Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Giving a world premiere of a new work is, understandably, a rareity for the OAE. It’s not totally unknown however, and we have performed new pieces by Mark Anthony Turnage, Jonathan Dove and Heiner Goebbels in the past. Indeed the Goebbels has become something of a signature piece for us and the London Sinfonietta, with us notching up several performances now, across Europe and the USA.

This Sunday sees us give our latest premiere, this time by Sally Beamish. It is part of Music 20×12, 20 new works commissioned by the PRS for Music Foundation for the Olympic Year. Scored for strings only, it is set to text by The Times columnist Melanie Reid, and we are very pleased to have secured actress Juliet Stevenson to narrate it.

Sally Describes the piece in her programme note:

“I have known Melanie Reid, and enjoyed her writing, ever since I moved to the Stirlingshire village where we both live, in 1996. When she had her devastating riding accident in 2010, and began writing ‘Spinal Column’ in The Times, I followed it every week.

The idea of working with her came to me when the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment asked me for suggestions for a PRS for Music Foundation New Music 20×12 Cultural Olympiad commission. To my delight, she agreed, and I received the text for Spinal Chords (her title) in May 2011.

It was hard to know how I could best serve the words, which I found deeply moving; but Melanie’s title gave me a good starting point: the idea of the chord as the backbone of the music. ‘Cords’ (without an ‘h’) also suggest strings, threads, linking and joining. I realised the role of the music should be as a backdrop for a very slow drama – that of Melanie’s ‘spinal journey’.

The decision to use an actor, rather than a singer, was to preserve the directness of the text, and of Melanie’s own voice.

I started with twelve chords, which are stated, very slowly, three times; each time in a different key. The chords themselves are closely linked to each other : each builds on the one before. The string orchestra is treated as a large chamber group, with 13 solo lines, and the chords are stated at first by broken-up groups of players, gradually consolidating into larger groups, and then with the addition of ornamentation, and later, scales. The music reflects the agonising slowness of recovery, and the gradual re-connecting as the body finds ways to heal.

The piece uses the distinctive techniques of Baroque string playing: expressive bowstrokes, with a minimum of vibrato. I also draw on the similarities between Scottish traditional ornamentation, and that of Baroque music.”

Today saw the first rehearsal of the piece, with composer Sally Beamish in attendance, and here are a few pictures of the rehearsal.

Sally will appear alongside violinist Matthew Truscott, who is directing the concert, on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune today from 5.45pm. If you miss it you can listen to it again here.

You can read more about the collaboration between Sally and Melanie in The Times here (subscribers only)

The World Premiere of Spinal Chords is at Southampton’s Turner Sims on Sunday 5 February, with the London Premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 10 February.

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