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 Seventy Not Out! : an interview with the UK Composer and pianist John McCabe to mark his 70th birthday (BBr)


John McCabe (L) and Bob Briggs  - Picture © Melinda Bridges-Briggs


John McCabe was born in Huyton, Liverpool in 1939. When he was three he fell into a fire and was kept off school for eight years. During this time he absorbed the family library and record collection. He also vividly remembers hearing the first broadcasts of such 20th century masterworks as Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Vaughan Williams’s 6th Symphony. He knew, early in his life, that contemporary music was for him!

But it wasn’t all listening: at the same time he had written 13 Symphonies and part of an opera based on themes of Mussorgsky. He studied at the Liverpool Institute from 1950, moving to Manchester University to study with Humphrey Proctor–Gregg, graduating on 15 June 1960. He had started piano lessons with Gordon Green when aged 8 and he continued working with him at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music), also taking composition lessons with Thomas Pitfield. In 1964 McCabe went to the Munich Hochschule on a German Government Scholarship, to study composition with Harald Genzmer. However, McCabe had wanted to study with Karl Amadeus Hartmann who offered, although he didn’t take pupils,  to supervise the young man’s work, when the two met in 1963. Unfortunately, Hartmann died in December 1963 before the arrangement could be started.

I had the great pleasure of meeting with John McCabe, and his wife Monica, on the morning of September 5th at a café in South Kensington, prior to the London première of his Horn Concerto, subtitled Rainforest IV, to be given at that evening’s BBC Promenade Concert by David Pyatt  - for whom it was written -  with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Jac van Steen:  we drank coffee and laughed a lot. Despite the dynamic and, perhaps, sometimes austere feeling of his music, McCabe is delightful company, always ready to tell a good story and, most important of all, to point out the absurdity of things. He is also not averse to allowing a conversation which should have been about his music to go its own merry way into whatever subject cropped up.

We started our conversation at the point where he was about to leave for Germany. One thing puzzled me. In the Britain of the late 1950s and early 1960s, how could he have come into contact with the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann when he isn’t exactly a household name even today.

I discovered Hartmann because they played a piece in Liverpool. John Pritchard started Musica Viva and in the first season they played his
Concerto funèbre which I was knocked out with and thought I’d go and study with him. Then he died before I got to study with him.  

Because of Hartmann’s death you went to study with Harald Genzmer. That’s a big sea change.

Not a successful one for me. I didn’t get on with him. Now I’m a big Hindemith fan but not of his students because they almost all sound like him and there was only one Hindemith.

When you came back to England what was your master plan? Were you going to be a pianist who composed or a composer who gave recitals on the piano?

As far as I can remember the master plan was that I would probably go into teaching and do a bit of playing on the side. But in my final year,  my playing improved so much that my teacher, Gordon Green, felt that I could have a career using the piano. I could probably have gone into things like repetiteuring or accompanying, that sort of thing. But when I was at college I did some recitals, mostly contemporary music, Bartók, Hindemith  and so on. I did play Beethoven Sonatas, that kind of thing, at college concerts and I just started getting dates. My career as a pianist just developed from that. An accident in a way. I was doing all the things a piano student does and it was useful. I was able to do them well enough to play concerts and I got invited back to places to give full recitals instead of shared ones.

But with all this pianism, was composition pushed into the background?

I stopped writing music when I went to school when I was 11, because I realised that I didn’t know enough about it. I thought that I’d better learn about what VW would have called my stodge, which I think everybody should know. So I did not compose for a while, but this was not because I couldn’t compose, but because I wasn’t quite able to. I thought that I’d better stop wasting my time and watch cricket. I used to abscond from school to watch films – there were at least 6 cinemas within easy walking distance of home and school, and I used to go into the school by the normal entrance and leave through the kitchens!

But there were some prestigious performances and commissions early on?

