Writing concertos for guitar, clarinet and flute

Christopher GunningThu 10th January 2013

Changing focus from film and television composing to writing for the concert hall has been a richly rewarding experience

Composer Christopher Gunning's disc of concertos for guitar, clarinet and flute has been released on Discovery Music and Vision, featuring Craig Ogden, Michael Whight, Catherine Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He writes about composing the works below:

I always intended to combine writing music for the media with concert pieces. One of my models was Richard Rodney Bennett, with whom I studied and whose death last Christmas Eve hit me hard. The age difference between us wasn’t huge – just eight years – but in some ways Richard was a father figure, especially through those very difficult early years when I was leaving college and trying to get work as a composer or arranger. It was he who recommended me for quite a few low budget film commissions, had me arranging source music for some of his own films, and constantly encouraged me on dark days when everything seemed hopeless.

Richard had the knack of turning his hand to just about anything that took his fancy or would pay the bills, and I felt I should be a bit like that too. In time I realised that I could never be quite as adaptable; film and TV work sometimes left me drained, mentally and physically, and I had no energy to write the symphonies and concertos I felt I could, given different circumstances. Or was I deluding myself?

The first piece I wrote which didn’t have a film attached was my Concerto for Soprano Saxophone, On Hungerford Bridge, in 1997. I composed it with John Harle in mind, so was delighted when he took it up. That was 16 years ago; it feels immature to me now, but I’m still fond of it and I’ve followed it up with seven symphonies and concertos for the piano, oboe, clarinet and guitar. I still work on the occasional film if it comes my way, but most of my time is now devoted to full-length concert works. Three of these now appear on the new Discovery label, and what an enormous pleasure it has been to work on them, see them through the recording process and finally see and hear them on a real CD!

The Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra was the first of the three. It was one of several pieces I wrote off my own bat, with no performance or player in mind. I’ve always loved the clarinet and felt I could do something that would be expressive, with long lines, and also be fun. The first performance was at my then local church in Ealing, with a friend, Andrew Lyle, playing the solo part and also organising an orchestra to play the string parts. That was in 2009, and in 2012 Michael Whight, principal with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, took an interest in it and we organised a recording session with the RPO.

Meanwhile I had been busy on a piece for flute and a chamber orchestra of clarinet, horn, bassoon, and strings. It was meeting up with Catherine Handley, after a gap of some 20 years, which got the new piece moving. Catherine lives near the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains, a part of the world I have always loved, and it was natural to go walking and talking together. She was married to Vernon (Tod) Handley, and has an astonishing variety of music flowing through her veins. She plays and sings folk music in pubs, clubs and care homes, and plays her flute in nearly all of the best Welsh orchestras and ensembles. I said it was time for her to step in front of all those so we could hear her wonderfully limpid tone and beautiful phrasing – and at the same time I could express some of my own feelings about the glorious Welsh countryside. I suppose my favourite movement will always be the second, subtitled ‘…and time stood still’, which I hope conveys some of the stillness of Llanthony Priory or the tiny church at Capel-y-ffin. These are magical places.

The Guitar Concerto, by contrast, is sunny and warm, and as I wrote it I found myself remembering a holiday I once had in northern Mallorca. Consequently there are Spanish influences, especially in the last movement. Craig Ogden, another friend, worked with me on the TV series Rosemary and Thyme, and it was while recording the main theme in Manchester that I said, ‘I’d like to write you a concerto!’ How incredibly generous he was, saying ‘yes!’ without a moment’s hesitation. The first performance took place in December 2011 with the Orchestra of the City and Craig as soloist.

So the whole CD has been a pleasure, and Discovery are following it up with a CD of my Poirot music, and my Fifth Symphony. In the midst of all the economic and political doom at the moment, I’m managing to look forward to 2013 with a fair degree of optimism.

Watch a trailer for Christopher Gunning's new album below, featuring musical excerpts:

Christopher Gunning

Christopher Gunning is a British composer of music for films, television and the concert hall. He has composed seven symphonies, numerous concertos and other concert works, and a large number of scores for films and television dramas, including Agatha Christie’s Poirot, La Vie en Rose, Middlemarch, Cold Lazarus, Rebecca, Under Suspicion, Firelight, The Big Battalions, Wild Africa, When the Whales Came and Porterhouse Blue. He has won 4 BAFTA and 3 Ivor Novello Awards, and BASCA’s prestigious Gold Badge Award.

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