Saturday, 4 February 2017

Birthday celebrations: I chat to composer Nicola Lefanu about her forthcoming premieres

Nicola LeFanu - © MichaelLynch
Nicola LeFanu - © MichaelLynch
The composer Nicola LeFanu is 70 this year, and the musical celebrations include the first performance of her new piece for soprano and orchestra, The Crimson Bird. In fact this is her first symphonic scale orchestral work for 30 years, and the work will be  premiered by Rachel Nicholls, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov, at the Barbican on 17 February 2017. There is also a new CD of her music from the Gemini Ensemble on Metier label, and a number of other celebratory first performances. I met up with Nicola to find out more.

Nicola was born in England to Irish parents, and her mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy. She studied at Oxford and at Harvard, and was awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship. She was Professor of Music at York University from 1994 to 2008, when she retired. Her compositions include eight operas.

'Addicted to opera'


Tomoko Komura in Nicola Lefanu's Tokaido Road - photo Greg Trezise
Tomoko Komura in Nicola Lefanu's Tokaido Road
photo Greg Trezise
I was curious whether the omission of large scale orchestral pieces from Nicola's recent catalogue was deliberate. She explains that orchestra is not omitted entirely, her short orchestral piece Threnody was premiered by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in in Dublin in 2015, and she has written works for string orchestra, but that much of her work was been devoted to opera. A couple of times during our conversation she refers to herself as 'addicted to opera', Indeed she has written eight, and has had a wonderful time with her operatic opportunities. She also explained that she is not the type of composer who writes pieces for the bottom drawer, instead she reacts to invitations and likes responding to people, though sometimes she presents performers with ideas of her own.

So it is, to a certain extent, happenstance that we have not had a Nicola LeFanu symphonic scale orchestral work recently, but she also points out that most repeat performances of her earlier orchestral works have been outside the UK so that she seems to have fallen off the radar of the commissioners of orchestra music in the UK (certainly not the first major composer to do so).

Bursary for a mature composer to support the creation of a new work


The Crimson Bird came about because Nicola was awarded the Elgar Bursary by the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2014. The bursary is for a mature composer to support the creation of a new work which 'may push back musical boundaries, but not at the expense of accessibility and integrity'. The bursary is not something that you apply for, it is awarded and the recipient is chosen by a committee made up of composers, people from the Royal Philharmonic Society and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The money for the bursary is provided from the royalties from Anthony Payne's completion of Elgar's Symphony No. 3, a generous idea of Payne and the Elgar family.

For The Crimson Bird, Nicola sets part of Siege, a poem by John Fuller, a poet with whom she has collaborated in the past. She chose The Crimson Bird for the title (the phrase comes from a line in the poem) because she wanted an evocative title which linked to themes from the poem. But she has drawn the text from the poem, rather than setting it complete, so having a different title was appropriate.

'A wonderful phone call'


Nicola Lefanu's Dream Hunter - Lontano Ensemble
Nicola Lefanu's Dream Hunter
Lontano Ensemble
Nicola discovered about the Elgar Bursary after what she refers to as 'a wonderful phone call', and the award came with a commission for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, so a large scale orchestral piece was inevitable. She had discussions with the BBC about the form of the piece, whether it was to be a concerto, a symphony or such, and she was aware that whilst it should push back boundaries it should also be accessible. Nicola could already feel the piece growing, and wanted to write for soprano and orchestra. This would need someone who could soar over the orchestra, but also someone who was happy singing new music and she thought immediately of Rachel Nicholls (now best known for her Wagner performances but who has sung quite a lot of new music). The bursary was awarded in 2014 but the premiere of the new piece was delayed partly by Nicola's existing work and partly by scheduling difficulties, so that the premiere during her 70th birthday year is a happy accident.

Asked to describe her music, Nicola calls it lyrical and dramatic, adding that writing for orchestra in The Crimson Bird as marvellous. Inevitably her music is affected by her operatic experience and she feels you can hear that it is linear and melodic, but harmony is important to her and in her orchestral writing she appreciates being able to write dense harmonies and find ways to make them radiant and translucent.

Issues of love and conflict which are timeless.


