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PhD student Darren Bloom reports on the first King's College/Hartley Rogers CBSO scholars’ workshop

last modified Dec 30, 2018 09:29 PM

Last month, following a year of focused work, I caught an early train from London to Birmingham to hear the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Mike Seal, workshop and record 'New Eyes', my first piece for large orchestra. This opportunity came about through a generous donation to King's College by Hartley Rogers, a former student of King's College School; this year Patrick Brennan and I were selected to be the first recipients of what is now known as the King's College/Hartley Rogers CBSO Scholarship in Orchestral Composition.

As usual with this kind of event, I arrived several hours in advance – mainly to sit around being nervous but also to allow for any last-minute fixes should something crop up. In this instance, the extra time proved vital. Within a minute of dropping in to the orchestral librarians, we realised that the score Mr Seal had taken and fastidiously marked up was not the most recent version but rather one from several weeks earlier. While there were some missing corrections and alterations I had made when formatting the parts, far more crucially, nearly every rehearsal mark and bar number in his score was incorrect. Anyone who's sat in a rehearsal where the conductor's score is a different edition from the orchestral parts will know full well how much time can be wasted just trying to find the same bar! (This would not have been the best way for me to spend ninety precious minutes with one of the best orchestras in the country.) Once Mr Seal arrived, and with the workshop drawing near, I launched into a high-stress race through the piece in which I furiously – but neatly – scribbled every little change to the music and barring I could find into his score. Thirty minutes later I was finished and the workshop began as planned, albeit with a little more perspiration than expected!

The CBSO is a friendly and collegial ensemble, and as a visiting composer knowing only a few of the 80 musicians, one quickly gets the feeling that they care about your music sounding great as much as they care about their own sound. This is perhaps best exemplified by the players who found me just as the others were taking their seats to ask a few questions about their parts so that they could get a quick answer and save valuable rehearsal time.

The actual workshop was so artistically stimulating that it verged on being overwhelming at times, and as such I'm looking forward to receiving the recording from the sound team so that I can assess the piece with a more level head. What was perhaps most valuable about the session was that I came out happiest with the parts of the piece that felt like genuine risks in which I was writing material that I didn't know would work. One such section featured a wobbling, sliding trombone solo with echos from a solo cello and viola and further responses from solo horn and trumpet placed within a bed of rising and falling brass harmonics and cloth-wrapped harmonicas, all of which was underpinned by a pulsing bass register ensemble conforming to a different rhythmic structure from the other parts. Despite spending several weeks composing the passage and trying to manage the background and foreground balance of the material, I was convinced that I had over-cooked it and it would come out sounding like a confused mess. In the end however, and thanks in large part to Mike Seal's insistence on a focused rehearsal of the section, it actually turned out quite beautifully, teaching me a lot about how I might approach similar material in the future.

While this opportunity may be over there is one last event to come as part of the scholarship. In the final term of this academic year there will be a chamber concert featuring works by Patrick and myself presented in King's College Chapel. So, look out for that and hopefully see you there!

Darren Bloom is a PhD student in Composition at the Faculty of Music, working under the supervision of Richard Causton.

 

The King's College/Hartley Rogers CBSO Scholarships in Orchestral Composition are the result of an exciting new partnership between King's College, the University of Cambridge Music Faculty and the world-renowned City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and made possible through a visionary gift from Hartley Rogers, a former pupil at King’s College School and a former member of the School Choir. The Scholarships, open to Cambridge students, regardless of College affiliation, provide the opportunity to compose a new work for the CBSO and to hear it rehearsed and professionally recorded.