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Alec Roth returns to Brinkburn Music Festival

IF this month’s 17th Brinkburn Music Festival is also to be the last, it can at least bow out with a world premiere to its name.

Alec Roth

IF this month’s 17th Brinkburn Music Festival is also to be the last, it can at least bow out with a world premiere to its name.

A new piece of music called Other Earths and Skies will get its first public performance on Sunday by tenor Mark Padmore and oboist Nicholas Daniel.

It is the work of composer Alec Roth who, though now London-based, has connections with the North East.

In 1976, as a mature student, he began studying for a music degree at Durham University.

It was a life-changing moment since he’d previously graduated from Nottingham in a science subject which had taken him into a very different line of work.

“My family was not musical but I’d been interested in music from quite an early age. I started playing the piano at seven or eight,” explains the composer, who was born near Manchester.

“I was of that generation, the first person from my family to go to grammar school and then to university. It was outside my parents’ experience that one could have a career in music so I was pushed more towards science.

“But when I started work I was spending all my time and energy doing music. I was singing in choirs, conducting choirs, playing in orchestras and composing, and after 10 years of that, I thought: this is crazy. I chucked everything and went to Durham.”

His parents, he adds, were “very supportive”.

Durham, he recalls, was “a wonderful place to be a student and especially, at that time, to be a music student.

“Because I was slightly older, I got a lot of conducting work and I had a very good time. It was a good time too for the Northern Sinfonia. I used to go to Newcastle to listen to their rehearsals.”

Since then Alec’s career in music has been wide-ranging, involving posts connected to the Royal Festival Hall, English National Opera and Opera North. For a short time he lectured in music at Edinburgh University.

But he now focuses on composition and reflects that, even as a child, the urge to write new tunes at the piano rather than practice scales and arpeggios was strong.

Recently he has composed new pieces of music for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Ensemble. He has also produced a cycle of four major works in collaboration with the writer Vikram Seth, having been co-commissioned by festivals in Salisbury, Chelsea and Lichfield.

The composer’s long friendship with Seth, who made headlines in 1993 with his highly praised but enormously long novel, A Suitable Boy, is also a vital factor in his Brinkburn composition.

Alec says he did a project for the Brinkburn Music Festival about 10 years ago, involving the Festival Choir.

“I wrote a little piece for them and went up several times to work with the singers, which is how I fell in love with the place. Then, some time later, I had a visiting fellowship at Durham University and went back to the festival as a member of the audience.

“It’s a quite magical place really. There’s something very special about the atmosphere there, as if it was made for the music.

“I’ve been to a lot of festivals all over the country but Brinkburn has something nowhere else has. Partly it’s due to its isolation.”

Alec says his commission for the 17th and possibly last Brinkburn Music Festival results from a convergence of two factors: firstly, his desire to compose a piece for Brinkburn again; and secondly a wish to work on an idea implanted in his mind at the Salisbury Festival.

The tenor Mark Padmore, for whom Alec wrote Songs in Time of War (the first of those four works), also sang poems by William Blake which had been arranged by the composer Vaughan Williams for voice and oboe

“I didn’t know they existed but they made a really strong impression, partly because voice and oboe is a really strange combination. As far as I know, it’s unique.”

Well, it’s not any more. Alec set himself the challenge of producing a new work for voice and oboe, choosing as his text five little poems by the 8th Century Chinese poet Li Bai translated by his multi-lingual friend, Vikram Seth.

While one of the poems, involving some monkeys, is “very funny”, Alec says there is “a vein of melancholy” running through them and also “a sort of wistfulness”.

Everything has fallen into place for Alec at this year’s Brinkburn Music Festival.

His friend Mark Padmore, “one of the most inspirational musicians I’ve ever met”, will again sing Vaughan Williams’ Ten Blake Songs with Nicholas Daniel, “one of the best oboe players in the country”, and they will also perform the world premiere of Other Earths and Skies by Alec Roth.

The audience, says the composer, will play an essential part and he is keen to gauge its reaction. Brinkburn, he adds, always attracts “a very musical, very appreciative and very intelligent audience”. If this is to be Brinkburn’s swansong, what a swansong!

Brinkburn Music Festival takes place over two weekends, July 2-4 and 9-11. The concert by Mark Padmore, Nicholas Daniel and pianist Roger Vignoles is on Sunday at 2pm. Tickets: 01289 330999. Website: www.brinkburnmusic.org. Read more about Brinkburn Music Festival in Culture magazine, with today’s paper.

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