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Kenneth Hesketh Interview with Christopher Thomas - 2007

In September 2007 Kenneth Hesketh will officially take up the position of Composer in the House with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, an appointment that will take the composer back to his native city on Merseyside.

Pioneered by the Royal Philharmonic Society in partnership with the Performing Rights Society Foundation, the scheme aims to place the composer in the heart of orchestral life, allowing time and space for creative energy and synergy with both the musicians and their concert going audience. Hesketh becomes the second of four such regional residencies, the first having commenced in autumn 2005 with Stephen McNeff working in conjunction with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

It has been an immensely productive six years for Kenneth Hesketh since Musicweb last talked to the composer following a performance of his work for chamber orchestra, The Circling Canopy of Night at the 2001 Proms. Hesketh has continued to add prolifically to his catalogue, with works spanning a wide range of genres from his first foray into opera, the two act The Overcoat, drawing on the short story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol and which has since spawned the orchestral suite Two Lapels and a Pocket as well as Notte oscura for chamber orchestra, to numerous chamber and ensemble works. Notable amongst these are Threats and Declamations, written during his tenure as New Music Fellow at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, Music of a Distant Drum, premiered at the 2006 Spitalfields Festival and Ein Lichtspiel for seventeen players, which received its premiere in February 2007 and will be featured in a concert by the RLPO’s contemporary music group Ensemble 10/10 in November.

Hesketh’s new Liverpool appointment will involve the composer working closely with both the full orchestra and its related ensemble’s in several new commissions, the first of which, A Rhyme for the Season, will open the orchestra’s new concert season on 14th September 2007.

CT: It seems incredible that it is six years since we last chatted in the wake of the 2001 Prom performance of The Circling Canopy of Night. A lot must have changed musically and professionally for you since then?

KH: In many ways, looking back over the six years, I must admit to realising how unprepared I was for the future. Teaching at the Royal College of Music, as well as privately, has increased with new courses and demands alongside the usual run of commissions per year. Add musical successes, disappointments and changes in our artistic environment to the list and I'd say that the last sixyears has gone very quickly indeed and has certainly contributed to the composer I have since become. 

CT: Are you conscious of your music having changed or developed in any way since you wrote The Circling Canopy of Night?

KH: I have tried to keep the substance of my music constant; it's a part of who I am and I wouldn't feel comfortable making any sort of stylistic volte-face. But what I have certainly and very consciously tried to change is the means by which I achieve things. Notationally I have certainly striven to find simpler solutions (my students are very aware of this hang-up of mine!) and if anything the general contours in my work, especially on a contrapuntal level, have become more direct, the gestures more forthright. I view The Circling Canopy of Night and Detail from the Record (a work only 2 years later) within a somewhat decadent period, fond but now distant. However I still feel the emotional impulse of these works in my compositional approach and still feel very comfortable with what they achieve. 

CT: One important event since that Prom performance must have been your period as Contemporary Music Fellow at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge?

KH: In many ways my time at Kettle’s Yard introduced me to the actual nitty-gritty of concert and programme organisation as well as stage management and administration. What makes a good concert, how to make it compact and how each work will interweave to form a thought-provoking contrast or compliment: these are all issues I had to confront on a regular basis whilst at the same time juggling the needs and expectations of performers and audience, hopefully projecting my own personal stamp on the concert series. Whatever its legacy I feel satisfied that the audiences heard interesting works be they repertoire or newly commissioned. 

CT: You must be delighted with your appointment as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s Composer in the House, particularly as it takes you back to your home city of Liverpool?

KH: It's a wonderful opportunity to work directly with the RLPO as a more mature composer and what is so nice about the appointment, apart from the creative freedom that it entails, is to see people in the orchestra who were there when I was attending RLPO concerts as a teenager. There are also people from my Merseyside Youth and National Youth Orchestra days who are now in the RLPO. It's a great pleasure to see them working as professionals and to be able to work with them myself.

Liverpool has certainly changed since my formative years and very much for the better I feel. Contemporary music has always been a very important part of the musical fabric of the city but over the last ten years the Ensemble 10/10 (principal players from the RLPO) has made a stunning contribution to musical life there, as well as in the Northwest generally and it continues to go from strength to strength. 

