08 May 2016

After the Gathering at Alwinton Church

In the bewitching setting of Alwinton Church, near Alwinton in the Upper Coquet Valley, Norhumberland, there is a concert series that has been making ripples for several years now, Alwinton Church Summer Concerts. It is curated by one of the doyens of British contemporary music, the composer John Casken and, reflecting this man’s enlightened ideas, the programmes are distinguished by an edgy eclecticism. 

Once I had the pleasure of collaborating with Professor Casken to co-promote a project in his series, arising from the knowledge exchange venture Northumbrian Exchanges at Newcastle University, and involving my esteemed colleagues Jamie Savan and Matthew Rowan

More recently - two years ago, I believe - I was recruited as an adjudicator for the Alwinton Composers’ Competition, another initiative of John Casken. This included a workshop of the shortlisted pieces and a première given by the magnificent ensemble Psappha.  

It is therefore a pleasure to see my association with Alwinton continue, this time with the première of a work of mine, yesterday, Saturday 7 May. 

The work is After the Gathering, a commission from The Side. Acting consistently with The Side’s well-integrated diversity, they have commissioned composers from differing backgrounds to write pieces that explore common territories between these genres. One commission went to Django Bates. Another to Ian Stephenson. Another came to me. 

The common ground in this case is my longstanding love of traditional music of the Northeast of England. I chose her tune The Gathering for a more extended treatment, one where the original melody is never stated from beginning to end, but where some of its distinctive elements are developed in the context of a texturally and harmonically experimental soundworld. As ever, while doing this I found myself once more addressing that perennial interlocutor, the landscape of Northumberland. 

The four musicians of The Side did a splendid job engaging for the first time with a piece which is by no means easy. If this was the first performance, the thought of how this music will sound when they have been playing it for a while sends me aflutter.  

The audience's response was good. The series has a loyal, sensitive following, and given the calibre of the artists I was in no doubt that the church would be full. But I must admit to some apprehension prior to the concert, as to how the new work would be received in the context of a programme full of the unadulterated beauty of traditional tunes. But it seems that I need not have worried. The audience was either exemplary polite, or they followed and reacted to the piece with interest and warmth. Thank you, Alwinton. 

Let us not forget this year’s composers’ competition. The adjudicators chose Gather Here (no relation!) by Helen Walker.  This was a very sensitive treatment of the four instruments in an idiom that integrated well some tradition with some contemporary scoring practices. The piece fitted perfectly The Side’s approach, and it is not surprising to hear that they are intending to adopt Gather Here in their regular repertoire. 

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