Point 454 126-2
Cello Concerto (1995)
(Farewell to Philosophy)
I have a great fondness for the lower string instruments: I am a bass- player; my mother is a cellist, as are both my daughters; my own ensemble includes two violas, a cello and a bass, and for the instrumentation of my opera Medea I omit the entire violin section from the orchestra. As I have written a number of works for solo instrument or voice with orchestra I welcomed the opportunity to write a concerto for cello and orchestra and especially one which focuses particularly on the instruments lyrical qualities. Although the piece is in one continuous movement, and the soloist is playing almost without a break, it nevertheless falls into distinct sections which are recognisable by a shift of tempo as well as by a change in the music’s character. One of the early ideas Julian Lloyd Webber and I discussed was that it might form a companion piece to one of the Haydn concertos. Given my friendship with some members of the English Chamber Orchestra and my awareness of their repertoire, this suggested a number of particular musical references. The subtitle to the work, for example, combines the subtitles of two idiosyncratic Haydn symphonies and I allude to them in different ways but chiefly through orchestration: for The Philosopher by including a section in the concerto where the orchestration resembles that of the symphony’s first movement (pairs of English and French horns, muted violins and unmuted lower strings); for The Farewell, by the progressive reduction in the orchestration towards the end. Indeed, apart from the orchestral tutti in the last few bars, the last pages of the score are virtually for string quartet. The subtitle also refers to my own background as a philosophy graduate…
The piece was commissioned by Philips Classics for Julian Lloyd Webber and is dedicated to him.
One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing (1994)
Commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the virtuoso percussion quintet Nexus, this piece is a reflection on aspects of percussion history, both personal and musical.
The members of Nexus are my friends (I played in the Steve Reich Ensemble along with Russ Hartenberger, for example, in 1972 – the year after Nexus was formed) and I have known their playing as an ensemble for almost 20 years.
The piece exploits not only the tremendous virtuosity of Nexus but rather more their wonderful musicality and subtlety. The piece starts from the last bar at the end of the first part of my first opera Medea, a very short coda for a quintet of untuned percussion instruments. In my new piece, however, this one apparently innocuous bar is progressively fragmented until it is taken over, little by little, by the addition of tuned percussion instruments.
Eventually two metal tuned instruments (crotales and songbells) play aria-like material with bows, occasionally joined by the xylophone, and accompanied by marimba and xylophone ostinati.
The piece ends with a coda in which phrases are passed from bowed vibraphone to bowed crotales to bowed songbells, supported by tremolos on two marimbas.
The rare 3-octave songbells which Nexus owns is one of the great American instrument maker J. C. Deagan’s particularly fine instruments and the piece is effectively a kind of homage to Deagan – the Stradivarius of the tuned percussion family. Deagan was a close collaborator with Percy Grainger in the development of tuned percussion music between the wars and I have always admired Grainger’s imaginative and audacious use of percussion. The family of keyboard percussion is, for me, as important a group as, say, the string family and equally capable of expressive playing. Indeed in Medea not only does the orchestra have no violins (the strings are from violas downwards) but the percussion section replaces, in effect, the more conventionally important first violins and my knowledge of the music of Nexus was a major factor in this decision.
By the Vaar (1987)
By the Vaar was written as an extended adagio for the jazz bass player Charlie Haden accompanied by strings, bass clarinet and percussion. It was commissioned by the Camden Festival and first performed there in April 1987 along with a number of other works of mine having a close connection with jazz. The solo bass part, which begins with fully written material and gradually leads to an extended improvisation, was written with Charlie Haden’s sound in mind. I have known Charlie’s playing since the time when, as a schoolboy in Yorkshire, I heard broadcasts of the extraordinary first recordings of the Ornette Coleman quartet, of which Charlie was a key member and, curiously enough, the other composer featured in that Camden concert was Ornette himself. When I became a professional bassist working chiefly in jazz and improvised music I knew the individual sounds of most improvising bass-players and Charlie’s sound is a special one that I have heard and loved in many musical contexts. The title of the piece comes from my opera Doctor Ox’s Experiment: the “Vaar” being a river in Flanders, not far from Bruges, which flows through the town in which the action of the opera takes place. During the opera there is a quiet and almost uneventful interlude where two lovers, Frantz and Suzel, pass the afternoon by the river, the one fishing, the other working on her tapestry. By the Vaar started out as a preliminary sketch for this scene, like a backdrop for the singers, and aspects of the music appear in the final opera. In this concert work, the solo bass plays chiefly in the low and middle registers, exploiting the unique qualities of Charlie’s own bass, with its gut strings and resonant pizzicato notes.
English Chamber Orchestra conductor, James Judd (Cello Concerto and By the Vaar)
Nexus Percussion Ensemble
English Chamber Orchestra
2. One Last Bar, Then Joe Can Sing (Nexus percussion ensemble)
3. By the Vaar (solo bass Charlie Haden)