Saturday 22 February 2020

The two are very different disciplines: best known as a film & TV composer, I chat to Stuart Hancock about 'Raptures' his new disc of concert music

Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian and Stuart Hancock at the recording sessions for the Raptures disc (Orchid Classics)
Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian and Stuart Hancock at the recording sessions for the Raptures disc (Orchid Classics)
Although best known as a composer for film and television (he wrote the music for the BBC series Atlantis), Stuart Hancock is also making a name for himself with opera and concert music. A disc of his orchestral works Raptures, including his Violin Concerto with violinist Jack Liebeck as soloist, has just been released on Orchid Classics with Levon Parikian conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. I recently met up with Stuart to find out more about the disc, the difference between writing for film or television and concert work, writing opera for children and adults, and how he came to be a composer almost by accident.

Stuart Hancock
Stuart Hancock
When planning the new disc, Stuart assembled a programme like a concert with overture, concerto and symphony. All three works were pre-existing ones, with Variations on a Heroic Theme, the Violin Concerto and Raptures (a new orchestral version of a work originally for quartet).

Variations on an Heroic Theme dates from 2007 and was written for the Rehearsal Orchestra (a group which runs courses for future professionals and serious amateurs) which means that it never had a formal public premiere and its first public performance was quite recently. The concerto was written for the violinist Paul Barrett when he was playing with the Southbank Sinfonia. Barrett premiered the work in 2005 with the Southbank Sinfonia and performed it again in 2011 with the St Paul's Sinfonia, but Stuart admits that, like a lot of contemporary composers, he has struggled to get further performances for works following the premieres. One of Stuart's intentions with the Raptures album was to get his orchestral music out there and heard, and in fact there is a performance of Stuart's Violin Concerto at Cadogan Hall on 29 February 2020 (with the Imperial College Symphony Orchestra, conductor Oliver Gooch and soloist Jack Liebeck) which came on the back of the disc.

The concerto is a form that Stuart enjoys, but he decided to have just one on the disc in order to keep the focus on a single soloist. In fact, one of the first major things he wrote was a piano concerto at the age of 18, which he now refers to as 'terrifically bad'.  For Stuart, concertos mean that performers get to show off, and he has fun balancing the rivalries between soloist and orchestra. And he finds having a soloist gives him focus, so a concerto is easier to write than a straight orchestral piece.

In an ideal world Stuart would want a mix of both, not one or the other.
But he does admit that one pays better than the other!

For Stuart, his two areas of composing - film/television and concert music - are quite separate, and the two are very different disciplines. When writing for film and television, Stuart is writing music to fit a picture, and the result will be judged by the client; it must sell a product or tell a story. With his concert music, Stuart is working to commission and the client trusts him, and when writing the music, he is answering to himself. The methodologies of the two are very different, as indeed are the deadlines with music for film/television being produced to tight schedules.

Stuart likes the restriction that writing for film and television gives him. He always has a starting point and does not have to pluck inspiration out of the ether, and length is defined too. The music is playing a supporting role, and Stuart is part of a team rather than working alone. There is also no room for writer's block, you have to do it and often to a tight deadline. He might have a day or half a day to do a demo.

With concert music, by contrast, he finds it difficult to start a piece but once he has the initial idea then ideas generally flow well. So, Stuart finds that the two disciplines complement each other and feed into each other. In an ideal world Stuart would want a mix of both, not one or the other. But he does admit that one pays better than the other!

You have to challenge the young people,
not make it too easy, otherwise they find it boring

As well as his concert music, Stuart has written two operas for W11 Opera, the children's opera company - Rain Dance in 2010, and The Cutlass Crew in 2017, both with librettos by Donald Sturrock. The works were written to be performed by a cast of young people, to a family audience. But Stuart does not find writing for children that different from writing for adults, pointing out that if you are dumbing the music down that it is missing the point. You have to challenge the young people, not make it too easy, otherwise they find it boring.

Stuart Hancock and Donald Sturrock: The Cutlass Crew - W11 Opera - 2017 (Photo W11 Opera)
Stuart Hancock and Donald Sturrock: The Cutlass Crew - W11 Opera - 2017 (Photo W11 Opera)
When writing Rain Dance, Stuart learned a few things about writing for children. For a start, don't go too high because 80 children (the majority of W11 Opera's performers have unbroken voices) singing high can be hard on the ear, challenge the performers with harmonies, and have interesting characters that the performers can get their teeth into and challenging topics. The idea for The Cutlass Crew came from librettist Donald Sturrock, and is based on the true story of a noble woman (Lady Mary Killigrew) who became a pirate and was tried in front of Queen Elizabeth I.

In March 2020, The Cutlass Crew will receive its American premiere when North Cambridge Family Opera perform it. Stuart is making a few changes to the work for its American performance; North Cambridge Family Opera wanted a longer piece, so Stuart is adding scenes, and the singers will mix broken and unbroken voices so that he has the full SATB range to write for. Also, the American company performs with pre-recorded accompaniments to instead of the scoring for the nine-piece ensemble used by W11 Opera, Stuart is providing backing accompaniments in which he is able to go quite 'eyeballs out' with the orchestrations!

And Rain Dance, which was also performed by North Cambridge Family Opera, is being performed the Summer in Ireland by Summer Music on the Shannon.

