Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Composer Series - Alissa Firsova

The World Premiere of our new commission, Tetra, has now been and gone (28 May, 2015) but we still have many performances of it scheduled over the remainder of the year. It has been a fascinating piece to learn and rehearse, as each movement is so varied. We have also now had the privilege of working on it with each of the composers which has added a new dynamic to the music and really enhanced our understanding of how best to perform it.
Our next interview in the composer series is with one of Tetra's four composers: Alissa Firsova. Alissa is multi-talented, excelling as a pianist and conductor in addition to her abilities as a composer. Described as a 'rising star' by The Observer and a 'formidable talent' by The Times, her music has been heard everywhere from the Proms to the Verbier Festival.
 Image result for alissa firsova
As the daughter of two eminent composers, you must have grown up thinking it totally natural to write music. However, which came to you first: performing or writing?
 I started composing as soon as I began to take piano lessons at the age of 6 in Dartington. Before I knew how to notate, I would sing and sometimes play at the same time and my father would write the music down for me. After a while I began to notate my own piano pieces and wrote my first slightly larger piano piece at the age of 8, called “Singing of the Birds”. Interestingly, I just incorporated it into my orchestral piece for this summer’s Proms in my piece, Bergen’s Bonfire. I remember playing this piano piece to my parents’ composition teacher, Edison Denisov, And he said to me jokingly, “Do you want to become a composer? You can’t be better than your father but you can be better than your mother easily.” He was teasing my parents of course and luckily there never has been any rivalry between them. But I actually wanted to do something alternative to my parents, so my main aim was to become a pianist. It wasn’t until I entered the Purcell School that I was offered 2nd study composition lessons and soon after, at the age of 14, won the BBC/Guardian/Proms competition with my piano piece, Les Pavots. As a result, I immediately received several commissions and from then on decided to become a composer as well. 

You are a pianist and conductor as well as a composer. Do you have a favourite discipline? Also, do you find that they always complement each other, or are there times where you have to restrain one part of your training in order to let another part flourish?
I find the variety of composing, playing and conducting so fulfilling and all three definitely compliment each other. For me it was always very important to be able to create the source of a feeling through my own music as well as embody and express the music of my beloved composers. I could not do one without the other and conducting is something which arose out of this performing/creating duality - marrying it together. Some of my favourite concert experiences were when I would direct a concerto from the piano, conduct and write a piece for the concert as well. Studying conducting helped my piano playing a lot, not only in structural, physical and breathing ways, but also it helped me to think of sound from a much more orchestral perspective and to be more independent and decisive in my interpretations of works. Ideally, when writing music, I would like to concentrate purely on that and take time out, a bit like Mahler used to do, going to his composing huts in the summertime. But often I have to balance my time between playing and composing simultaneously, which can be quite difficult. At the moment, most of my time is taken up with composition and piano concerts, but this summer I will get to conduct my double cello concerto with the Concertgebouw Camerata - of course I have to write the piece first!

Your movement of Tetra is inspired by Frida Kahlo. What was it that drew you to this particular historical figure and how did you incorporate her into the music?
In the past, I have found it fascinating to write music inspired by art and literature. When I saw Frida Kahlo’s name on the list, I immediately was drawn to it and looked up her paintings. The Tree of Hope struck me greatly - the painting is divided into two, there are two Frida’s: one is lying on a hospital bed in deep pain on the Sun side of the painting - as a symbol of the Aztec blood sacrifice to feed the Sun. The other is in a beautiful, traditional red dress sitting on the edge of the bed on the Moon side - a symbol of strength. This painting is a perfect representation of Frida’s life - a constant struggle and agony, yet always belief and hope for the future. The title was also appealing to me, as most of my music has a positive nature and I was very taken by the polar Sun and Moon depiction as I had just written my orchestral piece, Bergen’s Bonfire, inspired by an apocalyptic dream I had, where I could see the Moon and Sun in one landscape, before the Sun exploded. 

Tetra uses the opening theme from Henriette Renié’s solo harp work, Légende as a motif to link all the four movements together. How did you incorporate this into your composition?
I decided not to take a direct approach in terms of quoting the theme, but rather a reflective one. In the second half of my piece, which depicts the hopeful side, there is a “Tree of Hope” theme, which is like a response to the Legende motif only in a major key. The Legende theme already has some Spanish influences in its feel, so I developed this in the Tree of Hope theme, which is passed around the 4 harps to create a “branch-like” effect. 

