Colin Currie and Kalevi Aho in conversation

Read an interview with Colin Currie (CC) and Kalevi Aho (KA) about the new percussion concerto written for him by Aho in what is one of the most eagerly-anticipated premieres of the season .

CC Kalevi Aho – your new “Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra”, entitled  “Sieidi”, represents a colossal milestone within the Solo Percussion with Large Symphony Orchestra genre. This work is vast in scope and depth, as well as having a highly developed poetic and dramaturgical sense. Did indeed the project of percussion and orchestra present to you a near-optimum canvas to unleash the full power of your music, both its lyricism and explosiveness?

KA I cannot say which is for me the most optimum canvas to unleash my musical visions. If you write a concerto, every instrument has its own unique possibilities, which you only must find out. But the percussion world is exceptionally rich and gives such opportunity towards a very many-sided and rich musical expression, from the most silent and lyrical nuances to wild rhythmical drive and musical explosiveness.

CC The percussionist has a bold and commanding role in this work, playing a variety of instruments. I’m delighted with the inclusion of two ‘ethnic’ hand-drums in the work too, djembe and darabuka. Can you tell of your interest and study of these drums?

KH In the middle of the 90s I began to ponder, which elements of the music I should use in a richer way in the future. One element was the rhythm and the percussion instrumentation of the orchestral works. I was a little bit tired also with the western drum-set instruments, which dominate especially pop and light music. That time I began to study non-western classical music cultures, and heard a lot of Arabian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and African music. I noticed that the rhythm in the western music is quite primitive compared especially with the Arabian and African rhythms. At the same time I found the djembe and darabuka, which I used for the first time in my Symphony No. 11 (1997-98), written for six percussionists and orchestra (the solo group in its premiere was the Swedish Kroumata percussion ensemble). I liked the sound of those instruments a lot; it is not as hard as the sound of the drums, which you play with sticks. You can get from the djembe and darabuka very many nuances. Especially the darabuka is also a quite difficult instrument if you use by playing the finger technics, as the Arabian and Persian percussion virtuosos do. I would like to use in my works sometimes also the Indian tablas, but almost no western percussionist can really play the tablas, and the Indian masters cannot read notes. In my many orchestral pieces and concertos, written after the 11th Symphony, you can hear a lot of influences especially from the complicated Arabian and African rhythms.

CC  Indeed – and I feel that the very keenly developed rhythmic language you use in the work will be thrilling in live performance. Seldom can influences from far-flung continents be integrated safely and effectively into our westernised compositional world, but here we see a highly compelling result.Could you tell us something about the very evocative title of the work, ‘Sieidi’?

KA The Percussion concerto has three commissioners, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Luosto Classic Music Festival and the Gothenburg Symphony orchestra. The concert on 12 August at Luosto, in Finnish Lapland (with the BBC Philharmonic) is a very special happening, because it is an outdoors concert on the slope of the mountain Luosto. Some hundred years ago the sami people lived in that area. They had many cult places, which they called ‘Sieidi’. Sieidi is a Northern Sami word meaning `cult images’, and referred to objects such as strange, big rocks, cliffs or entire mountains situated at strategic locations for the hunter, fisherman or reindeer herder. It is well possible that the mountain Luosto was for them a ‘sieidiŽ, too. The drumming of the djembe and darabuka at the beginning and the end of the concerto is quite shamanistic; you could imagine that it is a drumming of a shaman at a ‘sieidi’.

CC Very magical imagery, and as such then, the work has at least one specific reference to Finnish folk culture. This concerto, and indeed your whole output as a composer is part of the overwhelmingly valuable contribution to classical music in general made by Finland, a staggering and inspiring piece of recent history. Can I ask you more broadly for some comments on the culture for classical music in Finland and the legacy of the music of Jean Sibelius?

KA Sibelius was the leading musical personality in Finland in his time, and his works still dominate the repertoire of the Finnish orchestras. However, his style has had in Finland no imitators because he didn’t teach a lot, and his music is so original. It is difficult to find any influences of Sibelius also in my music; I have worked from other starting points. The situation of the classical music in Finland is probably one of the best ones in the world. The state and the cities financially support the orchestras. The Finnish concert programmes are very many-sided – it is typical that the orchestras like to combine contemporary and classical music in the same concert. The composers have a lot of commissions, and the state and the foundations give grants for the artists. For many composers from abroad Finland seems to be almost like a paradise to live in.

CC All in all, it is a great honour for me to be a part of this scene, and to give the premiere of this landmark in percussion repertoire. I look forward very much to taking ‘Sieidi’ home to the mountains of Lapland this summer, and seeing you in April in London for the premiere!

Colin Currie premieres ‘Sieidi’ with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Wednesday 18 April at Royal Festival Hall.

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Pianist Angela Hewitt talks about her forthcoming recitals

There are two chances to catch Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt at Southbank Centre. Tomorrow’s International Piano Series recital includes a Bach Partita, Beethoven’s Eroica Variations and Brahms’ Handel Variations.  Angela writes:

“My programme pairs two suites of the Baroque period with two of the greatest masterpieces ever written in variation form. It is well known that Beethoven played a lot of Bach as a boy, but perhaps less so that Brahms was greatly attracted to the music of many Baroque composers (including Couperin whose keyboard works he edited in the 1880s). I always wanted to pair a Handel Suite with the mighty Brahms/Handel Variations to show that the connection between the two does not end with the theme. Even Brahms can benefit from a ‘dusting off’ and a fresh look at the score.”

