Fascinating music

Composer Julian Anderson: “My music is about even the most horrific experiences”


Do composers sometimes go to concerts of the music of others? In one case, the answer is definitely yes. Look among the faces of the audience standing in the arena for the BBC Proms and you will often see Julian Anderson, one of the UK’s greatest composers.

Forget elitism or complacency, here is a composer happy to take his place in the crowd of enthusiasts. “The Proms are the best way to hear orchestral repertoire for an extraordinarily reasonable price,” he enthused, and impressions of last year’s Proms tumble, Korngold’s Symphony in F Sharp (“remarkable “), the The waltz (“One of the best performances I’ve heard”).

Anderson’s knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, music is inexhaustible. “I’m afraid the music world is too segmented,” he says. “The kind of crowd that you see at a Brahms symphony is not at all the same as for a new work that is being created. I never wanted to make a living from just one area of ​​music. I go back to medieval times, Dufay and Ockeghem, and I’m a big fan of Haydn.

At one point, when faced with commissions to write two choral works in quick succession, he decided he needed practical experience and joined the ranks of the London Philharmonic Choir as a composer in residence. He got hooked and stayed for five years. The sense of community that comes from enjoying music in a largely unprofessional band has completely changed his view of his own music.

“This experience has influenced everything ever since,” he says. “If I don’t like the music I write myself, who the hell else has a chance to like it?” It’s about communicating, but not in a silly way as far as I’m concerned, no matter what others think. The music I write is about people, landscapes, experiences, even the most horrific experiences.

All of this feeds into two major new works that he has to come. At 54, Anderson is at the top of his game and in demand internationally. A former Fanny P Mason music professor at Harvard University, he has seen his own music roll out of the UK circuit and perform around the world.

These two upcoming works have seen a number of planned premieres go down the drain over the past 18 months. In a strange international roundabout, the premiere of Exiles bounced between its sponsoring organizations – the Münchner Philharmoniker, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra – each time canceled due to the pandemic and passed on to the next. Now, on a wing and in prayer, this and Anderson’s new symphony is about to land in the same country in the same city the same weekend.

After individual performances of some of his movements, the long-awaited first integral of Exiles will be given by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and conductor Robin Ticciati in Munich on January 20. The premiere of Symphony No. 2, “Prague Panoramas”, will take place the day before, with the Münchner Philharmoniker and conductor Semyon Bychkov.

Exiles, in particular, probes new depths. Subtitled “Remembrances for voices and orchestra,” the work originates from when Anderson was teaching at Harvard. Knowing few people in the Boston area, he says he was surprised to feel isolated and miss the UK.

“I never considered myself to be a British composer. My father’s family was Jewish from Lithuania and I have always been very interested in music from elsewhere, spending time in Paris and Darmstadt in the 1980s to be immersed in music from outside the UK. . It was an eye opener to be homesick in Boston and I started to think about what it would have been like to face this condition all my life. Growing up in North London in the 1970s, I have known many people who were refugees from Hitler or Communism, a common feature of our culture at that time.

Then, coincidentally, came life-changing discoveries about his own family. “My grandparents have landed [in the UK] from Lithuania around 1907, ”he explains. “But I wanted to know what happened to the rest of the family who didn’t leave. Parents sent me old photographs of my grandfather’s sister with her children, looking like me and my brothers at that age. No one in the family even knew their names, but I discovered with appalling ease that the 8,000 Jews from the two towns where they lived had been rounded up and slaughtered in one day. He stops to take a long, deep breath. “I was absolutely unprepared for this and shocked, because I didn’t think anyone in my family had suffered in this way.”

It is extraordinary to think that such revelations can still occur so long after the event, but Anderson’s experience reflects playwright Tom Stoppard’s discovery of the fate of his Czech family members during World War II.

In the case of Stoppard who found an outlet in his very moving play Leopoldstadt in 2020. Anderson, likewise, worked on those darker emotions in Exiles, which explores different experiences of isolation from the old to the modern. He points out that the music isn’t all dark and his five movements end with “Praise and Farewell,” a finale in which nations celebrate together.

In contrast, Symphony No. 2 had a relatively simple genesis. The caption, “Prague Panoramas”, refers to a book of historical wide-angle photographs of Prague that Anderson found during an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery. The irony is that he’s never been to Prague himself, as the planned tours keep falling apart, so the Czech bond remains purely cultural, rooted in a long-standing love for Czech music. . Anderson says the symphony was never intended to be pictorial (“I won’t be surprised if the Czechs say they can’t hear Prague there at all”).

“I’ve been extremely lucky with the people I can write for, to have these opportunities, and I don’t take it for granted,” he says. “I find it difficult to compose, because it can’t be just a piece of ID to be heard once and put in a drawer. If people come to listen to my music, I feel responsible for communicating with them. I’m not going to give them what they expect, but it must be exciting, alive, something special.

Symphony No. 2, ‘Prague Panoramas’, Isarphilharmonie, Munich, January 19
Herkulessaal, Munich, January 20

Video credits: ‘Litanies’ by Julian Anderson, performed by Alban Gerhardt with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, John Storgards (conductor). ‘Ring Dance’ by Julian Anderson, performed by David Alberman and Clare Duckworth.

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