There is something incredibly invigorating in opening a fresh score and knowing that this is your chance to contribute to the voice of a new piece. It’s easy to overlook new compositions, overshadowed by the rich history of music preceding them, but it’s important to stop for a minute and remember that new repertoire contributes the next steps in our art form's complex journey.
2018 is a momentous year for women, marking 100 years since the first British women won the vote. Southbank Sinfonia has really opened my eyes to how lucky I am and how much I owe to previous generations who fought for womens' equality. I really appreciate the opportunity to be working on pieces by female composers and with female conductors. This year Southbank Sinfonia is proudly programming works by no fewer than 23 female composers, one of which is a new commission by Cheryl Frances-Hoad.
Between the Skies, the River and the Hills is a concerto written for pianist Ivana Gavrić. It serves as homage to Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D, which influenced many of the textures and dialogue Cheryl employed between orchestra and soloist, but the main inspiration is the historical novel The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić that Ivana gave to Cheryl. The novel focuses on the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge (pictured above) in Eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, spanning four centuries of turbulent history. The descriptions of the landscape, the people and their outlook on life spoke to Cheryl and shaped the piece.
Rehearsing the concerto, as the title suggests, was a breath of fresh air. It’s literally brand new! There are no recordings which means the possibilities are endless. Since we were working with Cheryl, we were able to bring her musical intentions to life through discussion. There is something very special when music is linked to literature. I find it makes the piece come alive, and evokes images from the text. Suddenly it becomes tangible and personal as you begin to see how the work inspired the composer.
Cheryl, Ivana and conductor Karin Hendrickson discuss the concerto during rehearsals
But how do you prepare for performing a world premiere? It’s a lot of pressure!
For any normal concert of 'known' music, I usually start by listening to a recording without the score. It’s good to know how a piece goes before you become too focused on your part. Next, I listen with the score and maybe even another recording of it if I fancy shaking things up. I use this as an opportunity to go through the score and pinpoint possible areas that will require more practice. This makes practice more efficient. If I have time I might even play along with the recording before the first rehearsal. If urgent last-minute practice is required I whack out the score on the tube and do some mental practice. Most of the time this involves a combination of listening to the recording, miming along, and often receiving funny looks from fellow passengers.
Despite not having a recording of Cheryl's new work, I treated it much like any other piece I’m not familiar with - and flicked through my part to identify the tricky areas. Thankfully Cheryl writes very idiomatically for the viola. Everything feels very natural on the instrument and we aren’t frantically jumping up and down the fingerboard or struggling with vast string crossings.
A positive thing about new music is that composers are often very clear about what they want from the musician(s). They use precise dynamics, articulation and tempo markings and there is no dispute between editions. Cheryl made life a lot easier by putting exact metronome markings at the beginning of each movement; during the process of personal practice the metronome was my best friend. When learning the orchestral part for a world premiere, I would suggest not over-thinking or over-practicing it. Keep things simple and practice the areas that stand out as potentially tricky corners. When you have the first rehearsal you can adapt to how your part interacts with other instruments.
Ultimately a lack of recordings is not the end of the world. It’s actually very refreshing learning a piece that hasn't been recorded. When preparing orchestral excerpts it is recommended to listen to a variety of recordings for any one piece. Each recording is slightly different in how the orchestra and conductor deliver it. This helps us become flexible and able to adjust to different audition scenarios. The exciting thing about premiering a new piece is that the musician is free to find her/his own organic interpretation of the composer’s intentions and explore their musicianship.
During rehearsals, Ivana pointed out what pictures certain movements portrayed – from a burbling river in the first movement to a drunken man dancing on an icy bridge in the second, which I could really see reflected in the playful pizzicatos (plucked strings). My favourite movement was the finale. The violas and cellos open singing a poignant melody taken from the folk tune Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu (When I went to Bembasa). The honest simplicity of the tune drew me in and it stayed true to itself throughout the movement. I briefly spoke to Cheryl and she mentioned that initially she had intended to develop the theme, but in the end decided that the simple beauty of it was powerful enough.
The moments after the world premiere performance in London
The viola is a very special instrument and in my opinion the most important in a string section. One of the many roles of the viola is to connect the lower voices of the string section to the soaring violins seamlessly. In this piece, I particularly enjoyed the percussive techniques Cheryl gave to the violas from the harmonics in the first movement to the glissandos (sliding up and down the string) and pizzicatos. I really appreciate the variety contained in my part – the violas weren’t solely an accompanying instrument but were also given the opportunity to play melodies.
Performing this work created a sense of pride and responsibility. The piece finished with the solo piano and finally, the haunting hum of the bowed vibraphone. As the final note lingered in the resonance of the church, everyone was still. In the collective silence, there was a sense of releasing the concerto to the world, where it will grow every time it is performed.