Elena Kats-Chernin’s new flute concerto Night and Now is the result of a long friendship and collaboration with flautist Sally Walker. Sally will be premiering the concerto on Saturday 24 October with the Darwin Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Wood.
Angus McPherson spoke to Sally Walker. (Excerpts from Elena Kats-Chernin’s program note for Night and Now are in italics.)
When did you know Elena was writing you a concerto?
The idea of writing me a concerto stemmed naturally from our many other collaborations; it had been talked about for some years but crystallised once Elena was awarded the Australia Council Fellowship in late 2014, which also meant a confirmation of a timeline of events. She then began writing furiously and by January played me her idea for the first movement (on piano, from which she composes).
Photo: Steven Goodbee Publicity.
How did the collaboration between you and Elena work?
Our collaboration process is very easy. It always begins with a lot of talking and a lot of laughing in a session at her place around the piano – trying things out. As we are both very itinerant, we are emailing mostly thereafter, with occasional phone calls. If we are in the same city at the same time, of course we try to meet, but the contact is very constant in the written form. Sometimes I will send her a sound file (like yesterday, so she could hear the recording of the first tutti rehearsal).
Sally often hears sketches of my work as I’m writing them and she has great insight into my processes. When Sally and I began to think about what a major work for flute and orchestra would sound like, we discussed all of these qualities and how to showcase the flute as a solo instrument and emphasise its unique sound and capabilities. Sally’s sound 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 at the same time. That’s what flute is, the way Sally plays it.
We began with talking about what the piece should be. I said that I would like a work of depth and seriousness, which has beautiful melodies and embodies her knowledge of unusual harmonies. I especially wanted some darkness (so many flute concertos have the ‘brilliante’ aspect of the flute, but I think our low register is very stirring). In 2006, Elena wrote her flute and piano version of Blue Silence for me and it became my favourite of all her works. She needed some persuading that the slowness of the music was convincing; she is more comfortable writing very busy music. When it was broadcast by the ABC on a show called For Matthew and Others, she received enormous praise for this contemplative work. I had wanted that work to be a starting point for the concerto. Consequently, the concerto starts on a low E, in a minor key and very slowly. “Night”.
The timbre and sonorities of the flute itself offer much variation to the composer. It can be brilliant, shrill and scurrying, or whispering and mellow. The flute can draw sharp or soft lines. It can be rich, or mystical, or virtuosic, penetrate a full sound or sigh into the texture.
I wanted her somehow to document her childhood in Russia, with all its extremes, its suffering and its wonder.
It is a Concerto in three movements and takes aspects of the Russian personality and character as its starting point, as well as aspects of the flute itself. It draws very much on my own experiences as a child of that world, both aurally and from day to day life. Until I was 17, that was everything that I knew. One of my overriding memories of childhood in Russia is of lining up for hours and hours for one loaf of bread or piece of cheese, and the perseverance and sometimes ultimate disappointment that had to be faced when food just ran out.
Being familiar with Elena and her music, did you have any preconceptions about the piece? Were there any surprises?
I was delighted to hear a reference to J.S. Bach in the fugue-ish second movement. I half-jokingly suggested a ‘Latigo’ (an Argentine Tango technique) in the second movement and then I saw she put it in the score! – both for violin (which is typical) and then for piccolo (not typical, but effective).
What has been the most challenging thing about preparing Night and Now?
That I premiere this in three days and we are still making changes. I love to play from memory, but I think that may be a little too risky!
How would you describe the overall sound of the work?
Colourful, from the foreboding to the sublime. It is a transformation, really, from the darkest of darks to exuberant triumph (with abundant percussion). A Lament, a Fugue and a Tarantella.
Sally also suggested to me that I might use stories from my early years in Russia, or from my own life as a template to the overall design of the composition. And so I did. The first movement is based on two imagined Russian fairy tales; one taking place deep in the woods – always a place of foreboding and unease (for this writer), but also promise and adventure and transformation. The other is in a silvery castle, impressively elaborate and bejewelled. Two very different “nights”.
What is your favourite moment in the music?
The first, certainly. For its intensity and colour. Low register flute, low strings and Tubular bells is an eerie, other-worldly sound.
Are there different challenges when preparing and performing a work written for you by a friend?
Somehow it feels like a higher responsibility, even though I have been integrally involved in the whole writing process. You want everybody to be happy with the final result. Luckily I love the piece – imagine where would it leave a friendship if someone writes you a concerto and you don’t like it!
How do you see this work fitting into the wider canon of flute concertos?
It is perhaps more focussed upon melody than virtuosity (although there are a couple of awkward acrobatic moments). We had specifically wanted a piece that many people could enjoy playing, so its level of technical difficulty is not as high as other concertos. Also, we discussed the idea of making the concerto for multiple flutes, but I thought that would limit how many people would play it and so it is for C flute only.
Although it is an ‘Australian Flute Concerto’, it is very much bound with Elena’s cultural background as a Russian Jew, so there are elements of Russian music certainly, hints of Klezmer and, of course, Bach.
Are there any plans for further tours?
It will be performed with the Zelman Symphony, conducted by Mark Shiell, in Melbourne on December fifth, with the Newcastle Youth Orchestra in September next year and the Queensland Youth Symphony the year after. Some overseas orchestras have approached us too; it would be really special to take this work to different countries.
UPDATE Monday 2 November 2015
ALL of the team at FTA extend our most heartfelt congratulations to both Elena and Sally and of course the Darwin Symphony Orchestra on an incredibly successful world premier of “Night and Now” which received a standing ovation!
Please find below some stunning photos of the World Premier courtesy of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra