Première of String Quartet No. 1, 'Montes', in Philadelphia



Miranda Cuckson (violin), Stephanie Griffin (viola), me (composer), Joanne Lin (cello), Annaliesa Place (violin). In the first image, said with Mrs Marcela Montes, widow of the painter Fernando Montes.

It happened last 28 November in Rock Hall Auditorium at Temple University. The performers were the Momenta Quartet, a group for whom I have to check myself if I am not to run out of superlatives. I apologise in advance if I fail.

When I first met them, two days before the concert, they had the new piece learned. Our work together had to do with character, articulation, balance, in a word: interpretation. No complaints about how difficult the music was, no excuses about an unlearned passage, no petty quibbling! Only intelligent requests of clarification, sometimes exposing an inconsistence on my part or leading me to rethink a notational choice.

It was immediately apparent that the Momenta were more than used to working with composers, as the dynamic in rehearsal was one of ease and flowing communication when required. As impressive as this was the respect they showed each other, with no player imposing her view on any other, but instead careful consideration being given to their diverse, strong individualities.

Anyone inferring the result of the above to be a harmonious but bland compromise would be mistaken, for there is plenty of edge in what the Momenta do. Their explosions of energy and passion are as fearful as the ice of their tightest, most controlled pianissimos. Yes, I am no longer referring only to their rendition of my own piece, but also remembering what they did, for example, with Janácek’s Quartet No. 1, 'Kreutzer Sonata'. The passion overflowed without sentimentality, the tragedy raged without melodrama. It was all just so well gauged. And the technique was accomplished throughout; with them we are in a sphere where technique ceased to be a concern at some forgotten point in the past of their young lives.

As for me, I had one of the most enjoyable experiences ever. I was able to sit back, secure in the knowledge that my music was in safe hands, that I did not have to worry about whether this or that passage would come out as written. It came out as written, but better, because it was enriched by the total commitment of these incomparable four musicians. The words 'thank you' sound too hollow to convey my gratitude and admiration for what they do.

The only disappointment of the evening was the small size of the audience, well below what these superb performers deserved. As the talented composition student Ryan Olivier explained to me, this was a hectic time of the year when the students have to split their time among a vast array of concerts and their own assessed recitals at Temple University. Fair enough, but what a loss for the rest of Philadelphia not to have been there! Setting aside the two new works, you do not often hear Janácek and Schumann played with that excellence. The silver lining for me was the presence of Marcela Montes, widow of Fernando, the great Bolivian painter who inspired my quartet and to whom it is dedicated. With Marcela was a small but important group of Bolivians, two of whom I had known in the 1970s in La Paz: Mrs Ximena Iturralde de Sánchez de Lozada and her son Ignacio.

The composition staff was represented by two lecturers who were generous in their enthusiasm, Prof Maurice Wright and one other whose pardon I beg, in the unlikely event he reads these pages, for forgetting his name. Nor can I link him to any of the composition lecturers listed among the composition staff on the Temple website. Their kindly-expressed empathy to the spirit to the quartet was to me an indication of an attunement of mind that makes me want to hear their music.

Young Ryan Olivier himself had a piece premièred, String Quartet. It was impressive in the assurance with which it adhered to an energetic gesturality that is so often lacking in new music. You can hear it on his myspace page. He is a most personable individual too. I think he will go far.

I thank the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University for putting on this event and for their hospitality to me.



Première of ¡Oh guitarra! in Winterthur



The guitarrist Christoph Jäggin. In the other image, me, the composer Harri Suilamo and Christopher Jäggin.

¡Oh guitarra!, the piece that took an eternity to complete and nearly put me off the guitar for life, received its first performance at the heroic hands of Christoph Jäggin, last weekend, Sunday 11 November, at Theater am Gleis in the town of Winterthur, near Zurich.

