Update 11 August 2022
In spite of the devastating impact of Storm Arwen in Northumberland in late November 2021, I managed to get to Newcastle to hear another performance of Caedmon’s Hymn by the Cathedral Choir and was rewarded with a wonderful performance.
Covid changed plans for Christmas with my choir, Coquetdale Chamber Choir: two Festivals of Lessons and Carols that would have included Child of Hope were cancelled. In January were able to perform a modified programme – two short concerts in two different churches in one afternoon! More recently, we gave the first performance of my arrangement of Burns’ Ae fond kiss in July in a concert welcoming Ukrainian refugees to the Northumbrian town of Rothbury.
2022 started well with the award of the inaugural Tippett Medal for The Shackled King. This took me completely by surprise and I felt very honoured to be associated with the composer in this way, someone I had met on a number of occasions. This work was later performed in the Northern Aldborough Festival in North Yorkshire in June with Sir John Tomlinson and Rozanna Madylus excelling in their roles and characterisation of King Lear, Cordelia and the Fool. I look forward to the London premiere at Wigmore Hall in January 2023 and at the Newbury Spring Festival in May.
January saw me immersed in the rewriting of my large-scale choral work To fields we do not know, composed in 1985 for the BBC Singers and John Poole. A score with sometimes 28 real parts is not a very practical proposition these days. The challenge entailed reworking it for smaller forces while retaining as much of the original material as possible without sacrificing the work’s character and identity. The result is a more approachable score for 16 singers and I can’t wait for an enterprising choir to take an interest in it.
Friday 22 July was a memorable day when the National Youth Choir of Great Britain sang Uncertain Sea (written for them in 2014) at 1pm in Scarborough as part of the Ryedale Festival, and the Gould Piano Trio gave the world premiere of my new piano trio Lust of Roots at 3pm in the Buxton International Festival. Short of hiring a helicopter, it was impossible to be at both, so I was very happy to spend the Wednesday afternoon rehearsing with NYCGB at their summer school near York – a great afternoon, fabulous singing, and what laughs we had as I helped the choir put the finishing touches to their pronunciation of the Northumbrian dialect in Katrina Porteous’s fabulous poems.
The premiere of Lust of Roots was everything a composer can wish for and I look forward to the Goulds’ performances in Leeds in October and in Northumberland (Wooler and Corbridge) next summer. They will come to Wooler as part of Wooler Arts Summer Concerts. Wooler Arts (www.woolerarts.org.uk) is a relatively new organisation and I now find myself not only Artistic Director of the Summer Concerts, but also Chair.
James Turnbull came to play in St Mary’s Church, Wooler in a concert separate from the summer series. He gave a lovely solo recital and his performance of Amethyst Deceiver captured perfectly the piece’s mysterious and playful character. Another solo visitor to the area was the viola player Stephen Upshaw who performed From One Thread in the Berwick Music Series in October 2021, playing the piece with real skill, authority and imagination.
Update, 13 January 2022
John Casken wins 2020 Tippett Medal
John Casken has won the inaugural 2020 Tippett Medal for The Shackled King, a drama for bass, mezzo-soprano and ensemble based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. The Tippett Medal is a new prize for composition awarded by the Royal Musical Association.
John writes: “To receive the 2020 Tippett Medal is a huge honour. Tippett was a giant composer of our time and to have his name now linked to my work The Shackled King means so much to me. Writing for Sir John Tomlinson as the King was a great privilege, and working with him, Rozanna Madylus (Cordelia), and the ensemble Counterpoise was truly inspirational. To them, and to Barry Millington who commissioned the work, I shall be ever grateful, as I am to the organisers and jury of the Tippett Medal.”
The Shackled King is a condensed version of Shakespeare’s great play King Lear, exploring Lear’s estrangement from his daughter Cordelia and their reconciliation. The work is for two singers with small ensemble. Lear is sung by a bass, and Cordelia by a mezzo-soprano who also briefly plays the sisters, Goneril and Regan. The mezzo-soprano also plays the King’s philosophical friend, the Fool who enables the King to emerge from madness to discover wisdom and recognise some hard truths.
L: Sir John Tomlinson as King Lear; R: Rozana Madylus as Cordelia
The Shackled King premiered live at the Buxton International Festival on 23 July 2021 at Buxton Opera House with Sir John Tomlinson (bass) as King Lear, Rozanna Madylus (mezzo soprano) as Cordelia/Goneril/Regan/The Fool and Counterpoise ensemble. Future performances include the Northern Aldborough Festival in 2022 and Wigmore Hall in 2023.
