Category Archives: Conducting

Conducting in Ives’s “Second Orchestral Set”

Tonight I will be a second conductor in a rare performance of Charles Ives’s Second Orchestral Set, by the University of York Chamber Orchestra and first conductor John Stringer. I will conduct in the third movement a “Distant Choir” instrumental group, playing at a slower tempo than the main orchestra: the Distant Choir is in 3, fitting within the bars of the main orchestra who play in 4.

The whole work brims with quotations from American culture of the time to depict particular scenes, not least in the third movement: “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose”.

The Distant Choir comprises a unison chorus, horn, chimes, piano, harp, and strings. Removed from the main orchestra, they open the movement with the chorus intoning the Te Deum in English, the instruments playing what has been described as “background noise of New York rush-hour traffic.” The main orchestra enters, eventually subsuming the Distant Choir, but after a Gospel hymn is heard in full tutti they fade to leave the Distant Choir’s traffic noises again.

The work was not premiered until 11 February 1967 (by Morton Gould with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), despite Ives writing the three movements in 1909, 1911 and 1915 respectively, later uniting the three programmatic pieces as one set.

Peter Laki has written on how the third movement commemorates the sinking of the Lusitania ocean liner by the German Navy on 7th May 1915. Laki refers to Ives’s Memos, in which Ives detailed how his experiences on the day of this disaster shaped the music.

Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune, and others began to sing or hum the refrain. A workman with a shovel over his shoulder came on the platform and joined in the chorus, and the next man, a Wall Street banker with white spats and a cane, joined in it, and finally it seemed to me that everybody was singing this tune, and they didn’t seem to be singing for fun, but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long. There was a feeling of dignity all through this. The hand-organ man seemed to sense this and wheeled the organ nearer the platform and kept it up fortissimo (and the chorus sounded out as though every man in New York must be joining in it). Then the first train came and everybody crowded in, and the song eventually died out, but the effect on the crowd still showed. Almost nobody talked — the people acted as though they might be coming out of a church service. In going uptown, occasionally little groups would start singing or humming the tune.

“Now what was the tune? It wasn’t a Broadway hit, it wasn’t a musical comedy air, it wasn’t a waltz tune or a dance tune or an opera tune or a classical tune, or a tune that all of them probably knew. It was (only) the refrain of an old Gospel Hymn that had stirred many people of past generations. It was nothing but — “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” It wasn’t a tune written to be sold, or written by a professor of music — but by a man who was but giving out an experience.

This third movement is based on this, fundamentally, and comes from that “L” station. It has secondary themes and rhythms, but widely related, and its general makeup would reflect the sense of many people living, working, and occasionally going through the same deep experience, together…

One last note about our performance: the unison chorus part of the Distant Choir will be sung by the main orchestra!

More information on the Chamber Orchestra concert here.

Conducting debut at HCMF//2014

Last November I made my conducting debut at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) in two separate concerts featuring  premieres of works by Naomi Pinnock and Ji Sun Yang.

HCMF//2015: Monday Shorts. Miniaturised Concertos
St Paul’s Hall, 24th November 2014
This concert was also a HCMF debut for the University of York’s Chimera Ensemble. We collaborated with solo pianists Kate Halsall and Fumiko Miyachi to premiere Always again by Naomi Pinnock, and perform Philip Cashian‘s Furor (featuring electronics by Peiman Khosravi).

More rehearsal photos can be seen in my gallery.
More information on the Miniaturised Concertos project here.

HCMF//2015: Next Wave, Concert 2
Phipp’s Hall, 27th November
As part of Next Wave, a Higher Education commissioning project partnered by Sound and Music and NMC, I conducted the world premiere of a chamber ensemble version of KAIROI by Ji Sun Yang.

The performers were mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg and the Sounds of the Engine House ensemble. A recording of the original version (for solo soprano, solo tuba and 15 players) by Lixenberg with the London Sinfonietta is available to download from NMC.

‘Remembering Steve Martland’ LME concert

On 5th July I conducted a concert for the Late Music Concert Series, entitled ‘Remembering Steve Martland’. The concert was to be a tribute to the Liverpudlian composer, who died in May 2013, and a celebration of composers with special birthday years in 2014. It was also the debut of the newly-formed Late Music Ensemble.

