An Interview with Edwin Roxburgh [Premiere of Concerto for Orchestra, 8 October 2010]

Written by: Ben Hogwood

With the BBC Symphony Orchestra in its 80th-birthday season, a number of new works are being commissioned to reinforce its commitment to contemporary music. One of the most substantial is from Edwin Roxburgh (born in 1937), who has completed a Concerto for Orchestra, to receive its world premiere in the Barbican Hall on Friday 8 October with a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Roxburgh admits to being “a bit nervous”, although he is certainly looking forward to hearing the results.

The title ‘concerto for orchestra’ implies a display piece, which the composer admits to in part. “I set out with that in mind, and I wanted to write a piece that would be the opposite an orchestra like the BBC Symphony would be accustomed to playing, and give them a chance to show off their virtuosity – not just that of the players, but that of the conductor too. What the piece is not is virtuosity for its own sake. I think virtuosity can be an integral part of the best music, and I think here particularly of composers such Liszt, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Ravel. I think too that people who say they don’t perform contemporary music because it’s difficult are a bit lazy!”

Roxburgh agrees that he has decided to treat the orchestra both as a collection of instruments and as one whole instrument. “Both affect the other. With the orchestra there are such a vast range of different instruments, and expressive capabilities, I don’t see the point of not doing it. I think it surely is our duty as composers to be exploiting its characteristic capabilities. This piece is not written for an extra large orchestra; not as large as Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, for instance. I don’t think orchestras can afford to put on performances of new works with that size of orchestration in the current climate. I think the economic conditions wouldn’t allow it.”

He writes in the concert’s programme note about using the orchestra as ‘a vast palette of colours’. “By colours I mean textures and not colours in the Messiaen field. The textural characteristics I am able to use are almost limitless, because of the availability of combinations. I splash around in the sea of colours, which sounds like fun, although perhaps ‘fun’ isn’t quite the right word! Things tend to be categorised too swiftly. The composers I’ve mentioned are all distinctive in the way they approach things. But for me the motoric material makes the Concerto work. Without that, and its developmental capabilities, it would become very dull. I really see it as a kind of mosaic, not sectional but with episodes between the main sections, with a wide range of colour and contrasting material.”

His references to J. S. Bach and ‘organum’ lead me to ask if earlier forms of music cast an influence in the Concerto. “Sometimes it has been appropriate, but not in this case. I actually deployed the climactic section as a piece of invertible counterpoint in three sections, where the range widens and the texture thickens. There is a lot of counterpoint before the coda. Bach wrote in single lines, but this has the texture from three different elements, rearranged to build a climax. I mentioned Bach as a way of deploying the way I see contrapuntal music working out at this point.”

As intimated earlier, Roxburgh requires virtuosity from the conductor also – in this occasion Sir Andrew Davis. “He is not an instrument himself in this piece”, the composer stresses, “though there are difficult passages where he has to beat five against four and follow a specific set of instructions. My own experience as a conductor is pretty vast, as well as playing within an orchestra as an oboist for many years. I get very fed up with some of the big names who never touch a note of contemporary music.” This is clearly a subject close to his heart. “Their reputations are based on music of the past. They should be able to conduct anything from Bach to Boulez, and that is a big subject that I am exploring in a book, Conducting in a New Era, which looks at the art over the last fifty years. I am rather provocative on this subject!”. The real problem with living composers is that orchestral managers have a difficult task maintaining audiences. To slip in a new piece like mine into is difficult, as in this commercial age anything challenging can have a big effect on the audience.”

It is doubly appropriate that Roxburgh should be writing for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. “I think they have contributed an enormous amount to musical life in this country. I played with them as a second oboe in Boulez’s reign in the 1970s, and in that period there was a vast amount of contemporary music performed. I was always enormously impressed by the work they did, and for me they have kept that standard and scene. I think their contribution to new music is better than anywhere in the world.”

Roxburgh maintains that despite writing the Concerto as a commission for the orchestra, the work is very much his own. “I don’t tend to write for other people, I have to say it’s a different subject. When I’m sitting at my desk thinking about the universe that is a lonely existence – not in a negative aspect – but I don’t consider its impact or the audience I am writing for. If I did that I would be Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I don’t want to do that. I am very lucky with the way I have had music performed, but would maintain that you can’t write for individual performers.”

  • Edwin Roxburgh’s Concerto for Orchestra receives its world premiere on Friday 8 October at 7 p.m. in the Barbican Hall and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; Sir Andrew Davis also conducts music by Elgar (Falstaff) and Delius (The Song of the High Hills)
  • Edwin Roxburgh
  • BBC Radio 3
  • Barbican

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