The Crimson Bird has links to her previous orchestra work Threnody. Three years ago she was in Dublin, (she teaches at the Irish Composition Summer School, which she feels is a wonderful way of keeping up with the up and coming young Irish composers), whilst in Dublin she came across Brendan Kennelly's translation of Euripedes' The Trojan Women. She was very moved by it, though she did not want to use it for an opera, finding the play very black and full of despair. But she was struck by the moving words of Hecuba describing the murder of her infant grandson as his body is thrown over the walls of Troy by the Greeks. The result was her orchestra work Threnody, an abstract work for all the children killed in war.

When thinking of writing her work for the Elgar Bursary, Nicola approached John Fuller (with whom she had collaborated on her opera Dream Hunter) saying she wished to write a large scale serious work and told him about the origins of Threnody. She wanted a subject which was of today, but not so topical that it ceases to be relevant next year. John Fuller's resulting poem, Siege thus deals with issues of love and conflict which are timeless.
Nicola Lefanu with Okeanos Ensemble & cast of Tokaido Road
Nicola Lefanu with Okeanos Ensemble & cast of Tokaido Road

Composer of the Week for BBC Radio 3


The other celebrations of Nicola's 70th birthday are interestingly varied. She is looking forward to recording Composer of the Week for BBC Radio 3 which she feels is a good opportunity to be able to present her whole body of work (in five shows which are broadcast daily). But she will also be talking about other composers who are important to her and each programme will present two or three of her works, and a work by someone important to her.

I was interested to learn who were the major influences on Nicola's music, and she comments that there have been different kinds of influences. Primary amongst these must be her mother, the composer Elizabeth Maconchy, who was immensely important to Nicola not so much for the style of her music as more for the role model, someone passionate and devoted to music. Nicola comments that Maconchy had great success at the beginning and end of her career but not so much in the middle, though she continued composing. (In fact, Nicola and I first met at Independent Opera's performance of Elizabeth Maconchy's The Sofa, see my review).

Nicola is married to the composer David Lumsdaine, so inevitably he is very important to her though she feels that their music is not very alike. Her teacher Jeremy Dale Roberts, who introduced her to major 20th century classics when she was in her teens, is someone whose work she loves, but again she was influenced more by his approach to music than the actual notes. In her mid-20s she studied in the USA with Earl Kim, a pupil of Schoenberg. In fact, they had long conversations about Mozart and Schubert as both were passionate about the composers and she appreciated being having deep conversations with a fellow composer.

Nicola LeFanu - © MichaelLynch
Nicola LeFanu - © MichaelLynch

'Dots and dashes'


Regarding influences to the actual 'dots and dashes', she cites the music of Luigi Dallapiccola, who showed her that apparently strict systems can yield passionate, lyrical results and she cites his opera The Prisoner. She learned a lot from immersing herself in the music of Janacek, the relationship of voices and instruments and the pacing of drama, whilst from Mozart she learned about voices and tessitura. From Berg's Wozzeck she learned that moments of heightened emotions need the strictest of musical systems. European opera is something which interests Nicola, and which she really searches out, but she admits that she has not learned much from Minimalism.

Nicola writes the music in pencil on manuscript paper. She then transfers it to computer (she uses Finale), she does this herself as she finds that this is part of the editing process for the music.

Each of her operas has begun with a different invitation


Her favourite amongst her operas remains Dream Hunter, which she wrote with John Fuller and which was premiered by Lontano in 2011 Her most recent piece, Tokaido Road: A journey after Hiroshige (premiered by the Okeanos Ensemble at Cheltenham Music Festival in 2014 and based on Hiroshige engravings) is something of a special case being closer to music theatre. She hopes to do more opera, but has no concrete plans, and is currently more concerned with revivals. One group is hoping to revive The Story of Mary O'Neil and she would love to revive Light Passing her church opera.

She did not start writing opera till she felt she was ready, and when she wrote her first opera Dawn Path in 1977 she had already written two orchestral pieces, and she thinks that young composers often embrace opera too early.

Nicola has never written her own librettos, she prefers collaboration and likes sparking ideas off librettists and directors. Each of her operas has begun with a different invitation, so the path to the librettist has been different each time. She likes the collaborative nature of the enterprise, and the process can take as long as five years (her opera Blood Wedding took this long). And even on the slimmest of budgets, you have a long rehearsal period when she can work with the singers and the music can grow. And she contrasts this with the relatively short rehearsal periods which orchestral works get, also opera performances generally have tours with multiple performances whereas orchestra pieces often have a single performance. Nicola sees contemporary opera attracting a broader audience than contemporary orchestral music, people interested in theatre being willing to give the new opera a try in a way which does not happen with new orchestral music,
Nicola Lefanu - Tokaido Road - Okeanos Ensemble - photo Greg Trezise
Nicola Lefanu - Tokaido Road - Okeanos Ensemble - photo Greg Trezise

Birthday celebrations


There are a number of premieres happening this year, celebrating her birthday. She has a wind quintet being premiered on 6 April 2017, this was a commission to write a piece for good amateurs and she admits that after writing The Crimson Bird for the BBC Symphony Orchestra she rather enjoyed the process, needing to create something engaging and challenging but still fun. The commission reflects the fact that there is a wealth of amateur music-making in the UK, but players sometimes struggle to find suitable works to play.