Christoph is one of those phenomena of the musical world who is not deterred by difficulty but, quite on the contrary, relishes a challenge, and, it seems, the hairier the better. When, having played extensively my first guitar work, Nana del insomne – a rather vertiginous affair – he suggested that I should write him a new one, caution suggested it would be best not to meddle with this fiendish instrument again. But caution’s voice went unheeded and a new piece was promised. It took years to materialise, but Christoph waited. When I finally completed it, in January 2006, he was busy writing a magnum opus of research, a history of Swiss music for the guitar, and he was taking a break from performing. It was my turn to wait, and wait I did. The première supervened last Sunday, nearly two years after completion, so justice was done.

On arrival in Christoph’s house in Turbenthal, I found that he had produced his own copy with fingerings and corrections of guitar technique. I had spent endless hours working out how best to realise my ideas on this complex instrument, but all the same Christoph had come up with more effective solutions in a number of places. I agreed gratefully in almost every case. In a couple of cases I begged to differ, but was no less grateful for his dedication and attention to detail. I wished I had had him nearby when I was writing the piece, so he could have helped to shape it with his technical advice. As it is, ¡Oh guitarra! has, I am sure, some of the awkwardness typical of the non-guitarist writing for the guitar, but less of it thanks to Christoph Jäggin, and less of it than it would have if I hadn't spent uncountable hours trying to work out with my own fingers how one might play each chord, line and combination of lines if one were a guitarist.

Christoph’s programme was remarkable in depth of expression on the guitar. I was particularly struck by Harri Suilamo’s Eidola, Fritz Voegelin’s Nombres and another with a forgotten title by the composer Zelenka. The former two composers were at the performance, and I learned much from talking to them. Luckily for me Suilamo speaks fluent English and Voegelin fluent Spanish, having been a conservatoire professor in Colombia for several years.

A well as being wonderfully taken care of by Christoph and his wife Sayuri, I was accommodated by their daughter Misa and her husband Tenzin, both English speakers, intelligent, knowledgeable and inexhaustibly kind with me.

Back in Bolivia

Two driving forces of this event: Luz Bolivia Sánchez and María Angélica Kirigin

As a guest of Bolivia’s National Conservatoire I was in La Paz from 5 to 12 October. My visit was part of an Encounter of Bolivian Musicians called by the Conservatoire to mark its first centenary. Other guests included the guitarists Piraí Vaca and Javier Calderón and the violinists Luis Ibáñez and Javier Pinell. My hosts were the Conservatoire’s director Esperanza Téllez, the independent arts promoter and animateur extraordinaire Luz Bolivia Sánchez, and the talented journalist and media figure María Angélica Kirigin.

At the heart of my visit was the performance of Una música escondida offered by Orquesta del Centenario del Conservatorio conducted by Ramiro Soriano, with Grace Rodríguez on the piano. The concert was on 6 October and it took place in the auditorium of the Bolivian Central Bank, to a numerous, warm and appreciative audience.

The piece was a challenge to an orchestra that had got together specially for the occasion, that is, who were not used to playing together, let alone to playing contemporary music. This orchestra included several musicians with whom I had worked in my years as an orchestral player in La Paz, back in the 1970s: Fredy Céspedes, the leader, who is now also the successful conductor of Orquesta Sinfónica de El Alto; his wife the cellist María Eugenia; beside her Willy Velarde; the violinist Luis Ibáñez, who returned from his base in Boston for the occasion; another violinist, Berthin Ibáñez; the cellist Miguel Salazar and the double bassist René Saavedra. Their presence at the rehearsals and the concert made this project all the more special. Ramiro Soriano and I had last worked together in 1984 for an orchestral-choral concert featuring his creation the excellent chamber choir Coral Nova, whereas Grace Rodríguez and I had last worked together when she was a student in my harmony class at the Consevatoire. They all did a splendid job and deserve nothing but praise.

The visit also gave me the opportunity to interact with current staff and students at the Conservatoire. I offered two sessions, one on my own Mystical Dances and the other on general topics of contemporary music requested by the composition teacher, Oldrich Halas. It was also my pleasure to meet Oldrich and our colleague Juan Siles, for an informal meeting where they presented their work. I had heard their music before, but this was a valuable chance to refresh my knowledge of the development and achievements of these highly talented figures of Bolivian music.

