Wednesday 21 November 2018

A series of concentric circles: Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble

Aaron Holloway-Nahum & The Riot Ensemble in Elliott Carter Double Concerto at LSO St Lukes (Photo Ben Clube)
Aaron Holloway-Nahum & The Riot Ensemble in Elliott Carter's Double Concerto at LSO St Lukes (Photo Ben Clube)
Earlier this year Aaron Holloway-Nahum conducted Elliott Carter's challenging Double Concerto with the Riot Ensemble (an ensemble which he co-founded), in a programme which also included a new piece by Molly Joyce and the UK premiere of Pierce Gradone's To Paint their Madness at LSO St Luke's. Aaron balances being artistic director and principal conductor of the Riot Ensemble with a lively career as a composer (he is one of composers on the the 2018-19 Mentorship Programme run through the Peter Eötvös Foundation). I met up with Aaron earlier this year to learn how the concert had gone, and find out more about his work.

[this article got somewhat delayed in production, but with the announcement of the Riot Ensemble's premiere of a new piece by Georg Friedrich Haas next year (see below), it seemed a good opportunity to learn more about them]

Aaron Nahum-Holloway
Aaron Nahum-Holloway
Aaron describes performing the Elliott Carder as thunderously good fun. Not only was the concert virtually sold out, but afterwards the ensemble thought 'shall we do it again'. Aaron did not know the Elliott Carter concerto, for piano, harpsichord and two orchestras, until it was brought to his attention by Goska Isphording, the ensemble's harpsichordist, and it turned out the ensemble's pianist, Adam Swayne, was taught by the person who premiered the harpsichord part.

Aaron found it a tricky piece to learn, with all its metrical modulations it was four weeks of study before he felt that he could conduct it. Yet he realises how far he has come as a conductor. When we spoke, the group was about to go to Iceland and were taking a programme which included music they played three years ago, and Aaron has found that he had been able to simply pick the pieces up again. He is not a professionally trained conductor, he simply started the Riot Ensemble. The ensemble too has developed, a recent concert in Huddersfield was the most in command that he felt the group has been on stage, in command of the challenging repertoire, really playing with each other and having fun.

Aaron founded the Riot Ensemble in 2012, it is a flexible group of artists who create and put on projects, with flexibility being key. Aaron describes the group as operating as a sequence of concentric circles. At the centre are a couple of players who also work part-time for the ensemble, fixing players, promoting the concerts and such. Then there are the players who form the artistic board, those deeply involved in programming the concerts. Then there are the principal players, and finally the new players. And quite often players are drawn further in, becoming more involved in the group.

It is a fluid and flexible structure, and the players are all involved in the programming so that the Elliott Carter concerto was the suggestion of one of the players, as is much of the repertoire that the group took to Iceland on their visit earlier this year. They give around 25 to 30 performances per year, this includes workshops, four concerts in hospitals, big projects as well as solo projects for individuals or small groups of players.

It took a while for the group to articulate it, but flexibility is not a by-product but is at the heart of the ensemble. It is also important for them that when just two players perform a programme, it is still the Riot Ensemble.

The Riot Ensemble at Dark Music Days in Iceland
The Riot Ensemble at Dark Music Days in Iceland
The programmes are built around pieces that they love, so that in Iceland they played Henri Dutilleux's Les citations which is for the relatively unusual line up of harpsichord, oboe, double bass and percussion, and the group has commissioned works for the same ensemble so that they have a viable programme. Partly this reflects the way new music is, few young composers write big pieces for conventional line-ups, and by commissioning other works for the same group of instruments the ensemble gives a life to pieces that they love. Similarly with Jonathan Harvey's Song Offerings, the group has found and commissioned other scores to match it.

Aaron tries to keep his composing separate from his work with the ensemble, and this year is the first time that the ensemble will play more than one of his pieces during the year. For a long time he worked hard to keep composing and the ensemble as separate strands; he did not want the Riot Ensemble to become simply the Aaron Holloway-Nahum players. It helped that he has a very active career as a composer and he has never needed the ensemble to commission a piece from him. If they play one of his pieces, it is because the players want to.

This distinction is also important when it comes to fund-raising, they ask Arts Council England (ACE) for a lot of money and ACE has been very supportive. The Riot Ensemble has received a grant for 2018, but also positive support from ACE and Aaron feels that their developing relationship with ACE has made the members of the ensemble more professional, and they have formalised things a lot more. He comments that it is easy for such a player-run group to be focused entirely on the music, without worrying about how you fit into society.

