Singing in Symphony

by Mark Isaacs

This article is also published in Limelight Magazine

My new Chamber Symphony came about through a process of instigation and collaboration.

It was made possible by Harry and Julie Johnson, avid music-lovers and concertgoers, who generously wished to commission a new work from me, without a specific idea of the forces to premiere it. I always need to know the destination of my writing, so I considered to whom I could put their proposal.

Some years ago, David Rowden, artistic director and clarinettist of the Omega Ensemble, had floated the idea of a collaboration. When I told David of the opportunity, he seized upon it immediately, telling me of a concert in July 2015 in which the Omega Ensemble would be performing a large chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, with guest artist soprano Jane Sheldon. Would I like to write the new work for the same concert?

I jumped at the idea, and this meant I had the opportunity to use the large chamber ensemble already engaged. Since Jane Sheldon was performing in the concert, I also was able to include her voice in the score, an opportunity impossible to resist.

The forces having been decided upon, I needed some further direction. Last year I had heard a wonderful Omega Ensemble concert that featured two chamber symphonies (by Arnold Schoenberg and John Adams). I myself had written my first (orchestral) symphony in 2013. These factors made the penny drop: I would write a chamber symphony!

My orchestral symphony was very traditional in structure, so the chamber symphony was a chance to look at the medium anew, as a “compression” of symphonic form: in length – only 16 minutes; in number of movements – only three; in instrumentation – 12 instruments, from which I strive to get something of the sound of a romantic orchestra; and in structure – the customary recapitulation of the opening theme is skipped over in the first movement and postponed until the finale, amongst other ways I found to knit things tightly together.

Some might say all this leanness makes it a divertimento, but given the cyclic recall of themes and the use of the voice in one movement – amongst other symphonic hallmarks – I consider it a symphony that structurally has as its kernel that “compression” idea – it really “gets on with it” and doesn’t hang about much at all!

I decided to eschew text and just use Jane’s wordless voice as a special feature in the middle movement, a Berceuse (cradle song).

I find a lot of my material as my fingers improvise at the piano, and I always strive for my music to be lyrically melodic, surprising, rhythmically interesting, colourfully orchestrated and contained within a satisfying formal structure. I happily stand on the shoulders of what I have learned from the giants of classical composition, but when my jazz experience pokes through in some way, I don’t resist it. I think all that is there, and more, in the Chamber Symphony.

Due to illness, Jane Sheldon was unable to sing at the work’s premiere, and she was replaced by Lee Abrahmsen. You can see and hear the premiere here.