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Composing for full symphony orchestra must surely be at the top of any budding composer’s wish list. But the chance to follow in the footsteps of giants like Stravinsky, Bartok and Boulez, all of whom tamed the multi-headed behemoth to some degree? Well, that is a chance that must be earned – especially where demanding professional players are involved.

In Ireland we are lucky to have the annual Composer Lab, an initiative in existence since 2015 and jointly led by the Contemporary Music Centre (CMC) and the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), in partnership with RTE Lyric FM. The Lab annually offers 3 to 4 emerging composers an opportunity to develop large scale pieces 6 – 8 minutes in duration, in partnership with the players of the NSO, over a period of 4 – 5 months. An experienced composer mentor, the Kildare born, Glasgow based David Fennessy, guides the composers through the process, to the final performance – which is usually broadcast on Lyric FM - no pressure so!

Along the way there are initial meetings with Fennessy and the principal players (section leaders) of the NSO, before a public workshop in which the pieces are played for the first time by the Symphony Orchestra.  This being a workshop, the players and conductor offer suggestions for alternatives to notation, balance, orchestration possibilities. Everything is up for discussion with the composers, who occupy a position approximately 15 – 10 rows back from the stage…. This is to get the overall sonic picture, although with distance comes perhaps a certain protection from the potential ire of the players!

Among recent ‘graduates’ of the scheme is Anne-Marie O’ Farrell, who has subsequently completed a number of acclaimed orchestral commissions.

From the stalls….

And so I found myself in the National Concert Hall on 4th September 2023, for the 2023 public workshop of this year’s Composer Lab. I was fresh from a transformative few weeks, first in Darmstadt then in Snape Maltings, so I was eager to re-engage with all the contemporary music happenings back on the island!

Armed with the PDFs of the scores, helpfully made available through the excellent CMC website, I took my seat, behind the quintet of composers, including mentor David Fennessy. A few months earlier, all four composers had been chosen by panel, of which I was a member, so I was curious to see how each was progressing! The selection process had involved submission of previously composed scores for orchestra, to allow the panel to evaluate who would benefit from this amazing professional development opportunity.

Sleepy Lines…

The day kicked off with Tom Lane’s Nocturne, inspired by his sleepless experiences as a new father! Tom is a graduate of University College Cork and Baliol College, Oxford, and his evocative 8-minute piece cycled through a dreamy sequence of chords gradually building momentum to an agitato section, before reverting back to the shimmering stasis of the opening. There was a real feeling for orchestral colour in the work, and the players of the NSO, reinvigorated after their summer break, seemed to relish in the idiomatic writing. During the 70minutes of the workshop, Tom tweaked balances, and added some shimmering trills to the strings. For my part, I would have liked to hear even more adventurous sonic explorations from Tom, already relatively well known to Irish audiences through his consistently well received music for theatre productions.

Amy Rooney’s Lining Out was a densely detailed orchestral exploration, opening with the full viola section in unison, gradually joined by the remaining strings, and then the whole orchestra, for a brief rhythmic dance episode. Echoes of this dance episode returned, after a section in which the horns and brass were to the fore, with dense, filigree accompaniment on woodwind and strings. A string melody, and plaintive solo oboe punctuated proceedings, the piece being drawn to a close by the flutes, oboes and clarinets.

During her workshop, interrupted by the mandatory rehearsal break, Queen’s University graduate Amy experimented with various balances, to clarify the foreground voices. The results varied, the main issue being the sheer density of the individual instrumental lines. David Fennessy wondered about the emotion or character of the piece – as there was no indication at the start of the score, apart from a metronome mark. Fennessy asked the orchestra to play the piece not as if it was ‘new music’ but as if it was Mahler! The NSO immediately responded with nuance, colour and passion – it was as if they had been waiting for permission! From a practical perspective, NSO leader Elaine Clarke requested that the placement of page turns be considered, to ‘avoid losing half the section’ as the inside players stop to turn the page!

