Saturday 9 December 2017

Composer, conductor, singer: I chat to Owain Park about his concerts at the Temple Winter Festival

Owain Park (Photo Tom Gradwell)
Owain Park (Photo Tom Gradwell)
Owain Park is a busy young man, as he combines working with his vocal group The Gesualdo Six with a burgeoning conducting career, work as a composer including writing a commission for Nigel Short and Tenebrae's recent tour, not to mention singing. Owain will be wearing two of these hats during the Temple Winter Festival (111-15 December 2017) when he and The Gesualdo Six will be giving a lunchtime recital, and in another concert Owain will be conducting the BBC Singers.

The Gesualdo Six's concert at the Temple Christmas Festival combines early and modern music for Advent and Christmas from Byrd to Cheryl Frances-Hoad, along with some arrangements. Owain explained that the programme brings together pieces from the group's 2016 Christmas tour, having undergone a process of streamlining, and the intention was to make a programme which was attractive to as wide and audience as possible, and he emphasises that the tickets are cheap too. They will be performing Jonathan Harvey's Annunciation re-scored for six voices, and Owain sees the piece as having links with the early pieces in the programme. The group has done quite a few performances at St John's Smith Square (where they were Young Artists in 2015-2016), and Owain comments that it is nice to be appearing elsewhere in London.

Owain's other concert at the festival is with the BBC Singers, the first time he has conducted the choir. It is an all contemporary programme which is being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (so no pressure there!), including music by Howard Skempton, and a new piece by Joanna Marsh.

Marsh is a composer whose work Owain has performed with The Gesualdo Six, and he recently conducted a work by Marsh in a programme with Capella Cracoviensis in Krakow. It was his first time working with Capella Cracoviensis and there are plans for him to go back for another concert in 2018, something he is looking forward to as he found them a great group to work with.

Working with groups like The Gesualdo Six, Owain is working with people with whom he is familiar, and with The Gesualdo Six he has also booked the singers and organised the concerts. But with the BBC Singers and Capelle Cravociensis, he has no such links and is finding it fascinating to be involved on a purely musical basis rather than involved with the whoe programme. He comments that he has found it no more relaxing, as it simply involves different challenges.

In fact, Owain does have a number of links with the BBC Singers, the group has already performed a number of Owain's piece and he knows David Hill, the choir's previous chief conductor, and has sung with some of the singers in the group. Add to that, the programme he is conducting with them is mostly of pieces that he knows well.

Owain Park (Photo Tom Gradwell)
Owain Park (Photo Tom Gradwell)
The Gesualdo Six started purely from the ambition to perform Gesualdo Tenebrae responsories for Maundy Thursday. Then they did another concert, and another, and, as Owain and all the singers were at Cambridge at the time, they had a wide choice of venues and concert series, and were invited back! The group did a Summer tour to South-West England, doing ten concerts in nine days. It was a taxing programme with full length concerts, but it created them a core audience and the group has gone back to many of the places again. When it came to crowd-funding for their first disc last Spring, a lot of this core audience wanted to help support the recording.

The Gesualdo Six started just doing Early Music but then added more contemporary pieces, such as juxtaposing Ligeti and Monteverdi. Initially the members of the group had time to learn things properly, but once they moved to London this was trickier to fit in. They had to acknowledge the importance of this, and make time for rehearsals. They try to get to the stage where the copy is simply an aide memoire. Owain feels that audiences respond to them being able to look up and engage with their audience.

When visiting new venues, they tend to perform mixed programme and often get emails asking for more of a particular type of music. So they tend to perform a mix, grouping the items by style.

The Gesualdo Six has a fixed line-up, and it is important that all rehearse together, so that it is focussed. The line-up has changed over time, of course, singers have gone to Voces8 and to the King's Singers, but they have kept singers over time too. Owain sometimes sings with the group too, so that they can do seven-part music.

The group's disc on Hyperion comes out in April, this will have music by Dunstaple, Cornysh, Tallis, Shepherd, Tomkins and Gibbons. Because of the changes in the English Church over this period, performing the music in date order does not really work and the disc is organised more as journey.

With so many different strings to his bow, I wondered how Owain saw himself. His answer is prompt and definite, a composer first and foremost. It is what he wants to do most of as things progress. And singing he finds fantastic, not just for the wide range of repertoire (he was recently singing Bach's Mass in B minor with Tenebrae at the British Museum) but because as a conductor is helps him understand things more readlily and be on the singers' side.

Both conducting and composing are social, but composing is more solitary. Owain feels that all the performing feeds into the composing, whilst the composing helps the way he listens and gets into a score when conducting.

Owain sees his compositional style as approachable contemporary music; people can engage with it on first listening. A lot of his pieces have been written on commission, to a specific brief, for example his piece Footsteps commissioned by Tenebrae to accompany their performances of Joby Talbot's Path of Miracles and so having very specific requirements including a children's choir (see my review of Tenebrae's recording of Joby Talbot & Owain Park's pieces).

Owain has written a couple of chamber operas, the most recent a setting of Angela Carter, The Snow Child which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. Owain has done another setting of Carter and there is one more to come, the three will make a complete programme lasting aroud 70 minute. they are short chamber operas with he same cast for each, rotating roles. The Fringe production of The Snow Child was quite a minimal staging.

One composer that Owain does feel influenced by is Britten, and he comments that he sang in a performance of Curlew River. He has been writing a piece for choir and piano and found himself referencing Britten. He is currently writing a piece for Voces 8 and Rachel Podger, the two are giving a concert and will be performing Owain's piece at the end of the concert.

Owain started off as a boy chorister at St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, and took up the organ and eventually went to well. He did a lot of composing, and wrote a piece for the National Centre for Early Music's Composition Competition and it won. It was then that he learned what composing meant to him. His piece was the most tonal of those in the competition, all the others were atonal and experimental. The judges comments spurred him on. He has had little formal tuition except whilst studying at Cambridge, but even ther they 'let you get on with it' simply showing you what to listen to.

Owain has been doing a lot of outreach and education work recently, both with The Gesualdo Six and as an individual. He has found it illuminating, seeing how other people interact with children and make it interesting. Owain also conducts the Cambridge Chorale, an amateur group and not only does this give him a chance to programme thing which he cannot with The Geualdo Six, he feels that it is important to remember that music goes one at all ages and levels, that people from all backgrounds value music.

The Gesualdo Six is constantly exploring the things that the group can do, including engaging with other musicians, so that they can do new types of work in addition to the core repertoire. Owain feels that this keeps things fresh ad exiciting. So they have had the opportunity to work with such projects as Arvo Part's Passio, and also to perform Tim Watts' Kepler's Trial at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the programme surrounding the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power & Politics.

The Gesualdo Six (Photo Tom Gradwell)
The Gesualdo Six (Photo Tom Gradwell)
The Gesualdo Six is doing an Epiphany concert in at St Martin's Church in Salisbury as part of the church's celebrations for its 1300th anniversary. Owain comments that the period is a sort of off-season, and that the Gesualdo Six performs in off-seasons a lot. Another such period is August September, and in fact that is how they started. And they still do occasional concerts where they simply phone up the church warden of a church and ask if they can perform there.

Owain Park and The Gesualdo Six are at the Temple Winter Festival at 1pm on Thursday 14 December 2017, see The Gesualdo Six's website for their full concert programme. Owain Park conducts the BBC Singers at the Temple Winter Festival on Friday 15 December 2017, see the Temple Winter Festival website for full details of the festival.

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