I programmed three works spanning Martland’s career: Remembering Lennon (1981, rev. 1985), Kick (1996, rev. 2005) and Reveille (2007). I’ve put all the programme notes in the concert order below (click on a title).

We celebrated the 80th birthday of Jeremy Dale Roberts with five pieces from his Croquis for string trio, and closed with Workers Union by Martland’s teacher, Louis Andriessen, celebrating his 75th. Alongside these were premieres of two commissions: Roger Marsh‘s Running Jumping and Standing Still and my Rat Race.

You can read the York Press review of the concert here.


Remembering Steve Martland: Programme Notes

Steve Martland: Reveille
Reveille, a ‘wake-up call’, opens with a resounding triad motif from the piano and vibraphone, fortissimo sempre. As manipulations of the triad proliferate, the strings’ sustained backdrop begins to create a sense of unease as the chords gradually overlap. The tension builds until a groovy rhythmic unison figure interrupts, propelling the ensemble into marching modal harmonies. The strings then develop the rhythmic play with yet more varied harmonic colours, eventually allowing a crescendo motif (emphasising a semitone) to take hold. We return briefly to the martial material before reiterations of the triad motif close the piece.

Reveille was commissioned for the 10th anniversary of Ensemble 10/10, the contemporary music group of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. It was premiered in 2007, conducted by Clark Rundell.

Martland: Remembering Lennon
Remembering Lennon was written in 1981 and premiered by the New Music Group of Scotland, conducted by Edward Harper, at Musica Nova, Glasgow University. Martland revised the work in 1985 for Aquarius, who premiered it at Keele University that year.

The piece shows Martland the young composer developing a real awareness of how to harness the extremes of what an ensemble can do. The harmony is adventurous, moving from a sparse opening to densely chromatic textures in the busiest moments. The influence of the former Beatle and fellow Liverpudlian are clear in major/minor thirds motifs (hinting at a well-known song…) and the cello’s soulful strumming ‘quasi chitarra’. After an initially pensive mood, a nimble melody doubled by flute, clarinet, glockenspiel and violin picks up. This gives way to florid hocketting for all 7 players – an example of Martland experimenting with rhythmic patterns and games. These descend from an extreme height to a low, darker tone, before building again, via a return to the nimble melody, to reach a tutta forza climax. A piano cadenza calms the mood to that of the opening, complete with the delicate sound of wineglasses and string harmonics. The quotation from ‘Imagine’ comes to the fore in the work’s closing moments.

Jeremy Dale Roberts: Croquis (a selection)
To celebrate Jeremy Dale Roberts’s 80th birthday this year, we have selected five pieces from this collection for string trio, written for members of the Arditti Quartet in 1976-80:

Cahier III – Minstrel
Cahier I – Sommeil (pour les violes); Plaint
Cahier II – Tambourin
Cahier III – Sonnet

Dale Roberts writes, “Croquis comprises a sheaf of bagatelles, 27 in all, bound together in three ‘Cahiers’. The word means ‘sketch’; and in this collection – as in any album – there is to be found not only finished work, precisely organised, but also the odd scribble, dashed off: as it were, provisional.

“Although I took care to impose some sort of organisation within each of the three parts as well as over all, in a way I’d prefer listeners to nibble at these pieces, rather than expect a solid meal: what the French might call a dégustation.”

Roger Marsh: Running Jumping and Standing Still (WP)
The title of this piece is taken from The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film, an absurd eleven minute film in black and white made in 1960 by Richard Lester with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and others. It’s only really the title that interests me. I remember seeing the film when I was young and failing to understand what all the fuss was about. It’s not as funny or radical as you want it to be.

This is a piece in three movements, all describing physical actions:

1 Running Jumping and Standing Still
2 Descending
3 Rising

Movements 2 and 3 both had previous lives (a piano piece and a section of a music theatre piece). The first movement is entirely new. – Roger Marsh

Martland: Kick
Kick was written specifically for a band gig at London’s South bank Centre. Indeed, as the event was supposedly connected to the 1996 European football cup final, the South Bank promoter made the booking conditional on my providing a new piece with a football theme! Doing my best to find a connection where none exists, I decided to take an anonymous English folk fiddle melody of the 17th century and write some straightforward variations on the tune. The last variation almost reinstates the original tune, but this time the dance is undermined by alternating regular and irregular meters. – Steve Martland (2001)

Louis Andriessen: Workers Union
We celebrate the 75th birthday year of Martland’s composition teacher, Louis Andriessen, with his “symphonic movement for any loud sounding group of instruments”, written in 1975, for the Dutch Orkest de Volharding (Perseverance Orchestra).

