Rhinegold Photo credit: Bryan Watson

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

May’s new music

9:00, 1st May 2016

Although his work frequently explores the possibilities of embedding spoken text into concert music, the opportunity to dig deeper was irresistible to Philip Venables (pictured above). As the Royal Opera House and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s inaugural doctoral composer-in-residence, Venables has been undertaking academic research in conjunction with practical work.

‘Having the time, the resources and the academic guidance to dig deeper into that has been fantastic,’ he says. A number of workshops (‘an incredible luxury’) provided opportunities to try things out, which proved especially useful given Venables’ divergence from ‘traditional’ opera. The team at the Royal Opera House – including the director and music director – proved especially useful as work on the opera progressed. ‘Their input was on using spoken text and voiceover techniques, and how you incorporate these things in a way which has a dramatic meaning as well as a musical effect. It was the first time I’d worked with a large opera institution, and I loved the process.’

‘I spent a long time wanting to do an original piece and looking for a writer to collaborate with, but eventually it dawned on me that Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis had almost everything I wanted,’ explains Venables. ‘I thought, “Why am I trying to do a recreation of this when I could have a go at this itself?”’

The play depicts Kane’s experience of clinical depression, with its title referring to the time at which despair struck each morning. The composer knew the text well even before embarking on this project, but he has reaped the rewards of repeated readings. ‘There are so many layers of meaning. I’ve probably read it 100 times but I’m always discovering new things – it’s been a constant source of inspiration and ideas.’

Although the text is written with no specified characters, Venables has created six characters. ‘For the most part it’s an ensemble piece – the singers aren’t assigned different aspects of personality. We have one singer, Gwen, who has some solo aria passages – she’s leading, and we have one person who plays the doctor for a few scenes, but apart from that it’s a hive mind.’

The size of the piece has offered wide scope for a large number of approaches, allowing Venables to experiment with different ways of presenting text in order to depict the plurality of voices. ‘There are at least four scenes which use visually projected text and percussion (which mirrors the speech rhythm of the text), there’s also some voice-over work, and everything in between, really! I really like having a link between spoken word theatre, literature and opera.

‘One of the aspects of opera which one has to deal with as a composer is understanding the text. ENO surtitles its performances and most people prefer that. With contemporary opera and larger ensembles and more opaque musical language sometimes, understanding can get even more difficult. I’ve been looking at how you can keep a musical and artistic integrity, but also find a way musical texts can be better understood by the audience without the need for surtitles all of the time so you can get a bit more immediacy, like the storytelling you get with film or theatre. It’s been how you can do that and keep the musical integrity and concept.’

‘It’s definitely been a challenge – it’s by far the biggest piece I’ve ever written. But it’s encouraged me to go further, to be bolder and not to worry about definitions of what an opera is.’

Launched in 2013, the doctoral composer-in-residence programme offers composers the opportunity to research operatic practice academically and apply their knowledge practically. The Guildhall School and the Royal Opera House offer resources and guidance as the composer creates an opera and writes a doctoral essay. In September 2015, Na’ama Zisser was announced as the programme’s second participant.

24 MAY
Philip Venables 4.48 Psychosis (Gweneth-Ann Rand, Jennifer Davis, Susanna Hurrell, sopranos, Clare Presland, Lucy Schaufer, Emily Edmonds, mezzo-sopranos, CHROMA, Richard Baker, conductor, Lyric Hammersmith, 7.30; also 26, 27, 28 May)


Although he had concertos for violin and violoncello to his name, Pēteris Vasks was waiting for the right player before embarking on a viola concerto. The player turned out to be Maxim Rysanov.

Inspired by nature: Peteris Vasks Photo: Mélanie Gomez
Inspired by nature: Pēteris Vasks
Photo: Mélanie Gomez

‘I fell in love with the incredibly beautiful sound of his instrument,’ the composer says. ‘In his playing I could feel an uncommonly high emotional tension.’ Accordingly, the piece affords particular emphasis on the cantabile dimension of the instrument.

Vasks started work on the piece while staying in his summer cottage. ‘The conception, form and content of the piece were forming during long walks in the nearby forest. My passionate love for my country and the world in its contradictions and diversity are major themes in my music. Equally important – if not even more important – is a sense of spirituality.’

The concerto was originally to consist of three movements, but while working on the third movement Vasks realised that he would need another. After an andante first movement – which is ‘filled with the presence of nature’ – comes an energetic Latvian folkdance. The third movement ‘starts brightly but gradually gets darker and more dramatic, culminating in a tragically tinted orchestral tutti’, before the piece concludes with an adagio which Vasks says is inspired by the ideas of ‘believing, hoping and loving’.

Although the orchestra may take an accompanimental role, this does not mean that the viola part is a vehicle for virtuosity. ‘The two cadences or monologues are there not to demonstrate the virtuosity of the solo instrument. So much can be said in a monologue intimately and personally.’

20 MAY
Viola concerto (Maxim Rysanov, viola, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Edwin Outwater, conductor, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, 7.30pm)


‘The challenge was to make sure it didn’t sound like a car crash!’ When the Munich Chamber Orchestra asked David Fennessy to write a piece for strings, the only stipulation was that it should be unconducted. The decision to have each of the 16 players on their own part introduced an element of risk – something that intrigued and excited the composer.

