Clare Stevens speaks to Lucy Melvin and Thomas Hewitt Jones, who have worked together on a new string quartet designed for chamber music students
When violinist Lucy Melvin was wondering how to celebrate 10 years of running chamber music courses for children and young people in south London, she found herself working with composer and cellist Thomas Hewitt Jones, and the solution became obvious: she should commission a new piece from him. Her brief was very specific: the piece should be a string quartet, sophisticated enough to be performed by the professional players who teach on her courses, but straightforward enough to enter the repertoire for the more advanced students, either in their own ensembles or alongside their tutors.
‘Thomas was the obvious person to ask to compose the piece,’ she says. ‘I’ve always encouraged a family atmosphere between our tutors and students, which extends into the local community. Thomas comes from a family of professional musicians who are closely involved with music-making at All Saints Church, West Dulwich, where the Chamber Players courses began, and his parents have helped us in many ways, so he is part of our extended family. He’s very good at working to a brief and I knew he would do a fantastic job.’
Determined to understand the context of the commission, Hewitt Jones accepted an invitation to teach the cellists on last summer’s course, and was immensely impressed by the set-up. ‘I could see that one of Lucy’s fortes is bringing in professional players to inspire her students with really brilliant performances. She also has a really good eye and ear for what they should be hearing and playing; the repertoire is not dumbed down in any way. Lucy engages the students through classical music in the same way that Britten did.’
“We decided it should have a neoclassical feel, bringing it back to the simplicity and purity of the classical string quartet”
This approach is reflected in the new work, which has evolved after much discussion between Melvin and Hewitt-Jones over the past year. ‘We decided it should have a neoclassical feel, bringing it back to the simplicity and purity of the classical string quartet,’ says Melvin. ‘But Thomas’s personality comes through, especially his very elegant sense of humour.’
Each movement is under five minutes long and features a different instrument; the aim is that individual movements can be used as showcase pieces in future student concerts. ‘We needed the quartet to be extremely versatile, because of the way our courses work. The older teenagers want to be in ensembles together, for example, but they don’t all play to the same standard.’
Hewitt Jones has dealt with this by strategies such as including ossia sections where the professional players or more advanced students can add harmonics up and down the strings. ‘The music won’t sound that different if those options are left out,’ he says.
The first performance of the complete work will be given in All Saints Church, West Dulwich on 1 February, by the Chamber Players Ensemble: Hartmut Ometzberger, Lucy Melvin, Dorothea Vogel and Graham Walker.
Thomas Hewitt Jones, Divertimento for String Quartet (Chamber Players Ensemble, All Saints Church, London)
JANUARY 2020: PREMIERES IN THE UK AND IRELAND
(World premieres unless otherwise stated. Full listings at classicalmusicmagazine.org)
Garreth Farr Ornithological Antidotes UK prem (Julien Van Mellaerts, baritone, James Baillieu, piano, Wigmore Hall, 3pm)
Arturo Márquez Trumpet Concerto UK prem (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Pacho Flores, trumpet, Domingo Hindoyan, conductor, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 7.30pm)
John Bull, Francesco Tristano Galliard in D minor (Francesco Tristano, piano, Baroque at the Edge Festival, LSO St Luke’s, 7.30pm)
David Lang Prisoner of the State European prem (BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, Ilan Volkov, conductor, Elkhanah Pulitzer, director, Claron McFadden, soprano, Jarrett Ott, baritone, Davóne Tines, bass-baritone, Alan Oke, tenor, Barbican Hall, 8pm)
Bent Sørensen New work (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard, conductor, Lucy Schaufer, mezzo-soprano, City Halls: Concert Hall, Glasgow, 8pm)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Towards Alba (Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor, Richard Watkins, French horn, Allan Clayton, tenor, Southbank Centre: Royal Festival Hall, 7.30pm)
Adam Gorb The Path to Heaven – A Descent (Royal Northern College Wind Ensemble, Mark Heron, conductor, Royal Northern College of Music, 1.15pm)
Freya Waley-Cohen New work (Britten Sinfonia, Katie Bray, mezzo-soprano, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 1pm); Changeling UK prem (London Chamber Orchestra, Oliver Zeffman, conductor, George Li, piano, Cadogan Hall, 7.30pm)
Adam Gorb 1200 Degrees Centigrade is the Temperature Rock Becomes Molten (Aurora Percussion Duo, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 1.10pm)
Sebastian Fagerlund Water Atlas UK prem (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor, Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano, Barbican Hall, 7.30pm)
Dani Howard New work (Jennifer Pike, violin, Martin Roscoe, piano, Wigmore Hall, 1pm)
Dimitrios Skyllas Kyrie eleison (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conductor, Garrick Ohlsson, piano, Barbican, 7.30pm)