Christopher Morley previews a world premiere with a difference that’s coming to Birmingham.
Next week Birmingham Conservatoire is the focus for a major gathering of international performers on the oboe, bassoon and allied instruments, when it hosts the 2009 conference of the International Double Reed Society (IDRS2009).
Peppering the busy programme of masterclasses, lectures and workshops is a generous clutch of concerts in the Conservatoire’s Adrian Boult Hall, as well as Birmingham Town Hall, and, most spectacularly, Symphony Hall.
Here, next Friday, Andris Nelsons conducts the CBSO in one of the best-loved oboe concertos – Richard Strauss’s gloriously autumnal example, with Jonathan Kelly, one-time CBSO favourite and now joint principal oboist with Simon Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra the soloist – and in the world premiere of Falling Down, a concerto for contrabassoon and orchestra by John Woolrich.
The contra- (or double-) bassoon is a wonderfully characterful instrument, its fruity tones adding pungency to Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, and so beloved of Ravel in his Mother Goose and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. And audiences find its occasionally flatulent timbres a source of delight.
Margaret Cookhorn, long-serving contrabassoonist with the CBSO, is thrilled at the solo opportunities this Woolrich composition offers her instrument. She tells me that this is the first concerto ever to be composed for her.
“Oh, yes, yes! I feel so honoured, so privileged. It was my chair-endower’s idea, Pat Welch, and when I had my long-service award – because I’m old! – he said ‘how about having a contra concerto written?’
“I thought, well, that’s crazy, but let me think about it. Then I thought, why not? why not? It’s a good idea!
“Then I asked Pat if he wanted the CBSO to accompany it or Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. He said with the orchestra, and that I could choose whoever I wanted to compose it.
Immediately I went to John, because he writes really well for me. Whenever we’ve done any music by him I’ve always enjoyed playing his parts.
“And I have to say, in this concerto he brings out my personality. I fell about laughing the first time I tried it, because I thought ‘this is me, this is me playing here! And the way he’s written it, it’s a very approachable piece to play, because I want this piece to be played by anybody, ever! I didn’t want it to be written, played, and then put away. I want it to be played lots of times.”
How many contra concertos are there?
“I don’t know, actually,” Margaret giggles. “I’ve heard that Michael Tilson Thomas has written one, though I’ve never seen the music. There’s one by Donald Erb – I’ve seen the music for that, with millions and millions of semiquavers, which I think on the contra, being so low, is a waste of time, really. The average audience member, unless they’ve got really good hearing, wouldn’t be able to hear that low.
“And that’s the beauty of John’s piece, it kind of lets people in more! The nice thing about it is, although it really explores the low notes – as you’ll hear! – the orchestra parts are also quite demanding as well, so it’s really quite a big virtuoso piece for all of us, really. There are times when I’m playing, and times when the orchestra alone are playing.
“It’s kind of like a tennis game. I’m playing, they’re playing, I’m playing, and so on. And sometimes when I do play, there is someone lurking in the background – I don’t want to give too much away.
“There is no recording yet, or piano reduction, so everything in the score is in my head. I’ve been imagining what the sound is like.”
As John Woolrich himself told me, Margaret has been in training for this premiere. “Absolutely, absolutely!” she agrees.
“Because of the demands of playing, and also because I’m playing, at the beginning of the IDRS2009 week, two pieces by Colin Matthews. To play in public, and to reveal your soul to everyone ... and so, yes, I have been in training and spending a lot of time at the gym.”
How will it feel, sitting in front of all her orchestral colleagues? “I can’t wait, actually! This is something I thought would never happen in my lifetime, but I’m kind of looking forward to it. I love playing on my own, you know! I’m not one of these shy wallflowers, I’m one of these who, once I’m there, I’m there – I just deliver.”
And John Woolrich is equally enthusiastic about this highly unusual premiere, and explains the genesis of Falling Down. He explains the title as “the music tumbles down – falling – at the beginning and at the end. And down is where the contra lurks.
He admits that there were issues in writing a concerto for such an exotic instrument.
“Hard. But I’ve always loved the contra – so that’s a good start. I’m drawn to its ability to ‘sing’ in rather a sexy way, the side that Ravel brought out in Mother Goose and the Left-Hand Piano Concerto. But it can be aggressive, or capricious, and, of course, being the deepest voice in the orchestra, it can do dark.
“I talked to Margaret before and after writing the piece. I’m happy to say she didn’t make me change anything.”
* The CBSO play Woolrich and Strauss at Symphony Hall on Friday, July 24, at 7.30pm. (Box office: 0121780 3333). All details of IDRS2009 events are avaliable from Birmingham Conservatoire on 0121 331 5902.