Rhinegold Photo credit: Keith Malone
Emma-Ruth Richards

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Premieres: December’s new music

8:00, 1st December 2017

Tasked with creating a piece to accompany Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem, Emma-Ruth Richards first thought about orchestration. ‘The Britten Sinfonia is using an amazing array of harps and percussion for the programme: the Bernstein needs five percussion and two harps, and the Vaughan Williams needs the organ,’ she says. ‘But I wanted this piece to have a life after the concert, so I didn’t think it was sensible to write for such large forces. I chose one harp, two percussion and piano with brass, trombones and trumpets, and as full a string section as possible.’

Richards describes choosing a title as ‘the most painful decision ever’, adding: ‘I normally have a strong concept of a piece when I start writing, and the title is part of that. I have an idea in my mind about what kind of piece I’ll attempt writing, and that usually comes from a title, an interesting word or a concept that I’ve read in an architectural book or a piece of art, for example. But I developed the concept for this piece without a title, so I was still thinking of the title until fairly late on. You know it’s going to be said so many times and it’s going to be with you forever, so I wanted it to be interesting and not too obvious. I also wanted it to be fairly abstract. The word “sciamachy” is from Ancient Greek, so it’s not a word that we throw around on a day-to-day basis, but it has the perfect definition that’s everything I was looking for and everything I was intending for the piece.’

The composer says she loved the idea of having percussion, piano and harp at the centre of the piece, likening it to the ‘resonant world of Pli selon pli’, with bright, powerful brass interjections over the top. Given that the Britten Sinfonia players regularly appear in chamber ensembles, Richards says she thought ‘it would be lovely and exciting to play with dividing the strings up so the forces gather as the piece goes on’. The piece begins with just a string quartet, one trumpet and sandpaper. ‘The music at this point is very hushed, with tiny fragments of melody. The trumpets are directed to breathe through their instruments, so you get this fragile wind sound. Everything’s uncertain but beautiful.’

The piece incorporates a boy treble solo in a nod to the Bernstein. ‘The melodic line and that fragile sound that a child soprano will bring out is both powerful and prayer-like. The whole piece is built on that in abstract, in a way.’ As the piece continues, the voices and strings struggle to remain heard over a rising chromatic backdrop. Richards likens this to Bartók’s Music for Percussion, Strings and Celesta: ‘The melody rises, then as it falls it says everything it didn’t say on the way up. There are strange melodic lines which rise up then fill in the gaps as they come down chromatically.’

The piece gathers force as it progresses, with other instruments joining the ensemble. ‘Eventually the solo strings and trumpets can’t battle against it anymore and the piano crashes in. I wanted to save that entry so it was a surprise for the audience. It’s this exciting definition of the sciamachy – fighting its shadow, and fighting the enemy. There are places where that dichotomy between the solo voices and the tutti comes back, and you get more of that sense of fragile detachment that you do at the beginning.’

About two thirds of the way through, the trumpets try to break through, but are unsuccessful. ‘They just emphasise the surrounding darkness. I love the idea of the beautiful, powerful trumpets like gold shooting out of this darkness. It’s definitely a fight – one with beautiful moments, but it’s a battle all the way through.’

Emma-Ruth Richards Sciamachy (Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Cleobury, conductor, Barbican Hall, 7.30pm)

With In the Light of Air, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir sought to evoke ‘the airy quality of the subtle textures and breath in the work and their relationship to the subtle pulsation of the lights – the textural balance between the ethereal soundscape, harmonies, and the lights.’

The visual element of the piece had been important from the start. ‘One of my initial ideas for this work was to have a light installation as one of the “instruments” in the piece. I wanted to have the lights cued by the performers’ breaths and instrumental performance – to have the lights “perform”. We had to find ways to get the audio to “speak” to the lights for cues.’

Visual dimension: Anna Thorvaldsdóttir © Saga Sigurdardottir
Visual dimension: Anna Thorvaldsdóttir
© Saga Sigurdardottir

The composer was adamant that the 40-minute piece should have a relatively small instrumentation. ‘It was important to me to select instruments that have the capacity to create various textures,’ she said. ‘A grand piano, harp, percussion, strings and electronics were perfect to write out the textures I had in mind and all these instruments have such varied performance possibilities and can produce various textures and harmonies.’

However, the piece also includes a more unusual sound. ‘The klakabönd is a small metal ornament designed and made by Icelandic artist Svana Jósepsdóttir. I got one as a gift a few years ago and started experimenting with how it might sound and really liked the way it sounded, so I asked her to make me a few really large ones for In the Light of Air so that I could assemble them into an installation-like instrument, and they serve as both in the work.’