An important strand of their programming is their support for worldwide emerging composers, hence the performance of works by Molly Joyce and Pierce Gradone at the LSO St Luke's concert. This leads us to a fascinating discussion about how tribal a lot of commissioning of new music is, and how it is tricky to address the issue of having a real variety of composing styles, particularly if you are inside that particular world. Aaron comments that whilst the new music world is a liberal part of the artistic community, it can be very conservative when it goes outside of 'our tribe'.

The Riot Ensemble addresses this partly because the players are a diverse group, and having them involved in the programming empowers them. And Aaron thinks that it is healthy that in each programme they play, there will be some music that some of the players hate. Passionate, opinionated and all 'experts', Aaron feels that the players really work hard to play different types of music with the same degree of commitment.

All musics have their own particular difficulty. Minimalist music, such as Molly Joyce's piece, is terrifying because it is obvious when something goes wrong, whereas the Elliott Carter concerto changed time every few bars. This meant that the players had to be in a different zone for each piece, and particular care had to be taken in Molly Joyce's piece to counteract the tendency to simply relax after the complexities of the Carter. But Aaron feels that playing Molly's piece made the Carter a better performance, timing and rhythm improved. Pierce Gradone's piece really won the players over, and it helped that Gradone is such a generous collaborator. Aaron suggested the work, and at first some of the players dislike it but in the end everyone came to love it.

Aaron Nahum-Holloway and the Riot Ensemble
Aaron Nahum-Holloway and the Riot Ensemble
Aaron describes his own music as being about rhythm, energy and colour, he wants his music to sound like a Kandinsky Improvisation, and he loves the vibrancy and subtle, inexorable order of these paintings. Aaron started as a singer and he still sings everything first, and describes his pieces 'lots of lines and energy', and also at the intersection of jazz and Stravinsky.

Starting the ensemble had an effect on his own music, as it took on a greater physicality; he now thinks more about the player and what they do. He wants his pieces to be a rewarding challenge to the player.

He finds it quite strange being a conductor and writing music; being involved in conducting one thing and writing something else. When he applied for the Peter Eötvös mentorship, he told them in the interview that one of the reasons for applying was because Peter Eötvös knows what it is to be a conductor and a composer.

Looking ahead, the ensemble is performing at the Spitalfields Festival on 5 December 2019, performing music by three Canadian composers, Christopher Mayo, Nicole Lizee, and Richard Reed Parry.  

In January 2019 they will be giving the premiere of Soltices, a new piece written for the group by Georg Friedrich Haas. The work premieres on 26 January 2019 at Dark Music Days in Iceland, and receives its UK premiere on 29 January 2019 at the Royal Academy of Music. The work is written for 10 musicians (including re-tuned grand piano) and takes place entirely in darkness.

The Riot Ensemble on disc:
  • Chest of Toys - music by Cryne, Kotcheff, Westwood, Watanabe; available from Amazon 
  •  Approaching Dutilleux - available from Amazon

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Auf Flügeln des Gesanges: Romantic songs and piano transcriptions from Christoph Prégardien & Cyprien Katsaris (★★★★★) - CD review
  • The English Concert in Baroque concertos  - (★★★★) CD review
  • Widening the audience: I chat to Christopher Glynn about his Schubert in English project - interview
  • Staging the unstageable: Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton from a different angle: arrangements for brass septet  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Love & Prayer: Nadine Benjamin debut solo album (★★★★) - CD review
  • A sense of subtext: Joe Cutler's Elsewhereness on NMC (★★★★) - CD review
  • Otherwordly concerns: Anderswelt - Marlis Petersen and Camillo Radicke in late-Romantic lieder (★★★★) - CD review
  • Late genius and two sextets: Strauss, Haydn and Brahms at Conway Hall  (★★★½)  - concert review
  • Iconic but flawed: La Bayadère the Royal Ballet  - ballet review
  • Reformation Remainers: Musicians, zealots and loyalists in Tudor England at BREMF - concert review
  • In Remembrance - choral discs commemorating the centenary of the Armistice  - CD review
  • Spirito: Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka in bel canto scenes (★★★★½) - CD review
  •  Home

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