Click here to book.

Then on Monday 4 April she performs concertos by Bach and Mozart with Britten Sinfonia. In this podcast, she talks to Fiona Talkington about how her playing of Bach and Mozart is infused with song and dance, and discusses directing from the piano.

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‘Please join us and help Japan’: Sapporo Symphony Orchestra concert in aid of Japan earthquake and tsunami victims

Sapporo Symphony Orchestra have announced that their Royal Festival Hall concert on Monday 23 May will be in aid of victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The orchestra’s players and tour management will not take any payment for the performance, and all ticket proceeds will be shared between the Japanese Red Cross Society and Japan Society Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund.

They perform a beautiful programme: Takmitsu’s How slow the wind, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5, under conductor Tadaaki Otaka.

‘It was an unforeseen and terrible disaster, from which all Japanese people are working extremely hard to recover. We, the musicians, wish to turn our London appearance into a benefit concert to support the vital relief efforts in our country. Please join us and help Japan! Thank you.’ (Tadaaki Otaka)

Click here to book.

James MacMillan’s new oboe concerto: a personal view from Nicholas Daniel

Nicholas Daniel

Nicholas Daniel

On Monday 18 October oboist Nicholas Daniel will give the London premiere of  James MacMillan’s new oboe concerto at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Here Nicholas Daniel gives a personal view of the piece and how it was developed.

‘Sometimes important new pieces emerge after a long ‘courtship’ with a composer, sometimes they come out of the blue. With the James MacMillan Oboe Concerto it has been born out of a long, happy and fruitful working relationship and friendship, between James and myself and between James and the Britten Sinfonia. It is quite clear from his writing that in this time he has come to understand my playing profoundly both as conductor and composer, and, very importantly for the new piece, he understands the important relationship between me and my colleagues in the Britten Sinfonia. This, after all, is the orchestra I am a founder member of, who I adore more than any other, and keep a watchful eye on at all times, and for whom, uniquely, my wind ensemble, Haffner Winds, is the wind section.

Luckily for us the Concerto has come at a time when he seems to have found terrific ease and confidence, and even fun, in his music. One instruction in the music is ‘laughing’, for instance, over a cascade of trilled notes!

I was lucky enough to perform The World’s Ransoming, part of his massive and impressive Easter work Triune, for Cor Anglais and large orchestra, with Jimmy in my favourite Polish city, Wroclaw, 2 years ago. It was in one of the astounding churches on an island in the city centre – a very special calm and serenity descends on one there. At one moment in the piece the Cor Anglais enters on a high D# adorned with what sounds like a glitter of starlight in the percussion and I just remember looking up at Jimmy at that point and being so inspired to see the music so visible in his face that the high D# just floated out exactly as I wanted it to. Its a great gift he has to make it so easy to understand his music just by his manner and physical expression, as well as by what he says.

On that visit to Poland we discussed some general points about the Concerto, and I believe I may have made the slight mistake of asking him not to limit in any way what he wanted to write! I say mistake but I don’t mean it, of course, but the piece is really quite hard! Its arguably the most technical concerto in an oboistic sense that has been written since Elliot Carter’s. In fact I have found it harder to learn than the Carter.

When I got the music a short while ago it looked to me rather like Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto in terms of the oboe writing, by which I mean flowingly virtuosic and needing an effortlessness to the technique. It also has a very exciting soloistic and supportive role for the wind, brass and timps inside the orchestra. There is no operatic aspect of this in terms of peripatitetic requirements, but the calling across the orchestra of various groups of instruments will be a stand out feature of the work, as is palindromic writing. The slow movement is a total re-write of a solo oboe piece Jimmy wrote after the 9/11 atrocity in America, In Angustiis ii. The original piece is desolate, lost, post-nuclear, horrifying, but the concerto to me seems to have more companionship in it and more hope, and maybe more beauty.

In a way it’s hard to write about it because I haven’t heard it all yet and haven’t put it with the audience, and that changes everything. I’m finishing this little insight for you on the train on the way to the first rehearsal, and I am so excited and nervous, and honoured to have such a fine, confident piece written for me.’

To book tickets for Monday’s performance, which also features Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, click here.

James MacMillan’s Oboe Concerto is co-commissioned by Britten Sinfonia and Birmingham Town Hall, and is also being performed in Brimingham, Cambridge and Norwich.

Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra

Anna Meridith (who you might have seen this year working with Goldie on the BBC’s Maestro) and our inimitable artist in residence Shlomo have been commissioned by Southbank Centre to write a new classical work entitled ‘Concerto for Beatbox and Orchestra’.

I’ll let them explain the project for themselves:

The new piece will be performed on February 19th and 20th 2010 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a specially created 20-piece orchestra, plus the Vocal Orchestra (Shlomo’s 8-piece beatbox choir) embedded within the ensemble.

Shlomo has promised to keep us updated on the progress of this hugely ambitious project on his blog.

Tickets for the beatbox concerto and all of Shlomo’s performances at Southbank Centre are available at http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/festivals-series/shlomo-s-series