CT: You must already feel that you enjoy a particularly close relationship with the RLPO then given your formative years in the city?

KH: I was very lucky at an early age to have my works performed by the RLPO and MYO and equally important, to see the business side of music making as well as the creative. I was also lucky to meet, if only briefly at that time, so many creative artists who came to the Philharmonic Hall such as William Mathias, Oliver Knussen, Charles Groves, Libor Pesek and Simon Rattle. 

CT: One of the orchestra’s former Principal Conductors Sir Charles Groves was one of your early mentors but you must be relishing the opportunity of working with the recently appointed RLPO maestro Vasily Petrenko?

KH: I met maestro Petrenko last year after a wonderful concert he gave of semi-staged Russian operas (The Gambler, incomplete as it was, was a true joy!). He is very sharp, incredibly focused and having seen his work with the orchestra I am eager to begin what promises to be a very positive and creative working relationship. 

CT: And with your tenure coinciding with Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture 2008 the timing must be particularly exciting?

KH: Exciting and somewhat daunting as there will be a lot of attention focused on the city. However, for me and for all the composers working there (such as Steven Pratt, Emily Howard and Ian Gardiner to name a few) it affords the opportunity of greater exposure and interaction with the RLPO and other ensembles visiting Liverpool during the year. 

CT: Are there any aspects of your appointment that will specifically tie in with the Capital of Culture theme?

KH: The first big commission of my residency is a work for soloist, chorus, youth choir and orchestra and has the subject of the sea as its starting point. Whilst it’s not conceived as a celebratory occasional piece as such, the very presence of the piece in a concert in the Capital of Culture year will give it added excitement. Liverpool's history as a port city was one of the first stimuli for this work, as was the idea of different cultures co-existing along side each other. I see these as aspects of the city itself and have tried to reflect these to some extent in the new piece.  

CT: It must be quite an opportunity for a composer to integrate musically with the members of an orchestra to the degree which your appointment will allow?

KH: The orchestra is currently at the peak of its powers and having the chance to try things out and to write large scale works for them will be an incredibly valuable and rare experience.  Not only am I looking forward to writing for the orchestra as a whole but for individuals within the orchestra as well. Working with the chorus master, Ian Tracey, who I have known for 30 years, as well as developing a working relationship with conductor Vasily Petrenko also reflects the consolidation/development side of this position.

CT: A key part of your appointment will be to write a number of works specifically for the orchestra and its various chamber groups and ensembles. Could you tell us a little more about these?

KH: I have been given many opportunities to write to all my strengths and the new works will include pieces for the orchestra (from a short 4 minute opener to Like the Sea, Like Time, the 35 minute choral piece I mentioned earlier) to chamber works and even Christmas carols and a gospel number! I'm particularly pleased that earlier pieces will also be performed to give context to my work. The new works will be recorded for the RLPO's own CD label as well. 

CT: Given that you teach on a regular basis will you be relishing the educational aspect of the appointment and the opportunities afforded to take your music into the community?

KH: At this point there is still a lot to be decided but given the potential opportunities at the University, the RNCM (just up the motorway) and other schools it is quite exciting. 

CT: Much is said about audience reactions to contemporary music. Do you feel that the opportunity to interact with the RLPO audience over an extended period of time will be as important as your interaction with the players?

KH: It has to be important as it's a matter of developing trust I think. Once the audience knows what to expect from my work, feels comfortable with my approach and reasoning through performances and pre-concert talks for example, then I can share with them my own musical motivations and encourage their understanding of the more modernist lineage of music being written now. Achieving this I think will make my interaction with both orchestra and audience a very fruitful one. 

CT: Are you able to sum up what you hope to achieve from your two years as RPS/PRS Composer in the House?

Producing some successful new additions to the repertoire, developing understanding and friendship with players, the freedom to show audiences that music written today, however challenging, is there to be embraced, experienced and enjoyed are all at the top of the list. I sincerely hope that my own musical journey will be shared by both orchestra and audience and perhaps this will be the most important aspect of this position.






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