Rhinegold Photo credit: Alan Betson
At home in Lewis Carroll’s world: Gerald Barry

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Premieres: November’s new music

9:00, 1st November 2016

It was before a concert performance of The Importance of Being Earnest that Gerald Barry was struck with the topic for his next opera. ‘Alice just came into my head,’ the composer explains. ‘It was so obvious – I was surprised that I hadn’t thought of it before. It seemed like a perfect thing to do after Earnest.’ He rushed to a bookshop, and it was settled.

‘The thing with Alice is that it’s very like Earnest in terms of surreality and surreal nonsense; the worlds of Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde seem to inhabit the same place, and there are many similarities between them,’ Barry says. When I ask him about his attraction to surreal texts, he is quick to clarify that ‘surreality in itself isn’t always interesting – it depends how good the text is,’ adding: ‘Wilde’s play and Carroll’s text both have a mystery in them which is never-ending. That’s why they’re so vivid hundreds of years after they were written. The text and plot of Alice embrace everything in life: the madness, the humour, the mystery and the fantasy.’

Barry created his own libretto, picking out the parts of the book which most appealed. The opera begins as the book does, with Alice falling down the rabbit hole; in Barry’s hands, this becomes an opportunity for ‘a masterclass in singing’.
‘Barbara Hannigan is Alice in these performances, and there’s no better person to conduct a masterclass than Barbara. There’s a duel between her and the orchestra with regards to who can best play arpeggios and scales, which turns into a gladiatorial contest. All this happens as she’s falling down, wondering if she’ll come out in New Zealand or Australia.’

Surreal thing: Barry created his own libretto
Surreal thing: Barry created his own libretto

This is not the only masterclass in the opera: the scene at the Red Queen’s croquet ground is accompanied by a piano lesson, led in three languages. When I ask him why the emphasis on virtuosic technique, Barry explains: ‘The book is very dramatic, and is an ideal vehicle for divas, male or female. It’s tremendous material for showing off – it takes these unbelievable things for granted, viewing them as normal. This version of the everyday world is full of incredible, fantastic things which are portrayed as ordinary. I felt completely at home in Lewis Carroll’s world.’

The most significant diversion from the book is the ending. In Carroll’s original, Alice wakes from her dream; in Barry’s version, she kills the Red Queen and never wakes up. The composer explains that he decided to act on what Carroll had indicated: that Alice did try to kill the Red Queen. ‘In my version, she continues forever in this dream, going on and on in people’s imaginations. The opera ends with a chorus from the men: “Still she haunts me, phantomwise / Alice moving under skies / Never seen by waking eyes.”’

Barry likens the opera to ‘a flickering film or screen’, continuing: ‘It moves very quickly. It’s lucid and compact; the writing’s very clear and transparent. There’s a lot of solo vocal writing, unaccompanied, and a lot of speech – it’s a speech opera. It inhabits some strange space between a play and an opera.

He adds: ‘It’s feverish – like when someone’s in a fever and has all kinds of dreams. It’s a completely fantastical world. The other languages play a big part. There’s a setting of Jabberwocky, but not in the original nonsense English. It’s too well known, so I didn’t want to do that. I set it in Russian, German and French. The Russian version is set to “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, with my own musical accompaniment. I suppose it’s a pre-Brexit opera!’

Bear essentials: ‘White Queen’ Teddy
Bear essentials: ‘White Queen’ Teddy

The orchestra is the same size as that needed for Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ symphony, but with a few extra additions. ‘There’s also a tuba, a piano and two wind machines,’ Barry says. ‘I’ve become addicted to wind machines – I can’t really do anything without them.’ Even more unusual, though, is the ‘instrument’ used for the music of the White Queen. ‘I used some sounds made by a teddy bear owned by a friend of mine. When you turn it upside down, it produces a glissando meowing sound, and if you shake it more forcefully up and down it makes a staccato sound.’

28 NOVEMBER
Gerald Barry Alice’s Adventures Under Ground European prem (Barbara Hannigan, Hilary Summers, Allison Cook, Allan Clayton, Peter Hoare, Mark Stone, Joshua Bloom, Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Adès, conductor, Barbican Hall, 7.30pm)


Writing a piano trio had been a lifelong dream for Adrian Williams, so he didn’t hesitate when the chance arose. ‘For some reason, it became a very important thing to do – perhaps because I’m a pianist,’ he says. ‘I was delighted when an opportunity came up, especially since it was to write for the Fidelio Trio.’

 Lifelong dream: Adrian Williams
Lifelong dream: Adrian Williams

It took some time for the piece to ‘gestate’ before the composition process began. ‘I wanted to write something brittle and violent, with a lot of contrasts,’ Williams remembers. ‘It’s quite dark and brooding in places, but tender in other parts. It gets rather violent in a sort of Shostakovichian way. There’s a long fugato-like section which culminates in a big explosion, and then some of the initial material emerges out of the embers in a plaintive manner.’

