Out With the Old...
2019 was a year of many musical highlights. During the year there were several first performances, and, very gratifyingly, many repeat performances of older pieces. Second (and third, and fourth…) performances are notoriously hard to come by for composers since the musical world often seems obsessed with premieres, so when a piece enters the repertoire of a performer or ensemble it always feels very special, as though the piece has entered maturity, and whilst every performance is different there is certainly a sense that the performers are familiar with the detail and nuance of the music in a way that rarely happens with first performances. So the musical year began with a recital in Hornsea, where James Stretton gave (what must have been) his fiftieth performance of ‘Holly’, for trombone and piano. This was closely followed by a trip to Southampton to hear the Delta Saxophone Quartet playing ‘Swan’ in the Turner Sims Concert Hall; the Deltas have been wonderful advocates of my music, and ‘Swan’ has been heard this year in London and around the UK but also in Sicily, and on radios all around the world thanks to their fine recording on Bowie, Berlin and Beyond, released in 2018 but still receiving good airplay. The Deltas also premiered ‘Rendezvous’ this year, my first foray into live music for film – part of their pioneering Project Flicks – and that is already programmed at least once for 2020 too. And my good friend Josephine Peach has given several performances of ‘From New York to Bedlam’ which I wrote for her earlier in the year, including performances in Ripon and Wakefield Cathedrals.
In terms of the number of performers, the biggest event of the year came in June with the premiere at Oxford Town Hall of ‘Of Trumpets and Angels’ (for soloist, chorus and orchestra) which had been commissioned by the Oxford Harmonic Choir; the work is a setting of two of John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’ and was designed as a companion piece to Mozart’s Requiem, using identical forces. Robert Secret directed a thrilling performance and I was very pleased with the response from performers and audience alike.
One of the happiest performances of 2019 took place in a cemetery, since the York-based Soon Amore choir gave their summer concert in the Cemetery Chapel in York – actually it’s a wonderful setting. I composed the ‘Durham Proverbs’ especially for them, and the work comprises many very, very short pieces which are to be interspersed freely around the programme, in the way that the medieval proverbs themselves were distributed randomly in the margins of a serious liturgical manuscript. It proved to be a delightful performance and I look forward to writing for Soon Amore again in the future.
I do try to attend as many performances of my pieces as I can possibly manage, but when I can’t, it is good to think of my music visiting those places without me, especially when they are places which are important to me. Such a thing happened over the summer (when I was away visiting India) the members of Atéa Winds performed my ‘Grotesques’ at Dartington Summer School in Devon, where – back in the 1980s – I had studied composition with Peter Maxwell Davies and where the Kronos Quartet first played my ‘Still Life with Angels’ – what fabulous memories! Oddly enough this has already happened again in 2020 as the Kaleidoscope Sax Quartet included ‘Swan’ in their programme at Charterhouse in January, where I was composer-in-residence from 1985-88.
Once again, the wonderful Late Music concert series has played a big part in the year, and three of my pieces were included: ‘Strike’ (performed by the Dr K Sextet), ‘Vestigium’ (a new string quartet for the Bingham Quartet) and ‘Porta dell’Inferno’ to a text by Dante, performed by Il Cor Tristo vocal quartet.
2019 turned out to be the year in which I signed a publishing contract with UYMP – a long-standing ambition - and several pieces are already in print, on sale via their website and from Musicroom/Hal Leonard.
The year began very sadly with the passing of my father on New Year's Day and, inevitably, that overshadowed so many of the year’s events. I still find myself wanting to tell him about the performances, the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been to, and to share the funny stories that I know he would have enjoyed. He always supported me in all my musical endeavours – even when the music I was writing was well outside his comfort zone – and there was never any suggestion from dad that this lad from Wigan couldn’t dream of becoming a composer.