Rhinegold Photo credit: © Jed Willis
Dealing with a difficult subject: Alison Willis

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Premieres: March’s new music

8:00, 1st March 2018

Alison Willis was approached in late 2016 by London Concert Choir conductor Mark Forkgen with a very specific brief. A member of the choir, Adrienne Morgan, wanted to commission a secular piece from a female composer which would capture the experience of living with breast cancer. ‘She was very clear that the music should be largely tonal, and that it should be a positive piece,’ Willis remembers.

Willis and Morgan met up throughout the composition process, but their first challenge was to settle on a text for the piece. ‘We’d meet up and throw ideas at one another, but sometimes I’d get home and there’d be a message from Adrienne, or I’d message her saying I didn’t think it was quite what we wanted,’ the composer says. ‘It was quite a process getting it right! By the time we had the text, I knew what I wanted to do musically, but even then it was tricky to get the right balance between positivity and the fact you’re dealing with a difficult subject.’

The pair found it particularly challenging to settle on a text for the second movement. ‘I knew from the start I wanted the piece to be a fast-slow-fast movement structure, and trying to find positive words when the whole thing is underpinned by this recognition of living with a diagnosis of cancer was really difficult,’ Willis says. ‘Adrienne’s niece suggested we go to some of her friends and family, so she emailed them and asked what they thought of her (which I thought was quite brave). From those comments, we created a composite text. It’s not necessarily about her; there’s an everywoman feel to it.’

This movement is cheerful and upbeat, quite light. ‘It’s not funny, but it’s light-hearted,’ Willis says. ‘I hesitate to use the words Gilbert & Sullivan, but it’s got that sort of feel to it. It’s light operatic, with lots of words bouncing between different parts of the choir. You’ve got to be able to hear the words, which are hocketed between different voices, apart from where they sing the words “A light not ready to go out”, which is a big, chunky homophonic section.’

This lighter interlude is bookended by two more serious movements. ‘The first sets the scene. It’s quite reflective; Mark described it as having a sense of inevitability, which I really liked. Then the third movement is a balance between light and dark. The first section is these single lines with humming or “ooh” from the choir so you hear the words, then there’s a section which starts with “the time to be happy is now”, where there’s a bigger sound, homophonic, in a major key. I like Lydian modes – the raised fourth really seems hopeful. The work ends on a positive note: the last words are “Let every day be full of joy”. It’s in D major, with overlapping parts and a really big choral ending.’

Although the ending might be positive, the overall mood is somewhat bittersweet. ‘The piece includes a section of text from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I think sums up what we felt the piece is about: you get what you’re dealt and it’s up to you to make the best of it, but that’s not always easy. Adrienne was keen that it shouldn’t all be happy – she wanted it to be a positive piece, but without airbrushing what she and others are going through.’

A key part of the brief was that the piece should be accessible for other choirs; as such, Willis has created versions for full SATB choir, SSA, two-part choir and just a single line. ‘I hope other people will sing it. It’s possible to learn in the simpler version, even for choirs which aren’t so confident reading notation.’

Alison Willis A Light Not Yet Ready to Go Out (London Concert Choir, Mark Forkgen, conductor, Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London, 7.30pm)]

Although violinist Hugo Ticciati first mentioned a new version of the Apollonian Dances for string quartet and percussion some time ago, Albert Schnelzer was initially quite sceptical.

‘I thought it would be really hard because it’s so idiomatic for the piano,’ he says. ‘But when he suggested the O/Modernt Quartet and Dame Evelyn Glennie, I knew I had to give it a go. Dame Evelyn has been an idol for most of my life – writing for her is a childhood dream, so I couldn’t believe it when I got the chance!’ The project turned out even better than Schnelzer had hoped: ‘I think it’s like a completely new piece in many ways, and I think it’s an even better piece than the original version.’

Schnelzer’s first task was to decide what percussion to use. ‘Since it’s a very pianistic piano part, I needed tuned percussion,’ he explains. ‘The first movement is mainly vibraphone, and I use a bit of tam tam and glockenspiel when I let the music go stratospheric. The second movement is just marimba; it’s a very rhythmic movement, so it seemed the best choice.’