Your movement of Tetra utilises a lot of different ‘effects’ including the Bartok pizz and thunder effect. What was it that drew you to the more contemporary harp techniques?
This was my first time writing for harp other than as an orchestral instrument. I wanted to really explore the instrument as much as possible and it was amazing to discover how many effects the harp is able to create and how much it has developed recently. I was particularly drawn to the “Xylo” effect, so it will be interesting to hear how this comes out. The “Thunder” effect was very appropriate for the “car crash” opening depicting Frida’s unfortunate fate. Already with one harp, the “thunder’ effect can be very thrilling, so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to see what happens with 4 Harps! 

What other commissions have you got on the horizon? On a similar note, which piece do you feel most proud of in your composing career?
Following the premieres of my double cello concerto in festivals in France and Italy and my orchestral piece at the Proms this summer, I will be on to my next commissions: a string quartet for the Tippett Quartet for Kings Place, a piano duet for the Francoise-Green piano duo for their St. John’s Smith Square series and a voice and piano work for a concert in Istanbul. It’s difficult to name a work that I feel most proud of, but I really enjoyed writing and conducting my Serenade for Strings with the English Chamber Orchestra and I was fortunate that my Stabat Mater for The Sixteen reached the “Top 10 Contemporary Works by Women Composers” recently, although I do have another unperformed Stabat Mater, which I would love to hear. I also enjoying writing my cello and piano Fantasy for Tim Hugh which we have performed several times already. It will also be performed during my Composer Portrait at the Proms on 27th August and Tim Hugh and I will play it again in the Roman River Festival on 17th Sept. I still really dream to write my first opera!

As a woman conductor, you are still quite a rare breed in what has always traditionally been a man’s world. How do you approach this and do you find the orchestra responds to you differently?
When I first started studying on the Royal Academy of Music postgraduate conducting course with Colin Metters in 2009, I was the only female conductor out of 6 students. The following year the ratio was 2 women to 6 men and in my final year the unthinkable happened - there were more women than men - 4:3! This was definitely a historical moment in the RAM’s history. I think people will always have their preconceptions, but times are really changing and it’s very encouraging to see more and more women rocking the podium. I have seen many wonderful women conductors and yes, orchestras always respond differently to everyone, but I do not see why there should be a gender barrier. 

What (if any) musical styles or composers have shaped your own compositions? Do you find listening to a new piece of music can spark new ideas for your own compositions?
The biggest musical love for me has been Mahler - I find everything in his music: passion, pain, beauty, loss, hope, stuggle, triumph and this most beautiful bittersweet quality. I also really love Strauss and think these 2 composers have been the biggest influences on me lately, as well as Szymanowski. I go to concerts and the opera all the time and this inspires me a great deal, although recently I went to Dobbiaco, to see where Mahler wrote his last symphonies and to see the beauty of the nature where composers wrote their works can be an even stronger impression. Listening to Mahler’s music while looking at the landscape that inspired it was a life-changing experience. 

Your brother is an artist. Have the two of you ever collaborated on a piece of art, and if so, do the traditional sibling rivalries ever surface?!
We have been involved in many projects as a family, which really brings us closer together. The first project arose at the Cheltenham Festival, when my parents and I were each commissioned a piece of music, and my brother painted paintings to go with each piece. For the Dartington Festival, my parents and I wrote a Family Concerto for piano and ensemble to celebrate Shostakovich: we each wrote a movement and I also performed it, while my brother painted several paintings to go with it. Another collective project was based on the Kubla Khan poem, where my brother painted a triptych to go with different movements of our piece for voice, violin, cello and accordion. We also wrote the Divine Comedy for the Dante Quartet, my father wrote, Hell, my mother wrote Purgatory and I wrote Paradise. My brother is now working on some large illustrations which will be displayed during  a performance of the Divine Comedy Quartet in Torino in November by the Xenia Ensemble. We love these family projects and would be interested to do more in the future! 

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
A recording of the complete Mahler symphonies, a piano and a pool table. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Composer Series - Nicola LeFanu

We are only two days away from the World Premiere of our 15th Anniversary commission, Tetra, and are all really excited about sharing this wonderful collection of pieces with the world! This next interview in our composer series is with eminent composer Nicola LeFanu. Nicola is widely respected in the musical world as a composer, director, and teacher (having previously been Professor of Music at York University and taught composition at King's College, London). Her music varies from large scale orchestral and operatic works through to smaller chamber pieces and music for solo instruments. She is particularly drawn to vocal music and has composed eight operas, the most recent of which, Tokaido Road, a Journey after Hiroshige, was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival last year.

