Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Strong connections: Sally Beamish on her 60th anniversary piece for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, & her personal links to the orchestra

Sally Beamish (Photo Ashley Coombes)
Sally Beamish (Photo Ashley Coombes)
Composer Sally Beamish is currently the composer-in-residence with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, during their 60th anniversary year. Tomorrow (13 November 2019) is the exact anniversary, and Sally's new work Hover, written specially for the Anniversary, will be performed by the Academy at their concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (12/11/2019) and at the Cambridge Music Festival (14/11/2019). Sally has strong associations with the ensemble, her mother was a violinist with them during the 1960s and 1970s, with the young Sally accompanying her mother to rehearsals and recording sessions, and she herself as a young viola player, performed with them. Sir Neville Marriner (who founded the ensemble) was also supportive of Sally as young composer.

Sally wrote Hover at the period when she was moving from Scotland back to England, so the work is to do with leaving, unsettledness, loss and excitement. At the time, she felt suspended as they were leaving Glasgow but unable to move into their new house. The piece is based on a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem The Wind Hover, which was suggested by her husband. She found it beautiful, and full of visual and sound images. The work uses important solo oboe and horn parts, plus strings. She knew that the piece should really be a celebration, but when writing the music it came out as an elegy. She had in fact talked about the piece to Sir Neville before he died, and he had been very supportive. In fact, she had imagined Sir Neville conducting it, but now it will be directed by the leader of the orchestra. As a self-directed piece is very different from one with a conductor, this was something she had to bear in mind.

Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Photo Academy of St Martin in the Fields)
Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Photo Academy of St Martin in the Fields)
At the centre of Hover is a lullaby which was originally a string quintet piece which was intended to invoke the sense of loss a mother feels as her children grow up, and this is now on the viola. There are also fragments of Robert Burns songs, and Scots songs, which often use the pentatonic scale, but in the new context that rather sound English, as if transported.

The poem is about a falcon, and Sir Neville's widow Molly thought this most appropriate as she thought of Sir Neville as a free, bird-like figure. Sally describes Sir Neville as being hawk-like, he didn't miss anything which, to a player, was both stimulating and frightening.

Another work which she has written for the Academy as part of her residency is an octet, Partita, which uses the same scoring as Mendelssohn's Octet. This piece, she feels, is much more grounded than Hover and has a 'Prelude', 'Fugue' and 'Chaconne' as its movements. Each variation in the 'Chaconne' is a showcase for individual players, and she wanted to the piece to reflect Sir Neville's pride in his players as soloists.

This was not just the front desk, but rank and file too. At recording sessions he would, evidently, point at rank and file players to nominate them as soloist for a particular passage. During Sally's period playing with the Academy there were lots of back desk solos. Each player was valued.

Sally's connection to the Academy is strong, not only did she play in the orchestra as a young viola player, but her mother Ursula (a violinist) was in the orchestra during the 1960s and 1970s. At Ursula's first rehearsal she said something under her breath, and Sir Neville wanted to know. Not because he was angry, but because he was interested in what each of his players thought.

Ursula would bring teenage Sally to recording sessions, and she would sit there with a book, once she had to turn pages for the harpsichordist. Sally returned as player in the 1980s, and took part in the Academy's Beethoven series, doing lots of touring. She gave a cassette of an early piece of hers, No-one not afraid, to Sir Neville, and he was appreciative and offered to play some of her stuff. She left it a couple of years before giving him anything, because at the time she had not written for orchestra.

Sally would write two or three works for the Academy's 35th anniversary celebrations, and ironically they were about moving to Scotland, with the viola as the principal voice.

When I ask her what her music is like, she says that every piece is different, it depends on what happens during the writing. There is often a Celtic influence in her music, and it has a tonal centre with often some sort of programme. She is inspired by the performers who will bring the work to life. She is very fond of the concerto form, with a protagonist out front communicating with the audiences and forming the focus of the piece. And she is also drawn to the concerto as a storyteller. Her violin concerto was written for violinist Anthony Marwood, and it was he who suggested that it be based on the novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

Sally started writing music when young, but it never occurred to her to make a living from it, being a composer was a precarious business, and there were few female role models. But within her family there were women who were professional musicians, her mother, aunts, grandmother).  She studied the viola, which she figured would bring in a steady income, whilst continuing to compose. Trying to get in to a post-graduate composition course, she was told that they would not take a composer who finished a piece in A minor! Her musical language felt not acceptable.

As a young viola player she played a lot of contemporary music in London with groups like the London Sinfonietta, and she met Peter Maxwell Davies, Luciano Berio and Oliver Knussen. They were all very helpful, and generous with advice, particularly Knussen. But she is essentially self-taught. At the time, she was too busy to write much. Then she had her first child, touring became difficult and her viola was stolen. She and her husband, who was Scots, were moving to Scotland, and she decided to take advantage of this and concentrate on composing. She did so a bit of performing after this, but not much and eventually sold her viola and did not play for 20 to 25 years.

Her third child, a daughter, became a luthier and made her mother a viola, so Sally started playing again. She played the Mendelssohn Octet with Divertimenti, a group of which she was a founder member. She still finds it difficult to fit everything in, practice becomes a displacement activity for composing, and she needs to make time for both.

As to her influences, the first name is Oliver Knussen, with whom she worked a lot, and she mentions playing in Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek and thinking that the music was fantastic and that this was what she wanted to do. Other influences are jazz and then Scots traditional music, which was all around her when she was living in Scotland, creating a hook to hang her work on and she has used Scots dance forms and variations forms, and the pibroch. She finds it wonderful to have the thread going through the music.

When she works, she does not use manuscript, but types directly into the computer keyboard, using Sibelius. She finds it quicker, and points out that once she has entered the score she automatically has the parts as well! And publishers, nowadays, insist on typeset scores.

Looking ahead, Sally is writing a Harp Concerto for symphony orchestra, and a double concerto for violin and clarinet, plus a number of chamber works.

See Sally's website for full details of concerts of her music.



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  • Beethoven Transformed: volume 1 of Boxwood & Brass' new project  (★★★★) - Cd review
  • A final farewell: the Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek captured live on their final tour, Remember me, my dear (★★★) - CD review
  • A distinct voice: Emergence, Nadine Benjamin & Nicole Panizza in settings of Emily Dickinson (★★★½) - CD review
  • The Exiled Outsiders: music by Hans Gál, Max Kowalski, Peter Gellhorn at London Song Festival  (★★★★) - concert review
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  • Kiandra Howarth takes first prize at the Grange Festival International Singing Competition - my article
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