The composer said he found it ‘really easy’ to work on the piece, which was completed in 2003. ‘It uses rhythm in a way that’s engaging and fun, but also unpredictable. It’s something virtuosic, fun and rhythmic to play at concerts – it’s a showpiece that’s often used to finish a programme.’

The piece is about Apollo, the god of singing and life. ‘I started with his birth, thinking about how a melody is born; in a strict musical sense, the first movement is about giving birth to melody,’ the composer explains. ‘There’s a sound cosmos which starts with chords and gestures, and little by little they grow into melodies. At the end you have a beautiful melody which comes out of this chaos, like the young Apollo.’

The second movement is Apollo as a teenager: ‘a very typical teenager, who’s full of confidence and almost arrogant,’ according to Schnelzer. ‘It’s good fun, full of energy and rhythm; it just takes off from the beginning and ends with a bang.’

There are some surprises along the way, though: ‘I wanted to trick the listener into trying to stamp the rhythm, and then pull the rug out from under their feet!’

Albert Schnelzer Apollonian Dances (new arr for string quartet and percussion) (Dame Evelyn Glennie, percussion, O/Modernt Quartet, Kings Place, 7.30pm)

A setting of the Stabat Mater might not seem the most obvious choice for tenth birthday celebrations – but that’s what Marian Consort conductor Rory McCleery chose. ‘I’ve known Rory for a long time – he sang on my first CD back in 2005,’ Gabriel Jackson says. ‘We talked about doing something together, and this is what he came up with. It’s one of those iconic texts: it’s been set so many times.’

The commission came with a few specific requirements. The ensemble’s anniversary programme pairs settings of the same text; Jackson’s setting will be paired with that of Palestrina, and is scored for the same number of parts. The programme will tour, with some performances involving local children, so the commission stipulated that the piece should contain a part which could be taken by a children’s choir, or otherwise by a soprano from the ensemble.

Conscious that ‘it’s a very grim text’, Jackson carefully considered to what degree the music would illustrate the words. ‘There are some moments which are a bit madrigalian, but because the imagery is grim, I didn’t want to keep matching the grimness of the text with ideas in the music,’ he says.

The composer was keen that there should be ‘slightly different material for each verse, without it being incoherent in terms of continuity’. One way in which he creates contrast is by varying the texture: for example, the piece begins with ‘big ten-part chords, almost like a motto, then goes down to just soprano and alto’, and later on, there are some ‘antiphonal exchanges between groups of five and five’.

Although the piece is largely slow, ‘there are some quite intense moments, and some bits are more meditative’. It’s not all darkness, though: ‘There’s a little turn to the light right at the end, which is where the text mentions the glory of paradise.’

Gabriel Jackson Stabat Mater (Marian Consort, Rory McCleery, conductor, Merton College, Oxford, 7.30pm)


Maeve McCarthy Passing Strangers (Royal College of Music students, Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London, 7.30pm)

Anna Clyne This Midnight Hour UK prem (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 7.30pm; also 21 March, Barbican, London, 7.30pm)

Laura Bowler New work (Tine Thing Helseth, trumpet, Manchester Camerata, Jessica Cottis, conductor, RNCM Concert Hall, Manchester, 7.30pm)
Lara Weaver Christus factus est (St John’s Voices, Graham Walker, conductor, St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 6.30pm)
James MacMillan If ye love me (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, Paul Spicer, conductor, St Alban’s Church, Highgate, Birmingham, 7.30pm)
Rhiannon Randle memoria (Colin Huehns, erhu, Nicola Corbishley, soprano, Patrick Craig, countertenor, Choir of St.Michael’s, Cornhill, Jonathan Rennert, conductor, St Michael’s, Cornhill, London, 6pm)

Adrian Sutcliffe Nakers Capers Chris Hobbs Songs for Anna Julie Sharpe Organum Caudices London prems (Chris Brannick, percussion, Sara Stowe, soprano, St George the Martyr, Borough High Street, London, 1pm)
Anne Dudley March for the Royal Society of Musicians (Daniel Hope, violin, Freddy Kempf, piano, Sacconi String Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 7.30pm)

