A Northumbrian Anthem

Yesterday saw the completion of A Northumbrian Anthem, a five-minute piece for organ. It was written to specific requirements which I hope to have fulfilled to the letter. 

The brief may have seemed restrictive to start with, but in the event it proved a more than suitable vehicle for what is now an anthem of love, gratitude and hope. 

A computer simulation will be released on the date designated for the première, 22 November.   


I report completion of LoA, a ten-minute chamber piece for nine instruments (Headspace, Oboe/cor anglais, Soprano/alto saxophone, Lever harp, Electric guitar, Violin, Viola, Cello, Double bass).

This is a commission from North Music Trust as part of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Royal Northern Sinfonia. The première is scheduled for 22 September 2018 in Sage Two, Sage Gateshead, by RNS players and guests.

The programme notes are available in the relevant part of this blog.

There is also an alternative version of this piece for ten instruments, with a trumpet and a bassoon replacing the rather unique Headspace, and instrument which has been developed for the specific requirements of the extraordinary musician Clarence Adoo.

Sigismund Toduță Festival 2018

With some delay I write a few lines on this year’s Sigismund Toduță Festival, which took place from 11 to 17 May in Cluj-Napoca. This year’s was my third visit to the Festival.

The Festival is an impressive display of organisation by the staff at Academia de Muzică Gheorghe Dima, with strong support from a group of students in musicology and music management. They have established a tradition of running an international conference in parallel to a programme of concerts and masterclasses. The performers are staff and students from the Academy. The participants in the conference are staff and guests from other parts of Romania and from abroad. The programmes have a predominance of contemporary Romanian music, not excluding their own, that is, music by professors, graduates and students from the Gheorghe Dima.

My links with Romania, which I consider an important part of my life, hinge on the connection with the Sigismund Toduță Festival. (The relationship with the National Music University of Bucharest is less assiduous, although much valued too). Every time I go to Cluj I find new reasons to be impressed and grateful. This time the Festival had the good grace to recommend that the Academy award me an honorary doctorate, and the Academy had the good grace to agree.

The conferral took place in a short and tasteful ceremony on 15 May in the AMGD Hall. The wonderful composer Adrian Pop, a professor at the Academy, read the citation – referred to in Romanian by its Latin name, laudatio. This was an impressively well-researched outline of my life and career, prepared with no previous consultation with me. I had known Adrian Pop as an exceptionally gifted composer and, through the work of his disciples, as an inspirational teacher. As he expatiated on me, I was overcome by admiration for his gifts as a researcher too. Even the most loyal reader of this blog will agree that to prepare a lecture on me is not a simple matter of searching in one’s local library.

The ceremony was well organised and it ran smoothly. A group of staff and students were in attendance - people who, over the years, I have grown to esteem and like.    

The following day, a work of mine was performed by Jubilate Choir under Mihaela Cesa-Goje. The work is Tres canciones sobre poemas de Rachel, composed in 1976. In my previous visit to Cluj, they had chosen Notes from Underground and they had assigned the impressive Cappella Transylvannica and baritone Christian Hodrea to the task. Composed in 2016, Notes from Underground was then my most recent piece. There are forty years between these two works. If there is a hidden meaning to this neat symmetry I am yet to uncover it; it may just be  an elegant, but wholly accidental quirk of life, with no hidden meaning.

The concert on 16 May was also an opportunity to hear another work by the prolific Alexandru Murariu, Espaces IV. This is a beautifully crafted antiphony for choir and organ, which worked very effectively in the reverberant space of Cluj’s Piarist Church. 
Together with Sebastian Țună – with whom I also had the opportunity to become better acquainted – Murariu brings an injection of freshness and creativity to new music in Romania. I have faith that these two young composers’ sphere of action will spread; they deserve a wider audience.

Leaving Cluj felt harder this time. In my last few hours there I completed a valedictory message I had started in 2016 and I put it up on social media - and on this blog - as a parting present. A few days later, a talented student at the Academy, Edith Gergely, prepared a Romanian translation. I reproduce it below with her permission.

Farewell to Cluj 2018

Well, even the most beautiful things must come to an end, although in their beauty lies an assurance that they will live on.
Thank you, Academia de Muzică Gheorghe Dima, for your generosity and kindness towards me.
Thank you, Prof Banciu and Mrs Banciu, Adrian Pop, Edith Gergely and Oana Balan for looking after me so well.
Thank you, Mihaela Cesa-Goje and Jubilate Choir, for doing my work with such commitment and good results.

Thank you, Alexandru Murariu, Sebastian Țuna and Cristian Bence-Muk, for inspiring me with your vibrant music.
Thank you, Oana Andreica, Virgil Mihaiu, Cristina Şuteu and Bianca Temeş for stimulating conversations at Olivo.
Congratulations to International Festival Sigismund Toduța for a festival that keeps going from strength to strength.
Congratulations also to all the student composers and players, and to the participating professors, for all that splendid music.
It was a joy to see 'my' Year 4 again, and to meet the younger students - one of them a few months old.

Leaving Cluj this morning (18 May), the same words came back which I had begun to jot down on my mobile phone when leaving Cluj two years ago. I completed them just now. The short lines may look like a poem, but are not intended as a poem - unless one defines poetry as the inability to express thoughts in articulate prose. (A piece of music would take too long for this purpose.)

