Rhinegold Photo credit: Clive Barda
Following his instinct: Ned Bigham

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Premieres: August’s new music

8:00, 1st August 2017

The Hebridean island of Staffa has inspired individuals from William Wordsworth to August Strindberg, and JMW Turner to Felix Mendelssohn. Filmmaker Gerry Fox and composer Ned Bigham are the latest to take creative stimulus from the location: Staffa is a work for full orchestra and large screens, with three simultaneous visions of the uninhabited island paired with Bigham’s musical response.

Although the piece was inspired by Mendelssohn’s 1829 visit to Fingal’s Cave, Bigham was determined to distance himself from the piece. ‘I didn’t want to relate my piece to Mendelssohn’s, because to write a pastiche of Mendelssohn would be a hiding for nothing, really! I wanted to do something completely new and fresh.’

The composer visited Fingal’s Cave on a calm summer’s day, and the experience left quite an impression. ‘As you go in, you feel like you’re in a big gothic cathedral. It’s very uncanny and spiritual, but quite unsettling at the same time. It really gives one a sense of smallness.’

The nature of the piece was to some extent dependent upon the conditions in which Fox filmed the island, but filmmaker and composer were keen to make the creative process as collaborative as possible. ‘I would send Gerry some ideas, and then he would do some cutting, and then would send me some of his footage,’ says Bigham. ‘We wanted to get away from the sequential thing of the film goes to the composer or vice versa – we wanted to influence each other throughout the process.’

Over the course of three days of filming, Fox captured the island and cave in dramatically different conditions, ranging from glorious sun to gale-force winds. Reconciling these conditions, which appear on screens simultaneously, proved quite a challenge for Bigham. ‘I think I just went with my instinct and with the feelings that were evoked when I visited the cave. We were lucky in a way that the two impressions – visual and musical – seemed to work together, which must have been the cave working its magic.’

Unique location: The entrance to Fingal’s Cave Photo: Gerry Fox
Unique location: The entrance to Fingal’s Cave
Photo: Gerry Fox

The piece begins with a dramatic brass fanfare. ‘I’m a great fan of Janáček, and I think it was influenced by the Sinfonietta. I wanted to create tension to evoke the drama and in a way the horror of the cliff and island in more stormy times.’

Rapid passagework and anguished dissonances convey a sense of peril – as if one is bobbing about by the cliffs, Bigham says – before melting into a major key, with celeste and harp easing the transition. ‘What I’m trying to make is this sense of peace and harmony you get from the stillness of the cave, which is intended to contrast with the waves crashing against the cliffs outside.’

After the journey into the cave, the piece builds towards a final climax ‘intended as a resolution and a pantheistic celebration of nature – which is hopefully easy to enjoy sitting in a seat in a concert, but I don’t know whether you’d be feeling that if you were in a boat and about to be hurled against one of these cliffs.’

Reflecting on his experience, Bigham once again emphasises the special quality of the place. ‘What’s so amazing about the island and the cave is they have so many interpretative possibilities. The cave can be seen as a wonderful sanctuary – a place where you’re at one with nature. It’s rather extraordinary to have that sense of being in a natural environment, and yet it feels so human in a way. That’s what’s so unique about Fingal’s Cave and the island.’

Ned Bigham Staffa (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, conductor, National Library of Scotland, until 27 August; live performance 27 August, Usher Hall, 8pm)

Having become familiar with the Dartington landscape over the years, Stevie Wishart felt now was the time to pay tribute to this ‘inspiring place’: her new work, which she likens to an impressionist picture, is inspired by the mists which gather at dawn and on cooler summer evenings over the River Dart.

‘It explores how things come in and out of vision through mist, which is an idea that translates quite well into music, being a duo for piano and harpsichord,’ the composer says. ‘The two instruments float in and out of the soundscape.’

Power to the performer: Stevie Wishart Photo: Els van Riel
Power to the performer: Stevie Wishart
Photo: Els van Riel

The piece opens with solo piano, with the two pentachords underpinning the piece heard as sympathetic resonances. ‘The pianist holds the notes down so the strings are open, then they resonate when harmonically related notes are played. The chords are heard as a mist above the notes.’ The harpsichord gradually emerges through the piano, as if out of the mist; Wishart says this was easier said than done, given that the piano is by far the more powerful of the two.

The fourth movement – written for solo harpsichord – lies at the heart of the piece. The movement is an homage to theorist and composer Jean-Henri d’Anglebert’s Pièces de Clavecin, which contained an influential table of ornaments; Wishart has used these throughout.

‘I very much enjoy looking back to a time when performers were very much in power and had a very important creative role in the music,’ she says. ‘That’s why I’ve based the harpsichord part on D’Anglebert, because things like trills and turns leave a lot of freedom to the performer. The composer tells them what to do, but not exactly how to do it. That’s something we’ve lost a little with contemporary music, and something that’s very important to me to bring back – that new space for a performer in contemporary music.’