Not big commissions, no. The biggest performance I had was the 1st Piano Concerto [1967, with McCabe himself at the piano and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under, the then unknighted Charles Groves] and the Hartmann Variations [1965, with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Maurice Handford]. The Hallé played the Hartmann Variations quite a lot in the late 60s and early 70s and, indeed, it was a performance of this work, by the Hallé under Maurice Handford in St George’s Hall, Bradford, which introduced me to McCabe’s music.

Yes. Maurice Handford did it a lot. Then Jimmy Loughran, he did the record of it. But I owe Maurice a great deal, and typical Maurice Handford, when I said, “you know, I really am grateful to you for doing the
Hartmann Variations”, he replied, “I like the piece so I love to play it!”

This was followed by a commission from the Hallé Concerts Society, the resulting work being the Symphony no.1 'Elegy' (1965) which Barbirolli and his orchestra premièred at the following year’s Cheltenham Festival. After that commissions came often.

They did really. In those days – I don’t regret writing many pieces, maybe one or two, but I won’t tell you which – on the whole I did everything I could, whereas nowadays I would be very careful about deciding what I wanted to do.

In the light of this I wondered how McCabe felt about some of these early pieces, mentioning the Variations for piano (his first work for his own instrument) and Dies Resurrectionis for organ (both 1963.) How does he react to them today, I wondered. Did they still feel as if they were “his” works.

Well I play the
Variations quite a lot, still do, and  in fact I played them quite recently, so it’s a repertoire piece for me. So that aspect doesn’t enter into it because it’s a piano repertoire piece, and I have to practise the difficult bits every time I play it! If I hear a piece after not hearing it for a long time, then I am sometimes surprised. I’d forgotten this or that : I'm not surprised in terms of whether I like it or not, and I don’t really think much in terms of liking the piece because, as far as I’m concerned, they’re over. I quite enjoy them. It’s a curious thing. They’re not really mine, but they’re not really not mine, because mostly, I know what’s coming next! Instinctively I know what’s coming next because that’s the way I thought then. And you don’t think like that about anybody else’s music.

In the late 60s McCabe found himself in Cardiff, where he spent three years as pianist in residence at the University, whose Professor of Music at University College was Alun Hoddinott. Whilst there, McCabe took part in Hoddinott’s creation, the Cardiff Festival of 20th Century Music.

Being in Cardiff helped me a great deal as a pianist, because I played an awful lot of chamber music, and it was actually the right thing at the right time because it consolidated my writing and I was in touch with musical life outside London. Hoddinott himself was very much in touch with the wider musical world, and he brought it to Cardiff. He did a wonderful job. It was very exciting, and I was part of that. I was extremely busy, but I did still have time to think about what I was doing. I wasn’t plunged into this maelstrom of major commissions and musical politics. I wanted to be out of that, I still am, I’m not a politican. I’ve never really thought about my time in Cardiff, but it was useful to me.

McCabe started the 1970s with the stunning song cycle (it has been described as a concerto for voice and orchestra, so demanding is the solo part) Notturni ed Alba (1970, Three Choirs Festival) and the masterly 2nd Symphony (1971, a John Feeney Trust commission for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their then chief conductor Louis Frémaux). In 1974 the Hallé Concerts Society commissed The Chagall Windows for the Hallé Orchestra and their chief conductor James Loughran. All three of these works were recorded for EMI by the CBSO under Frémaux with Jill Gomez the radiant soloist in the songs, and the Hallé Orchestra under Loughran (CDM 5 67120 2). He also undertook some large scale choral works; in 1972 for The Three Choirs Festival. 1976 saw the Stabat Mater and the following year Reflections of a Summer Night, setting Tennyson, Hilda Doolittle, Longfellow, de la Mare and Keats for the 1978 Fishguard Festival. The 2nd Symphony was inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s epic Western The Wild Bunch – a film which ends with the outlaws battling the Mexican army in suicidal vengeance because of the death of one of their cohorts.