The new work is connected with Images of the Mind, a piece which Williams wrote for cello and piano some 30 years ago. This was inspired by a self-portrait by Sidney Nolan; although Williams describes it as ‘quite a scary piece’, he acknowledges that it ‘brought out really quite extraordinary things in me musically.’

Motives from Images of the Mind formed the starting point for Williams’ trio. ‘I took a couple of ideas to form the seed-bed with which my pieces start. I like to begin by throwing some ideas into the ring, then they start sprouting and enmeshing with one another.’

Williams says that the work came naturally. ‘I didn’t really struggle with it, but once certain things are on the go, things start moving around; certain ideas you’d set aside for the end find themselves in the middle. Sometimes I had to go for a long walk and hope I’d have sorted it out by the time I get back!’ Part of the reason for the work’s untroubled genesis could be its single movement form. ‘I like working with that form. I put all the ideas in there and they all start doing things; and then before I know it, I’ve come to the end!’

5 NOVEMBER
Adrian Williams Piano trio (Fidelio Trio, Chapter House, Gloucester Cathedral, 3pm)


A commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society allowed Dani Howard to tick off something on her compositional ‘bucket list’. Asked to write a piece for between two and five instruments, Howard opted for the combination of piano, cello and clarinet. A cellist herself, she has ‘always loved’ the clarinet, and counts Schumann’s Fantasiestucke and Brahms’ clarinet trio – coincidentally, programmed in the same concert – as influences. ‘I know them inside out. They were my go-to-pieces, particularly in terms of textural use and energy in the Schumann.’

Bucket list composition: Dani Howard
Bucket list composition: Dani Howard

The title of the piece came first. ‘It stemmed from a project about the eight festivals of the year. One of the festivals is called Ostara, who is the goddess of nature and beauty. I was drawn to that name immediately, and I like having very broad titles that don’t give away too much of what the piece is about.’
Exploring the implications of the word led Howard to Alexander Milov’s installation Love, in which two adults made from a wire frame sit back-to-back, their inner children reaching out to one another within. ‘The playfulness takes over, then it’s squashed by adulthood.’

The beginning of the piece is ‘slow and quite dark’. Playful and quirky interjections begin to interrupt, eventually arriving at a playful and joyful rhythmic section. ‘As soon as that comes to a close, we’re back into something more serious with hints of childish behaviour. The two then alternate, then there’s a cadenza for clarinet and cello, before the piano interrupts with rhythmic and playful fast material again.’

The piece shines the spotlight on the clarinet and cello, using the key trills of the former and resonant harmonics of the latter. ‘I really wanted to give everybody a bit of a show, in that every part is featured at different times,’ she explains.
Clocking in at ten minutes, the piece is longer than Howard’s chamber pieces tend to be. ‘I’ve written more orchestral music recently, which has tended to be longer, so it’s interesting to translate that back into chamber music in terms of structure. It’s a nice length – I felt I could say everything I wanted to about the installation.’

17 NOVEMBER
Dani Howard Ostara (Ensemble 360, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield, 7.15pm)


1 NOVEMBER
Joseph Hallman ricordi decomposti: A Gesualdo Suite UK prem Brett Dean Hamlet Diffraction (Allison Bell, soprano, Allan Clayton, tenor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Weilerstein, conductor, Barbican, 7.30pm)

3 NOVEMBER
Henryk Górecki Two Tristan Postludes and Chorale UK prem (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Patrycja Pieczaza, conductor, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool)

5 NOVEMBER
Patricia Alessandrini 
New work (Juliet Fraser, soprano, Richard Craig, flute, Society of Advocates, Aberdeen, 1pm; also 6 November, Salmon Bothy, Portsoy)
Victoria Borisova-Ollas, Philip Cashian, Chen Yi, Michael Finnissy, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Graham Fitkin, Helen Grime, Gavin Higgins, Gabriel Jackson, Harold Meltzer, Poul Ruders, Timothy Salter, Howard Skempton, Karen Tanaka, Huw Watkins New works (RCM Junior Department students, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London 5.30pm)
Steve Reich Pulse European prem (Britten Sinfonia, Clark Rundell, conductor, Barbican, 6.30pm)

8 NOVEMBER
Cecilia McDowall God is Light (Fairhaven Singers, Woodward, Queen’s College Chapel, Cambridge)
Orlando Jacinto Garcia Entanglements London prem David Ludwig Slow Hora Jennifer Higdon Pale Yellow Zack Browning Blockhouse UK prems Annie Gosfield Cranks and Cactus needles (Fidelio Trio, The Warehouse, London, 7.30pm)
Douglas Cuomo Concertante for flute, oboe, trumpet and violin (Orchestra of the Swan, David Curtis, conductor, Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, 7.30pm; also 9 November, Birmingham Town Hall)
David Fennessy Panopticon (Psappha and Hebrides Ensemble, St Andrew’s in the Square, Glasgow, 7.30pm; also 9 November, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh; 10 November, Peel Hall, Salford University; 11 November, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds; 12 November, Bangor University)

