Caitlin Harrison takes us through her journey working with not one, but two music groups as part of the Adopt a Music Creator 2022 project.
I remember being asked at my interview what kind of group I would like to write for if given the choice, to which I replied 'I’d love an orchestra!'. It’s not often that composers get the opportunity to write for one, never mind build a relationship with them over half a year or more as they work towards a large project. I must confess that I was then slightly disappointed upon being asked many questions about my history of working with choirs. Don't get me wrong, writing for choirs is definitely my most comfortable medium… but there’s something special about the size and sound of an orchestra that would have made a dream project.
So naturally I was expecting to be presented with a choir as my pairing at the launch event. I waited in anticipation as each pair was announced and realised that not only was I last, but there also seemed to be lots of people in the room who had not had a pair announced either. Lo and behold, I was finally told that I would be working with not one but TWO orchestras - to which I looked across to the other side of the room at four very excited people waving at me! Ask and thou shall receive indeed!
Caitlin meeting with the representatives of APO and RYO
These lovely musicians were Andrew and Chico, conductor and leader of the Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra (APO), and Mel and Becky, conductor and secretary of Reading Youth Orchestra (RYO). They have all known each other for a long time and it really showed in the way they work together. Soon after the initial meeting, I attended rehearsals with RYO and a concert with APO to get to know the groups. Both play to a high standard and are clearly passionate about their music-making.
We decided on a large piece for a concert to celebrate APO’s 20th birthday and the 75th anniversary of the Reading and Düsseldorf association, which included the anniversary of RYO visiting Düsseldorf in the 1940s, the first British orchestra to do so after World War II. The 15-minute piece would be long enough for each of the 45 parts to get their time in the spotlight. I noticed that both groups responded extremely well to romantic and programatic music (music that has a story or represents a particular scene or mood), and so decided to incorporate this into my work.
Movement 1 - The Grey Dawn
'The balmiest hour the seasons bring,
Is that which summer joins to spring;
Teh sweetest moment of the day,
Is then the grey dawn slides away.'
- from 'Song' by Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855)
I split the piece into four near-equal movements and chose a snippet of poetry for each. The texts each evoke a very different mood and offer an entry point for the performers, should they not find the music itself especially accessible. Mary Russell Mitford was chosen specifically because she spent most of her life in Reading and wrote about the city and area. Mathilde Wesendonck and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff were both German poets, harking back again to the Düsseldorf connection. Ella Higginson was an American writer and is a personal favourite of mine. All four movements traced a floral-themed day, which lead to the title of the work, From Dawn to Dreams.
Movement 2 - Rhododendron Bells
'O hearken - hush! And lean thy ear,
Tuned for an elfin melody,
And tell me now, dost thou not hear
Those voices of pink mystery? -
Voices of silver-throated bells
Of breathing, rhododendron bells.'
- from 'The Rhododendron Bells' by Ella Higginson (1862-1904)
Movements 3 then 4 were completed first, after which followed a couple of workshops with RYO. I brought ideas that come up in the piece, most notably open canons, and led the orchestra in picking apart what canons are and playing through examples, such as 'London Bridge Is Falling Down' and an arrangement I had made of the opening of Mahler Symphony No. 1, movement 3. I returned to RYO two weeks later with the finalised scores. We were joined by some members of APO and it was heart-warming to see age not play a part in how the performers worked together.
Movement 3 - The Greenhouse
'And how gladly the sun departs
From the empty gleam of the day,
He veils himself, he who suffers truly,
In the darkness of silence.'
- from 'Im Treibhaus' by Mathilde Wesendonck (1828-1902)
Both orchestras paused rehearsing during the summer break, so I took this opportunity to finish movements 1 and 2 in time for September. The biggest challenge in writing this piece was making it so every instrument had a worthwhile part to play. I am quite happy with the participation level in the end, as I deliberately made sure in the very fragmented second movement that everyone held the tune at some point or at least played a lot of accompanying patterns.
Movement 4 - Night
'It was as though the sky
had silently kissed the earth,
so that it now had to dream of sky
in shimmers of flowers.'
- from 'Mondnacht' by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857)
I never actually heard the full double-orchestra until the day of the performance. I attended a rehearsal with each in September, otherwise all other rehearsals were on dates I could not make so I had to put my trust in the conductors. The day of the performance was something to behold, approximately 85 performers on the stage playing to a high standard! I was amazed by how nuanced and confident both orchestras played the work, which was slightly harder to play than I anticipated but still doable. It made me very grateful to have been paired with such inspiring musicians who dedicated so much time and energy to the piece and made for a smooth experience.
Thank you again to Making Music and Sound and Music for making this all happen and to Fraser our mentor for his support during the process!
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The Adopt a Music Creator project matches vocal and instrumental leisure-time music groups with some of the UK’s most promising music creators to collaborate on creating a new piece of music. The project leads to a premiere performance and possible broadcast. If you’re a music group or music creator and you’d like to take part, find out more.