SongCycle Premiere at ENO

Nicky Spence and a whole host of fantastic opera singers are cycling from Glasgow to London – a ‘Song Cycle’, geddit? – to raise money for the brilliant Help Musicians UK. I was delighted to write them a jingle to help them along the way! They recorded it for Classic FM; the video of this can be viewed below. I’m thrilled that, as they end their epic journey by riding into the Coliseum, my little offering will get its live premiere on stage at English National Opera.

I couldn’t be more excited – ENO’s been my opera-going haven for as long as I can remember, so it’s a huge honour to be just the tiniest part of that place for a day! But most importantly: please help raise some funds for this amazing cause! Help Musicians do really great work, and this is such an enterprising/gruelling venture! If you can spare some cash, simply donate here: https://campaign.justgiving.com/charity/helpmusiciansuk/songcycle2016  

Here’s that jingle! A huge, huge thank you to Nicky Spence, Timothy Connor, Nick Pritchard, Mary Bevan, Louise Alder and Simon Lepper for performing it here!


 

Exodus

A few days ago I spoke to Cambridge TV about my new piece ‘Exodus’ for Holocaust Memorial Day, which was today. I was privileged to set a poem by Holocaust survivor Lotte Kramer for children’s choir. It was wonderful to meet her after the performance, which took place at the Cambridge Corn Exchange today.

The interview starts at about 9 minutes in, at this link here.

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Serenade in Cambridge

I’m really excited to be bringing my Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings to Cambridge, its first performance since the premiere at Snape Maltings Concert Hall during Britten’s centenary weekend in 2013. It’s happening at St John’s Chapel at 8pm on Saturday 13th February, completely free and open to all! More information can be found on Facebook, here.

I’m particularly thrilled that King’s College Choir tenor Toby Ward and Royal Academy of Music horn player Alexei Watkins (to whom the Serenade is dedicated) will be soloists for this performance. Joining them will be a bespoke ensemble led by Gabriella Jones, featuring some of the best string players from Cambridge University, Aldeburgh Young Musicians, and Hills Road Sixth Form College.

My Serenade, of course, takes the ensemble Britten made famous as its starting point, and was developed and realised first at Aldeburgh, the artistic environment he created. Each of the four poems I set reflect key aspects of Britten’s character; the Serenade is therefore in many ways an ode to Britten. It seems appropriate, therefore, to precede it with his arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor. The performance as a whole will thus be rich with Britten’s musical footprint, pointing both forwards and back.

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Broadcast of ‘Genie’

In late 2014 I wrote a sextet for BBC Symphony Orchestra players called Genie, scored for the slightly crazy combination of vibraphone, flute, clarinet, viola, double bass and harp. The vibraphone takes on the role of the genie throughout, bursting out of the lamp before granting wishes to the other members of the ensemble.

Genie was performed at Maida Vale Studios in London in November, and I’m thrilled that the performance has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now show, which you can listen to by clicking here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052gfq0 My slot begins at 1:22:30!

A huge thank you to the performers and conductor Michael Seal for making the whole process so fun and valuable!

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Poets and Genies

This summer has been about 2 main composing projects:

The first is a big new choir and string orchestra piece called Sassoon. I’ve written it for Clare College Music Society, and it’s happening at West Road (Cambridge) on November 14th. Very excited about this. The piece is a setting of 3 poems by Siegfried Sassoon – a nod both to his being a Clare alum and to the present WW1 centenary year in general.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 01.38.29The texts are, I think, poignantly beautiful and earnest. The first is called ‘Sing bravely’, which I couldn’t resist starting a 15-minute choral piece with. The second, ‘Alone’, is the most intimate and dark poem; here the choir takes the lead, the strings adding colour and depth. The final movement, ‘A flower has opened in my heart’, is exultant, charged with positive energy – a little snapshot of its opening is to the right.

I’m excited that this piece is happening for several reasons: firstly, I’ve been up at Clare evensong a good few times in the last year, so naturally I’m over the moon to be able to write for so many of them. This is also my most substantial piece since the Serenade last year, and it’s fun (if daunting) to have a big canvas to work on again. Additionally, I’ve loved writing for choir a good few times in the past, but it’s always been a cappella; it’s so great to explore this combination too.

I’ve just finished my second big project of the summer, which is a new ensemble piece for players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The instrumentation is gorgeous and terrifying in equal measure: flute, clarinet, harp, viola and double bass topped off with obbligato vibraphone. Yum. Almost every time I’ve written a piece, there’s been a tricky patch at the beginning consisting of half-formed ideas, many scribbled/rejected notes and a general sense of unease. Usually this passes quickly, but with this piece it lingered for a good few days… The instrumentation was a part of this; I knew it had the potential to sound exquisite as a combination, but it was daunting nonetheless. Added to this was my awareness of how good the players are going to be. I’m very concerned that each player in an ensemble should have a good time playing their part. For players this good, that means I don’t want them to be bored, and that has certain implications for the type of material which I’ll be happy with.