It relates to the film in that it’s got an exposition, a long development and a recapitulation and there are one or two sounds in the
Symphony which are a bit percussive. But the music does not fit the events of the film. The film is a sonata form, with a very long development section until the bunch look at one another and say “shall we?” and they do! It was this circularity which the Symphony echoes. It ends with what it started with and I hope it sounds different because of what has happened to the music. I did a big piece called Voyage which has never been done again partly, I think, because it’s got five soloists and they can only do that for Handel!... I would love to hear that again. It’s never been broadcast.

The libretto for Voyage was written by McCabe’s wife, Monica – “for my sins, yes. I was young then!” she says through much laughter. They met when they both wrote for Records and Recordings in the late 60s and early 70s – McCabe was serving his time as a critic and I well remember two essays of his on the various recordings of the, then, 13 Shostakovich Symphonies (R&R May 1969) and an appreciation of Rachmaninov (R&R February 1971) which set a standard of writing  - to which many of us can only ever hope to aspire -  for their insight and intelligence.

Stabat Mater was for the Northampton Philharmonic Choir and I always hope they'll do it at the Three Choirs some time. Perhaps they don’t like it! They’re perfectly entitled not to! (much laughter ensues).

We have now reached the late 1970s and I wondered about his vast number of piano works, which permeate his output, and  I ask if they were all conceived for himself to play.

They were usually commissioned by a Festival or Music Society for me to play in recital. The 3rd Piano Concerto, Dialogues (1976 rev.1977) was written for Ilan Rogoff [and he gave the première with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by, the now knighted, Sir Charles Groves) but the first work for solo piano which was written for another pianist was the Haydn Variations (1983) which was commissioned by the City Music Society, London, for Philip Fowke.

Because McCabe could play all his own piano works with seeming ease, did other pianists feel intimidated by them?

I saw Philip yesterday and he said that he thought that
Haydn Variations was one of the most difficult pieces he has ever had to play! He liked it very much and he played it wonderfully well, but, and this is going to sound very pretentious, I don’t actually find it difficult. Some of it is difficult, one or two bits are very difficult, but on the whole I don’t think it’s very difficult. And the reason I think that is because it’s written for my hand, instinctively. Everybody’s hand is different. I’ve never met any pianist who understood John Ireland’s hand – it’s how to place the fingers on the keyboard. And I think that I write for my hand, and it’s not deliberate at all. Tenebrae (1992/1993) was written for Barry Douglas and I think it’s my best piano piece. Monica says it an angry piece and I’m a fearsome sight when I lose my temper!

We’re jumping ahead here so I brought the conversation back to the 1970s and McCabe’s duo partnership with horn player Ifor James, for whom he wrote the The Goddess Trilogy (1973/1975) and with whom he made three LPs – the third never released. Their first recording was an eclectic mix of Alan Abbott’s Alla Caccia, Peter Racine Fricker’s Sonata, op.24, Hindemith’s Sonata in F and Nielsen’s Canto Serioso (Pye GSGC 14087 (LP only), released in 1968 and never reissued) and a more popular collection which included Arnold Cooke’s Rondo in B flat, Thomas Dunhill’s Cornucopia, David Gwilt’s Sonatina and Gilbert Vinter’s Hunter’s Moon (Cornucopia (LP only) IJ 100, released in 1979 and also never reissued.)

Well the partnership started when I was a student. Ifor and his mother were doing a recital in Millom, in Cumbria, and they wanted a pianist. I’d been playing for Ena Mitchell’s singing lessons, and I was a good sight reader, and we got on very well so she said “why don’t you ask him”. We got on famously and did a lot of schools concerts and did some recordings as a result of that. And that partnership went on for years: we went to Canada and America, and I wrote The Goddess Trilogy for him. It’s difficult if you do it in one programme with the Beethoven Sonata! But I used to do a couple of solos in between. I don’t think that there’s anything in the horn repertoire quite like it. The three pieces can be played separately but it does work as a concert triptych.

