Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Love Journeys - an encounter with Jacques Cohen

Jacques Cohen
Jacques Cohen
Jacques Cohen and the Isis Ensemble are performing at the Purcell Room on 31 March 2014 in a concert entitled Love Journeys including music by Sibelius, Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik, Brahms and Dvorak. Composer as well as conductor, the concert also features the premiere of Jacques's song cycle Love Journeys, setting poems by James Joyce, which will be performed by Marie Vassilou. I met up with Cohen to talk about the concert and about his new work.

He describes the concert as romantic including as it does Sibelius's Romance and Dvorak's Serenade as well as Jacques's own arrangement of Brahms's Clarinet Sonata in F minor for clarinet and strings (with clarinet solo by Anna Hashimoto). One unusual piece is Molitwa which is by both Andrzej Panufnik and his daughter Roxanna. Andrzej started the piece as a vocal setting of a poem, he found the poem so wonderful that he did not write all of the piece just the opening and closing. Roxanna completed it, writing the middle section, though Jacquesdescribes it as seamless. Originally for string quartet, Jacques's Isis Ensemble was the first group to record the string orchestra version in 2008.


Jacques's own new piece, Love Journeys, sets six James Joyce poems for soprano and string ensemble. The poems are taken from a collection of 36 poems by James Joyce entitled Chamber Music, a collection which Cohen says is intimate and musical. The poems in Joyce's collection tell a story, a love affair that starts in Spring and ends in Autumn. Jacques has selected just enough of the poems to tell the story.

As a composer Jacques initially found it difficult to set text, eventually realising that he needed the right sort of texts. For him, good poems can be negated when set to music and he prefers setting words which were designed to be set to music, finding that they leave room for the music and he gives Shakespeare and Blake as examples. He finds the same quality in the Joyce (in fact Joyce himself set one of the poems to music). For Jacques a song should sound as if the words were always meant sound that way, rather than a fine text with music added.

A lot of Jacques's pieces take as their structure one big musical arch, a shape which has always fascinated him. For the Purcell Room concert he was going to perform another of his pieces, a big intense one-movement arch-shaped piece. Instead, he changed his mind and set out to write a sequence of little gems. But he points out that the songs all lead into each other with the penultimate song as the climactic one, and all the songs are interrelated by musical and verbal themes, so that the cycle can in fact still be seen as a single over-arching work.

The soloist at the premiere will be the soprano Marie Vasiliou. Jacques and Marie were at the Royal College of Music together and not only does he know her voice well, but he feels that she is sympathetic with the ethos of the Isis Ensemble. He wrote his chamber opera The Lady of Satis House for Vasiliou and she premiered it with the Piatti Quartet at the 2012 Tete a Tete Opera Festival. The opera deals with the character of Miss Havisham from Dickens's Great Expectations, with the soprano soloist performing all the characters. Miss Havisham is sung, all the others are spoken and there is an ambiguity as to whether they are simply in Miss Havisham's head. (You can see the opera on the Tete a Tete website).

Jacques Cohen conducting the Isis Ensemble
Jacques Cohen conducting the Isis Ensemble
Jacques founded the Isis Ensemble in 2005. The ensemble uses a mixture of chamber musicians and players from orchestra such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Jacques aims to create an environment where they can make the music they want to make. With few concerts per year every player is there because they want to be. There is no particular agenda, just making music of high quality and with what Jacques describes as a particular energy. Their recordings have included Jacques's own string orchestra transcriptions along with music never recorded before.

Jacques says that the music that interest him the most is that which is in some way programmatic or sounds like it ought to be, music that wants to communicate something. For him the best music transcends sound, and conveys feeling. He divides composers into communicators and perfectionists, putting Boulez in the latter category and himself in the former. He refers to himself as manipulating shared cultural information in a context which helps to communicate with the listener, and describes his music as having what he hopes is a very individual lyricism and passion.

Whilst an undergraduate at Oxford, Jacques conducted the university orchestras and got pieces performed. He then went on to study conducting at the Royal College of Music, getting the offer of a bursary which he could not refuse. This meant that he composed secretly, having found the other composers at the RCM rather intimidating. He talks about it taking time for everything in his composition to settle; he had a few lessons as well as taking seminars with George Benjamin but he describes himself as largely self-taught.

When I ask whether he keeps his composing and conducting in separate boxes, or whether the one influences the other, he laughs and says that he has never really thought about it. Then he admits that he does rather keep the two in separate boxes. The pieces he conducts do not influence his composition processes. When he does look at works with a view to learning something, he normally chooses piece he does not conduct and which will not sound like his music. Here he names Bach, whose scores he studies a lot and to whose music he listens, and Birtwistle who is a composer that Jacques clearly admires even though their ethos is so different. He talks about Birtwistle being able to do what ever he wants, finding it inspiring what Birtwistle can do with a pen and paper.

When it comes to the reverse direction it is clear that sometimes the composer does influence the conductor. He is willing to give advice to young composers whose work he is conducting, providing he is asked. And he admits that there are one or two works he'd like to adjust, such as Cesar Franck's Symphony which he feels needs a few bars adding to the composer to balance it up. Our talk then has an interesting diversion into Mahler's rescoring classic works in which Jacques finds a certain trueness of intention.

In his own string transcriptions, Jacques finds it important to be true to the composer's intentions. And he has a similar ethos with the works he conducts, choosing pieces that he really admires and again striving to be true to the composer's intentions. There is a danger with composer conductors that they make other composer's works sound like their own; Jacques cites Stokowski and Bernstein as great musicians who could bring this off. In his own conducting Jacques endeavours to avoid the trap. But achieving the composer's intentions doesn't imply that there is a single way to perform a work, for Jacques there may be an infinite number of ways that are right and even more that are wrong.

At the end of February, Jacques and the Isis Ensemble are recording Jacques transcriptions of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Brahms's Clarinet Sonata in F minor. In April they are performing Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms with the Lloyds choir and Jacques talks of exciting plans and collaborations ahead.

In his own composing, he has a commission to write a large choral/orchestral work for 2015. He is planning to write a partner for his Passion Fragment which dealt with the denial of St Peter. The new piece will be Exodus Fragment dealing with the rather more upbeat subject of the parting of the Red Sea. He has a commission from the Piatti Quartet, and the Fitzwilliam Quartet will be performing a new piece 3 days after the Purcell Room concert.

Further information about the Isis Ensemble's Purcell Room concert on 31 March from the South Bank Centre website.

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