Andriessen writes that the piece is “a combination of individual freedom and severe discipline: its rhythm is exactly fixed; the pitch, on the other hand, is indicated only approximately, on a single-lined stave.” The score instructs that the players must “make the piece sound dissonant, chromatic, and often aggressive”; at one point, “like an aggressive national hymn”.

“Only in the case of every player playing with such an intention that their part is an essential one, the work will succeed; just as in the political work.”

Conducting Castaway’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’

This summer I am working again with Castaway Goole Accessible Music Theatre in their reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Directed by Anna Webb, the production blends drama, film, dance, plus original live music devised by Emily Crossland. Returning as a conductor, my role is to oversee and co-ordinate the musical performances in the show, which ranges from set choral/instrumental pieces to improvised soundscapes.

Emily has been working with Castaway Band to create these new soundscapes and pieces, which build on sounds discovered last year in her BBC PAF commission, Fairies Sing. We are now beginning to rehearse as a full company, fitting these together with the drama and dance. It is wonderful to be working again with such an enthusiastic and energetic group in the collaborative environment of the theatre.

Four performances will take place from 16-19th July at Junction Goole – three evening performances and a matinee on Thursday 17th. Tickets are available via Junction’s website (link above).

‘Composition at York’ on YouTube

The University of York Music Department now has a YouTube channel. As well as videos on the life of the department, you can watch performances of new works by York students. Here is their ‘Composition at York’ playlist, including this performance of Leo Birtwhistle’s ‘The Grand Tradition Breaks Down But Slowly’ which I conducted this autumn.

You can follow York Music Department on Facebook and on Twitter @Music_at_York.

Recent Conducting with Chimera

The Chimera Ensemble (student-run new music group of the University of York Music Department) now has its own Soundcloud page where they are uploading live concert recordings. There’s currently recent recordings of Barrett, Birtwistle, Cardew, Chin, Saariaho, Stockhausen and Xenakis, to name but a few.

I thought I would collate the recordings of student works I have conducted premieres of with the ensemble. It is always a pleasure working with student performers in Chimera. The servant/facilitator role of the conductor is what draws me to it the most; I feel particularly fortunate to have been able to work on these challenging, accomplished scores, which scrutinize a range of sounds and structures in such depth, and to witness the piece and the players develop together over time.

The next Chimera concerts are in March, May and June 2014. You can follow Chimera on Facebook and on Twitter @chimeraensemble. If you like what you hear below, I encourage you to check out the composers’ other works too!


Leo Birtwhistle: The Grand Tradition Breaks Down But Slowly
You can also watch this performance on the York Music Department YouTube channel.

Apostolos Charisis: Diodos

Azlee Babar: Shimmer, Flux, Shine, Fly

Benjamin Gait: Twilight Songs

John Goldie-Scot: C Hear?

Castaway Goole: ‘Fairies Sing’

On 15th and 29th June I will appear as guest conductor with Castaway Goole Accessible Music Theatre in the premiere of Emily Crossland’s Fairies Sing. The new work, commissioned through the BBC Performing Arts Fund, will be performed by Castaway Sing and Band and the East Yorkshire Federation of Women’s Institutes Sing for Pleasure choir, in a joint concert of vocal music at two Yorkshire venues.


Castaway provides performing, leisure, and training opportunities for adults and young people with learning and physical disabilities and autistic spectrum conditions. Emily has been working with Castaway Sing and Band and the WI Sing for Pleasure choir since the beginning of the year to compose a new work with and for the groups.


The result is Fairies Sing, which sets text from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to tell the tale of the fairies who ward off evil spirits to protect their Fairy Queen, Titania. The piece combines large-scale choral forces with vocal and instrumental soundscapes, in textures that range from harrowing clusters to serene ebbing and flowing.


It has been a real pleasure and inspiration to work with the Castaway and WI groups, who have a fantastic energy and take such delight in music-making and performing. Through collaborating with Emily in developing the theatre of the performance, I have also been fortunate to apply my music theatre experience in a new context.