It isn't just children's opera, Stuart would love to do one for adults, he and Donald Sturrock have ideas brewing. Stuart does not feel that the method of writing would be that different. When writing opera his style, which is accessible and melodic, leans towards music theatre. He likes writing set pieces, songs with applause at the end, but he also enjoys complex scenes that are narrative and develop the story. One of the new scenes for the American performance of The Cutlass Crew flips between three different localities, two ships and the shore, and it all takes place during a storm with the chorus providing the wind!

Wondering whether his mother would like it

Stuart had no formal training, and when I ask about his style, he said that he tends to write in the style of the music he enjoys, late Romantics, and is very influenced by film music. In fact, the first music that registered with him was film music, one of John Williams' scores. So his music is melodious, tonal and often dramatic, he likes telling stories and wants to take you on a journey.  When he writes his concert music, he admits that he often writes it wondering whether his mother would like it. His family are not particularly musical, and his parents 'know what they like'.

Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian and the BBC Concert Orchestra at recording sessions for Stuart Hancock's disc Raptures (Orchid Classics)
Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian and the BBC Concert Orchestra at recording sessions
for Stuart Hancock's disc Raptures (Orchid Classics)
But writing for his audience is very much Stuart's ethos, he writes both for the listeners and for the people performing it. He enjoys the fact that players will tell him after a performance how much they enjoyed playing his music, he tries to make the music enjoyable, but not easy so that players rise to the challenge. After the recording sessions for Raptures, players from the BBC Concert Orchestra told Stuart that the sessions had been fun, and he feels that if the players are enjoying themselves then the audience can tell.

Something of a light-bulb moment,
he had never considered music as a career before then

Stuart never thought of being a composer for a career. As a child he learned piano, violin and viola and dabbled at writing music. But he was never quite serious, he did no music A-levels, and his degree was in Geography. But towards the end of his degree he was at a loss as to what to do next. He happened to be at a BBC Prom and towards the end of the programme book there were adverts for music colleges, and the London College of Music had a post-graduate course in writing for film and television. He had no music qualifications, but he did have a portfolio of works, music he had written, and he got onto the course and did well. He had already done music for a student film and enjoyed it and seeing the ad in the Proms programme was something of a light-bulb moment, he had never considered music as a career before then.

The London College of Music course led indirectly to a salaried job. A Soho based music production company were looking for an in-house composer, and so were offering work experience to students. Stuart went, and ended up getting a full-time job. He was a salaried composer for six years. The concept of a salaried composer was unusual then and is even more unusual now. Also, the industry has changed, everyone works remotely, working in bedrooms and delivering the results by email.

Sutart Hancock, Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian at recording sessions for Stuart Hancock's disc Raptures (Orchid Classics)
Sutart Hancock, Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian at recording sessions for Stuart Hancock's disc Raptures (Orchid Classics)
But the job gave him other skills as well, particularly social skills. It thickened his skin, having to take feedback from people who knew nothing about music; this was a skill set he would not have had otherwise. You had to learn to take the feedback on the chin, and also cope with ridiculous deadlines. It was also about going out to dine with people, working out what makes them tick so that your proposals fitted with what they wanted.

John Williams is at the top of the list

When I ask Stuart about his musical heroes, not surprisingly John Williams is at the top of the list. Others he admires are his contemporaries who are performing musicians, and he names the cellist, composer and jazz pianist Danny Keane who is a friend and whose work he finds inspiring. In fact, the conductor on the Raptures disc is another such friend, Levon Parikian. Parikian only came on board at the very last minute, as the planned conductor had to pull out. Parikian conducts a lot of amateur orchestra, and in fact that was how he and Stuart met as Stuart was playing in the London Phoenix Orchestra which Levon Parikian conducted. And he commissioned the Variations on an Heroic Theme for the Rehearsal Orchestra which he was conducting at the time.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt, still from the 2016 film
Channel 4 / Walker Productions / Herrick Entertainment

We're Going on a Bear Hunt

The other string to Stuart's bow is conducting his music from the animated film, We're Going on a Bear Hunt (based on the book by Michael Rosen with illustrations by Helen Oxenbury). Stuart wrote the music in 2016 and there were always plans to do a live version, with an orchestra performing the score live whilst the film is screened.

Before the film, there is a presenter who introduces the orchestra and the themes from the music, plus a sing-along. Stuart has conducted for the event in Dublin (with the RTE Concert Orchestra), at the Royal Festival Hall (with the City of London Sinfonia),at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, and recently in Taiwan. For this latter event they performed The Snowman as well (which has music by Howard Blake). Stuart calls this latter a masterpiece and feels that the two films make a good pairing.

Looking ahead, Stuart is pleased that he has been getting work off the back of the CD. He is lined up to do a film musical based on a children's TV character. In complete contrast he is writing music for a documentary about Hiroshima to be screened on the History Channel in August. And he hopes to be working with the BBC Concert Orchestra again.

He has written a new string orchestra piece for Dame Alice Owen's School, where a friend is head of strings, and the orchestra will perform it at the Music For Youth Proms on 1 March 2020. Having written it, Stuart didn't know what to call it so decided to let the children name it. He heard the work for the first time in rehearsal last week, and the name chosen for it is Expanse

  • Stuart Hancock: Raptures - Jack Liebeck, BBC Concert Orchestra, Levon Parikian - Orchid Classics, available from 
  • Stuart Hancock: Violin Concerto - Jack Liebeck, Imperial College Orchestra, Oliver Gooch - 29 February 2020, Cadogan Hall
  • Stuart Hancock & Donald Sturrock: Cutlass Crew - North Cambridge Family Opera - 28 March to 5 April 2020, Peabody School, 70 Rindge Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140, USA -Tickets from Brown Paper Tickets

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