9 NOVEMBER
John Harbison Chaconne Hannah Lash Three Shades Without Angels; Subtilior Lamento Peter Child Elegy UK prems Charles Shadle The Old Place Elena Ruehr New work (Hannah Lash, harp, Lontano, Odaline de la Martinez, conductor, The Warehouse, London, 7.30pm)

10 NOVEMBER
Steve Reich Runner (Orchestra of the Royal Ballet, Koen Kessels, conductor, Royal Opera House, London)
Eugene Birman Violin concerto (Maxim Vengerov, violin, Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Marios Papadopoulos, conductor, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 7.30pm)
Ian Stephens The Salisbury Service (Salisbury Cathedral Choir, David Halls, conductor, Salisbury Cathedral, 7.30pm)

11 NOVEMBER
Einar Englund Suite from Pojat Scottish prem (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, John Storgårds, conductor, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 7.30pm; also 12 November, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 7.30pm)
Jennifer Higdon Smash Augusta Read Thomas Scat Laura Kaminsky Inlets Fred Lerdahl Give and Take UK prems Barbara Jazwinski New work Carlos R. Carrillo New work (Lontano, Odaline de la Martinez, conductor, The Warehouse, London, 7.30pm)
Beat Furrer Fama UK prem (London Sinfonietta, Beat Furrer, conductor, St John’s Smith Square)

13 NOVEMBER
Mark-Anthony Turnage Shroud UK prem (Emerson String Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

16 NOVEMBER
Jia Chai Still Night Andrew Thomas Flowers, aren’t they? Freya Waley-Cohen We Phoenician Sailors (The Hermes Experiment, The Crypt on the Green, Clerkenwell, 7.30pm)

18 NOVEMBER
Philip Moore Requiem (BBC Singers, David Hill, conductor, St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, 2pm)
Giovanni Sollima Violoncelles, vibrez! Scottish prem (Giovanni Sollima, cello, Aleksei Kiseliov, cello, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Omer Meir Wellber, conductor, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 7.30pm; also 19 November, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 7.30pm)

19 NOVEMBER
Anthony Braxton Composition No 27 Euro prem; Composition No 63 UK prem James Fei New work Taylor Ho Bynum New work (Taylor Ho Bynum, cornet and conductor, James Fei, saxophone and conductor, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov, conductor, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 8pm)
Magnus Lindberg Vivo UK prem (BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena, conductor, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 7.30pm)
Liza Lim The Green Lion Eats the Sun Enno Poppe Fell John Zorn New work UK prems Claudia Molitor Walking with Partch Rebecca Saunders Bite (Ensemble Musikfabrik, Bates Mill Blending Shed, Huddersfield, 5pm)
Georg Friedrich Haas Hyena UK prem; String Quarter no. 10 (Arditti Quartet, Klangforum Wien, Bas Wiegers, conductor, St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, 10pm)

20 NOVEMBER
Giovanni Sollima L.B. Files Scottish prem (Giovanni Sollima, cello, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 2.30pm)
Eva Reiter Noch sind wir ein Wort… Reinhard Fuchs MANIA Rebecca Saunders Skin UK prems (Juliet Fraser, soprano, Klangforum Wien, Bas Wiegers, conductor, St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, 7.30pm)

25 NOVEMBER
Janet Wheeler 
The Ceaseless Round of Circling Planets London prem (Imperial College Choir, Colin Durrant, conductor, Holy Trinity Church, Prince Consort Road, London, 7.30pm)

26 NOVEMBER
Colin Matthews Voices of the Air (Festival Chorus, St Luke’s Church, Battersea, London)
Christopher Brammeld Piano trio (Bedriska Trio, Chapter House, Gloucester Cathedral, 3pm)
Hannah Kulenty String quartet no. 6 (Arditti String Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)
Enno Poppe Buch UK premiere Sam Hayden Transience (Quatuor Diotima, St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, 6pm)
Janet Wheeler I Sing, and Ever Shall (Southampton Philharmonic Choir, New London Sinfonia, David Gibson, conductor, 02 Guildhall, Southampton, 7.30pm)

27 NOVEMBER
Michael Finnissy 
Andersen-Liederkreis Bernhard Lang The Cold Trip, part 2 UK prems (Juliet Fraser, soprano, Mark Knoop, piano, St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, 1pm)
Roger Cawkwell Fanfare, fugue and finale for bass clarinet choir in eight parts (Benslow Music bass clarinet course participants, Ian Mitchell, conductor, Benslow Music, Hitchin)

From Rhinegold Media & Events
Featured products