Looking back...and forwards: the Schubert Ensemble's William Howard on a commitment to commissioning

William HowardMon 19th March 2018
The Schubert Ensemble: retiring after a 35-year commitment to commissioning (photo: Jack Liebeck)The Schubert Ensemble: retiring after a 35-year commitment to commissioning (photo: Jack Liebeck)

...and why retirement is the perfect time to launch a new website

The Schubert Ensemble is now past the half way point of a busy final season and only a few months away from its final concert. When we decided over two years ago to make this season the Ensemble’s last, the idea was to finish in a celebratory manner and go out on a high, but I don’t think any of us anticipated such an emotional roller-coaster of goodbyes to promoters and audiences around the UK and abroad, or the extraordinary warmth of feeling that has come our way. We have been extremely lucky in the friendships that we have built up over the years in many parts of the world, and nowhere more so that in the USA, where we have just played in Oregon for the tenth time, and for the Coleman Series in Los Angeles, one of the oldest chamber music series in the USA, for the fifth time. Whatever shape our individual futures as musicians take, I think we will all miss these long-standing relationships, built up over decades.

Having spent even more time than usual in each other’s company over the last few months, and without the usual pressure to make plans for the Ensemble several years ahead, there has been a lot of time for looking back over the years. And given that three of us have worked together for 35 years and that the Ensemble has been unchanged for 23, there has been a lot to reminisce about! There is a practical reason to do so too, since we are putting together a collection of archive material about the Ensemble. I don’t imagine that many chamber groups create a new website on the eve of their retirement, but that is exactly what we are doing. The website is partly an excuse to put together some old photos and press cuttings, but will also have details of our discography of around 35 CD recordings, together with links to a number of recordings of live concerts that we have been making over the last couple of years and posting on YouTube. Most importantly, it will list all the works that we have commissioned, with programme notes, links to recordings and information on how to obtain scores.

Commissioning is something that has been important to the Ensemble since its very beginning. When I founded the Ensemble in 1983, I was already bitten by the excitement of performing new work, having already premiered two works by Judith Weir. The Ensemble was only a year old when it gave its first premiere – a quintet by Colin Matthews for our full line up of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass. Since then we have clocked up 50 commissions of concert works, a number of arrangements and around 40 short pieces written for young and amateur piano and string groups (under the umbrella of a project called Chamber Music 2000 that we launched in 1998).

I could claim that we had a great missionary zeal to present new music to the public, but it would be truer to say that we have put so much energy into commissioning because it has been enjoyable, exciting and absolutely fundamental to our development as individual musicians and as an ensemble. There was also a pragmatic motive for commissioning, which was to extend the available repertoire that we could perform with our wonderful double bassist and founder member, Peter Buckoke (but we have also commissioned many piano quartets and trios).

If we are proud of our body of commissions, we are equally proud of our record of performing new works and of our longstanding collaborations with composers such as Martin Butler, Piers Hellawell, David Knotts, Pavel Zemek Novák, Judith Weir and John Woolrich, all of whom have written us multiple pieces, which collectively have had hundreds of performances by the Ensemble over the years. Exciting as it is to give a world premiere, it is far more satisfying to play a new work that you know really well, and so our policy has always been to establish our commissions as much as possible as core repertoire. In order to maintain interest in this legacy of commissions when the Ensemble is no longer active we have recently decided to launch a scheme through the Schubert Ensemble Trust to encourage future performances of these pieces by offering grants to promoters and ensembles who programme them. Details will be available at www.schubertensemble.com at the end of June.

We still have one more recording to come out, which is of a superb quintet The Whole Earth Dances by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, which we premiered in 2016. This will be released on the Champs Hill label later this year. And we have one last commission, our 50th, which is A Song of Departure, written by Judith Weir for our Farewell Wigmore Hall concert on March 21 and for performance in our final concerts in June. She says that she has tried to ‘reinhabit’ the world of Schubert’s song Abschied and in doing so has produced a beautiful short piece for all five of us that is both upbeat and valedictory.

The Schubert Ensemble will give the world premiere of Judith Weir’s A Song of Departure at their Farewell Wigmore Hall concert on March 21, 2018. The Ensemble’s final performances will take place in June 2018.

 

William Howard

Pianist William Howard is a soloist and founder member of the Schubert Ensemble (photo: Edward Webb)

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