The excitement of being there at a premiere

Michael McManusMon 3rd September 2018

A report from the recording of Richard Blackford's Niobe, with a behind-the-scenes film

I have no idea how many world premiere performances I must have attended by now – certainly, dozens – but there is always a certain frisson to them and I cannot be alone in dreaming of the evening when I attend the unveiling of an undoubted masterpiece that goes on to sweep the world. Of course, sometimes one hears a performance of an established masterpiece so fine, so freshly-minted in conception, that one can almost imagine oneself amongst the original audience – which serves only to feed the thought – ‘maybe this time…’.

At this juncture, I suppose Michael Tippett’s gently autumnal Rose Lake is the nearest I have come to witnessing the birth of a piece that has 'gone mainstream' – or possibly Witold Lutosławski’s mesmerizingly delicate song cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables, premiered at the Proms in 1991. It is no accident that both composers, though radical in their way, embraced the rhythms and harmonies of modernism, whilst retaining a love of melody. Neither wrote abstrusely, or for a faction; and both touched hearts as well as minds.

The same is true of Richard Blackford, whom I first encountered when researching a piece for Gramophone about Not In Our Time, his cantata marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity in New York City. Attending the premiere in Cheltenham on the precise anniversary, I was both profoundly moved by the humane sentiments of the piece and also highly conscious of Blackford’s remarkable combination of compositional virtuosity and personal humility. Fine though the piece was, however, both the subject matter and the forces required to bring the piece to fruition suggested to me this was necessarily a piece for a special occasion. As I travelled to Prague last November for the world premiere and first recording of Niobe, a concertante work for violin and orchestra lasting a little over 20 minutes, I had high hopes that this, in contrast, might be a work well suited to a prominent and permanent place in the mainstream repertoire. I was not disappointed.

Niobe was commissioned by the Czech Philharmonic, their first commission in 11 years, but this premiere had a distinctively English feel to it, with the fine violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen supported by up-and-coming conductor Ben Gernon. The piece draws upon myth, telling the tale of a proud and strong woman brought down by an even stronger woman, the goddess Leto. It is a sad fact – and one not confined to any country or tradition – that the presence of a new and unfamiliar work on a concert programme is rarely a major selling point. Nonetheless, Niobe made 'her' debut to a packed, matinee house and the reception was one of genuine and sustained enthusiasm. Blackford is perhaps best known as a film composer and his idiom in the concert hall too has broad appeal. What marks him out, to my ears, is a determination to engage the listener without compromising – much as those two very different composers of an earlier era, Tippett and Lutosławski, sought to do before him. Niobe is certainly serious, but it is also warm and humane, troubling and moving.

Studio recordings are far less common than they used to be, so I felt particularly privileged to return to the Rudolfinum two days later, lurking in its subterranean control room, and eavesdropping upon Czech producer Jiří Gemrot and his team as they sought to capture the essence of this remarkable piece, balancing technical accuracy with the spontaneity and warmth apparent in Niobe’s live debut. Gemrot came to the project with a fine pedigree, having worked frequently with Jiří Bělohlávek, but Richard Blackford had never worked with him before. Within moments of the session beginning, he caught my eye with a grin, as it immediately became clear this was someone who really knew his stuff. For all its beauty, the Rudolfinum is not without its challenges as a recording venue and the piece had to be skilfully rebalanced, not least to take account of the absence of an audience – and Gemrot was the man. It was also clear that any tiny blemishes – lapses in ensemble or intonation – that might be forgiven in a concert performance were not going to pass muster now.

As I listened in the control room or tip-toed around in the hall, desperately trying not to make a sound, it was evident at once how much confidence everybody involved had, in their own abilities, in one another – and also in the lasting qualities of the piece. It was also apparent that Ben Gernon, not yet 30 years old, but the very model of modern maestro, easy-going, comfortable in his skin and without any affectations of a prodigy, had effortlessly won over the band. Despite its brevity, the piece is hard work for the soloist, requiring all kinds of different 'voices', but Tamsin Waley-Cohen was unflagging in her playing and in her patience, as she created a lasting record of a remarkable few days of work. I have no idea whether Niobe will 'make it' and become a staple of the violin-and-orchestra tradition, but I believe it has a racing chance; and, at last, I might be able to say, ‘I was there!’.

Niobe is released on Signum Recordings. You can read Gramophone's review of Richard Blackford's Niobe

Michael interviewed the composer, soloist and conductor, and captured some of the session, for this short film report. 

Michael McManus

Michael McManus is an author, journalist and playwright. His most recent book, 'Edward Heath: A Singular Life' (Elliott & Thompson, 2016), was widely praised and his political play 'An Honourable Man' will be having its premiere production at the White Bear Theatre in November 2018.

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