Update, 13 September 2021
Six Wooded Pieces
Early September saw two remarkable performances of this work by two young pianists four days apart and twenty miles apart in Northumberland. Clare Hammond, having given her first performance of the work in a live-streamed concert in the Steinway International Piano Series on 21 February from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, included the work in her concert for Alnwick Music Society on 1 September. Mishka Rushdie Momen played the pieces for the first time in St Mary’s Church, Wooler in her concert for Alwinton Summer Concerts @ Wooler Arts on 4 September (www.alwintonconcerts.org). It was a huge privilege to hear two quite different interpretations in very different programmes, each pianist bringing something new and individual to the work. I am delighted that these two outstanding pianists have taken Six Wooded Pieces into their repertoire and I was thrilled to hear them played with such brilliance, intelligence and range of musical expression.
Update, September 2021
John Casken writes:
Since my last update in October 2020, the situation continues to be uncertain for all of us in these Covid times. As Artistic Director of Alwinton Summer Concerts, I have had to take the difficult decision to move the series (www.alwintonconcerts.org) to St Mary’s Church, Wooler, the small town in North Northumberland where I live. Our first concert on Saturday 14 August, a two-prong programme of Northumbrian folk music (Andy May Trio) and two classical violins (Bradley Creswick and Katerina Nazarova) got us off to a barnstorming start. I’m really looking forward to Mishka Rushdie Momen coming on 4 September to play my Six Wooded Pieces. Purely by coincidence, Clare Hammond performs these pieces in nearby Alnwick on 1 September.
In 2009 I wrote a string quintet, Inevitable Rifts (with two cellos), for Heinrich Schiff and his Mondsee Festival in Austria. The commission was for a single movement lasting twelve minutes, but for some time after I thought the material deserved further exploration and development. A number of friends also encouraged me in this direction and so Inevitable Rifts II was written in May 2020. The whole work is now to be performed as a two-movement work and lasts 21 minutes.
I completed Light Into My dark for mezzo-soprano, Chorus and Orchestra, commissioned by The University of Manchester Chorus. The premiere has now been confirmed for 3 December 2022 in the University’s Whitworth Hall, Oxford Road, and will be conducted by Robert Guy with the mezzo-soprano Katie Bray.
In December 2020, there was a remarkable achievement when Sir John Tomlinson and the mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus, with ensemble Counterpoise were able to film a workshop performance of my King Lear music-theatre/chamber opera The Shackled King. Despite Covid restrictions and limited rehearsal time, the film was completed in one afternoon and made a major contribution to an international ‘Shakespeare and Music’ conference organised by Dr Michelle Assay and Professor David Fanning for the Universities of Manchester and Huddersfield. Click here to watch the promo video.
The Shackled King received its world premiere public performance at the Buxton International Festival on 23 July 2021 with the same singers and ensemble, and it was a truly remarkable performance. My piece for solo viola, From One Thread, was given its first performance live-streamed on 10 November 2020 from the Royal Academy of Music by one the Academy’s postgraduate students, Miguel Sobrinho. Winter Reels was recorded in January for BBC Radio 3 by Psappha conducted by Clark Rundell and subsequently broadcast. The same forces then recorded the work for CD to mark Psappha’s 30th Anniversary, with the release planned for January 2022.
I have written a number of choral pieces over the past year or so: an SATB arrangement of Burn’s song Ae fond kiss; Christmas Introit – a setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Love came down at Christmas’ for two voices and organ (could be solo soprano and alto, or choir trebles and altos, or using lower voices in a similar way); On Wisdom’s Pilgrimage – SATB, a setting of Dick Davis’ ‘A Christmas Poem’ commissioned by Ian Shaw for his new collection ‘Wondrous Love’; and Caedmon’s Hymn. This SATB work was commissioned by Newcastle Cathedral for a special Service of Dedication and Thanksgiving on 25 September and sung for the first time by the choir of Newcastle Cathedral conducted by the Director of Music, Ian Roberts. The text is a setting of the late 7th century poem ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ in a uniquely original translation by one of the cathedral’s clergy, Rev Canon Clare MacLaren.
Duncan Honeybourne gave the London premiere of Tempus Plangendi at St James’s Piccadilly on 23 June. My own weekly activities as organist of St Mary’s Church, Wooler, continue and I played my new, short Postludium for the first time on 18 July. Currently I’m at work on a new piano trio for the Gould Piano Trio and am very much looking forward to working with these superb musicians once again (see their recording of my first Piano Trio on the Stolen Airs CD (Prima Facie PFCD115).
