Bridgewater Sinfonia, Berkhamsted

James Lark

Meet the Composer: Q&A with James Lark

We were very excited to open our first concert of 2024 with the premiere of James Lark’ new composition, Concerto for Orchestra.

Meet the composer!
James Lark talks about the piece he has written specially for the Bridgewater Sinfonia’s 25th anniversary, Concerto for Orchestra, which has its world première at the Centenary Theatre, Kings Road, Berkhamsted on Saturday 2 March.

If any of our audience were coming to an orchestral concert for the first time, maybe even hearing modern classical music for the first time – what should they expect from your piece and what should they listen out for?

I hope that even people coming to orchestral music for the first time will hear things that they recognise – ‘modern classical music’ sounds like a narrow and exclusive label, but the music I enjoy listening to myself embraces a broad range of genres and styles, and I hope that what I write reflects that. That includes contemporary orchestral music, but also musical theatre, jazz, film soundtracks, and all kinds of music that would be classified as ‘popular’. You could listen out for those different styles (amongst others!) – I think there are definitely points where you hear harmonies and rhythms that might come from avant-garde jazz, the fourth movement consciously draws from folk music, and a lot of my recent writing has been for a dramatic context, so it makes sense that there’s are some theatrical flourishes. There are a a few melodies here that are not ashamed to sport a bit of musical theatre razzle-dazzle.

What draws the work more towards the ‘classical’ style is the structure: it is in five movements and, although they each run into each other, you will hear clearly when the work changes mood and moves from one sound world to the next. Another thing that is perhaps more typically ‘classical’ is the use of counterpoint, which is where several independent musical ideas are happening at the same time – listen out for the weaving of themes together in the second movement, and also in the finale when the parts enter one at a time to create a fugal texture. I also hope you’ll be surprised by a few of the sounds I’ve asked the players to make, in the middle movement especially.

Can you tell us a little more about your first steps when starting to compose a piece of music? Do you explore different ideas until they take hold, or do you begin with a strong pre-conceived idea of how the piece will end up?

It’s a bit of both – spontaneity is important when you’re writing music, along with the chance to try things and chuck them out if they’re not working, so there were a lot of scraps of paper flying about! But with a work on this scale it’s also important to have a clear idea about the overall structure – you can’t embark on a journey like this without some idea of where you’re going – so at the same time as working on fragments, I was starting to formulate plans for how to organise them. The design of the piece became quite complicated, something I slightly regretted when the deadline was looming and I wondered if I might be able to simplify the task by missing out a movement (thanks to my oh-so-clever structure, not an option!).

You chose to compose a ‘concerto for orchestra’ which, compared to symphonies and concertos, is a relatively new type of work – what drew you to this form?

That came out of my desire to write something that would give every section of the orchestra a moment in the spotlight – building these soloistic moments into the structure made more and more sense as the ideas I was having coalesced – and although the idea of the ‘concerto for orchestra’ is less than 100 years old (Hindemith wrote his in 1932), since the second half of the 20th century the floodgates have opened and it has become a hugely popular form; in that sense it seemed an obvious choice rather than an unusual one.

We performed Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra at the end of last year, when you would have been working on your own – apart from them both being concertos for orchestra, did you draw on anything else having performed the Bartok?

Actually I have to admit that I wasn’t available for the Bartók concert, so that didn’t really influence my choice – if anything, I perhaps avoided the idea of a concerto for orchestra for a while because I thought it would be too soon after performing a considerably more famous one. In the end it really was the natural shape for the piece, and I don’t think mine is very much like Bartók’s which hopefully means it doesn’t invite unfavourable comparisons! But it was natural to draw on other music I’ve been playing with the orchestra – I was constantly thinking about how to deploy the different sounds and textures available, so I’ve been paying close attention to how composers like Mahler, Holst and Tchaikovsky make effective use of instruments. Sitting in the 2nd violins places you right in the middle of everything, so it’s quite a useful spot for picking out good ideas.

You’ve played violin in the Bridgewater Sinfonia for many years now, and will be very familiar with it – did you write your piece with the individual players and sections in mind?

I didn’t make it too specific, because I’m keen that the piece should be performed by other orchestras. But I am obviously aware of the quality of the playing in the orchestra, both individually and en masse, which definitely informed my decision to emphasise these qualities in the structure. And knowing how brilliantly the orchestra has pulled off some really challenging repertoire, I felt able to write what I wanted to without having in any way to write down to them: an orchestra that can take on Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 or the Britten Sea Interludes doesn’t deserve to be patronised! I should also say that some individual players offered some really helpful advice on parts at the draft stage; I like to feel that there is a collaborative aspect to composition and having players willing to make suggestions and play with different options is a great benefit to creativity. Some of the more unusual sounds in the piece definitely emerged from that part of the process.

If the audience really like your piece, are there other composers/pieces you think they should also seek out?

There are so many influences at work here I find it difficult to unpick them all… that eclecticism owes something to Mahler, who packs about as much as you can into a symphony in terms of styles, colours and even meaning (usually on a much grander scale than this!). If you like the baroque stylings of the second movement or the folky fourth, then give Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileires a try. If you’re keen to hear more of the experimental sounds and explorations of extended instrumental techniques, I highly recommend Simon Rattle’s recent recording of Where Are You? by Ondřej Adámek, who is writing some really interesting stuff at the moment. The in-your-face brassy sound and contrapuntal theatricality of the outer movements has some similarities with parts of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, and if you want a more contemporary take on a Mahlerian gamut of moods and styles then look no further than Kate Bush’s The Dreaming.

What advice would you give to any young composers out there?

Firstly, listen to as much as possible – go to concerts, listen online, subscribe to Idagio, Presto Music or Apple Music Classical – immerse yourself in music, especially new music, even if it’s music you don’t like, because that’s how you develop a palette of your own sounds. If you can, get hold of scores so you can see how it all works. Secondly, put the hours in. Composing is time consuming: music software can quickly produce scores that look impressive, even virtual recordings that sound (sort of) impressive, but (though it’s not fashionable to admit it) that doesn’t mean they are impressive; there’s no substitute for rigorous, self-critical working through of every detail, laborious though that is. Unless you’re Mozart. (You’re probably not Mozart.)

Thirdly, try it out! Don’t settle for virtual sounds, write for people and groups you know and hear what your music sounds like performed by real people.

Why is it important that ensembles – of all levels – continue to commission composers? Some people would take the view that there is enough music already written…

It would seem to me an odd view to take. Nobody thinks there are enough books already written, or enough films made, or enough chart music! Just as a constant injection of fresh material into those worlds invigorates them and keeps them interesting and relevant, new commissions keep the ‘classical’ arena alive. Perhaps there is more of a challenge in creating a buzz about classical music, and I’m sure it’s perceived by some as less accessible (I think new music is also sometimes perceived as difficult to perform, not without reason), which is why it’s such a fantastic thing for the Bridgewater Sinfonia to be commissioning new work, being very much part of the creation of a bespoke piece to engage players and listeners alike.

It is also no exaggeration to say that we’re facing a crisis in music in the UK at the moment. However the Arts Council and bodies that are (or were) dependent on it spin it, a combination of COVID and cuts has put us in a situation where quality musicianship, live performance and new work are severely threatened. So the commissioning of new work on a local level like this is vital. I actually think that, as creative resources diminish at a national level, commissions in a community and amateur context are going to keep rising in importance. It’s the life blood of the music scene, and vital to ensuring it can be accessed by the next generation of potential artists. So a sincere bravo and thank you to the Bridgewater Sinfonia and other local groups taking the initiative – as well as everyone supporting them – here’s hoping there will be many more new works in the years ahead!