Stevie Wishart Out of the Mists (Joanna MacGregor, piano, Jane Chapman, harpsichord, Great Hall, Dartington, 7.45pm)

From the moment she stepped off the train, Andrea Tarrodi knew north-west Italy would prove artistically fruitful. Although her journey had been less than ideal, she was greeted on arrival with a ‘remarkable view down to the Mediterranean, with huge waves rolling in,’ she says. ‘I knew I had to write music about this place.’

La dolce vita: Andrea Tarrodi took inspiration from Italy Photo: Louisa Sundell
La dolce vita: Andrea Tarrodi took inspiration from Italy
Photo: Louisa Sundell

The composer likens the piece to a walking tour between five fishing villages in Liguria: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. It begins as Tarrodi did: with the high waves in Riomaggiore. ‘The piece starts with a large crescendo – I tried to find the sound of the waves against the cliffs,’ she says. From there, the listener is transported to the chiming clock tower in Manarola, and then to a beach at Monterosso, where sunbathers hurried to find a spot before opening up beach umbrellas. ‘There’s one part which is a bit faster, and you have a xylophone and vibraphone playing a fast rhythm. I imagine the umbrellas spinning round.’

The next destination is the watchtower and cliffs at Vernazza, and the piece finishes in Corniglia, which Tarrodi visited one starry night. The calm of this scene is evoked with high strings. Tarrodi paid close attention to the sights and sounds of the region throughout her holiday. ‘I collected every memory in the back of my brain, then I had to write it down as soon as I got home. Some pieces take a really long time, but not this one – it was really easy.’

Andrea Tarrodi Liguria UK prem (Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7pm)

Andrew Norman Switch Scottish prem (Colin Currie, percussion, National Youth Orchestra of Scotland Symphony Orchestra, Thierry Fischer, conductor, His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 7.30pm)

Francisco Coll Mural London prem (National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Thomas Adès, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7.30pm)

Brian Elias Cello concerto (Natalie Clein, cello, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ryan Wigglesworth, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7.30pm)

Judith Weir In the Land of Uz (BBC Singers, Nash Ensemble, David Hill, conductor, Southwark Cathedral, 3pm)

Mark-Anthony Turnage Hibiki European prem (Sally Matthews, soprano, Mihoko Fujimura, mezzo-soprano, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kazushi Ono, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.30pm)

Thomas Larcher Nocturne – Insomnia UK prem (Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7.30pm)
Ravi Shankar, Philip Glass Passages – first complete live performance (Anoushka Shankar, sitar, Britten Sinfonia, Karen Kamensek, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 10.15pm)

Julia Wolfe Big Beautiful Dark and Scary David Lang Sunray London prems Michael Gordon Big Space (BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Rumon Gamba, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 10.15pm)

Shiva Feshareki 
GABA-analogue (London Contemporary Orchestra, Printworks, London, 8.30pm)

Tim Perkins Concerto for the Howarth-Redgate oboe (Christopher Redgate, oboe, conductor, Oxford Proms Orchestra, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 7.30pm)

Cheryl Frances-Hoad Chorale Prelude ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ Jonathan Dove Chorale Prelude ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’ Daniel Saleeb Chorale Prelude ‘Erhalt uns, Herr bei deinem Wort’ (William Whitehead, Robert Quinney, organ, Royal Albert Hall, 1pm)

Gerald Barry Canada (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7.30pm)

Martin Butler, Michael Zev Gordon, Cheryl Frances Hoad, Gabriel Jackson, David Knotts, Jack Sheen Bagatelles after Beethoven (Tim Horton, piano, St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, 2pm)
Sally Beamish, Michael Berkeley, David Matthews, Christopher Gunning, Thomas Hyde, Matthew Taylor, Huw Watkins, Adrian Williams Variations on ‘Lovely Joan’ for string orchestra (Presteigne Festival Orchestra, George Vass, conductor, St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, 7.45pm)

Edward Gregson String quartet no 2 (Nightingale Quartet, St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, 7.45pm)
Robert Peate Knucklas Arches (Gemma Rosefield, cello, Tim Horton, piano, St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, 2pm)

Vikki Stone Concerto for comedian and orchestra (Vikki Stone, performer, National Youth Orchestra of Scotland Camerata, Ben Glassberg, conductor, Pleasance Grand, Edinburgh, 7.50pm)

Cecilia McDowall Love incorruptible (Sine Nomine International Touring Choir, Susan Hollingworth, conductor, St Mary’s Parish Church, Pembridge, 11.30am)
Edward Gregson Five Songs of Innocence and Experience (revised version) (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, mezzo-soprano, Timothy End, piano, St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, 2pm)

Hannah Kendall The Spark Catchers (Chineke! Orchestra, Kevin John Edusei, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 10.15pm)

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