If you’ve been following my weekly dispatches for the past few months, you’ll recall that I’ve been approaching a workshop wherein my piece for eleven instruments was to be rehearsed and played. You may also recall that the prospect of working with a sizable group for the first time in years had reduced me to a sniveling, tremulous wreck. Well, the workshop was last Wednesday, and I’m relieved to tell you that it was a complete success—a golden opportunity for the four student composers whose pieces were played, a chance for lively and stimulating discussion, an encouraging red-letter day for a music school still finding its footing, and, I hope, a collaboration that the players were able to take something away from as well.
Because it’s the players, of course, who made the occasion. The London Contemporary Orchestra is a relatively new arrival on the UK new music scene; it’s a flexible constellation of as many as 80 performers, mostly students or recent graduates from London’s major conservatories. This is a group to keep your eye on, especially if your eye is in the United Kingdom. Although the players who came all the way out to Uxbridge (the Arbutus of London, so to speak) were, by and large, on the younger end of the group’s roster, they absolutely exuded professionalism and musicianship. I suppose this shouldn’t be so surprising—after all, they joined the LCO because they’re passionate about contemporary music—but I was really impressed.
My piece was first on the chopping block for rehearsal; their initial run-through was much more complete than I’d anticipated. It helped, of course, that Brunel professor Peter Wiegold was holding the baton (actually a pencil, in this case). Peter’s experience and insight brought a lot of new depth to the piece and freed me up to listen and make notes in my score. When the performers raised issues or questions, we were able to get things sorted out quickly, and I learned that if you write an Eb in the first violin and D# in the second, you’ll be likely to hear two different pitches. This seems so obvious in retrospect.
Brunel postgraduates Yuko Ohara, Duncan MacLeod, and Tristan Rhys Williams supplied three distinct and compelling pieces as well; Ohara’s evocation of an electrocardiogram was frighteningly well-orchestrated and suffused with strange tension, and MacLeod’s piece began with improbable hocketing and concluded with an eerie, unhinged chorale. Williams’s piece asked the most of the performers in terms of non-traditional instrumental writing, incorporating a variety of string and wind techniques, piano preparations, and unusual percussion instruments, occasionally deployed in imitation of a reel-to-reel tape deck’s transport; the result was highly alienated but somehow equally touching.
I could go on—the LCO and my colleagues deserve all the praise I would heap upon them. For my part, I’m just relieved that the day passed with no major train wrecks, no embarrassing errors in the parts (well, there was a single bar of alto clef in the cello—never again!), and most importantly, nothing major in the piece that I want to change. To hear such a capable ensemble realize the instructions that I labored over with so much trepidation and be happy with the result? That’s the feeling that keeps me from giving up and getting a real job. That’s why I’m in this business.