Ifor James went on to conduct the Besses o’th Barn Brass Band – he started his musical career playing cornet in a band at the age of 4! – but you’ve never conducted, apart from Time Remembered.  Have you never wanted to conduct?

No. I wanted to be
'a conductor', but I don’t want the responsibility! Being a conductor is great, but you can do that in front of a mirror. Put a record on and in my time I’ve conducted the Berlin Philharmonic… But I did do Time Remembered [a large scale work for soprano with the unusual ensemble of flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet and piano trio, commissioned by the Malvern Concert Club in 1973, and premièred by Felicity Palmer with the Nash Ensemble, under the more than capable direction of the composer]. My only large orchestra experience was conducting Tuning (1985), with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland; two performances. I started my formal conducting career with that piece at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, and a BBC Radio 3 recording of the performance [4 January 1986], and concluded it the next night with a repeat in Glasgow (without the BBC). Nothing like starting at the top, is there? [This was issued on a limited edition cassette Alpha CAPS 367, but I’ve never been able to locate a copy]. I also conducted a TV commercial (28½ seconds exactly) for Michelin MX tyres, using a large part of the LPO.

So McCabe doesn’t mind leaving the re-creation to others. I mention that I have a feeling that this is what spoiled Reich and Glass when they started writing operas and works for orchestra and stopped having total control of their music as they did when it was performed by their own ensembles. Their music suffered as a result.

I agree. It hadn’t occurred to me. But I don’t mind leaving things to others. I’m going to retire from piano playing, mostly, at the end of next year, and I look forward to hordes and hordes of pianists playing my music. Rather them than me! I’m quite happy to hand over responsibility. After all, I’m around if they want to know what I think. It’s a composer's job, when with a performer, not to get in the way. And that’s a conductor’s job as well. But if I talk to a pianist they know that I know what I’m talking about, and if I say “well you can put the thumb across there” they can tell that I can play the piece. It makes it much easier for a composer to talk to people when they’re practising because you can realise what the problems are. Whereas a non- performing composer can sometimes get in the way because they don’t appreciate the problems. I’ve had people standing over my shoulder telling me how to play every note and you end up resenting them and resenting the music.

Again we had got away from the matter at hand of the development of McCabe’s dual careers and it was time to get back to 1976 and the next big piece, the 3rd Symphony, Hommages' (1978) [commissioned, and first performed, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by their, now, principal conductor Charles Dutoit] and the Concerto for Orchestra (1982) [commissioned for its 50th anniversary season, and first performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti].

Every five years, or so, I seem to write something that puts me on the map again. It’s very odd.
Notturni ed Alba did that, then Chagall Windows, Concerto for Orchestra. If you look up the dates of these, you’ll see there’s a regular pattern. What is the piece from about 1985/1986? Maybe there wasn’t one in the mid 80s.

Actually, here McCabe’s memory has played a trick on him for in 1985 there stands the brass band piece Cloudcatcher Fells – written to be the test piece for the 1985 finals of the National Brass Band Championships. I did look up McCabe’s catalogue just to check his theory and here is the result, taking just the orchestral and brass works: Variations on a Theme of Hartmann (1964), Symphony no.1, Elegy (1965), Piano Concerto No 1 (1966), Notturni ed Alba (1970), Symphony no. 2 (1971), The Chagall Windows (1974), Symphony No 3, Hommages (1978), Violin Concerto No 2 (1980), Concerto for Orchestra (1982), Cloudcatcher Fells (1985), Fire at Durilgai (1988), Flute Concerto (1990), Symphony No 4, Of Time and the River (1993-4), Symphony No.5, Edward II (1998), The Maunsell Forts (2001/02), Symphony on a Pavane (2006), Horn Concerto (Rainforest IV) (2006), Cello Concerto (2007) and Symphony Labyrinth (2007).