There is also birthday concert for Nicola being given by the Goldfield Ensemble at Lyons Concert Hall in York on 10 May. They are an ensemble who perform a lot of new music, but also music by 18th and 19th century composers, and at the York concert they will be playing two of Nicola's works and one by her mother, Elizabeth Maconchy

On 16 May 2017, May Rain will be premiered by mezzo-soprano Charlotte Tetley, the Orchestra of St John's, conductor Cayenna Ponchione, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The work sets a poem by the Irish poet Kerry Hardie, and is part of a concert on the theme of water. It was commissioned by conductor Cayenna Ponchione, an Alaskan who has a passion for environmental issues and who conducted a piece of Nicola's last year.

On 30 May 2017, The Swan is premiered by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and ensemble at the Beaumaris Festival in Wales. A setting of a Medieval Latin poem which has been translated by Fleur Adcock, and Nicola is going to set both the Latin and the English, finding the Latin lovely to set but wanting to have English so the audience understands. The commissioner is the baritone Jeremy Huw Williams, who performed in the premieres of Nicola's Tokaido Road and Dream Hunter. The poem works on two levels, simply a description of the flight of a swan, and a metaphorical description of the soul's journey.

Further ahead, in November 2017, Odaline de la Martinez and Lontano will be devoting an entire concert to Nicola's music at The Warehouse in London. The programme will include Old Woman of Beare, Nicola's setting of an Irish poem which was originally commissioned by Odaline de la Martinez in 1981 and was first recorded by Jane Manning.

The new CD of Nicola's music will be launched on 18 February 2017. This has been recorded by the Gemini Ensemble, a group which has championed Nicola's music, and will come out on the Metier label. The disc includes a large work by Nicola's husband, David Lumsdaine, his Mandala 3 which gives the disc its name alongside Nicola's Clarinet Quintet and a trio for soprano, clarinet and cello, with soprano Sarah Leonard (Available from Amazon),

Nicola is also helping to organise another birthday concert, that of the composer Erica Fox who is 80 this year. Erica Fox is another composer whose work has been relatively neglected recently, and the concert will present a programme of her chamber music at Burgh House, Hampstead on 19 March 2017 with the group Sounds Positive.

Nicola Lefanu - highlights of 2017

17 February
Schrecker 'Nachtstück' from Der ferne Klang
Nicola LeFanu The Crimson Bird, for soprano and orchestra (RPS commission, world premiere)
Rachmaninov Symphony No 3
Rachel Nicholls soprano
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov conductor
Barbican Centre, Barbican, London

10 May - Invisible Places Birthday Concert
Programme tbc
Goldfield Ensemble
Lyons Concert Hall, York

16 May
Nicola LeFanu May Rain (premiere)
Orchestra of St. John's Smith Square
Charlotte Tetley mezzo-soprano
Cayenna Ponchione conductor
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

30 May
Nicola LeFanu The Swan (premiere)
Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone)
Beaumaris Festival, Beaumaris, Wales

2 September
Nicola LeFanu String Quartet No. 4 (premiere)
Bingham String Quartet
York


Elsewhere on this blog:

  • Dark doings in the basement: Menotti's The Medium from Magnetic Opera - opera review
  • Music of a forgotten master: Daniel Grimwood in piano music by Adolf von Henselt - CD review
  • Muhly, Argento & Schumann: Alice Coote and Julius Drake at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • New ideas round the edges: I chat to Samir Savant, new Festival Director of the London Handel Festival - interview
  • Striking but contrasting 20th century works: Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO in Kancheli, Martinu and RVW - concert review
  • Getting beyond the music history: Rossi's Hebrew Psalms from Profeti della Quinta - CD review
  • Poetic exploration: Dresden Festival Orchestra in Schumann with Ivor Bolton and Jan Vogler - CD review
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