Last night the LSO gave the UK premiere of Betsy Jolas' A Little Summer Suite commissioned by Sir Simon Rattle. We sat down for a conversation with the LSO's Music Director to find out how a chance meeting led to this stunning piece ...
Could you tell us how A Little Summer Suite came about?
'Betsy Jolas is an extraordinary person, and I’ve known her name for a very long time. She’s one of those people I used to read about: she formed the Domaine musical with Pierre Boulez and she took over Messiaen’s position as composition professor at the Paris Conservatoire. I used to see these pieces and think, ‘This must be interesting music’, but I’d never had the opportunity to hear a note of it.
That is, until I met Betsy at a dinner party with Julian Anderson, one of our wonderful British composers. I was sat next to her and fell completely in love! And I thought, ‘this is an extraordinary person. If her music is one tenth as extraordinary as she is, then we really have something.'
And thank God for YouTube! That evening I was able to hear some of her music and by the end of the following week we had commissioned a piece for the Berlin Philharmonic, as part of the ‘Tapas’ series (the collection of small pieces we were doing for the last two seasons). She came up with a beautiful eight-or nine-minute piece called A Little Summer Suite. It’s so full of depth, humour and thought. I’m not sure it’s the kind of piece a young person could write. It has a wisdom, really, of a certain age.
I must say the Berlin Philharmonic leapt on it with joy. We realised immediately how well she could hear everything, and how she knew exactly what she wanted. It’s interesting, François-Xavier Roth listened to the first performance on Berlin’s Digital Concert Hall and when we spoke on the phone in the following days, suddenly it was a competition as to who would get it in first with the LSO! I’m thrilled to have introduced her to the Berlin audience and now to give her such a warm welcome in London. To have discovered a wonderful composer that I didn’t know enough about is fantastic!
When you start talking to her, she talks about when Varèse came to dinner, and when she sang the Verdi Requiem conducted by Toscanini. She’s truly a walking encyclopaedia. Her music is simply wonderful. I’m thrilled that in the middle of an all-French programme of Poulenc, Ravel and Rameau, we get to introduce a really astonishing composer.’
A Little Summer Suite recieved its UK premiere at the Barbican Centre on Sunday 17 February 2019, with 92-year-old Betsy Jolas in attendance.
Photography by Doug Peters