Celebrating Henry Purcell

This is a good year for musical anniversaries – Haydn, Mendelssohn and Handel among others – and one which will certainly prove a good excuse for some wonderful music-making is that of Henry Purcell (1659-95).

The Fitzwilliam String Quartet, whose range includes all kinds of music from the early baroque to the absolutely contemporary, have often played Purcell’s wonderful Fantazias for Viols, written when he was just 19 and showing a brilliant and quirky genius which is equally adept at old-fashioned English and new-fangled Italian styles.

To mark his anniversary they are commissioning short new pieces which taking off from Purcell in whatever way the composers wish. I’m delighted to have been commissioned to write one of these, which will be premiered by the Fitzwilliam Quartet in a concert at Fitzwilliam College on Sunday April 26 at 8.00. At the moment I have a title – Fantazia – and about one and half minutes of music. I should finish it off quite soon now.

Earlier this year the Fitzes played my String Quartet in Cambridge, following their premiere in the US last year. They will perform it again in the Cambridge Music Festival on November 24 2009.

Stone and dough

Two performances coming up this Friday:

Virtuoso organist Kevin Bowyer plays a pair of organ pieces, called Dry-Stone Wall and Rising Dough, on Friday 13 June in Glasgow University. I won’t go into the titles here, as it’s all explained in the programme notes (scroll down to the end). Dry-Stone Wall has been thoroughly revised – though the basic idea is the same, the notes are quite different, and much better! – and this will be the first performance of the piece in its new (and final) version.

And on the same night, Friday 13th, The Fitzwilliam String Quartet are playing Ancient Stone at Twilight in the Late Music Festival in York: 7.30 in the Early Music Centre. They played this piece beautifully in a recent concert in Cambridge, in its version with soprano solo. Now they play it in the version for string quartet alone. This piece is incorporated as the first movement of my new three-movement String Quartet (the other movements are brand new) and the Fitzwilliams are giving the premiere of the whole thing next month in Woodstock, NY – see maverick music festival.

Fitzwilliams in America

This July the Fitzwilliam String Quartet will be giving the premiere of my new string quartet in Woodstock, New York, in the Maverick Music Festival. This is an idyllic setting for chamber music; the concert is on Sunday 27 July at 4.00 and also includes Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Full details at www.maverickconcerts.org

The new quartet incorporates one movement which has already been heard – a piece called Ancient Stone at Twilight. The Fitzes have played this quite a few times over the last few years, and gave a wonderful performance in Cambridge last month, with soprano Suzana Ograsenjek. In a version without the soprano, this piece is now the first movement of the new quartet. The other movements are entirely new and will be heard for the first time in Woodstock in July.

Swings, Roundabouts and Wind-bands

Next month the Zephyr Ensemble will be giving the premiere of a new piece for concert-band, Swings and Roundabouts, which I’ve written specially for them and their conductor, Brandon Green. Zephyr is the wind-band of the Cambridge University Musical Society, and they’ll be giving the premiere on Tuesday 17 May at 8.00 in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. It’s quite a zany piece! I’ll post up the programme notes soon, which explain the title.

Music by Jeremy Thurlow.

Un-sticking the wheels

Wheels within wheels is the second piece I’ve been commissioned to write for cello and piano duo Oliver Gledhill and David Christophersen (the first was When the Magus reads the Night Sky, which they premiered in 2003). It picks up an idea I started on a couple of years ago, where the different instruments trace melodies which turn and return on various different levels, at different rates, all the time, like some kind of musical planetary system (to be precise, like the system of ‘epicycles’ put forward by Ptolemy, which assumes Earth to be at the centre, and accounts for the planet’s complex pathways with remarkable accuracy.  See a demonstration of how it works on youtube, or try Ptolemy meets Homer Simpson).

It’s an inspiring idea, but difficult to realise without getting tied into cycles and schemes which can go stale when you’re halfway through them. After a promising start two years ago I got thoroughly stuck, and put the piece away. The request from David Christophersen prompted me to get the piece out again. It took a while to disentangle the threads and to find a way forward that wouldn’t lead back into the same dead ends that I’d been staring at before, but in the end I found another direction to go in, and from then on things went with a swing. The piece is largely serene, but runs into a very sombre ending which was not at all what I was expecting; when it came to it, the turn towards darkness suddenly seemed necessary and unavoidable. The first performance will be on February 25 in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge.

Matthew Schellhorn premiere

Matthew Schellhorn will be giving the premiere of a short piano piece I wrote for him last summer, fleeting… in Bangor on 14 February. It will be played as part of a wonderful programme including music by Messiaen, Dutilleux, Ravel, and Colin Riley in the Powis Hall, Bangor University.

Matthew is currently planning to record fleeting… along with The Will of the Tones, which was also written for him, and a selection of my other solo piano and chamber music, on a CD to be released next year.

Music by Jeremy Thurlow