Lara Poe shares her experiences of the LSO Panufnik Composers scheme – including rare insights into orchestral playing and what it's like to compose music for the LSO.
From the beginning, it was clear that we would have many more opportunities to participate actively in the scheme than I had realised. Reality Days in February started off with a series of workshops, including marketing and stage presence. It also kicked off our first workshop with an LSO player; each of us had the chance to write a 30-second piece for trombonist Dudley Bright after a session of hearing him play excerpts from the orchestral trombone repertoire. We asked him about various extended techniques and to try on all sorts of different mutes in various ways. He then gave detailed feedback while playing through our pieces.
Shortly after this weekend, we watched rehearsals, which have been an incredibly valuable, particularly when you observe the communication that occurs between conductor and orchestra during the first rehearsal of a piece. The orchestra very quickly picks up on the conductor’s style and interpretation, while the conductor gauges how the orchestra responds to them. Throughout the rehearsal process, the conductor refines their interpretation of the piece and the orchestra really strives to realise that vision, which is amazing to witness over the course of a few days! What is also fascinating to watch is how different conductors approach this process. For example, I learnt that some run through longer chunks of material, go back for fine-tuning, make a few remarks, and then move on. Others prefer working out a few bars at a time, taking the material apart section by section, and then working out the passage with the full orchestra.
There are many memorable moments that I could recount; the first entry of the rototoms in Tippett’s The Rose Lake, hearing the chorus in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis after a few days of purely orchestral rehearsals, and hearing the glittering passagework of 'Wandering by the Brook' in Strauss' Alpine Symphony are just a few examples. After seeing this process, it’s always a special experience to see how everything comes together in the concert.
In March, we attended last year’s Panufnik composers’ workshops. I would highly recommend any composer writing for orchestra or wanting to write for orchestra to attend these – they’re incredibly useful. We got to hear how the composers approached a compositional workshop with an orchestra; what forms they came up with, what textures and materials they worked with, and how it all sounded with a live orchestra. It was also useful for us to see the interaction between conductor, composer, and orchestra in this setting. There were conversations between François-Xavier Roth or George Jackson and the composer to sort out balance or achieve a sound the composer was looking for – these conversations in particular were enlightening!
Following these workshops, I started to consider how to approach writing a short piece for next year’s workshops. While still in the preliminary stages of trying to structure the piece, sifting through possible textures, my main concern was how I would try out as many things as possible in the piece, whilst maintaining a pleasing form, and in the end, I decided that this should be my focus.
Shortly after I had made this decision, we had two string quartet workshops. This was where I tested out material that I wanted to work into the piece, albeit in reduced form from the full orchestral version. Being able to test out fragments with a multitude of bowing techniques, mutes and tempos over a course of two workshops was indispensable for deciding what sorts of orchestral textures I wanted in the piece, and how I wanted them to link together. In general, receiving immediate feedback and being able to see and hear how various fragments would be played was invaluable. Some passages sound as you would expect them to, and it’s good to confirm that. Sometimes you’re looking for something different, and trying out different techniques can help you find what you are looking for. For instance, David Alberman showed our group how bowing on a wooden mute creates this amazing, surprisingly low-pitched air-type sound.
From the first workshop to the second, I had an opportunity to narrow down some of the material and test out refined versions of passages, as well as start working out transitions between passages. After these workshops I felt much more comfortable with what I was trying to do in the piece, which was a result of direct, concrete feedback from the players. In this time, I also had sessions with Christian and Colin, both of whom were insightful and helped me see the piece from different perspectives.
In September, we had our harp workshop. By this point, I had a nearly completed handwritten draft, so most of the harp part was based directly on what I already had in the piece. There were a few issues that I had to correct: for instance, consistently slapping the low strings of the harp did not produce nearly enough sound for a passage that I had in mind, and we ended up trying a glissando effect on the bottom strings (which was much more reverberant and closer to what I had in mind). We also had our percussion workshop last week, which consisted of Neil Percy showing us practical aspects of writing for percussion. We got to see how different mallets work both with the instruments they are designed for, as well as instruments they are not designed for, and we also got a taste of the physical challenges of being a percussionist, which include changing mallets between instruments, playing physically demanding instruments like the cymbals, and moving between instruments quickly.
Being able to try things out and coming up with practical solutions in a workshop situation has been priceless, and it’s also a chance to work with and get to know the musicians of the orchestra that I am writing for which I thoroughly enjoy. These workshops have also given me a chance to hear material that my colleagues have written, which has been incredibly useful in many ways as well. I am looking forward to continuing to work with Colin and Christian, as well as participating in future workshops, attending rehearsals and concerts, and ultimately to hear the piece in March.