalysts. These include my string quartet Afference(2014-15), receiving a performance given by the Piatti Quartet in Aldeburgh, and orchestral works sphere(2017) and Magnetite(2007), both being performed in Aldeburgh by BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Mark Wigglesworth as part of my residency this year. 

Emily Howard, June 2018

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

JDCMB star interview: Fabio Luisi

Yesterday it was announced that the Italian conductor Fabio Luisi has been appointed music director of the Dallas Symphony. Many congratulations to both maestro and orchestra - it's splendid news. He takes up his post in 2020. Currently he is music director of the Zurich Opera House, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. 

About two and a half years ago I was dispatched to Zurich to interview Fabio Luisi for The Independent. It was the start of the 2015-16 season and the opera house was opening with a stunning new production of Berg's Wozzeck by Andreas Homoki, with the baritone Christian Gerhaher in the title role. I enjoyed a fascinating, wide-ranging and deep-thinking discussion with Maestro Luisi which could have filled a small book. When I got home I found that I was required to write all of 600 words...about my interviewee's side enthusiasm - his perfume brand. Meanwhile the auto-"correct" on my phone, on which I record interviews, had saved the track as "Fabio Lucidity". Which was not inappropriate.

I've therefore been waiting for a suitable moment to run selected highlights from the rest of the interview.  The chance is upon us. Please bear in mind, reading the below, that this took place several years ago - but I've tried to choose only the parts of the interview that are still relevant today (and in particular I have not included some passages about the Met in New York, as recent events over there have rendered them quite seriously outdated).

Fabio Luisi
Photo: Barbara Luisi Photography

JD: I’m fascinated by the contrast between Zurich and New York – I can’t think of two more different places and opera houses. 

FL: The first thing is we think about the size of the houses, but the way to make music is, for me at least, very similar, with the same principles. This house is a little bit more tricky because you have to care about dynamics, especially with a huge orchestra like Wagner or Strauss, and even Wozzeck can be dangerous. On the other hand it’s very good for the musicians and even for the correlation we have with each other because we try – and this is one of the best skills of this orchestra – to try to make chamber music out of every work. And this is always a good thing, so we can see the structures of the composition, we can hear every voice, every line, which means a lot to me. But basically it’s the same way I’m working in New York.

Wozzeck still feels like a contemporary work today…

I think every master work is contemporary. Even the oldest ones, if you see Monteverdi’s Orfeo,it is contemporary because it speaks about things which are actual to us as well – loss, love, search for identity, search for meaning of life. And this piece: of course soldiers have been soldiers for 10,000 years, it’s always the same issue with war and soldiers. It doesn’t change and it won’t change ever. I think a real masterwork, whether in music, literature or painting, is a work which shows you like a microcosm of life, which is actual no matter in which time it has been written and in which time is going to be heard, seen or read. Wozzeck is one of those masterworks.

Do you have ideas about what directions the operatic world could take to rejuvenate itself?

 This is hard to say. I think the priority is always the quality of what you present to the audience. If you’re just presenting something without any artistic or dramatic goal before your eyes, this is what happened in many houses in the last 20 years, no matter what they did, the public hand was paying. Now it’s not paying any more, so they have to develop new ideas, that’s clear, and at the same time attract a new segment of audience. 

Here in Zurich we are working very hard at this. Yesterday we had a day of open doors with a huge party on the square in front of the house where we presented our opera studio with the young singers, and we had a quiz. In the evening I had an open rehearsal of Falstaff for four hours; the house was packed – everyone could come inside and watch the rehearsal. I spoke to the audience before and told them ‘You are experiencing what we are doing every day and in order to improve our offer to you’ – so I interrupted, I talked to the singers and the orchestra, we did some parts again and again until they were good with the audience in the hall. These are small steps, but with time you attract people. It is important to talk to people about what you are doing, because they don’t know what’s happening. They come to us in the evening, but they don’t know we are working all day for this. Sometimes we hear the question “You play in the evening, but what are you doing during the day?”…

Zurich has a big reputation for building singers’ careers… 

Yes, many great singers, Jonas Kaufmann, Vittorio Grigolo, Javier Camarena, a lot have been here. And we have a lot of new young singers who are starting a huge career. That’s a good thing and it means our director, casting director, music director, general director, they have good ears to understand how young singers could develop in the future & this is v important. 