Unseen pipes…

TU Dublin graduate Darragh Black Hynes’ Pure Drop brought a new sonic dimension, with the addition of a fixed media tape element to add to the orchestra’s already considerable palette of colour. The piece, broadly in 4 sections, seemed to be influenced by the rhythmic tonality of minimalism, with each section slightly slower than the previous one. Although, as conductor Gavin Maloney pointed out, a reduction in tempo of 3 or 5 metronome marks, as specified by the composer, is all but imperceptible! The orchestral writing posed few challenges for the players of the NSO with standard contemporary music techniques like microcanons and chord smearing used throughout.

The main challenge was the balancing of the orchestral and the fixed media elements, which consisted of manipulated archive recordings of the uilleann pipes, triggered by midi keyboard. Dave Fennessy explored two options – one where the sound sat within the orchestral sonic mass ‘like a magic trick’ and a second, less successful experiment in which the manipulated pipes were foregrounded for the listener. The discussions could have continued indefinitely, but were interrupted by the 45minute lunchbreak!

Keep the players onside…

The last composer of the day was Geoff Hannon, a graduate of Royal Holloway University, London and previous recipient of Gaudeamus International Composer’s Award. Of the four pieces, his Standard Deviations was the most complex, and it undoubtedly suffered from being the last of the day, when player fatigue had perhaps set in! Hannon’s tempo and character indications such as con passione, intenso, ecstatico, nervosa.. hinted at a more programmatic narrative that perhaps could have been shared with players and audience for greater engagement. On the page Hannon’s compositional skill was evident – sinuous scalar melodies snaked through the orchestral sections, with a recurring double septuplet figure serving as a navigational motive. Repeated rising major thirds set off on melodic trajectories in close canon…and there was even a fugue!

This was very accomplished writing – although disadvantaged by some questionable notational decisions, as pointed out by conductor Gavin Maloney at the start of Geoff’s workshop. Maloney’s question focussed on the decision to notate bars that sounded musically in ¾ (3 beats) as bars in 6/8 (2 beats). Both options have the same number of quavers (eighth notes), but the notation can either help or hinder the players as they navigate through the music.

I feel the notational issues coloured the players' evaluation of the piece to a detrimental degree, and it perhaps didn't get the level of attention it merited. It will be interesting to see and hear the changes that Hannon makes between the workshop and the final Composer Lab performance, due to take place on 14th November in the National Concert Hall.

All the composers will have learned from the experience and mentor David Fennessy steered proceedings in a supportive, but constructive way, accompanied by a good humoured National Symphony Orchestra.

An experienced pair of hands

Throughout the day conductor Gavin Maloney kept the performances on track, and the composers benefitted from his considerable experience with Irish contemporary orchestral music. He has conducted all the editions of the Composer Lab since 2015, as well as most of the, now sadly discontinued, Horizons concert series.  

As a backseat conductor, there were of course things I would have loved to hear differently. I felt that the pieces by Amy Rooney and Geoff Hannon could have benefitted from a more energised approach to tempo, rhythmic detail and articulation. Conducting certain sections in 2 rather than 4 would have helped the quality of ensemble – particularly in the trombone/tuba interlocking crotchet quintuplet section in Darragh Black Hynes’ piece. But these are personal preferences!

With the change in management of the NSO it will be interesting to see if the 2024 edition of the Composer Lab evolves beyond its current form. It would be interesting to see different conductors, with different perspectives involved - maybe even a woman!!

Whatever changes lie ahead however, I hope we see the continuation of this valuable and unique opportunity for emerging composers for many years to come.

About the author:

Sinead Hayes is a freelance Irish conductor and violinist. She is emerging as a leading interpreter of contemporary music and opera in Ireland. She is in her 10th season as conductor of the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, Belfast, and has recently founded the Ivernia Ensemble, bringing high quality musical and immersive performances to areas underserved by the arts.

Writing: NSO & CMC Composer Lab 2023: Services
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