Without even mentioning the many chamber and piano works, this is an impressive list, and it seems that works come in batches, rather than singly, as landmarks in his output. I must mention here that early in his compositional career McCabe wrote a piece called Summer Music, I think that it was for a youth orchestra, dedicated to the conductor Paul Ward. He has withdrawn the piece; which is a shame for if my memory of my one hearing of the piece is correct, it was a strong and original work.

In our chronological conversation we have now reached the 2nd Violin Concerto, written for Erich Gruenberg, another musician with whom McCabe has had a long association and duo partnership.

It’s a piece I’m very fond of, I like that piece very much. I wish it were done more often, but it is 40 minutes long and you can’t get violinists to learn it because they won’t get dates. You might get one date but that’s it. Also, at 40 minutes it makes it a difficult listen. Then there’s the
Concerto for Orchestra. That’s a big thing. It was written for Solti who was great to work with. We got on like a house on fire. He’d got a great sense of humour. He said, “Do you conduct, my dear?” I said, “Not at all. I have done it but I am loath to do it. I’d much rather that you conducted it because you are a conductor.” When we were on tour in Spain, just before the concert, Solti (knowing that I didn't conduct) said with a twinkle in his eye, "My dear, I'm afraid I have a problem with my elbow, could you conduct tonight's performance?" To which I replied that there was no way I could – I strongly suspected he was putting me on. He said it with a big smile on his face! [Solti’s performance of the Concerto for Orchestra has recently been issued on CD on the London Philharmonic’s own label (LPO – 0023, coupled with McCabe’s The Chagall Windows and Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for Orchestra (another LPO commission) conducted by Bernard Haitink.

There’s also the recording by Douglas Bostock with the Liverpool Phil. It’s very good. That was a lovely occasion. There were three composers who were great friends – Hoddinott, Edward Gregson and myself – and it was my going back home, which I pointed out in a little speech to the orchestra, which everyone seemed to enjoy because it wasn’t a very long speech! And it was just a relaxed and great occasion. And they played very well. [Concertos for Orchestra by Edward Gergson, Alun Hoddinott and John McCabe, played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Douglas Bostock is available on Classico CLASSCD 3840]. And Haitink is a wonderful conductor. I was listening to his recording of the Shostakovich 11th Symphony the other day which is wonderful. He has a much wider range than most people think. And he’s very exciting. For some reason people see Haitink as being dull but he’s not at all. You should hear my Chagall Windows conducted by him. It’s terrific, electrifying.

And so we turn to talk of interpretation and the performer imposing his or herself on the music.

Well I think it’s always been true, or when they have, like Horowitz, it was so exciting that it revealed something special about the music so you forgive them. The things he did were part and parcel of what he thought. But an awful lot of performers…for instance, György Cziffra imposed himself by showing his virtuosity. There are some who defend him but I’ve never enjoyed any of his recordings. But Solomon! He was very musical. That’s great music making. Another musician who never imposed himself on the music he was working with was Vernon Handley. He was a great Brahms conductor, apart from anything else, but they never say anything about that. And Beethoven too.

And from interpretation we moved on to McCabe’s great influences. Nielsen, Haydn and Alan Rawsthorne. It’s fairly obvious how any musician would discover Haydn, but, as with Karl Amadeus Hartmann, how did McCabe discover Carl Nielsen?

I discovered Nielsen because I used to go and stay with an Uncle and some cousins and my Uncle was very fond of music. He had some LPs and one of them was a 10” Decca LP of Nielsen’s
Chaconne [coupled with Liszt’s Liebestraum No.3 and La Campanella, played by France Ellegaard on DECCA LW 5051 – recorded in June 1953. The Nielsen is currently available in a Danacord 2 CD set devoted to historical performances of Nielsen, DACOCD 363/364, and the Liszt pieces can be found in a Danacord 2 CD set devoted to Danish Women pianists DACOCD 442/443].