1 September 2021
Update, October 2020
John Casken writes:
Much of my time in recent months has been spent on Light Into My Dark, the new work for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra, commissioned by Manchester University Chorus for December 2021. Hopefully, the world will be less virus-ridden by then and the performance will be able to go ahead and with a normal-sized audience. I’m delighted that Katie Bray has agreed to sing the solo role. Setting Kathleen Raine’s poem about incarnation on such a scale is proving both exciting and challenging.
Plans are going ahead for my work based on King Lear, The Shackled King, to be filmed in a non-public performance and streamed during a Shakespeare and Music conference at The University of Manchester in December. Given the current restrictions, this has not been an easy project for Dr Michelle Assay, conference organiser, or Barry Millington who runs the ensemble Counterpoise. But, the bass Sir John Tomlinson, for whom the work was written, and mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus who will sing the parts of Cordelia, her sisters and the Fool, are currently enjoying (I believe) preparing for this filming session.
Last week I travelled to Heidelberg by train (quite an adventure!) to see three performances of Trackway of Time by Theater und Orchester Heidelberg. Originally a concert work for baritone and chamber orchestra, written for Sir Thomas Allen and premiered by him in 2015 in Durham Cathedral with Durham University Chamber Orchestra, the Heidelberg performance transformed it into a piece of music theatre in a most interesting and ingenious way. Part of an evening of English music, Trackway of Time came at the very centre of a symmetrical sequence of groups of scenes from Purcell’s Fairy Queen and Britten’s Phaedra in two parts to create an unbroken presentation they titled ‘Summernight-Dreamers’. The King and Queen from the Purcell became the soloists in my piece and in Phaedra, dramatically staged and sung, with gripping dramatic presentation and staging by Ulrike Schumann and Andrea Schwalbach. The orchestra for my piece was too large to conform to Covid distancing, so it was pre-recorded, with a small group of instruments playing solo lines live, and very effectively, in the pit, the whole evening conducted by the excellent Elias Grandy. To have ten performances in October and November is exciting in itself, but the news that even more are planned was very good indeed. This, and the experience of hearing live music and singing again, stirred some strong emotions.
I’ve been enjoying Duncan Honeybourne’s new CD on which Tempus Plangendi features and am looking forward to the YouTube streamed premiere of my new viola piece From One Thread on 10 November.
21 October 2020
Update, May 2020
John Casken writes:
I’ve written a few new pieces in the past couple of months. From One Thread for solo viola (7’30”) is for the Royal Academy of Music’s celebration of its 200th anniversary in 2022 and will join a collection of pieces for solo instrument and solo voice by a wide range of composers to mark the occasion.
Tempus Plangendi for solo piano (2’30”) was written at the invitation of the pianist Duncan Honeybourne for a short piano piece as part of his fundraising project towards the Musicians’ Covid Hardship Fund. Duncan introduces and plays the piece on his YouTube video (recorded in his front room) and talks about his idea for the project (Contemporary Piano Soundbites/Tempus Plangendi/YouTube).
For some time I have been thinking about writing a second movement to my string quintet Inevitable Rifts (2009) and finally I have done this, revisiting some of the material of the existing single movement but approaching it in different ways in order to address some of the conflicts left unresolved at the end of that movement. Inevitable Rifts II (9’30”) now forms this second movement and it is my hope that from now on the whole work will be performed in its two-movement version.
Material for all three new pieces is available from the composer.
Another project that I have been putting off but now finally completed is a re-orchestration of my arrangement of Pérotin’s motet Viderunt omnes. The original arrangement is recorded on NMC (NMC D245) and while that arrangement is still available for performance, I have made an alternative version for a smaller ensemble, the same as that of The Dream of the Rood. Details of the instrumentation of both versions can be found in my list of works (Voices and Instruments), and both arrangements are available from Schott Music London.
Plans for the future include Light Into My Dark for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra. The text is Part 4 of Kathleen Raine’s Northumbrian Sequence and the work has been commissioned by Manchester University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra for its premiere in the University’s Whitworth Hall in December 2021. My Piano Trio No.2 (provisional title) will be written for the Gould Piano Trio who last year recorded my first trio on the CD Stolen Airs (Prima Facie PFCD 115). There are plans also to collaborate with the Manchester-based ensemble Vonnegut Collective.