The work comprises four sections, framed by a Prologue and Epilogue. Titled ‘Luminance’, ‘Serenity’, ‘Existence’ and ‘Remembrance’, they are linked together, resulting in a seamless flow of material throughout the work. The fourth movement is of particular personal significance to the composer: ‘It insisted on echoing the theme of a song that my husband, Hrafn, wrote and dedicated to me in 2000.’

Parts of the work are constructed around the idea of each performer being a ‘soloist’ within a chamber setting. ‘Throughout the work, the performers alternate between travelling through fields of collective instrumental alliances and moving into soloistic approaches,’ Thorvaldsdóttir explains.

The material is constructed with a focus on nuance and poetic textures, with melodies generated as much by sounds, gestures and nuances as by pitched lyrical material. ‘Internally, I hear sounds and nuances as musical melodies and enjoy weaving those sounds together with harmonies and lyrical material. Structurally, I work with perspectives of details, the unity of the whole, and the relationship between the two.’

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir In the Light of Air (London Contemporary Orchestra, St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, London, 8pm; also 9 December, 1.15pm)

Bringing together Bach, Laurie Lee and the Kyrie eleison, Adrian Williams’ Winter Chorale was a commission from Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini. The piece was premiered as part of a series of concerts titled ‘Christmas with Bach’. Williams decided to incorporate the famous chorale used by Bach for ‘Oh Sacred Head, Now Wounded’ in the St Matthew Passion, weaving it around the other two components.

Textually inspired: Adrian Williams © Liz Isles
Textually inspired: Adrian Williams
© Liz Isles

Williams describes Laurie Lee’s Winter Landscape as ‘a gift for setting’, adding: ‘It chose me, really. It had the right atmosphere for the occasion, but the words are very cold at the same time as being warmer later on. It talks about how everything in the countryside is frozen.’

The piece begins with imploring Kyrie eleisons. ‘There is a repeated string figure which becomes more insistent as it progresses, and the singers then repeat the Kyrie on top; eventually it gives way to the start of the poem.’

The composer divided the poem into sections, selecting some of its key moments, such as ‘a star opens like a silver trumpet over the dead’, which he would repeat. ‘I felt I could use that several times to contrast some of the colder parts of the poem, and made a chorale out of that.’

Williams repeatedly asserts the importance of text to his compositional process. ‘When I set things I like to go through and search for things I can highlight or repeat. The words are always rumbling over, and sooner or later something comes out which I can latch on to. Words inspire me more than anything else.’

Adrian Williams Winter Chorale UK prem (Scottish Ensemble, I Fagiolini, Caird Hall, Dundee, 7.30pm; also 5 December, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh; 6 December, Wellington Church, Glasgow; 7 December, St Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen; 8 December, Inverness Cathedral; 9 December, St John’s Kirk, Perth)


Pedro Henriques da Silva Guitar concerto (Pedro Henriques da Silva, guitar, Orchestra of the Swan, David Curtis, conductor, Stratford ArtsHouse, Stratford-upon-Avon, 7.30pm)

Jean Sibelius Press Celebrations Music UK prem (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor, Barbican, 7.30pm)

Maeve McCarthy, Nathanael Gubler New works (RCM New Perspectives, Timothy Lines, director, Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London, 7.30pm)
Will Todd A Christmas Carol (Opera Holland Park soloists, St Columba’s Church, Pont Street, London, 7pm)

David Fennessy New work William Sweeney Eòlas nan Ribheid (The Wisdom of the Reeds) Anna Clyne Beltane (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard, conductor, City Halls, Glasgow, 8pm)
Stuart Hancock The Cutlass Crew (W11 Opera, Posk Theatre, Hammersmith; also 10 December)
Rodion Shchedrin Dialogues with Shostakovich UK prem (BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 7.30pm)

Benjamin Heim, Yongbom Lee, Stella Fiorenzoli New works (Christian Adolph, narrator, Victor Maslov, piano, Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London, 3pm)
Esa-Pekka Salonen Karawane UK prem (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor, Barbican, 7.30pm)

Giovanni Sollima String quartet B267 UK prem (Cuarteto Casals, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Andrew Smith New work (Trio Mediæval, Nils Økland, violin, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)
Roxanna Panufnik A Cradle Song (Royal Choral Society, Richard Cooke, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7.30pm)
Christopher Field Welcome! Our Messias (A Christmas Garland) (Anne Denholm, harp, City of London Chamber Choir, Guy’s Chapel, St Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY, 7.30pm)

Arturo Cuellar Concertino for strings (Camerata Tchaikovsky, Yuri Zhislin, director, Kings Place, 6.30pm)

Marco Galvani On Christmas Morn (The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, conductor, Cadogan Hall, London, 7.30pm; also 19 December)

Joshua Pacey I sing of a maiden H.K. Gruber Silent night (Choir of Clare College Cambridge, Graham Ross, conductor, St John’s Smith Square, London, 7.30pm)

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