Un último beso a tus calles, Cluj,
una última caricia de mis ojos
a tus murallas.
Suena el rumor de tus bosques
en tu música
Toduță, Türk, Țăranu
Pop, Țună, Murariu.
Habla tu historia
de sangre y fronteras
de reinos e imperios
pasiones, pensamientos, iluminaciones
en los ojos de tu gente
en sus rostros, en sus rasgos.
Se oye tu pasado
en las voces onduladas
que pueblan el aire.
Tu presente
rompe murallas
alza barreras
sana heridas.
Vibras, Cluj,
y reverberas
con eco largo.
¿Cuándo terminas, y dónde?
Tus límites no se ven
aunque tu ausencia se sienta.
Resonarás, persistente
más allá del bosque
más allá de la razón.
Aún así,
largo se hará el tiempo
sin besar con mis ojos las calles
sin tocar los muros
sin sentir las voces
de Transilvania.

James Wishart

Today's drive to Liverpool was not a conventional trip down memory lane, but a very special occasion: a send-off to James Wishart, who died last month. 

James was a composer, lecturer, pianist, conductor and animateur. He taught music to generations of students who were fired up by his enthusiasm and knowledge, myself among them. He wrote music with a refined sense of colour, textural richness and tasteful pitch control. He played the piano with extraordinary character and ease. He promoted and programmed innovative events in his adoptive city of Liverpool, helping to define its character as a viable centre for new music. 

The send-off took place at Springwood Crematorium. It was conceived and designed by two of James's closest friends, Stephen Pratt and Robin Hartwell. Endearing tributes by both of them were read as part of the programme. The whole event was conducted tastefully, lovingly and without superfluous sentimentality. It was all the stronger for that. I, for one, came out not so much with a lump in my throat as enveloped in the presence of that dear friend. 

Below is the text of my contribution to the programme. I had been asked to focus on James's work as an instigator of student performances. 

My joyful first impression of James Wishart – and my poignant last impression – were both marked by the same prominent factor: the man’s physical presence.

On a cloudy day in October 1984 he came to meet me, an arriving MMus student, at Lime Street Station – I did not know at the time how unusual an act of kindness this was from a PG supervisor in a British university. His imposing figure, standing next to the petite one of the departmental secretary Molly Burns, offered a striking contrast to the eye. Any inference that his considerable height and his not insignificant girth might be those of a sluggish person was soon dispelled when James swiftly got hold of my heaviest suitcase and with easy, almost graceful movements lifted it and put it in the boot of Molly’s Ford Fiesta. The bulk and the agility seemed at odds with each other. You could construct all kinds of metaphors around that.

To briefly fast-forward to my last impression, I won’t dwell on the painfully visible effects of the two strokes, except to say that the drastic loss of weight exposed something that previously I had only been vaguely aware of: a set of surprisingly noble facial features was now sharply delineated, making it hard to take your eyes off that face, oddly familiar, oddly new, and always lit by the same two fiery, expressive eyes which now conveyed so much of what he was unable to express verbally.

When it came to performing, James’s physical persona took centre stage – literallly. His piano playing was gritty, energetic and very precise. His conducting was focused, nimble and helpfully detailed. He understood a score better than most, and his physical movements were effective carriers of the character and gestural detail he saw in the music he performed.

I played twice in James’s student ensemble, Opus. I vividly remember the experience of playing his Icarus of 1983, conducted by him. This was a richly textured and highly gestural piece, with a challenging vibraphone part. At one rehearsal, one particularly angular and rhythmically complex gesture was proving difficult to put together. One of the players asked how the parts fitted together. James’s answer was a vocal rendition of the overall gesture – a rapid-fire stream of sung notes, falsetto beeps, growls and percussive onomatopoeia, producing such an unexpected torrent of sound that the group erupted in roars of excited laughter. His comment was “Well, you did ask”.

It may have been in the same programme – was it? – that James let me conduct a new piece of mine, Meditación No. 1. It was his idea that I should conduct it. The piano part was challenging, and of course he volunteered to play it. To what extent it was his force, his characterful touch and his rhythmic precision that kept the ensemble together I had occasion to assess retrospectively a year later, when I conducted the same piece in London.

James was perfectly willing to indulge more user-friendly tastes too. Towards the end of the academic year he put together a staged performance of Weill’s and Brecht’s The Mahagonny Songspiel. He conducted us then, and he must have been responsible for at least some of the overall production. James was equally at home in the wry humour and smoky lyricism of this piece. A salient memory is the opening, when a svelte female student in a black body suit and net tights came on stage, cracked a whip, approached the conductor, sinuously wrapped her leg around him and stamped a kiss on his cheek. The conspicuous red lipstick mark on James’s cheek seemed a fitting accessory for a trip into 1920s Germany.

In my Liverpool afterlife, so to speak, from my new base in London I engaged James to accompany the virtuoso violinist Takeshi Kobayashi, whose visit to Britain I had negotiated with the Japan Foundation. There were concerts in London and in Liverpool. The programme included Fauré’s exuberant Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano, plus Takemitsu and a selection of other Japanese contemporary music. A dizzy cocktail for any pianist, let alone one what was also a full-time university lecturer. But James learned his parts and rose to the level of the visiting virtuoso. Not for the first time, I was proud of him.


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