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 19.00.23Anyway, this tough spell passed, and bit by bit the piece took shape. It’s called Genie; the vibes take on that specific role, ‘granting wishes’ to the other instruments and so on. I like this kind of concept where it’s very easy to explain basically what’s going on, but leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre in the character and inclination of the music itself. In the little sneak peak to the left, the ‘genie’ is knocking, trying to get out of the lamp as the rest of the ensemble is collectively ‘rubbing’ it. I’ve also become aware recently that a lot of my music is slowish – or certainly not outstandingly fast too much of the time. This piece is a bit of a challenge to myself to balance this: it has a pretty relentless rhythmic drive from the moment it kicks off (save for a brief vibes cadenza, which I couldn’t resist…). I want it to feel exhilarating for the players in a physical way, and for listeners aurally. It’s happening on November 23rd, at Maida Vale Studios.

So those are the 2 big projects of the summer! Oh, and amazingly my album Red Handed has been out for a year now! So to celebrate the entire 9 tracks are available to download for just £3, for a limited time only, here: https://alexwoolf.bandcamp.com/

Music About Music

Last month Cambridge Chorale sang my ‘Music’, a piece about music, for their 20th birthday celebration concert. Not having had my own 20th birthday yet (with or without attendant celebratory concert – something which remains to be seen), I looked for a poem to set which had suitable gravitas but also vitality. I found it in William Tappan’s poem ‘Music’, hence the eternally placeholder-like title of my piece. Here’s the recording of its first performance:

The poem is a very sincere celebration of music itself, highly appropriate for a birthday celebration. The music seemed already to be half-dripping from the page, and I wanted to super-size each gesture, to push the choir to emotional extremes. I had a fantastic time working with Cambridge Chorale, and their commitment and energy really comes across in this performance.

Hope you enjoy – here’s the text:

Thou dear enchantress of the soul!
Whose magic skill life’s ills can calm,
Whose nod can bid the whirlwind roll,
Whose whisper can its rage disarm;
Sweet Music! I invoke thy power;
Thou bid’st the aspiring spirit rise;
Thou charm’st existence’ tearful hour,
And pointed hope to yonder skies.
In life’s drear maze I’ve wandered long,
And sought for peace, but none could find,
Till listening to the thrilling song,
My bosom owned its influence kind.
O, if to finite state be given
Some emanation from above,
Some foretaste of a brighter heaven,
‘Tis Music from the lips we love

In Praise of ENO: Access All Arias

Particularly in the last few months, I’ve been posting tweet after tweet celebrating English National Opera not only for its fab productions but for its attitude towards young people. So much so, in fact, that I feel compelled to write a little more fully on the subject.

The first time I went to ENO was in 2010, when I was 15 and beginning to get excited about such things. Since then, I have been back time and time again, and I’ve been able to see incredible productions of Britten, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Berg, Offenbach and Adams, as well as premieres by Muhly and Raskatov. And crucially, I’ve never, ever paid more than £30 for a ticket. ENO’s Access All Arias scheme allows 16-30 year olds and full-time students to sit for £30 in the stalls, £20 in the grand circle (my personal favourite) and £10 in the upper circle.

This is obviously great for reasons of affordability, but to me it means more than that. It means that when I go down to the Coliseum, collect my ticket and await the night’s production in the most beautiful surroundings, I feel like I have a right to be there. There’s no hint of being forced right to the top of the theatre (or even the back of a level) for the experience of squinting down/forward past my wealthier fellow patrons to see the stage. It means that I associate opera not with snobbery but with openness, not with the stench of acquired privilege but with the unique personal privilege of experiencing each production.

Naturally, the first appeal has to be the operas themselves. My first opera at ENO was, quite bizarrely, the premiere of A Dog’s Heart by Alexander Raskatov. Now, four years on I may not remember every nuance of the music, but I can’t forget its overwhelming visceral impact, nor the unimaginably clever puppetry involved. And, of course, as a fledgling composer, to see for the first time what can be achieved collaboratively at this level with new music was very inspiring. Peter Grimes was so good that I saw it twice last month; there the power and quality of every facet of the production was impressive beyond words, and I will not soon forget it. And then there are those individual moments which just take a hold and won’t let go: Nicky Spence singing gorgeously in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, a giant ‘webcam’ live-stream right behind him; the gigantic mirror in The Tales of Hoffmann; the haunting young boy at the end of Wozzeck; the rose petals in Rigoletto, which I saw just a couple of days ago. Each experience totally confounds any preconception of opera as inaccessible, unintelligible, warbling excess.

It’s not enough for the productions to be great, though. A moment which really lifted an evening are, for instance, that the man selling me my programme (for half-price, by the way) in my first Grimes was keen to tell me, in detail, about the replacement members of the cast for that night. He wasn’t condescending, it didn’t look forced, he just clearly wanted me to enjoy my experience as much as possible. Likewise it’s clear that fellow audience members are excited to be there; at my second Grimes I had come alone and was talking very happily who to a lady who had just discovered the little screens with the conductor on. It’s so nice to be surrounded by a real mix of people, each with every bit as much right as anyone else to be there, and each apparently relishing the experience.

ENO has become a very special place for me, one that has been home to many unique and formative operatic experiences, and I’ll keep coming back at every opportunity. It would be fantastic to think other opera houses could take several leaves from their book (the Royal Opera House’s student scheme, unfortunately, doesn’t come close). Surely, even on a cold, financial level, drawing in people when they’re young makes sense in the long term! I know I will always think of ENO particularly fondly and with an immense amount of gratitude.

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