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On being asked to write a piece for four harps, what was the first thing that went through your mind? 
That it would be a beautiful and striking sonority, but that the piece might not get many other performances as it was for such a ‘niche’ ensemble.

Your movement of Tetra is inspired by Millicent Fawcett. What was it that drew you to this particular historical figure and how did you incorporate her into the music? 
I admire all she achieved in her life, and she had a very full life, both professionally (she was passionate about her work and her campaigns) and as a wife and mother – that is something I also aspire to. Her name – its rhythms and contour – appear in my piece. I tried also to keep the chronology of her life in mind – her DBE appears at the end! 

The harp is a very ornate instrument to look at, with a strong stage presence. Is the way a performance will look or be coordinated on stage ever a factor in the way you compose? 
In my many stage works it’s all-important; for a chamber piece, less so, though I did take careful note of the preferred seating arrangements of the four harpists. 

Tetra uses the opening theme from Henriette Renié’s solo harp work, Légende as a motif to link all the four movements together. How did you incorporate this into your composition? 
You can hear reference to its harmony and the melodic outline, but I did not find it a very  inspiring theme, I must admit, so it does not figure very prominently in my piece. 

Looking at your catalogue of compositions, it seems like you are particularly drawn to write music for the human voice. Is it the ability to use words in addition to musical sound that inspires you, or is it a deeper connection to something that is within every person, be they musical or not? 

In addition to writing your own music, you also teach other composers? What is it that you enjoy about this process, and if there was one bit of advice you could give to young composers, what would it be? 
I enjoy the two-way dialogue, I enjoy watching their development.  As to advice.. to be as professional as possible, and to work with performers at every opportunity.

When you are writing a piece do you prefer to compartmentalise things and write in a structured way, or does the creative process completely take over?  
Sorry, I do not understand the question! ‘Compartmentalisation’ is not a part of composition; and the ‘creative process’ is a structured one. 

Aside from being attracted to certain instruments, what else inspires you? In a similar vein, do you think it is possible to undertake a commission if you aren’t drawn to the idea behind it? 
I would not undertake a commission that I was not drawn to. As to inspiration – many things, different at different times.. often it is other music, it might be a poem, it might be a landscape.. 

You have written a number of pieces with an educational purpose. Is it harder to write something where you have to bear in mind the playing level of the performers? 
Yes, it is a technical challenge, but it is fun. 

What three things would you take with you to a desert island? 
Assuming that I had sufficient fresh water, I’d take an endless supply of lemons, a sunhat, and pencil and paper. If that is 4 items, leave out the sunhat and I’ll make one out of a sheet of the paper.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Composer Series - Savourna Stevenson

Later this month we will be performing the World Premiere of our new commission, Tetra. A four movement piece funded by PRS Foundation's Women Make Music, the Ambache Trust, and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. Tetra is written by four female composers, each chosen by a member of the quartet, and we will be finishing our Composer Series by interviewing each of the four composers.

Our first interview is with Scottish harpist and composer, Savourna Stevenson. Savourna's music encompasses everything from large scale orchestral works through to solo harp pieces, with her music being heard everywhere from the BBC through to TV show Sex and the City! Savourna's most recent work for harp (aside from Tetra) is a concerto written for harp virtuoso Catrin Finch, commissioned by Holywell Music, to celebrate 200 years since the invention of the modern pedal harp. We like to think that being a quartet of four pedal harps gives us the opportunity to take this feat of engineering even further, exploiting the extra chromaticism and power that is available through having four of the same instrument.

Image result for Savourna Stevenson As a harpist/composer, what do you take from each discipline to complement and augment the other?
From the harp I get both inspiration and a sense of purpose to my composition. There are many beautiful pieces written especially for the instrument, some well known such as Mozart’s Flute & Harp Concerto and Ravel’s Introduction & Allegro, but music for the harp is generally regarded as a neglected area of repertoire. I hope that my harp music, including my Concerto for Pedal Harp, premiered by Catrin Finch with the Scottish Ensemble in 2012 and now, my movement of Tetra will become valuable additions to the future repertoire for this wonderful instrument.

