Night And Now – A New Concerto from Elena Kats-Chernin

Composer Elena Kats-Chernin (left) and flautist Sally Walker
Composer Elena Kats-Chernin (left) and flautist Sally Walker

Composer Elena Kats-Chernin has written a new work – a concerto for flute and orchestra and it is to premiere later this month. Called Night and Now, the concerto was commissioned by flautist Sally Walker, for whom it was written, with assistance from the Australia Council.

Sally Walker revealed to SoundsLikeSydney,  that she and Elena started talking several years ago about collaborating on a concerto. Sally envisioned a flute a concerto with a difference.  As she elaborates, there is a distinct German inflection in her speech, reflecting the years she spent studying and working there. “I wanted to have a flute concerto that was very colourful and very virtuosic but also very deep with not just the usual acrobatics -but starting off as this does, with something very sombre and dark – beautiful, slightly Eastern European harmonies.”

Night and Now” she continues, “is in three movements – a sombre, lyrical opening movement, a fugue and then a Tarantella.” Clocking in at around 18 minutes, the concerto is scored for solo flute and full orchestra including double woodwind and brass, harp and substantial percussion – from tubular bells to timpani to “pots and pans”!

Sally Walker graduated in music from the University of Sydney, studying flute with Geoffrey Collins. She subsequently studied in Europe where she earned an  Artist’s Diploma from the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien, Hannover and the Soloist’s Diploma from the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, in Munich . She played full-time with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 2003-2005 until she returned to Australia in 2006. She is currently the Lecturer in Flute at the University of Newcastle and performs with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Sally continues to work in Europe, returning there each year for a variety of projects.

Sally has also toured  and recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, was Principal Flute of the  Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss and has appeared as Guest Principal Flute with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the NDR Radio  Philharmonie Hannover.

Having lived in Leipzig, home city to J S Bach from 1723 until his death in 1750, and worked with the ensemble which is inextricably linked to the composer, Sally has a special affinity with his music. Elena Kats – Chernin too, has frequently looked to Bach for inspiration in her compositions. Is there a connection? Says Sally, “The second movement I think is a reference to Bach who is a composer Elena and I both love very much. My experience with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra which started in Bach’s time creates an extra level of significance for me. The second movement starts off with a fugue which sounds very neo-Bach. It’s syncopated, where as the first movement sounds more like Elena is returning to her Russian roots with tubular bells and dark lower strings, like the music you hear in the Russian Orthodox church. The flute is in the lower register which is quite an unusual way to start a flute concerto.”

“And the third movement,” Sally continues excitedly, “is a Tarantella that is leapt into by a cadenza at the end of the second movement where I have an improvisatory passage that propels forward to very fast triplets at the end of the cadenza before the orchestra joins me. Elena said that she wanted to write a piece that people will enjoy playing and that people will enjoy listening to. It’s very very beautiful  so it’s not progressive in terms of confronting harmonies and rhythms. She feels that at this point in her career she is not interested in ugliness. She just wanted to write a work of beauty – and that was the prevailing feeling with Night and Now – to have some sort of a celebration and it certainly finishes on a very happy and very exuberant note with pots and pans and lots of percussion at the end.”

Elena Kats-Chernin’s compositions include chamber music and solo instrumental works, vocal pieces, and music for ballet and opera. Her music was heard at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 and she remains one of Australia’s most popular and esteemed composers. Her vision for Night and Now was also for a piece that broke the mould.  She says “I wanted to start the piece in a different way to how concertos usually begin. Often a concerto starts fast and furious and dazzling and I wanted to start dark and brooding and let it unfold. Suddenly the word ‘night’ came to me. Because I do work at night very often. It just felt right. The first movement is a really slow “opening–‐a–‐book–‐at– night” kind of situation. Then it develops and becomes more active, getting brighter and brighter. It has a lot of optimism, even though it starts really in a dark way.”

Elena and Sally are more than just professional collaborators. They have maintained a close friendship for over a decade after meeting through Elena’s son who was working in a bank where Sally was a client. After discovering that Sally was a musician, Elena’s son said  “My mum is a musician too – a composer. She writes ‘acid-funk-new age’. Her  name is Elena Kats-Chernin.” Sally recalls “This made me smile. She is incredible, but  I’m not sure I’d call her work ‘acid-funk-new age’!”

Sally was still working in Germany at that time and loved Elena’s “captivating and imaginative” musical language.” I was promoting  Australian music in my chamber concerts in Germany and so was very keen to know if  she had written anything for flute. I left a note for her asking this with my  number.”  Elena called Sally, the two musicians met and the rest, as they, is history. It has made the concerto more meaningful at a personal as well as at a musical level , allowing Night and Now to serve as a uniquely individual and comprehensive showcase of Sally’s musical talents and her distinctive sound, which, says Elena “is full bodied. It isn’t a little flute which flies away – it has earth. That is Sally… how she is, very earthy, and elf-like…. That’s what flute is, the way Sally plays it.”

Elena believes that the friendship and mutual respect will add another dimension to the performances: “It is fantastic to work with a friend and a player with a depth of interest in my work, with a knowledge of where I’m coming from and how I got there. As a composer, you give a lot of yourself to a piece – your innermost thoughts and your subconscious. Sally often hears sketches of my work as I’m writing them and she has great insight into my processes. When you put your creation into the hands of a player as brilliant as Sally it comes as a bonus that she instinctively knows how the piece works  and how to play it.”

“It has some tricky moments,” acknowledges Sally, “but it has some very lyrical moments too and I’m sure that a lot of people will greatly enjoy playing it – which was our intention. Originally Elena and I discussed whether it should be a concerto for multiple flutes because I enjoy playing all of them – flute, piccolo, alto flute and bass flute. But then I felt that it would limit the number of flautists who would feel comfortable playing it. Written just for C flute more people are able to play it.”

Sally will premiere Night and Now in late October well away from the hubs of musical activity in the nation’s southern and eastern cities. Darwin is to be the city for the premiere, with the Darwin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Matthew Wood.  “The reason for choosing the Darwin Symphony Orchestra to premiere Night and Now was primarily the conductor” says Sally, ” as well as having a number of colleagues in the orchestra. When I first worked with Matthew, within a few seconds it was clear that he was very good. …. I told him I was working on the idea of this concerto for this grant and he said his orchestra would really like to premiere the concerto. Secondly, he told me that the orchestra has a great commitment to the music of contemporary  Australian composers and the number of premieres that they have each year, especially for a community orchestra really puts others to shame. Elena and I thought it was an ideal fit. They present a number of works each year by Australian composers and we loved that commitment, especially from a community  orchestra.  It’s a very interesting and innovative orchestra and the connections with the conductor and colleagues really brought it to reality.”

Sydney audiences will have to bide their time to hear Night and Now. There are no immediate plans to record or broadcast the Darwin premiere. However, Melbourne audiences can hear Sally perform Night and Now with the Zelman Symphony conducted by Mark Shiell on December 5, 2015 at the Eldon Hogan Performing Arts Centre at
Xavier College in Kew. There are also plans for Sally to perform it with the  Newcastle Youth Orchestra next year, and with the Queensland Youth Symphony in two years’  time. She promises a Sydney performance before too long. “We’re currently searching for the right orchestra in Sydney – Elena and I have lived many years in Sydney and it would be very special for the two of us to be able to perform it here.”


Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

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