Gerald Barry Organ concerto (Thomas Trotter, organ, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Adès, conductor, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7.30pm)

Stephen Montague Tryst Whispers (St John’s Smith Square, London, 12pm)
Stephen Montague Beguiled (Helen Anahita Wilson, piano, St John’s Smith Square, London, 2.30pm)
Stephen Montague Hound Dog Blues (school-age pianists, St John’s Smith Square, London, 5.30pm)

Thomas Hyde New work (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Geoffrey Paterson, conductor, City Halls, Glasgow, 8pm)
Piers Maxim De Profundis (Elgar Chorale, Great Malvern Priory, Malvern, 7.30pm)
David Ridley Ataraxia (Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra, Karin Hendrickson, conductor, St George’s Bristol, 7.30pm)

Mark Andre iv 13 miniatures for string quartet Philippe Hurel Entre les lignes Salvatore Sciarrino Cosa resta UK prems (Jake Arditti, countertenor, Arditti Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Edmund Finnis Youth (Clare Hammond, piano, Milton Court Concert Hall, London, 7.30pm)

Tom Armstrong Monody & Concertino Janet Oates Singings and Sayings Colin Riley New work (Henrietta Hill, viola, Rosie Bowker, flute, Clare Simmonds, piano, Janet Oates, soprano, St George,Borough High Street, London, 1pm)
Algirdas Kraunaitis Prayers (Royal College of Music students, Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London, 7.30pm)
Rhiannon Randle On hope and despair (Janet Oates, soprano, The Duruflé Trio, St George the Martyr, Borough High Street, London, 1pm)

Philip Sawyers The Valley of Vision (English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductor, Malvern Priory, 7.30pm)

Applausus UK premiere (Ellie Laugharne, soprano, Elspeth Marrow, mezzo-soprano, Thomas Elwin, tenor, John Savournin, bass-baritone, David Shipley, bass, The Mozartists, Ian Page, conductor, Cadogan Hall, London, 7.30pm)

Rhiannon Randle
 Nocturne for unaccompanied children’s choir (New London Children’s Choir, Ronald Corp, conductor, St James’s, Piccadilly, London, 7.30pm)

Blaise Ubaldini New work (Soloists from Ensemble Intercontemporain, Wigmore Hall, London, 7.30pm)

Judith Weir Piano quintet (Schubert Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Tom Harrold Dark Dance (Psappha Ensemble, Jamie Phillips, conductor, St Michael’s, Ancoats, Manchester, 7.30pm)
Tom Harrold/Stuart Beatch Voices of Vimy London prem (St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London)

Aureliano Cattaneo String quartet ‘Neben’ UK prem (Cuarteto Casals, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Ewan Campbell New work (London Symphony Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth, conductor, Barbican Hall, 7pm)
Julian Anderson, Jung-eun Park, Frédéric Pattar, Sinta Wullur New works (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 4pm)
Anthony Burgess Mr. Burgess’s Almanack UK prem (RNCM alumni, Tim Reynish, conductor, International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, 2.30pm)
Rhiannon Randle New Work (Choir of St Michael’s, Cornhill, Jonathan Rennert, conductor, St Michael’s, Cornhill, London, 11am)

Gregory Rose Aphrodite and Adonis UK prem; Birdsongs for Loré, Volume 1; Quelques gouttes d’eau sur une surface; Music for a Kytherian Amphitheatre (Loré Lixenberg, voice, Chris Brannick, marimba, Clare Simmonds, piano, St George the Martyr Church, Borough High Street, London, 1pm)
Owain Park New work (Rachel Podger, violin, Voces8, St George’s Bristol, 7pm)

Mark-Anthony Turnage Coraline (Royal Opera, Sian Edwards, conductor, Barbican Theatre, London, 7pm; also 31 March, 7 April, 2pm; 3, 4, 5, 7 April, 7pm)
Onutė Narbutaitė La Barca UK prem (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor, Birmingham Symphony Hall, 7.30pm)

From Rhinegold Media & Events
Featured products