The two concerts will take place on:

Saturday 15 June, 7.30pm, Toll Gavel United Reform Church, Beverley

Saturday 29 June, 7.30pm, St John’s Parish Church, Goole

Tickets for either concert are just £5: please call Castaway Goole on 01405 761423 or email to reserve.


With each choir performing a range of songs from their repertoire, the concerts are sure to be wonderful opportunities to hear some of the great community music-making that there is in North Yorkshire. On 29th June, Castaway and the WI choir are also joined by Rawcliffe Harmonics. As well as conducting Fairies Sing, I am also quite excited and privileged to be leading all the performers in singing ‘Jerusalem’ together at the end!

Getting Nowhere: John Cage Festival-Conference

Last week, the largest festival-conference for the centenary of John Cage’s birth took place in York: Getting Nowhere, an international festival organised by staff and students from the University of York, through the first year’s Practical Project. Among the many events taking place was a late night promenade concert of simultaneous performances of Cage’s Winter Music, Atlas Eclipticalis and Solos for voice 45 and 48, around the University of York Music Department; a ‘moveable feast’ entitled ‘Music and Mushrooms’; talks galore by Peter Dickinson and other international Cage experts.

Performance highlights were many, but the most moving was undoubtedly Nicky Losseff’s charismatic, subtle and ultimately tranquil interpretation of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-8). You can read a review of her performance here. Again, personally, the stand-out concert event was the sight of a multitude of nearly 100 students and guest performers, all wearing the self-effacing, clock-faced black T-shirt citing the ‘Getting Nowhere’ status quo, scattered across all levels and corners of the Ron Cooke Hub on the Heslington East campus, performing the entire Songbooks (1970), with all kinds of diverting, curious and inexplicable, yet marvellously engaging actions.

But I have not yet mentioned the four wonderfully playful interpretations of Cage’s Aria heard earlier that night, by Kerry Andrew, Sarah Dacey and Anna Snow of Juice Vocal Ensemble, all with an absurd mix of children’s toys, and a gripping dramatic turn by Mirjam Frank. These were all sung against the Concert for Piano and orchestra (1957-8) with soloist Joseph Houston, who also appeared in the gradual, intimate unravelling of one of Cage’s late number pieces, Fourteen (1990).

I was fortunate to be involved in two performances. The first was to conduct a sinfonietta of players from the Getting Nowhere Ensemble, comprising mainly first years on the Practical Project. We performed Earle Brown’s Available Forms I (1961), which can be experienced in one form here. The conductor’s role is to cue pages and events, listening to the spontaneous interactions between the 18 players to mould the piece in the moment.

The following night I played cello in Henry Cowell’s 26 Simultaneous Mosaics (1963) with Patrick Burnett (clarinet), Zoe Craven (percussion), Christopher Leedham (piano), and Sophie Simpson (violin). Similarly open form, we each could play any mosaic (or movement) when we liked, no more than once, and stop and start within it as we pleased (though always moving linearly forward through the music).

Hera’s List @ Tête à Tête

I am delighted to report that following the fantastic reception of Eve Harrison’s opera Hera’s List in Manchester last November, the company have been invited to perform at the prestigious Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival in London. The opera will be performed in the largest theatre space at Riverside Studios on 2nd and 3rd August 2012.

I am very excited to be returning to the production as conductor and working alongside the fantastic cast and ensemble, of York-based young singers and RNCM alumni respectively. Do take a look at Eve’s website for background information on the project and updates on our progress.

Music and words by Eve Harrison

“Mortal and mythological worlds collide; Hera’s List explores a dejected man’s struggle for independence, despite chaotic interference from Greek Goddess Hera with her whimsical list of goddesses.

A witty and fast-paced libretto and a mischievous and vibrant musical score combine to tell a compelling and pertinent story of love, jealousy and control.”

Hera’s List

On Friday 25th November 2011 I will be conducting a full performance of Eve Harrison’s chamber opera, ‘Hera’s List’. Taking place at the Institute of the Anthony Burgess Foundation (IABF) in Manchester, the free evening concert will feature a staged performance of the opera in the second half. The project, which has received funding from the PRSF for Music Fund, is a collaboration between the University of York Opera Society and Manchester-based instrumentalists.

The first half will comprise new pieces by York and Manchester-based composers: Adam Gorb, Morgan Hayes, Ben Gaunt, Steven Jackson, and myself.

Crowd Funder page

Sounds of the Engine House