Saturday 25 February 2017

Making the best use of his time: Leon Bosch on new music for double bass, conducting and more

Leon Bosch & I Musicanti at Kings Place, 1 May 2016
Leon Bosch & I Musicanti at Kings Place, 1 May 2016
The double-bass virtuoso Leon Bosch is a busy man. He no longer plays regularly in orchestras (he spent twenty years playing in the Academy of St Martin in the Fields) and instead concentrates on projects as varied as performing with his ensemble I Musicanti, commissioning and performing new music for double bass, as well as taking up a second career conducting. I met up with Leon to find out more.

Leon Bosch
Leon Bosch
Chatting to Leon I am immediately struck by his enthusiasm and energy. His projects would seem to take more than one lifetime to fulfil, and he has great concern to widen the repertoire, both by researching forgotten works as well as commissioning new ones. His 2009 CD The British Double Bass was a programme of 20th century British music for double bass; a remarkable tribute to Rodney Slatford of York Edition, who commissioned many of the pieces. Also on the disc is John McCabe's Pueblo which Leon commissioned.

But he feels there is still more to do in this area and plans to go back into the studio to record a disc of 21st century double bass pieces, many of which are, or are being, written for him by composers such as Roxanna Panufnik, Robin Walker (whose piece Leon describes as 'terrific') and John Woolrich. The disc, he feels, should encourage both the public and other double bass players to listen and explore.

Paul Patterson is writing a new concerto for Leon to be premiered in 2017/18. And Leon has lots of other projects going on, the composer Ian Morgan Williams wrote a piece for him when they were both students in Manchester and Ian Morgan Williams is revisiting the piece and revising it, whilst the Colombian composer Arturo Cuellar has is writing a new piece. And Leon will be premiering a new Wynton Marsalis concerto at the Southbank Centre in 2018.

Leon's concern with these pieces is less about personal aggrandisement, and more the idea of leaving a legacy for the future. Leon also teaches the pieces to his students, so he hopes the body of double bass music will be enriched. And the repertoire certainly does need some encouragement to expand. Leon's recording of Gordon Jacob's A Little Concerto for double bass and string orchestra (on The British Double Bass CD) remains the only one in the CD catalogue.

Leon Bosch - The British Double Bass CD
Leon spent 30 years playing in orchestras including his 20 years with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. But now in his fifties, he decided extend into conducting and discovered he loves it, and it makes him see music and the world a new way. For the moment he keeps the two in balance and has started directing orchestra from the double bass, something he does not think has been done before.

But Leon's activities stretch beyond this, and include taking up journalism, coaching the I, Culture Orchestra in Poland (made up of musicians of conservatoire-age from Poland and Eastern European countries) and coaching the National Youth String Orchestra.

Leon is South African, coming to the UK in the early 1980s with some difficulty, as a political refugee. Having been imprisoned in South Africa by the apartheid regime, he was for some time in danger of being deported back to South Africa. But was finally able to settle a study in Manchester. He comments that he used to win competitions partly out of sheer necessity, he needed the prize money.

Whilst at university in South Africa, Leon had run a small chamber music festival and after studying in Manchester he ran a small music group there. This all stopped when he joined the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. When he let behind his orchestral career he realised he missed the involvement in chamber music and has founded I Musicanti, a chamber group comprising people who share Leon's vision and passion.

The group specialises in performing the lesser known repertoire. Leon describes their programmes as fantastic pieces by unknown composers, and unknown pieces by fantastic composers, and he cites Mendelssohn's sextet (written when he was 16), Dmitri Smirnov's quintet, Rubinstein's octet as prime examples of their repertoire. Other works he wants to bring before the public includes Schehedrin's Serenade for Strings, works which do not form part of the usual concert going.

This year the group gives three concerts at St John's Smith Square, themed around new music from South Africa paired with music by Mozart and Schubert; the final two are on 5 March and 28 May. The concert on 5 March includes a new piece by Werner Bosch (no relation), plus Paganini's Terzetto for violin, cello and guitar, and Schubert's quartet for guitar, flute, viola and cello (an arrangement of a piece by the Bohemian guitarist Wenzel Matiegka).Werner Bosch sent Leon a score and Leon was sufficiently struck to ask Werner Bosch for a new piece for the concert on 5 March. The performers include the guitarist Craig Ogden, with whom Leon was at college.

Leon Bosch and I Musicanti at St John's Smith Square
Leon Bosch and I Musicanti at St John's Smith Square
The group's final concert, 28 May will include a new sonata for viola and double bass by David Earl, a South African composer living in Cambridge (his opera Strange Ghost was premiered at the Cambridge Buddhist centre in 2015). This concert will also feature a second Leon Bosch, a clarinettist, also no relation.

Next season I Musicanti return to St John's Smith Square for a season of concerts which Leon calls Alexandra and the Russians, featuring music by Alexandra Harwood (her father is the playwright Ronald Harwood and her mother is Russian). Leon first came across Alexandra Harwood when he was playing in a film session. He enjoyed her music, talked to her an discovered she composed concert music too. The Russian repertoire in the season will include and arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations for cello and strings (to be played by Peter Martens).

One of Leon's reasons for putting on these concerts is his feeling that classical music needs a new paradigm, that we are in danger of simply repeating past ideas. So other plans include revisiting Beethoven for Beethoven more or less. These will use the contemporary reductions of Beethoven's symphonies and concertos which were popular in the 19th century, enabling people to bring Beethoven into their home before the advent of recording. He has plans to perform and record the Beethoven concertos and symphonies in these chamber arrangements.

Leon admits that these ideas for a new paradigm are sill in their infancy, and talks about his ideas for creating a centre where all his activities could be based. But Leon points out that when he first joined the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner was 70, and when he left Sir Neville was 90. So at 55, Leon feels he has time before him for a new career.

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