Rhinegold Photo credit: Ana Cuba
Nico Muhly
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Lucy Thraves

Deputy Editor

Premieres: December’s new music

9:00, 1st December 2018

The Tallis Scholars’ programme for their Temple Winter Festival concert is decidedly Christmassy. Sections of Palestrina’s ‘Missa Hodie Christus natus est’ are interspersed with Byrd, Praetorius, and Nico Muhly’s new work. Are there any stylistic similarities, I ask, between the contemporary piece and those of the Renaissance heavyweights? ‘I wish I could say that there is,’ says Muhly. ‘All I can offer you is that [Palestrina’s] motet (and its attendant parody mass) figured in my childhood as a chorister, and that composer’s energetic music is something that permeates almost everything I do.’

This is not the first time Muhly has written a piece especially for the Tallis Scholars: a setting of part of the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet, and a penitential psalm count among his other commissions for the group; and, he adds, ‘I hope to write more for them. I always embarrass Peter [Phillips, founder of the Tallis Scholars] by saying this, but as a kid in the late 80s and early 90s, I literally grew up on his recordings, particularly of the (then) harder-to-get Tye, Taverner, and Tallis motets and masses. Their sound, for me, was – and still is – a defining musical guidepost.’

The Tallis Scholars’ sound was — and still is — a defining musical guidepost

It’s clear that Muhly’s upbringing as a chorister has meant that composing for voices has come naturally. He explains: ‘Writing for voice is very easy and pleasurable, as it was my first instrument, as it were. Instrumental writing of course is a joy, but gnawing at a text feels like the most honest kind of composition there is.’

The new work sets a secular text to music – a departure from the norm for Muhly, who explains, ‘sacred texts are very fluently settable, as the basic narrative of Christian scripture is one or two sentences long, and the rest is commentary. The challenge with this piece is telling the story, which is simple – they are freezing, it is beautiful, they know they’re going to die — and not have it seem like a dirge, and instead acknowledge the cognitive dissonance of impending death, being taken over by white and wind, with their vision of the Southern Lights.’ If that doesn’t constitute intriguing, I don’t know what does.

13 DECEMBER

Nico Muhly New work (Tallis Scholars, Temple, London, 7.30pm)


 

(c) Chloe Wicks
(c) Chloe Wicks

Me and 4 Ponys doesn’t give a lot away in the title. But when composer Laurence Osborn explains that the piano quintet is ‘about drawings by children,’ it begins to make a bit more sense. ‘When children draw,’ he continues, ‘there seems to be no barrier whatsoever between conception and execution. Nothing is ever rubbed out or corrected; and form, colour, and subject change constantly throughout the creative process. Because of the impulsivity and naivety of the artist, the world created in a child’s drawing is warped, and disfigured – a hyper-expressive version of reality.’ He concludes: ‘I think this is why children’s drawings can be completely grotesque and very sweet at the same time.’

How are these ideas reflected in the music? ‘There is a galloping, jig-like pulse that runs through all three movements of the piece, which is where the ponies in the title come from. The stylisation of the title is borrowed from a sign that my friend Jessica made for a play she put on for the grown-ups when we were kids, which reads, ‘The 4 Fairys’. I think her parents still have it at their house. I love everything about that sign – the specificity of the number 4, the misspelling of ‘fairies’, the fact that the ‘4’ is erroneously coloured lime green when the rest of the title is pink – so I wanted to honour it in the piece!’

For such a work with such a contemporary-sounding title, it’s perhaps a little surprising to learn that musical inspiration came from Bach’s English Suites. ‘Most of my initial compositional ideas and methods came about in response to taking apart the counterpoint in those pieces,’ Osborn explains. ‘Much of the inspiration for the character and timbre of the music was visual. I wanted to write music that evoked lines scribbled in wax crayon and faded felt-tip pens, and handprints in acrylic paint. The gestures are bold, but the sounds themselves are broken and vulnerable.’

And, like Bach, Osborn’s approach to composition is meticulous. ‘I prioritise clarity of communication over everything else,’ he says. ‘I have to make sure that everything in the piece has a reason for being there, and I constantly ask myself to justify the decisions I make throughout the creative process. Once I feel like I’ve done my very best to make everything as direct and focussed as possible, then I have to trust that audiences will respond to it.’

1 DECEMBER

Laurence Osborne Me and 4 Ponys (Ensemble 360, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 7.15pm)


 

Although this new work is Dobrinka Tabakova’s first as composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra, she has worked with the orchestra for three new pieces over the last year (Orpheus’ Comet, Together Remember to Dance and Kynance Cove). However for the new work, she says, ‘I wanted to showcase more of the orchestra on its own.’ She continues, ‘the new work is more abstract [than Orpheus’ Comet], but is quite colourful. I’ve recently been enjoying low sonorities, so, as well as a contra bassoon and bass clarinet there is the addition of an electric bass guitar as part of the orchestra.’

(c) Candide Rietdijk
(c) Candide Rietdijk

Unconventional instrumentation reflects a broad musical taste: Tabakova cites everything from ‘what is being written at the moment in the charts’, to Rameau’s harpsichord studies and the music of Ligeti, Messiaen and Nancarrow as musical inspiration. And, she continues, ‘some of my earliest music memories are listening to my grandfather’s LP collection: Schubert, Brahms, Mussorgsky. Bach two-part inventions were among the first significant piano works I learned to play.

‘We went frequently to classical music concerts and opera as a family. I just remember seeing people enjoying the music; that’s the greatest inspiration I think: being part of the whole process of making music.’

The premiere will be performed alongside works by previous composers-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra, including Anne Dudley, Guy Barker and Jonny Greenwood. ‘I’d like for audiences to be excited about the music that is being created at the moment,’ Tabakova says. ‘Music by living composers inspired by life at this time, as we are all experiencing it.’

5 DECEMBER

Dobrinka Tabakova New work (BBC Concert Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey, conductor, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 7.30pm)


 

DECEMBER 2018 PREMIERES

1 DECEMBER

Laurence Osborne Me and 4 Ponys (Ensemble 360, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 7.15pm)

5 DECEMBER

Dobrinka Tabakova New work (BBC Concert Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey, conductor, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 7.30pm)

7 DECEMBER

Colin Matthews As time returns Mark Bowden Sapiens London prems (Simon Haram, saxophone, London Sinfonietta, Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 7.45pm)

13 DECEMBER

Kayo Chingonyi, Annie Yim, and Raymond Yiu Conceptual Concert in Three Acts (MusicArt, Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London)

Nico Muhly New work (Tallis Scholars, Temple, London, 7.30pm)

16 DECEMBER

Ben See Fingerprintplurals; We Want (Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra, Hammersmith Town Hall, London, 6.30pm)

20 DECEMBER

Karl Jenkins New work (St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, St Paul’s Cathedral, 6.45pm)


 

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