‘Letting the players take control opened up a number of new possibilities, particularly in relation to tempo,’ he says. ‘In a strange way it’s the most simple and the most complex piece I’ve written, in that the material is very simple in the harmonic construction, but the tempo relationships are very complex.’

Exploring new possibilities: David Fennessy Photo: © Tanya Kiang
Exploring new possibilities: David Fennessy
Photo: © Tanya Kiang

The piece is constructed from repeated cells, with similar material occurring at different times across the parts. Fennessy notes that the material coalesces into a ‘combined vision’ in performance. ‘I’m interested in the social aspect of music-making and of chamber music especially – what it means to be an individual in a chamber setting and how you can assert your individuality into something which is a bigger scale,’ he explains. ‘All the players have their own rubatos, but there’s a deep tempo underneath which everyone’s locked into.’

Harmonically, the piece is much more straightforward. A great deal of the writing uses natural harmonics or open strings, meaning that the impetus is from rhythm or tempo. Fennessy says that this created a ‘pure and almost barren sound’ to create a sense of energy and attack. This sense of openness – and the piece as a whole – was informed by Fennessy’s experience of St Kilda, a remote archipelago off the Scottish coast. ‘There’s this timelessness to the place, but you can also feel the ghosts of the coming and going of civilisation. That’s what I wanted to capture in the piece – a sense of the sleeping memories of human activity, but as a ghostly presence.’

8 MAY
David Fennessy Hirta Rounds UK prem (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov, conductor, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 8.30pm)


1 MAY
Benedict Mason New work (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Ilan Volkov, conductor, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 7.30pm)
Jörg Widmann Babylon Suite UK prem (Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs, conductor, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 3pm)

3 MAY

Cheryl Frances-Hoad New work (Yshani Perinpanayagam, piano, The Victoria, London, E8 3AS, 8pm)

5 MAY
Nicholas Jackson The Rose and the Ring (Robyn Parton, soprano, Katherine Crompton, soprano, Katie Coventry, mezzo soprano, William Morgan, tenor, Peter Aisher, tenor, Edward Grint, bass, Michael Mofidian, bass, Concertante of London, Nicholas Jackson, conductor, The Charterhouse, London, 7.30pm)

7 MAY
Catherine Kontz Fruitmarket Richard Emsley Strange Attractor Laurence Crane Cobbled Section After Cobbled Section Howard Skempton Piano concerto Jessika Kenney Concealed Unity (new version) (John Tilbury, piano, Jessika Kenney, voice, Glasgow Chamber Choir, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov, conductor, Old Fruitmarket & Grand Hall, Glasgow, 7.15pm)

8 MAY
Michael Pisaro fields have ears (10) (constellation, monarch, canyon) Alwynne Pritchard Rockaby (Alwynne Pritchard, voice, John Tilbury, piano, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov, conductor, Old Fruitmarket & Grand Hall, Glasgow, 6.15pm)

9 MAY
Johannes Maria Staud New work UK prem (Trio Catch, Birmingham Town Hall, 6pm)

11 MAY
Francesco Durante Requiem in F major (new edition) (Oxford Baroque, Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Stephen Darlington, conductor, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, 8pm)

12 MAY
Mark David Boden Ghyll (BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Edwin Outwater, conductor, BBC Hoddinott Hall, 2pm)
Ryan Wigglesworth Echo and Narcissus London prem (Mark Padmore, tenor, Victoria Simmonds, mezzo-soprano, Ryan Wigglesworth, piano, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)
Christian Mason New work (Francoise-Green Piano Duo, St John’s Smith Square, 7.30pm)

13 MAY
Iain Bell In Parenthesis (Welsh National Opera, Carlo Rizzi, conductor, Wales Milennium Centre, 7.15pm)
Mark David Boden New work (Quatuor Tana, BayArt Gallery, 1pm)

18 MAY
Roberto David Rusconi Rituale (Ensemble PHACE, Kings Place, 8pm)

21 MAY
Joseph Phibbs New work (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor, Barbican Centre, 7.30pm)
David Lang mystery sonatas (Augustin Hadelich, London)

26 MAY
Ben Rowarth New work (Reverie, Robbie Jacobs, conductor, Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London, 7.30pm)

27 MAY
Paul Lewis New work (BBC Concert Orchestra, Martin Yates, conductor, Dorchester Abbey, Oxford, 7.30pm)

28 MAY
Dan Gillingwater Overture, Ad Fontem Percy Sherwood Concerto for violin and cello (English Symphony Orchestra, John Andrews, conductor, Dorchester Abbey, Oxford, 7.30pm)

30 MAY
Paul Carr Violin concerto (Bath Philharmonia, Jason Thornton, conductor, Dorchester Abbey, Oxford, 7.30pm)

1 JUNE
Tom Coult New work; Sir Harrison Birtwistle Five Lessons in a Frame; Francisco Coll Liquid Symmetries UK prem; Tansy Davies Falling Angel London prem (London Sinfonietta, Martyn Brabbins, conductor, St John’s Smith Square, London, 7.30pm)

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