Edward Gregson at Presteigne Festival 2017

Edward Gregson at Presteigne Festival 2017
Edward Gregson features as Composer-in-Residence to the Presteigne Festival from August 24-29. Seven of his works for chamber ensemble and orchestra will feature, two of which will be premieres.

Six Little Piano Pieces, Serenata Notturna, and Gregson’s atmospheric Aztec Dances will be part of this year’s programme. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones will premiere of a new version of Five Songs of Innocence and Experience, which will bring together new works and unpublished juvenilia, the premise from which the piece takes its title.

On August 26, Gregson’s Presteigne commission String Quartet No 2 will receive its world premiere, performed by the Nightingale Quartet. Thereafter, on Tuesday 29, following twenty-seven events spanning six days, the festival will conclude with a concert given by Festival Director George Vass and the Presteigne Festival Orchestra, featuring the Gregson’s moving cello concerto A Song for Chris.

We caught up with Edward to get his thoughts on the week and the challenge of writing a brand new commission.

What does being a Composer-in-Residence at a festival mean to a composer?

Well, first of all it’s a great privilege to be Composer-in-Residence at a festival like Presteigne, because its artistic policy is, and always has been, about the performance of music by British composers, mainly contemporary composers - music incidentally that covers a broad spectrum of styles and persuasions; and so the exposure of one’s own music is both exciting and daunting because there is so much fine music being performed by many other composers. The privilege for me is having seven works performed at the festival, two of which will be world premieres. That doesn’t happen very often!

Do you enjoy engaging with the rehearsal process when it comes to your works or do you like to allow the ensemble explore the music themselves?

My experience over many years tells me that performers don’t like composers being too ’hands-on’! If performers are prepared to spend many hours rehearsing a particular work of yours, then you must allow them to start to ‘own’ it, or at least to input their own interpretive ideas about it. Of course, there will always be things to discuss: tempi, dynamics, phrasing, and so on, but I usually find that there is a middle ground to pursue if there are differences of opinion. In the end, composers are nothing without musicians who perform their music, and we have to respect that.

Festivals often allow audiences to stumble across new music. If one were discovering your music for the first time, where in your catalogue would suggest they begin?

Good question, but a difficult one to answer… I think the works being performed at Presteigne provide a good starting point in terms of their variety of genres; thus, my new String Quartet No 2, my song cycle Five Songs of Innocence and Experience, or my Aztec Dances for flute and piano, would all be good places to start. However, Presteigne, by its very nature, concentrates on smaller scale works, and so I would have to suggest some other works, as the majority of my music is for larger forces - for example, Dream Song, my large-scale orchestral tone poem after Mahler, or one of my concertos: the Violin Concerto or Saxophone Concerto. Of course, I’ve also written lot of music for brass and wind bands, but that tends to be a rather specialist area - nevertheless one that leads to many international performances and recordings.

Like many composers, you have turned to the genre of the string quartet later in your career; what attracts you to this medium now?

This question could have been turned on its head thus: 'what put you off writing for the medium of the string quartet until so late in your career?’ Answer: FEAR! It is the most challenging medium for which to write - there’s nowhere to hide - and it challenges your compositional technique like no other genre. But having risen to the challenge with my first quartet - which took me a year to write - I now definitely have the bug, and want to write many more. I must confess that I enjoy the challenge immensely, even though with all the great repertoire of the past, from Haydn to Beethoven, from Bartok to Shostakovich, staring you in the face (or should that be ‘ears’), I have the feeling that my modest contribution to the repertoire is rather insignificant!

When you embark on the second composition in a genre – in this case your second quartet – where do you begin? Do ideas flow over from the first? Or do you think, ‘I must make this as distinct as possible’?

Well, first of all a hangover from your earlier question about engaging with the rehearsal process… I find myself in a rather unusual position with my new string quartet. I have written it not even having met or heard the Nightingale Quartet, and so have not yet had a chance to hear them playing it; and I won’t be able to do so until the morning of the concert. However, having heard their CD recordings and the quality of their playing and their musicianship, I have no fears about that. As to the other part of your question, as I started writing the new quartet very soon after the first, it was inevitable that there was going to be some connection. But a new challenge is just that - trying to create a new experience. The second is a more lyrical work, in one through-composed movement, as opposed to the three movements of No 1. It is also somewhat shorter, but perhaps more concentrated because of that. 

What next, after the festival?

I shall be continuing to work on a large-scale ‘adventure story in music’ for the Hallé Children’s Choir and orchestra (premiere in July 2018), followed by an oboe concerto for Jenny Galloway and the BBC Philharmonic, and some more choral music. After that, who knows! Another string quartet perhaps?!

Works by Helen Grime, Tarik O’Regan, John McCabe, Hans Abrahamsen, John Joubert, Bent Sørensen and many other composers represented by Music Sales can be heard at the festival next week. Read our article here to view the full details. To find out more about the festival itself and book tickets to this year’s programme, visit presteignefestival.com

Click on the hyperlinks above to discover more about the works on at the festival this summer. Looking forward to hearing these works live? We would love to hear from you: follow @msclassical on Twitter and musicsalesclassical on Instagram and Facebook.

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