My Uncle bought the record for
La Campanella and I played the Chaconne and I was hooked. Chaconne’s a great piece, I played it again this year. I did it for my degree, against protests from the authorities, who wanted a romantic piano piece. What they meant was a Chopin Ballade, or something like that, but I always said that I wanted to do the Nielsen. My piano teacher, Gordon Green, borrowed my copy for a week and said “Yes, I think this would suit you, and be good for you, and I’ll support you”. He learned it in that week, not well enough to perform it but he understood it and that’s a great teacher. He just didn’t rely on the stuff that was already known, as a lot of them do.

Throughout his career McCabe has made recordings, and not just of his own music, such is his generosity as a performing musician. On his first issued LP, titled Twentieth-Century Piano Music, he included the Nielsen Chaconne, as well as Britten’s Notturno (Night Piece) (1963), Copland’s Variations (1930), his own Five Bagatelles (1964), Rawthorne’s Four Bagatelles (1938), Schönberg’s Six Little Pieces, op,19 and Webern’s Variations, op 27 (Pye (LP) GSGC 14116 issued in 1969 and reissued in 1983 on PRT (LP) GSGC 2069 and (Cassette) ZCGC 2069. This has not found its way onto CD and this is our loss for it is a fascinating and stunning recital).

Rawsthorne I met when I was about 10. He was a great friend of Gordon Green so whenever he had a piece performed in Liverpool he used to come and visit Gordon. I lived about 100 yards from Gordon so I was introduced to him. I kept in touch with him and I started playing his music, I played it to him, and I put concerts on. I always loved his music. The
Symphonic Studies I knew when I was a kid [this would have been from the 1946 recording by Constant Lambert and the Philharmonia, now available on PEARL GEMM 0058, coupled with other Lambert recordings of music by Delius and Peter Warlock]. He was a fantastic writer. As a child he was incredibly gifted, he wrote a take–off of Henry V which was full of political jokes of the time. This was when he was about 13, at the end of the 1st World War.

Monica adds that his situation was rather like that of the Brontës; an enclosed childhood, and very bright children who just struck sparks off each other. McCabe dedicated his String Trio (1965) to Rawsthorne and in 1999 OUP published his book Alan Rawsthorne - Portrait of a Composer (ISBN 0-19-816693-1). In 2006,  Dutton Epoch issued a CD of McCabe playing Rawsthorne’s complete piano music (CDLX 7167).

I played the
1st Rawsthorne Concerto in Germany a couple of years ago, in the revised version for fullish orchestra. The original score calls for strings and percussion only but it needs a big body of strings and they need to be well rehearsed. I think it works very well, but not everybody agrees. I’m not so keen on the Double Piano Concerto, I’ve played it. There are some wonderful bits, but I don’t think it quite works. The 3rd Symphony is the one that people would like, but it’s just not done.

I also happen to revere Britten enormously, as a composer, one of the greatest pianists I’ve ever heard, and as a conductor,  so there isn’t much left! But there is this kind of worship of Britten which I think is unhealthy and which I don’t think serves him well. It does keep the name alive in publications and recordings and it gets it into the repertoire and the operas are done all over the place. I remember somebody writing an article in
The Times and they were saying that nobody was really interested in the operas of Britten and I picked up Opera magazine and there were about six of his operas being done more than once internationally.  

Did McCabe think done Britten has been done any favours by the fact that many Aldeburgh Festivals, in the 33 years since his death, have contained a Britten première?

Well, I don’t want to offend anyone here but I think it’s gone over the top. Finding and completing one or two works has produced some winners, like the
Double Concerto. I think it’s terrific. We are much better off because of it and I’d much rather have that and a number of dud pieces which I don’t particularly want than not have it at all.

And suddenly we were almost out of time, and there was so much more to discuss. So, as both McCabe and myself are cricket fans and quite firmly in our anecdotage the conversation turned to weightier matters – the composer’s prowess with willow and leather.

I don’t play, I have no hand to eye co–ordination.

One would have thought this a liability for a concert pianist!