My affinity with the Impressionist composers has been not only an inspiration behind my harp writing but, in the case of Ravel, has had an influence on my large scale orchestral works.
Although I love writing for the harp, the piano is the instrument I compose at even when I am writing for the harp.

Looking back through history, it is very common for musicians to come from families with generations of musical or artistic heritage. In keeping with this trend, your father, Ronald Stevenson, was also a composer. Have you found it helpful to follow in his footsteps or has it made you more determined to forge your own path? 
My father, Ronald Stevenson died whilst I was writing this new piece so he has been in my thoughts as this music was being created. Ronald was my first teacher and he encouraged my early gift for composition at the piano from the age of 5.

Although I did forge my own career, championing the small Scottish harp, (Clarsach), working within traditional, world music and jazz, my composing career involved me in writing for TV, theatre, film and concert music and in 2001 I studied orchestration with Ian Macpherson, ( Fellow of the Academy of Music London). My father was always a great supporter of my work and although our music may be of quite different styles we shared much in common in our eclectic musical tastes.

Beethoven was famed for taking long walks whilst creating his masterpieces. Do you have a routine to your compositional process and is there any location where you prefer to work?
I like to have peace when I’m writing which is tricky as all three of my children are involved in music - so, to escape the family I like to swim and go to the steam room - ALONE!

Looking at your catalogue of compositions, it seems like you are particularly drawn to music inspired by stories. Is it important to you to incorporate a narrative into each piece, or do you ever compose music without any specific external influence? 
The influences on my music are many and varied. I like to work with the written word as inspiration for my music but not always. Source inspiration for my Concerto for Pedal Harp comes from the great French and Spanish pedal harp traditions and from the jazz harpists of 1930s/40s America. I have also used natural and elemental influences in my writing for both concert pieces and natural history TV documentaries. My current commission, a work for piano and orchestra draws inspiration from two of my favourite composer’s, Gershwin and Ravel.

Your style of composing is rooted in folk, jazz and world music. What is it that draws you to these sounds and do you find that you prefer one style over all others?
I would say that I have come full-circle and that for the past 10 years I have been working mainly in classical music collaborating with and writing for the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, the RSNO, the National Youth Choirs of Scotland, Catrin Finch, the Scottish Ensemble, the Martinu Quartet etc. Working within the traditional, world music and jazz worlds over two or three decades has had an influence on my writing and I hope it brings a freshness and originality to my approach to contemporary classical music. I am certainly passionate about my Scottish cultural roots and hope that my music will continue to speak of my beloved homeland.

How did you find writing Tetra knowing that your movement would be part of a bigger piece? Were there any challenges involved in not knowing what the rest of the piece would be like?
I’ve loved writing this piece. It feels quite exciting and almost like a game, wondering how the other composers will have interpreted Renie’s wonderful theme. The concept of this project is inspiring in itself. I’m sure the end result will incorporate great contrasts in style - but surely variety is the spice of life.

Your movement of Tetra is inspired by Josephine Baker. What was it that drew you to this particular historical figure?
Josephine Baker, dancer, singer, actress and civil- rights activist is a truly inspiring figure from history. I wanted to evoke the era, a favourite era of mine in terms of music. The piece was inspired, in particular by watching the film of Josephine Baker dancing with her own shadow.

Tetra uses the opening theme from Henriette Renié’s solo harp work, Légende as a motif to link all the four movements together. How did you incorporate this into your composition? 
Renie’s Legende is a masterpiece for the harp and I had the luxury of being able to play it on the harp to really get into the work. I’ve started with the second line of her original theme which I extend into a longer phrase, marked Maestoso, then move into a poignant theme based on the first few notes of her opening theme. I have also used a chromatic motif from later in Renie’s piece and developed it into an extended and exciting passage representing Baker dancing with her shadow.

As a harpist, you know first-hand what works well for the instrument. Did you find any challenges though in the addition of three other harps, or was it an opportunity to expand everything that one harp can do?
Four harps was a bonus for me, especially with what I was trying to achieve chromatically in this piece . I’ve enjoyed trying to write in a truly democratic way, giving each player a chance to shine, tossing the motif from one to another in a call and response fashion suggesting the dancer and her shadow.

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
If it can’t be my husband, harp manufacturer Mark Norris it will have to be a piano (grand if possible - but may not be allowed due to sheltering possibilities) manuscript paper & pencil.