Written by: Colin Anderson
Composer and pianist Huw Watkins has composed the last of the four LSO commissions for its principal players; London Concerto is for bassoon, violin and harp…
As I sit down with composer and pianist Huw Watkins, each of us armed with a foaming cappuccino, I comment that the title of his latest work, London Concerto, suggests formality. “Titles are always the hardest thing for me. There’s a fashion for literary, technical or poetic titles; I don’t feel comfortable with that, so I go for more generic titles, like Brandenburg Concerto, and because it is that sort of thing.” The “it” is London Concerto, the last of four London Symphony Orchestra commissions to showcase principal players; Huw highlights the bassoon, violin and harp.
Huw develops what the commission suggested and its impetus. “Bach’s Brandenburgs came to mind because they are concertos for unusual groups of soloists and, indeed, the baroque concerto grosso came to mind as well. It’s not a group of instruments I would have chosen. When I was first asked to do it I thought: god, how am I going to do this? Four of the principal players of the LSO were each asked to choose a composer; Rachel Gough, the bassoonist, chose me. Between us we chose two other principals that she wanted to work with and that I thought would make a decent combination; so we have the low bassoon, the violin to cover the higher range and the harp to bind the two together. Some of the other instruments had already been taken!”
Huw explains the compositional process. “The piece sort of emerged as I started sketching it and it seemed to be a mistake to treat the instruments as a unit. The first movement is like an operatic ensemble where the soloists are rarely playing together. Bit by bit they interact like characters of an opera. There are five movements in all; the second and fourth are interludes for orchestra alone, which gave me a chance to pull all the stops out.”
London Concerto lasts for 20 minutes, and the construction of movements suggests something classical? “Yes and no!” I note to Huw the clarity of his music. “Thank you. I like clarity. Classical is misleading but I do tend to go for sonatas and things: new wine in old bottles. But the realms of possibilities are boundless.” Huw’s music is also lyrical, melody-based, and communicative. “I very much want to communicate to the audience. It’s partly because I’m a pianist and have played all sorts of music. I wouldn’t want to write-down to an audience but I do want them to get something on a first hearing. The third movement is the most lyrical, and the outer ones are quite energetic and bouncy. Although the bassoon and violin are very different, I wanted to blend them together. And I’ve only written one glissando for the harp! The orchestral movements kind of take-off with the preceding ones; the rest of the orchestra gets its chance! Actually we had a rehearsal of the first two movements in February, a real luxury, and Colin Matthews suggested I took out the snare drum, and he was right!”
Either side of Huw’s new work is Verdi’s Force of Destiny overture and Tchaikovsky’s passionate and triumphant Symphony No.5. Conducting is Xian Zhang, a lady making her LSO debut; she is Lorin Maazel’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra for London Concerto includes a fair bit of percussion – “not the snare drum though! There’s a bass drum and a whip; I like a whip!” Say no more! But we may be, for Hugh has another unusual concerto, for viola and cello, for this year’s Proms.