I’d understand if you didn’t want to name anyone – but any you specially like now? 

Many of them – it would be unfair to the others to talk names, but maybe Julie Fuchs, who is in our ensemble. There are so many good young singers. They do not develop at exactly the same pace. Some need more time, others develop like an explosion from one day to another, they change the voice, they have the personality, or they have the courage to show the personanity. In our opera studio we offer two years where they can learn and also start to participate to the productions with small roles at first and then more. The good ones we take over to the ensemble. This is a very good path.

What’s it like working with Christian Gerhaher? [He was singing Wozzeck]

It is challenging and refreshing at the same time! It is challenging because he has – he’s a perfectionist. And he reminds us that we should be all perfectionists in our musical jobs, never be happy with what we could achieve because there is always a step forwards. This is like him: he is always looking for better. At the same time this is the challenging part, because he inspires everybody to be like him, and also the refreshing part because he reminds us we are doing this for music: it is not a normal job, it’s something special, we’re doing something that elevates us in order to elevate the people who come to our performances. It’s great to work with him on the human basis.

How do you manage your multi-tasking and dividing your time?

 I try to make the best of everything. I always think I am so fortunate to be able to do this – opera, concert performances and even my perfume business, which is just a small thing like a hobby. They give me a lot of energy. 

Illustration of Don d'Amour by Nafia Guljar for FL Parfums
How did the perfumery begin? 

I was always interested in perfumes and one day I thought why don’t I try it for myself? So a few years ago I started to read, to get informed, to try by myself to make mixtures. I had a teacher and continued to learn. It’s a continuous learning process; it never ends. 

What about Italy? We always think of it as the home of opera and we like to think you’d have been steeped in Italian opera from the start… 

…Which for me is not the case! I started with music very early, but opera has always been something I did not consider earnestly until my teacher in Genoa brought me to a rehearsal. She was my piano teacher, but she played violin in the orchestra, When I was 11-12 she brought me to a rehearsal. I remember very clearly, it was Otello in the 1960s or beginning of the 1970s. It was something astonishing to me - so many people on stage and I thought they are actors and singers and the orchestra and the maestro coordinating everything, and that was probably the first input for opera. 

Later I worked with singers on the piano and that was very important to me because I learned to breathe, to shape phrases. I learned also the physiology of the singers because that’s very important for a conductor. I began to think piano is too small for me, I want to develop a conducting style, so I started studying conducting. After that I had a job at Graz opera house as a coach at first and then conducting first small things. So I started that way. This is very normal: the old-fashioned path to opera conducting. I have to say I could not conduct opera if I had not had this kind of experience. It was important to me to accompany a singer on the piano and know when he needs to breathe and why and how the voice works, how his anatomy and physiology work – it’s something you have to know in order to do this job. It’s not just beating the tempo! 

Were there musicians who inspired you, mentors, etc? 

I studied in Genoa until my piano diploma and we did not have a lot of great artists coming to our town – it wasn’t like London, NY, Paris, Milano, where everybody should be. It is more provincial, so I tried to get out of Genoa and went to Austria and tehre I started to try to go deeper into the music. My only conducting teacher was Milan Horvath – he was a very experienced musician, not very famous, but a good solid conductor with perfect preparation and a wonderful technique. I learned a lot from him. Then I learned by doing: by coaching and by assisting other conductors actually. Of course I had my musical role models, like Leonard Bernstein, Sergiu Celibidache or Herbert von Karajan, but I never met them! 

There’s a huge contrast between the still-prevalent Regietheater in Germany and central Europe and the Met’s conservative approach in the US. Do you have a preference for experimental productions or classic ones? 

