Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The leaves bow themselves to the ground…

Next week’s Bach to the Future concerts – at Stratford ArtsHouse and Town Hall, Birmingham – feature the first of four pieces commissioned to celebrate the orchestra’s 21st Anniversary Season: Objects In Mirror, by Douglas J Cuomo – best known (I am told) for the title theme to Sex and the City. Each of the selected composers was invited to write a concertante piece for OOTS principals using the same instrumentation as an existing composition – in this case, Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto – which will be performed immediately before this new work – thus enabling both audience members and players to compare and contrast the differences and similarities of composers across the ages.

Despite his busy schedule – he has a première of a choral piece in Florida at the same time as this one… – I managed to catch up with Doug, by email, to discuss his new – and (evident from just reading through the score) utterly captivating – work.

How did the commission originate?
I wrote a piece for OOTS, called Black Diamond Express Train to Hell, that was premièred in 2010. I thought the orchestra played the work really well – and enjoyed working with David Curtis so much. I’d therefore been looking forward to another opportunity: so, when David mentioned the Brandenburg idea, I jumped!

Having worked – and driven – in the States, I presume the work’s title refers to the safety warning that can be found on most American cars’ passenger-side door-mirrors? Why did you choose this? And what is the inspiration behind the work?
The idea of Objects In Mirror is that it is a companion piece to Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto. It uses the same instrumentation; and follows the same form – three movements, fast/slow/fast – similar key centres; and even the same number of bars in each movement as the original (just for fun…). My overall plan was to take some of Bach’s ideas and express them in my own language.
     Rhythmic propulsion, ceaseless motion, and jazz-like harmonic movement (a few centuries early!) are three of the notions that seemed central to Bach’s intentions for his piece: so I worked with those ideas and what they meant to me. I also borrowed some very brief note sequences, which I developed into themes; and let the trumpet rest during the entire first and third movements (Bach had it rest during the second) to create a kind of mirror-symmetry.
     But I also wanted to say with the title – perhaps subtly (maybe it was just to say it to myself…?) – that the relationship of my piece to Bach’s is actually stronger than at first glance, just like that warning: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”.

The names of the individual movements also read quite illustratively: Elliptical Sewing Machine, with its tricky, almost-phasing syncopations; Ballad, a beautiful love song; and, finally, Squabble, an opportunity for each of the soloists to try and have the last word!
Yes, the three movements’ titles are descriptive, as well. The off-kilter phrasing of the first; the second, indeed a trumpet ‘ballad’; and the third movement’s reflecting the mildly combative back-and-forth between the solo instruments – the violin, flute and oboe each having their say with their own cadenza.
     And this brings to mind another mirror-symmetry. In the Bach, the trumpet plays very virtuosically, fast and high, in the first and third movements; and is tacet for the second. I flipped that around – silent in the first and last; and playing medium-, and even low-register, with long-held notes, in the central one. I discussed this with Hugh, OOTS’ principal trumpet player: because I wanted to give him something that allowed him to really show off as a soloist – but in the opposite way (again) to that which Bach did. It was also a practical consideration: the plan being to play the Bach first… – after which your chops really need a rest!

As a Miles Davis fan – and a Hugh Davies one, too! – I’m particularly taken with that central Adagio – especially its directions to the trumpeter to play with a “harmon mute” (very Miles), and “very expansively throughout, with a jazz-like sense of phrasing”. It seems you have written to the real strengths of each member of the orchestra.
Yes, the jazz influence for the trumpet in the second movement is right out there: which is pretty much what happens if you play long notes on a trumpet with a harmon mute. David Curtis had mentioned that Hugh was quite a beautiful player – who does play jazz as well… – so I took that, and ran with it.

Somewhat unusually for a contemporary composer, you do not specify a number (or minimum) of string players for the ripieno. Is this because you trust a good artistic director to choose the forces that work well/balance in each particular venue (your reference, in the score, to possible amplification of the harpsichord seems to imply this…) – or am I putting words in your mouth…?!
No, you’re right about the minimum number of string players. I’m leaving it to the conductor’s sense of what will work with his/her ensemble and venue. And it’s the same with the possible amplification of the harpsichord. I’m wary of over-prescribing!

Editor’s note
The harpischord plays a much greater role in Objects In Mirror than you might at first expect – especially if you’ve just listened to one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos…! (Yet another “mirror-symmetry”, maybe?) In the opening movement, it is at least the equal of the three ‘main’ soloists (flute, oboe and violin): frequently breaking free from its conventional duty as the core of the accompanying, foundational continuo, and emerging into the spotlight – either on its own; or to hold ‘conversations’ with the other three luminaries. (Its respite, therefore, throughout the central Ballad, is well-earned.)

Its part in the closing Squabble is perhaps more traditional. An opening violin cadenza sets the tone: every single instrument – including the ripieno and continuo – seemingly having something important they want to tell us. The flute then emerges, temporarily triumphant; and, after some more “back-and-forth”, so does the oboe… – but this time bringing harmony: as the work then concludes with a brief passage where everyone is happily in unison, finishing with an emphatic F-major chord in the strings… and, of course, the harpsichord!

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