Working with Gregory Rose: this violinist’s point of view

Posted on December 27th, 2019 by

I am about to release, Gregory Rose’s wonderful concerto, recorded last month, with the composer conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Here’s some thoughts on the piece.

With the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, and composer/conductor Gregory Rose. Angel Studios 11 11 19

The premiere of Gregory Rose’s Violin Concerto in 2018, was one of the most satisfying performances it has been my privilege to play a part in. It marked a way-station in a fascinating collaboration and treasured friendship. Greg and I are neighbours; we both live  close to the Thames in East London, and our interests in and love for our neighbourhood is a constant in our conversations:  the ever-present pull of the seven-metre tide not far from our respective doorsteps, the church architecture, history, bells (Greg is an indefatigable campanologist), and the many-layered stories of East London reach into our talks – instrument and pencil in hand or not.

For me, our environment counterpointed Greg’s idea of a concerto that would be series of dramatic tableaux, like the floats of a medieval ‘mystery play’ rolling past, or, more particularly, the religious wall-paintings of  Northern Europe. As soon as he told me that the Berlin ‘Totentanz’ would be at the heart of the piece, we started swapping stories and pictures of other examples, and some that had inspired other artists, musicians and writers. For me, the excitement of finding inspiration in such material from the past, is the power that comes from its selective usage: after all, we are not seeing/using such paintings in the way that they were designed to be seen or used – when I look at the extraordinary medieval painting in Newark cathedral ‘Death and the Young Man’, I am not filled with dread of the afterlife, or a sense of my own sinfulness (perhaps I should be). And, as I worked with Greg on the emerging piece, I thought about Russell Hoban’s science fiction novel Riddley Walker (1980)  inspired by the legend of Saint Eustace as painted on the north wall of Canterbury Cathedral in the 15th century. This book, set 2000 years after a nuclear holocaust, is written in an invented future language, incorporating surviving elements of the past (modern English and Kentish dialects): its characters play out powerful rituals rooted in the surviving fragments of iconography, popular theatre, and buildings. This seemed analogous to what Greg was writing, a narrative, very much of our own time, but flowering from the almost-palimpsest of the past-as-we-glimpse-it. This proved helpful to me, as I ‘hunted for the sound’ of  the concerto.

Rehearsing with Gregory Rose and the London Jupiter Orchestra. St Johns Smith Square 18 4 18

Each work Greg has written for me demands reimagine what the violin is. The challenge of this nine-movement concerto, was, and is, to find all the possible colour, drama, humour and texture particular to each section, whilst also respecting the fact that whole is essentially a series of variations. Over the weeks and months we spent talking, revising (Greg), practising (me), and ‘musick-ing’ (the only word that really fits what a composer and performer do when they talk and play at each other at the same time), a sound emerged – rhapsodic, bronzed, intractable, sensual and harsh – which  the concerto seems to demand.

Gregory Rose – Three Studies Live, St Mary Aldemary, October 26th 2017 (Preludes and Vollenteries V)
Recording courtesy of Colin Still (Optic Nerve Productions)

An important element of this sound was the presence of concertante duos within the piece. Every great concerto has these – the violin and bassoon in the first movement of the Beethoven, the harp in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy – but in Greg’s case they reflect the idea of conversation which underlay the appearance of the concerto. At certain moments, the soloist is required to take a supportive role which reminds me of the violin’s function in Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, a work constantly in the air as we discussed the new piece. The most important of these duos, is with the Horn, and it behoves the violin soloist  to allow the horn player  freedom and ‘room’ to shape this heroically challenging passage.

The part of the concerto in which a violinist would be normally expected to have the most input, would be the cadenza. This proved  unnecessary.  Greg is not a violinist, but understands the instrument so well: this is one of the most terrifyingly effective bits of fiddle writing that I know, full of technical felicities that function as well as anything by Eugène Ysaÿe or Henri Vieuxtemps, there was nothing that needed to add, or correct. The end of the cadenza (a dramatic tableau by itself) reminds me of the peroration of Ted Hughes’ eponymous poem:

‘A bat with a ghost in its mouth

Struck at by lightnings of silence-

Blue with sweat, the violinist

Crashes into the orchestra, which explodes.’[i]

Who could ask for anything more?

[i] ‘Cadenza’, Ted Hughes, Selected Poems 1957-81, Faber & Faber, 1984, P.66