The Conservatoire is a transformed place. When I worked there in the 1970s it had a single site on Avenida 6 de Agosto, characterised by a bohemian dinginess. Nowadays they enjoy a newer locale, a tastefully restored colonial building on Calle Reyes Ortiz, off El Prado. The standard of the work has changed too. I attended some debates on the curricular reforms now being planned, and was impressed by the level of the debate, intelligently led by Esperanza Téllez and one of the lights of the institution, the multi-instrumentalist Álvaro Montenegro.

Encounter in La Paz

October will see the centenary of Conservatorio Nacional de Música, one of the most venerable musical institutions of Bolivia. For this great occasion a small team of visionaries has put together an Encounter of Bolivian Musicians, bringing together an array of musical personalities connected with the Conservatorio, which means, give or take, all the country's main musicians and composers. The original proposal had been to bring back to Bolivia all those who are working abroad too, and the instigator, a dynamo of energy and inspiration by the name of Luz Bolivia Sánchez, had secured the funding to make this possible. The fact that this extended reunion of expatriates is going to take place only partially and that the scope of the events is going to be scaled down is due to circumstances that I would like to understand better before I decry them on these pages, but the fact that the Encounter is going ahead at all is a tribute to Luz Bolivia's enormous dedication, inspiration and powers of persuasion.

The Encounter will take place between 4 and 12 October. The schedule is still being worked on, but I so far know that there will be two performances of my Una música escondida (A Hidden Music) by the Conservatoire Orchestra conducted by Bolivia's foremost conductor, Ramiro Soriano, and with Grace Rodríguez at the piano. Performances of other pieces are in preparation, I am told, and I will mention them when I know more.

Performance of Mystical Dances at The Sage Gateshead on 1 August 2007

August is the month when Bolivia celebrates its anniversary on the 6th and when my patron saint is remembered on the 28th. This year, Newcastle University is making me a professor, and the appointment is effective from 1 August. In a separate development, Northern Sinfonia scheduled for this date its second performance of Mystical Dances at Hall One in The Sage Gateshead. Usually, for reasons I’ll never know, when there is a convergence of good things this happens in May (often the 23rd) or in November. And yet this year the pattern is breaking and August is emerging as an intriguingly eventful time of the year. But I’m not here to discuss astrology.

The performance was conducted by the very young and very talented Alexander Shelley, who gave a spirited rendition with plenty of character and verve. He controlled the orchestra with an authority that belies his youth, and he showed that he had taken the time to think and understand the expressive intentions of the piece. The orchestra responded very well, and the commitment of their performance was as visible as it was audible. I know that there was a receptive audience listening and, in a large proportion, understanding. Even though I can’t explain how this happens, I know this, in the same way as I know when the opposite happens and the music falls flat, which luckily wasn’t the case last night.

The auditorium was, of course, one of the factors of success. Hall One has a remarkable clarity of sound which enables you to follow the orchestral flow like a film on a panoramic screen. Everything was there, clearly exposed, provided you had enough time to listen to it. The fact that the orchestra had done the piece before was another factor, as familiarity lent an added confidence. For some of the players, however, this familiarity may have been a hindrance rather than a help when tackling the revised version; surprises may have sprung up with irksome frequency, especially in the last movement where the old material is now treated very differently. And yet there was no sign of irritation at the rehearsals, and certainly not at the concert when the orchestra shone with flair and wholeheartedness.

I had fretted a little about how Mystical Dances would sit in a programme surrounded by such popular classics as El amor brujo and Concierto de Aranjuez. In the event the decision was vindicated and I had to admit to the programming director, Simon Clugston, that I had been wrong to fret. Falla is, of course, an important influence from my earliest composing years, and although Rodrigo has never excited me much, his simplicity of means seems now a worthy reference point.

New work: String Quartet No 1 'Montes'


Llojeta by Fernando Montes (photograph by Vince Harris, reproduced by permission)

This project is a collaboration with the Momenta String Quartet of New York, who will be performing the new piece at the Rock Hall Auditorium, Temple University, Philadelphia, on 28 November.

