Toby Deller meets three top soloists whose instruments take on an all-too-rare turn in the spotlight at the Royal Albert Hall this summer.
“If we don’t continue to create the work for these wonderful instruments, if we don’t continue to put them in the spotlight, the danger is that people won’t take them to school,” says BBC Director David Pickard. Proms. He talks about the festival’s focus this year on underrepresented solo instruments, from tuba to flute and percussion to theremin — not to mention the musicians who play them.
“The flip side is that you also become very aware of the people who are really drumming for these instruments, no pun intended,” he says. “But percussionist Colin Currie, oboist Nicholas Daniel, harpist Catrin Finch and violist Lawrence Power: these are all people who are passionate about their instruments and want them to be seen and celebrated. It’s nice to reflect their enthusiasm too.
Another motivation for Pickard is the growing number of prominent composers who wish to write for solo instruments beyond the ubiquitous piano and violin. With nearly 40 concertos to his credit, including for accordion, contrabassoon and tuba, the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho is a particularly striking example. His theremin concerto, eight seasonswill be performed by its dedicatee Carolina Eyck on August 4 with the BBC Philharmonic and conductor John Storgårds.
“After hearing his contrabassoon concerto in 2010, I fell in love with his music,” says Eyck, “and wrote him an email asking if he would be interested in writing for the theremin. And he was! She premiered the piece that followed the following year with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra and Storgårds, and their eventual recording won a 2015 Echo Klassik Award.
Berlin-based Eyck has been playing the theremin since she was seven years old and grew up surrounded by the electronic instruments of her musician father. She also studied the viola at music college, but it was the theremin that stuck with her. Today, although she has not yet been a frequent visitor to the UK, she has a long career as an international performer. She is also the author of The art of playing the thereminwho explains a new playing technique that she has come up with.
“The biggest challenge when playing the theremin is that you have to find a balance between freedom and concentration. It’s pretty universal for life too. On the theremin you have all the freedom – you can play notes any where in space. But then, to find the precise notes, you have to be very calm and very focused. That’s what I like about this instrument.
The title of Aho’s concerto refers to the ancient division of the year into eight seasons by the Sami people in Lapland, and the movements range from ‘Harvest’ to ‘Midnight Sun’. There is also a seasonal theme in Sally Beamish’s harp concerto Hivea BBC Proms co-commission with the World Harp Congress which was originally scheduled to premiere in 2020.
Soloist Catrin Finch describes the piece, performed on July 21 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Ariane Matiakh, as a sonic visualization of the seasonal year in a bee’s life. “It’s easy for us to imagine that with the world of sound that she created, especially because the harp is really suited to that because we can produce those sounds in an incredible way – the harp literally buzzes for a good part.”
Finch is a prominent enough musician to have a performance center named after her – the Canolfan Catrin Finch/Catrin Finch Center in Wrexham – but she agrees that she and her instrument have struggled over the years for recognition.
“The more I widened my musical landscape, the more the harp imposed itself.
“He has a limited repertoire and limited interest, I guess, and he comes with this idea of not really being a proper instrument.” We’re still ‘diverse’, basically,” Finch explains. “I struggled with that, if I’m being honest, in the classical music world and found that the more I expanded my musical landscape, my musical world, the more the harp was accepted.
This was most visible during many years of memorable collaboration with kora player Seckou Keita. “It’s up to each harpist, isn’t it, to find his way? For me, that was all the more reason to embrace a lot of other genres, a lot of other styles and types of playing.’
Trombonist Peter Moore is a soloist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Vasily Petrenko on August 16, when they perform George Walker’s Trombone Concerto from 1957, whose centenary is celebrated this year. Moore notes that as far as he can verify, he is only the second trombonist after Christian Lindberg to perform at the festival. “It’s a shame but a great honor for me,” he said. “I think you have to approach it as a privilege – to do things for the instrument and bring it to people who wouldn’t have heard it, certainly in that capacity and in that setting.”
“You need pioneers to work with composers and show the music world what the instrument is capable of
He echoes Finch’s point about the lack of top-notch repertoire in an industry that relies on repertoire recognition – though both point out that there’s more music out there than you might think. “You need pioneers to come and work with composers and show the music world what the instrument is capable of,” he adds. “But that depends as much on us as on the composers. If you, as a performer, prioritize the integrity of what you do, work very hard, practice, think about the sounds you produce, think about what you communicate to people, and do your best, then people will come back, or go away and talk about the instrument or that piece of music. It’s up to us – as performers we have to do better.
For tickets see www.bbc.co.uk/proms; all BBC Proms are broadcast on BBC Radio 3.