I have my preferences in an aesthetical world, of course, but I try not to judge aesthetics because they can be so different – and good, even if they are not my aesthetics, I have to admit it is well done and it works. For staging, I don’t like to make a difference between conservative and progressive or experimental. The first issue, the first task they have to achieve, is the respect of the score, the respect of what is the score, what is behind the score, what is the meaning of the piece, What I do not like is – there was a vogue in Germany 10-15 years ago, it was called Deconstructivism, to completely destroy the structure and meaning of a piece. I’ve never understood why! Why would we do that?! 

And so of course you can have a very progressive staging which is terribly boring, and you can have a conservative staging which is full of wit and ideas and which describes, even explains the piece. That’s what I want to see: please explain to me this piece. What I always say – which is maybe easy to say, but for me crucial – if I went to an opera performance with my kids, when they were younger, and they didn’t understand what’s happening, then it was a bad staging. No matter if it’s conservative or progressive. They have seen progressive things and were enthusiastic; and conservative ones, well done, but they thought it was boring, because they did not understand exactly what was happening. As a father I think it’s a good way to understand whether the staging is adequate or not. This is my point of view. 

Any directors you’d refuse to work with? 

It happened several times already to refuse an offer because I knew which director was doing that and I told the intendant of the opera house that I’m sorry but I’m not the right man to work with him, so before we have then problems in the moment of working together, take another conductor so you won’t have problems at that point. It has always been a wise decision on my part to do this, even refusing an important opera house. I work here [Zurich] and I can choose my directors – I know with whom I want to work. 

Which directors do you like to work with? 

Robert Carsen, for instance. I also like to work with Andreas Homoki, we did many, many works together. I had a good experience many years ago with Tony Palmer – we did Simon Boccanegra in Hamburg. He’s a wonderful man with a deep understanding of theatre and music and he has made a lot of movies, which are very interesting. He was not doing much opera, but at that time what he did do was beautiful and deep and simple. The simplest things are often the best. I have also worked with Günter Krämer a couple of times: it’s always very beautiful to work with him.

Anything you haven’t conducted yet that you still want to do? 

Yes, there are a couple of Wagner operas I’d like to conduct, but also operas that I’m waiting for, because I don’t feel ready yet. There are many conductors who say ‘everything as soon as possible’. I don’t agree. Maybe I would have agreed 20 years ago, but I don’t any more because 20 years ago I thought La Traviata is an easy piece! But today if someone proposes me La Traviata I think Oh God, it is one of the most difficult pieces there is! To do it well is very difficult. It’s a question of personality, and of ageing. I think differently now from how I thought when I was 30. 

Which pieces would you wait for?

Tristan: I’d wait. I think in a couple of years I could try. Parsifal: I could do it now. I’ve never done Otello, but I don’t know if I want to do Otello. Otherwise I’d like to do Moses und Aron and I think I could be ready for this now. 

You’re doing so many different things at such a high level – would it be fair to say you’re someone who likes to do things properly or not at all?


So you’re a perfectionist? 

To be perfectionist is a challenge. This is important to me: if I do something I try to do it properly, yes. 

Because I think some people who might take up perfumery as a hobby might not turn it into a business! 

Possibly! But I cannot stand people who do not care about quality. This is important. Why are we doing this: just for the money? It’s not for the money. For the audience? Yes, for the audience; but also for the respect of what we are doing. I think how much energy, thoughts, passion and time, but especially thoughts and passion Alban Berg put into this work [Wozzeck]; I feel forced to do it well for him, for the work, and to show the audience how great this work is. Sometimes I can do it; sometimes not as well as I want. But my father always used to say to me you have to try not harder, harder is not enough, but hardEST, because if you don’t achieve that goal, even if you are a little bit behind it, it will still be good. But if you don’t aim for the best, you will never achieve any goal – and this is right. 

Was he a musician? 

No – he was a train conductor! And of course I loved him and I loved his job & he took me sometimes on the cockpit of the train. 

Every small boy’s dream… 

It was my dream too, actually. J

Was he surprised you became a musician? 

No, because it was their decision to make me learn piano. I was three and a half years old, I could not make such decisions, and my parents wanted to do something with me. I have to say that I never heard him play,but I know that he was 12 years in Belgium working and he played saxophone in a jazz band there. And my mother was a tailor. 

Was there much support for you while you were studying music? 