The odd knock up in the park is as far as I go. At school I used to come in to bat with a bat which was almost as tall as I was! It was far too big for me. And I almost always batted number 11, for the second 11 of my form. That shows you how good I was! And I always seemed to bat at the bottom of the hill with a fast bowler coming in to bowl at me. It’s no wonder that I wasn’t successful! My first run was actually made at the top of the hill and it was a dropped catch at square leg!

I quickly got back to music and wondered if, as McCabe has shown a new vein of rich lyricism in his recent works, if, perhaps he was mellowing.

Mellowing? Certainly not. I think that my music is still pretty dynamic but…

And Monica wanted to talk about the recent Cello Concerto – yet another commission from the Hallé Concerts Society

I used to play the cello badly…

As McCabe wrote the work, Monica was experiencing some very personal, family based, upheaval in her life and she is convinced that this was reflected in the Concerto.

John will say that it had nothing to do with that and that he already had the piece planned in his head but I don’t believe that. For me it’s a strand of memory. John named it
Songlines and everyone thinks it’s so lyrical because of that, but I don’t believe that, I think it’s a red herring, whether it’s a deliberate one of John’s or not I don’t know. I think he got it all in that work.  

Yes. It’s a songline. Of racial memory, familial memory…

Cello Concerto
was premièred in Manchester as recently as January last year, preceded by the Symphony, Labyrinth, his 7th Symphony, in Liverpool the previous September. So what comes next?

Did you go the the Moeran Symphony at the Proms? Wasn’t that wonderful? The slow movement was very good. What comes next? Well, I haven’t got anything immediately, I’ve got things to do next year and I’ve got some playing to do in October, quite a lot of playing. I’ve actually got a bit of time to think. I’m doing some extracts from the two
Arthur ballets [Arthur, Part 1: Arthur Pendragon and Part 2: Morte d’Arthur, commissioned by Birmingham Royal Ballet and premièred by them in 2001 and 2000 respectively, with choreography by David Bintley] for the Maidstone Symphony Orchestra, they’ve got a centenary coming up, and they’re giving me an opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do, which is to bring some more of my ballet music into the concert hall. It’s possible I might be doing a Trumpet Concerto type of piece. There are lots of things in the air at the moment.

Do you feel that now you’ve reached the milestone of 70 that you find you’re doing more?

I’ve had a few extra concerts to play, and I think that the answer to that is yes, but it’s in the short term. Of course, there have been a lot of extra performances and you go to them and I’ve been away for most of August
(because of that).

And our time was up. McCabe had to rush off to do a piece for BBC Radio 3, listen to the rehearsal for the Prom, introduce, in conversation with Stephen Johnson, the Concerto and performances by students of the Royal College of Music of part of Desert III: Landscape (1982) for piano trio and the magnificent Cello Sonata (1999), and then attend the Prom itself. Quite a day. Whilst we didn’t get as far as I had hoped in our conversation it has left us much to discuss when we next meet. I can hardly wait for that occasion!

Happy birthday, John McCabe, and many more. I know that he will fill his time with composition and it makes one salivate at the prospect of future works.

A 70th birthday concert is being given on 24th September at the Cadogan Hall, Sloane Square, London, by McCabe with the The King's Singers and the Sacconi Quartet in which McCabe will play Haydn’s Variations in F Minor, and beside works by Byrd and Tallis, and Haydn’s Quartet, op 76/5, we’ll hear his own The Women by the Sea (2001 – for piano quintet), Scenes in America Deserta (1986), Cartography (2002) (both written for the King’s Singers) and the première of a new work - The Lily-White Rose.

On 26th September he’s playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.13, K415 and Finzi’s Eclogue with the Oare String Orchestra, conducted by Peter Aviss, at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Faversham. More importantly, 20th October sees the Salomon Orchestra, conducted by Philip Ellis, give the (much belated) public première of the Edward II Symphony at St John's Smith Square, London - it was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in 2001 by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Christopher Austin. And almost exactly a month later, on 23rd November, at the same venue the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Russell Keable, will play the Symphony Labyrinth.

Bob Briggs

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