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Northumberland composer John Casken on his biggest ever year

John Casken is celebrating his 65th year with several major projects. David Whetstone caught up with the distinguished composer

John Casken at the desk where he does much of his composing
John Casken at the desk where he does much of his composing

It is a road that literally winds up hill and down dale that brings me eventually to the tiny village – up a side road off another side road – where John Casken lives.

According to the route I have chosen – not the recommended one, he notes with mild consternation – it is several twists and turns beyond Rothbury and then some. To a townie it seems remote and peaceful; green all around and light rain pattering down.

Striding down the lane towards me, John looks as if he should have a collie at his heels or a broken shotgun on his arm. But he’s no shepherd, farmer or gamekeeper. This is the Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Manchester and the North East’s most distinguished composer.

What a year this is for him: premieres, performances and recordings here, there and seemingly everywhere. As he jokes later: “You sit around as if waiting for a number 92 bus and then...”

It is more than 22 years since I last interviewed John face to face, just ahead of the first Newcastle performances of his extraordinary opera, Golem, based on a centuries-old legend of a clay giant created to protect a town.

As John noted wryly at the time, surveying a set of ruin and rubble: “An opera about two people working in an office might as well be a play.”

Golem had been commissioned for a London festival in 1989. It earned John the coveted Britten Award and funding from the Arts Council’s new Contemporary Music Network for a tour beginning at Northern Stage. Back then he was also looking forward to the first North East performance of his Cello Concerto at Newcastle City Hall.

“There are still things I’m aiming for but my philosophy is to take it very slowly,” he told me then. “At the moment things are going nicely, a bit at a time.

“If I thought I was going to rise to meteoric fame I’d get very worried indeed.”

More than two decades on, the meteor seems to have arrived, albeit on the equivalent of that convoy of number 92 buses. On April 10, the Hallé Orchestra will perform the world premiere of his new oboe concerto, Apollinaire’s Bird, at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. A live recording will be released a few days later by NMC Recordings.

Also on that day, the same company will release a new disc featuring three of John’s major orchestral works – his Orion Over Farne, dating from the 1980s; his Violin Concerto from the 1990s; and his Concerto for Orchestra (2007). That’s three from successive decades.

No fewer than five of this year’s concerts at Sage Gateshead feature John’s work, including two world premieres.

The first of these, in June, is That Subtle Knot – the double concerto commissioned by Sage Gateshead and its music director Thomas Zehetmair, which is to be performed by Zehetmair (violin), his wife Ruth Killius (viola) and the Royal Northern Sinfonia. The work is also to be performed in London and at the Salzburg Festival.

The second, in August, is a musical setting of sea poems by North East poet Katrina Porteous, to be performed by the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.

Also in June, Casken’s The Dream of the Rood will get its second only performance at the Brinkburn Music Festival by The Hilliard Ensemble and Royal Northern Sinfonia under conductor Clark Rundell.

In addition – yes, there’s more – there is the choral piece he is writing for his Upper Coquetdale Chamber Choir honouring the men of the area who fell in the First World War but have no physical memorial.

John is keen to make one thing straight: “People think I’ve been campaigning to have this happen because I’m 65 this year and become an OAP. Actually, no; it’s a coincidence.

“It was in 2006 that Thomas Zehetmair did a piece of mine called Farness, for soprano, viola and orchestra, and asked: ‘Would you be prepared to write a double concerto for me and my wife, Ruth?’ I jumped at the chance.

“It has taken a long time to come to fruition. When it was agreed that it would be performed at Sage Gateshead in June, Craig West, who’s in charge of the classical programme, said ‘What a shame we couldn’t do more.’ I said I didn’t want to be greedy but it has gone from one concert to five.”

From 1990 to 2000, John Casken was composer-in-association with his local Northern Sinfonia. “That came to an end and it suddenly feels as though I’m invited back to be composer-in-association again,” he says.

Running through his busy 2014 schedule, he remarks: “Some people say it must be really nice to be a famous composer and have all these performances and I say ‘OK, Google me and you’ll find I’ve got an embarrassing number of premieres but I don’t get that many performances.’ This year it has all started to stack up.”

Anxious to capitalise on the widespread exposure, he has engaged a publicist. Contemplating much dashing about – Gateshead, Salzburg, London, Manchester – his eyes light up. This is what it’s all about! And, of course, there is always this lovely place to come back to.

He says: “I was lecturing at Durham (University) for 11 years and then I went down to Manchester, where I was for about 16 years. The reason I’m in the North East is that we sat down a long time ago and said ‘When we’re 60 where would we like to be?’.

“It didn’t take long to decide we’d like to come back to the North East. We lived in Low Fell in Gateshead before and it was great. We loved it. But we bought this house in July 2004 and have lived in it for the past eight and a half years.”

This tranquil spot has become important to him. “I couldn’t work in a place where I didn’t have agreeable surroundings,” he explains.

“I don’t mean a palatial suite, but I have got to have interesting and stiimulating things to see. Living here, the landscape is marvellous, the skies are wonderful and the wildlife is great. “There’s also a tremendous sense of history here. This building was the working mill for the village in the 1530s and this room was where the water came in. If I want to do any creative work I come into this room, sit at my desk and look out over the garden with the old mill race running through it.

“I’ve got the sound of running water and it’s rather calming.”

Also in this room are the books where John finds inspiration, such as the John Donne love poem The Ecstasy, which includes reference to “that subtle knot” and the works of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, whose poem Un Oiseau Chante (A Bird is Singing), recalling birdsong in the trenches of the First World War, set him on course for the Hallé commission.

The first things I notice, however, are the paintings which seem to cover every downstairs wall. There are several splashy landscapes by the Derbyshire artist Lewis Noble, and there’s also a wall-mounted sculptural piece by Derwent Wise.

Some of John’s own paintings are there too, and he explains how a “brilliant teacher and artist called Ray Kearsley” inspired him when he was growing up in South Yorkshire.

For a while he was split between art and music and, for a couple of years, having opted for music, worried that he’d made a bad decision.

“I had to decide. I suppose you can’t turn the clock back but I still paint. I don’t do nearly as much as I’d like to because of the pressure of other things that need doing, but it’s a wonderful way of composing in a different way.”

John spends some time explaining how, like composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Olivier Messiaen, who spoke of “blue-orange chords”, he espouses both visual art and music.

“In both you’ve got a certain space in which to work. In music it’s durational and in art it’s defined by the frame but in both cases I feel I’m manipulating something which excites the senses.

“It’s important for me when I’m writing music that it’ll be, as well as an aural experience, an emotional experience. You’re exciting the senses and working with these colours and composing shapes.”

He hopes audiences will enjoy what he has painstakingly created. Life isn’t always easy for a contemporary classical composer living in the shadow of history’s giants.

“You can never live with Bach, Beethoven, Delius or Stravinsky,” he acknowledges. “They were geniuses. But you do the best you can in the hope that it’ll register.

“What you’re trying to do is bring to life a human experience through music and if, just for a moment, you make somebody stop and listen, that is very rewarding. I think music without emotion and feeling is rather dead.”

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