They had to make a lot of sacrifices. I know that now. I didn’t see it then, and that was good, because it means that they tried not to show me. But now I know that it was difficult and now I understand why we never had vacation, why we never went out to dinner or lunch, why we did not have a car. At the time I was surprised because all my friends went on vacation or had a car and we did not, so now I understand: they had other priorities. It was good. And they did the same for me and for my brother – he is teaching baroque violin in Austria and is an outstanding musician. They did it for us. I have a lot of respect for this. They are no longer alive, but they saw me conducting many times and they were very proud of us.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

A new Requiem, with cellist as angel

I first met Alex Woolf a few years ago when he was still a teenager on the Aldeburgh Young Musicians programme, testing his wings in composing and conducting. Since then he's been through university, graduated and set up as a seriously promising twenty-something composer, with a profile that's fast expanding - and it was particularly pleasing to see that his new Requiem, written for the World War I commemorations, is to be premiered in a special charity concert this Saturday with tenor Nicky Spence, cellist Laura van der Heijden and the chorus Vox Luna, as part of a programme of much and varied British choral music. The words mingle the traditional Requiem Mass with new poetry by Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales. Here's a guest post Alex has written for us on why he wanted to write a Requiem and what we can look forward to in it. JD

Guest post by Alex Woolf

This Saturday (9th June), I’ll conduct the premiere of my Requiem, a piece I’ve been working on for the better part of a year. Over the last few years I’ve become addicted to choral music in particular, and this is my most substantial work to date. Ahead of its premiere – featuring tenor Nicky Spence, cellist Laura van der Heijden, and the fantastic Vox Luna Chamber Choir – it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to reflect on such a large and rewarding undertaking.

Why a Requiem? First, Mozart’s Requiem was the first piece of any kind I can remember truly falling in love with; in a sense I literally grew up with it, singing all four vocal parts at various times as my voice developed. Requiems soon became a wonderful way of discovering so many figures I now count amongst my favourite composers, and it feels especially exciting to dip my toe into such a rich and special musical tradition. Second, I wanted to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, and this seemed the perfect way in which to do so. My Requiem will be the second half of the concert; I’ve built the first half out of choral masterpieces by Purcell, Parry, Tavener, MacMillan and more, all designed to prepare us for the experience of a Requiem – and for the act of remembrance more generally – in various ways.  

Laura van der Heijden and Alex Woolf
The Requiem proceeds in a sequence of nine movements, alternating between large choral settings of the traditional Mass and soloist-led settings of new poetry by Gillian Clarke (National Poet of Wales). The Requiem therefore appears to shift in and out of focus, from ancient to modern language and from choral grandeur to chamber-scale intimacy. Despite Gillian’s wonderful poetry explicitly about war (for which she won the Wilfred Owen Award in 2012), I was keen to choose poems of hers that are less obviously concerned with one specific event, and that grapple more generally with issues of loss, remembrance and redemption, always aspiring toward the universal. In this sense, I hope that the whole work will both act as a fitting memorial to the First World War and offer a deeply personal experience for each listener.

I’m thrilled that Nicky Spence is tenor soloist for this Saturday’s premiere performance. I’ve known Nicky for several years, and wrote a set of Shakespeare songs for his As You Like It disc with Malcolm Martineau back in 2013. He has a dream voice to write for: expressive, dramatic and moving in equal measure. I can’t imagine a more perfect performer to squeeze every ounce of character out of my music, and to do full justice to Gillian’s haunting poetry. 

Binding the whole Requiem together is the solo cello, played on Saturday by the phenomenal Laura van der Heijden. Laura and I were lucky enough to win the BBC Young Musician and Composer competitions respectively back in 2012, and I’ve been keen to write for her ever since. In my Requiem, I’ve imagined the cello as a kind of messenger between the earthbound voice of the choir and the divine voice of God, between that which we hear and that which passes all understanding.

I hope that Saturday evening will be a really special occasion, and I’d be delighted if you are able to join us! The concert is in support of Children & the Arts, and takes place at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, London (SW1X 9BZ) this Saturday, 9 June, at 7.30pm.