The title is a homage to the Bolivian painter Fernando Montes, who died in London last January. Even though he spent much of his life in London, Montes's work is a pure and concentrated distillation of the landscape and soul of Bolivia. Looking at his work, aside from deriving great aesthetic pleasure, I feel impelled to reassess my own position vis-à-vis my native country. It is a temptation to aspire to be to Bolivia in music what Montes is to Bolivia in art.

The new string quartet looks the concept of bolivianity in the face, in its many-sided contradictions and with that painful detachment from the physical reality of the country that turns it into an inner world, possibly the biggest component of oneself, but, unlike the real homeland, impossible to share - other than, perhaps, through music, or the paintings of Fernando Montes.

The piece will also be my personal tribute to a very dear friend, and an embrace of support to his widow Marcela, his daughter Sarita and his son Juan Enrique (also an excellent artist), old allies in friendship and cultural adventures.

Revision of Mystical Dances

Pleased to report that I've completed the revision of Mystical Dances, leaving just enough time for new material to be prepared for the performance at the Sage on 1 August.

I thought I had written the last note last Friday, but I was still feeling dissatisfied with the ending till, in my insomnia, a solution came to me two nights ago. Before daring to implement it, I spoke to Tato, the long-suffering and hyper-productive music processing expert at Tritó, to ask if it would be too late for a last-minute change. Tato, a violinist and conductor in his own right, had already got on with some of the parts, but his reply was unhesitant: go ahead. After a frantic few hours the new ending was done and sent off to Barcelona.

For those of you not familiar with the minutiae of orchestral concert preparation, most orchestra librarians require the material at least a month before the date of the concert. This leaves Tato with only a few days to go to copy all the orchestral parts, sort out the pagination, reproduction and binding and heaven knows what else that I don't know about, before the big parcel can be dispatched to Gateshead. Thank you, Tato!

The new version has had some clumsy writing fixed throughout, and the third movement has been extensively rewritten so that the thematic material holds together more tightly. The first performance last November, aside from the disengaged conducting I could do nothing about, exposed weaknesses in the last movement which I could do something about. I think the job is done now.

Project with Mr McFall's Chamber

Apologies for not placing any posting for several months. It is April now, and the dizzy race of time has meant that I have left several developments unreported.

The main one to highlight is the project with Mr McFall's Chamber last February in Scotland. This virtuoso ensemble performed two concerts of music by my colleagues Kathryn Tickell and Tim Garland and by myself. The first was at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh, and the second at The Old Tolbooth in Stirling.

Kathryn Tickell revived her Lordenshaws, a work for a chamber ensemble she had composed in 2000 to a commission from the ensemble Vaganza. This time the piece received a spirited rendition from a committed group which showed its trademark mercuriality by welcoming on its ranks Tickell herself on the Northumbrian pipes and Peter Tickell on fiddle. Allowed to flow with ease, Tickell's music shone with melodic invention, instrumental subtlety and, in the final movement, rhythmic energy.

Tim Garland was the bass clarinet soloist for the première of his In Translation. A gracefully melodious first movement was followed by a lively dance in six-four time full of Spanish echoes, more likely than not filtered through the lens of Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole. The closing movement seemed to me the most individual contribution, with passages of explosive energy showing the bass clarinet deployed to great effect in unison with low strings and the piano's left hand.

Of mine, the Chamber offered Botanic Spider, a work they returned to after their first incursion at the ¡Vamos! Festival last July. The combined effect of this increased familiarity with the player's sophisticated musicality brought this piece to its highest level of accomplishment ever. I was overcome by admiration and gratitude.

Mr McFall's Chamber also gave the première of Fantasia on a Theme by Kathryn Tickell, featuring Kathryn on Northumbrian pipes and all the wind players, underpinned by Rick Standley's double bass. The piece is a personal re-elaboration by me of Tickell's tune Kate's House.

 
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