Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble concert

17 April 2013

For an orchestral musician, playing chamber music can be a scary experience. In a small group there is nowhere to hide and you don’t get the lengthy breaks that brass players are used to in the symphonic repertoire. But chamber music is rewarding in a different way to larger works. It is satisfying and enjoyable being part of a small team, where every individual is vital to the whole, everyone gets their moment in the spotlight and everyone has a degree of control over the performance. I was, therefore, both delighted and terrified to have been invited to join the Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble for their concert at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church in Northampton last Saturday.

We were tackling a new piece for double wind quintet by the American composer Jeff Scott. ‘Sacred Women’ was first performed at the Nevada Flute Association Conference in Las Vegas in August 2012 and ours was to be the first performance outside North America. ‘Sacred Women’ celebrates three female deities – the Egyptian god Isis, Caribbean Iemanja and African Mawu. It is a fiendishly difficult piece – tuneful, atmospheric and rhythmically complex. All ten parts are incredibly challenging and it was very hard work trying to fit it all together.

We were fortunate that Frank Jordan and the other regular members of the Heliotrope Wind Quintet had assembled a very impressive group of musicians and we were grateful for the services of conductor Stephen Bell to help us pull it together. We also benefited from working with the recording of the work’s Nevada premiere and some of our group managed to talk to the composer after a recent recital at the Wigmore Hall in London. By Saturday evening, however, it still felt a bit touch and go. Concentration levels were high and nerves were jangling but I think we had all come to really like the piece and we were looking forward to trying to do it justice.

The concert got off to an excellent start with Kimberley Chang playing the lengthy, haunting, opening alto flute solo beautifully. While we may have been guilty of a few missed entries and wrong notes, most of the performance went really well – with several excellent cadenzas, sensitive playing and rhythmic neatness. Even the most complex, multi-layered passage of competing rhythms in the middle of the last movement finished with us perfectly together.

As we approached the very end of the work, however, I was aware that my most difficult solo line was still looming. Out of silence the first horn is required to play a series of unaccompanied notes rising to a long, held, top ‘C’. Top ‘C’ is a note which is theoretically possible on a French horn but rarely called upon. I knew I could manage to hit it but whether I would, at the end of a complete performance of the piece, in the pressure of the live concert atmosphere, was another matter. In the passage leading up to this solo we found ourselves playing at a faster, adrenaline-fuelled, pace than we had rehearsed and by the time we reached the silent pause I could feel my heart pumping fast. I took a deep breath and went for it. I was aware of the top ‘C’ emerging, but it sounded weak and squeaky and I realised I was running out of breath. As I tried to hold the note for its full length, my head began to ache and I could feel that I was close to passing out. I managed to hit the following notes and grab a lungful of air. Then I realised that the others were waiting for me to continue with the next part of the tune. I pushed my way through to the end of the line and recovered sufficiently during the following rests to be able to join in with the final bars of the piece which finished triumphantly.

I am not sure what the audience made of this odd, squealing interlude towards the end of the piece – I hope it sounded worse to me than to anyone else – but overall I think our performance of ‘Sacred Women’ was fairly presentable, with some really excellent playing. I was completely drained at the end – and in awe of those of my colleagues who went on to play two further pieces. I enjoyed the rest of the concert from the audience, discovering two other incredibly tuneful chamber works that were completely new to me.

Eric Ewazen’s ‘Roaring Fork’ is a contemporary wind quintet that conjures up the Rocky Mountains with a feel of Aaron Copland’s American soundscapes. And the ‘Nonet’ by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, written in 1894, is a gorgeous piece for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, ‘cello, double bass and piano. It was a lovely concert and I really enjoyed the experience of working with the Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble towards our performance of Jeff Scott’s ‘Sacred Women’, but I’m looking forward to returning to the relative safety of my position in the ranks of the Northampton Symphony Orchestra.

You can hear extracts from the Nevada premiere of ‘Sacred Women’ at and

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At 9:49 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't worry Robin, you will always be a much more demanding critic of your own playing than anyone else, and I heard good things about your performance from a friend in the audience. Any horn players out there will know exactly the feeling you describe, because we've all been through it.

Dave L

At 5:27 pm, Blogger Robin Simpson said...

Thanks very much Dave.


At 5:06 am, Blogger Unknown said...

Bravo for tackling the part Robin. It was meant to be a third tier piece with challenging but rewarding parts for all. I'm very glad you enjoyed it!! Best regards... Jeff Scott

At 4:54 pm, Blogger Robin Simpson said...

Thanks very much Jeff - very kind of you to say so. It's an amazing piece and I hope it gets some more performances.

Best wishes



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