About The Music

Dip into our programme notes for pieces presented by Music in the Round. Covering music that is forthcoming and has been recently performed, learn more about the works and also listen to brief extracts. 

About The Music: W

WALLEN Errollyn, The Negro Speaks of Rivers

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” sets the text of Langston Hughes. The poem was first published in June of 1921 in Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.

Read more at SongofAmerica.net

WATKINS Huw Thomas, Piano Trio No.2

Although my second piano trio runs continuously without a break for around quarter of an hour, it divides into four main sections which correspond roughly with a more traditional four movement scheme. Two slow movements are followed by two fast movements. The music was co-commissioned by Presteigne Festival, Music in the Round and Wigmore Hall for the Leonore Trio, and is dedicated to George Vass.

© Huw Watkins 2022

WATKINS Huw, ‘Resurrection of the Soldiers’ from Four Spencer Pieces

This sequence for solo piano actually comprises six pieces, since the four titled movements inspired by paintings of Sir Stanley Spencer are enclosed between a Prelude and Postlude in which serenely descending harmonies settle on repeated notes, tolling like a distant bell. And repeated notes prove a recurrent feature of the Spencer Pieces proper.
The distant, tolling bell of the Prelude returns at the still opening of the longest movement ‘The Resurrection of Soldiers’, with convergent high and low sonorities suggesting a passing echo of ‘Le gibet’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. In due course the music passes over into a convolved fugue, but so subtly that it is difficult tell exactly where the transition occurs – or where it passes back again into the preludial music.
Not least striking about the Four Spencer Pieces, is how Watkins, even at his most aggressively chromatic, contrives to keep his textures clean of the dispiriting greyness of so much ‘advanced’ piano writing. The Maidenhead Music Society commissioned the work in 2001 and Watkins gave the premiere in the parish church at Cookham, the Thames-side village Spencer lived in for so long and transfigured in his paintings.
© Bayan Northcott, 2012

WEBER Carl Maria Von, Grand Duo Concertant in E flat Op.48

Allegro con fuoco 
Andante con moto 
Rondo. Allegro 

Weber’s own diaries contain a wealth of information about when he composed this work. The first movement to be written was the Rondo finale, completed in Munich on 5 July 1815 and a note from a few days later mentions sketches “for the sonata with clarinet and piano”. By 19 July Weber had also written the slow movement, describing it as an “Adagio”. It wasn’t for another year that he turned his attention to the first movement – noting in Berlin on 5 November that the “First movement of the Duo in E flat was written down”, and finally on 8 November “Allegro in E flat for the Clarinet and Piano Duo finished.” The work was published by Schlesinger in Berlin six months later, Weber noting that he received printed copies on 19 June 1817.  


What is remarkable about this work, given its rather fragmented composition history, is that the finished piece has such concentration and coherence. An early review in the Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung was full of praise: “The whole piece has an original and fiery spirit as well as tender heartfelt feelings; a thorough development of ideas comes without any pedantry … The harmonic and melodic aspects of each movement are beautifully balanced against each other and both instruments are treated with a perfect knowledge of what each can do.” 


The ebullient and virtuoso writing for the two instruments in is one of the glories of the Grand Duo. It was conceived as a real partnership for clarinet and piano, with neither part dominating the proceedings. The results are very rich melodically but also extremely successful in terms of Weber’s handling of large-scale forms. Though the work was called Grand Duo concertant when it was published, it’s interesting to note from Weber’s diaries that he referred to this substantial three-movement work at least once as a “Sonata”. 


© Nigel Simeone  

WEILL Kurt, Nanna’s Lied; Youkali; Je ne t’aime pas

Nannas Lied (1939) 
Youkali (1934) 
Je ne t’aime pas [I don’t love you] (1934) (arr. for trumpet and piano) 

After Kurt Weill heard Hanns Eisler’s 1936 setting of Bertolt Brecht’s Nannas Lied he decided that he wanted to make a version of his own, and just before Christmas 1939, he produced this song, dedicating it to the singer Lotte Lenya. Youkali, subtitled a ‘Tango-habanera’ was originally an instrumental Tango for Weill’s ill-fated French musical Marie Galante which opened in Paris on 22 December 1934. In 1946 a version for voice and piano was published as Youkali. Je ne t’aime pas was a song for voice and piano, on a text by Maurice Magre, also composed in 1934 during Weill’s time in France. As a prominent Jewish composer – renowned for The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – Weill was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933 and eventually settled in New York in September 1935 where he was able to rebuild his career with successful Broadway works such as Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Street Scene and Lost in the Stars.  


© Nigel Simeone 

WEINBERG Mieczysław, String Quartet Op.6 No.35

Allegro semplice
Presto agitato
Allegro con fuoco
Moderato commodo
Andante maestoso


Weinberg’s String Quartet No. 6 is a powerful and deeply expressive work that showcases the composer’s distinctive voice. Weinberg was a Polish-Jewish composer who spent much of his career in the Soviet Union, and his music reflects both the rich cultural heritage of his homeland and the tumultuous times in which he lived. Composed in 1946, this quartet is one of Weinberg’s most accomplished works in the genre.


A powerful work consisting of six movements, it opens with forceful and energetic driving rhythms followed by a frenzied and virtuosic movement, with rapid, intricate passages. The soaring melodies of the fiery and intense third movement contain dramatic changes in tempo and dynamics which give way to the Adagio, an expressive and introspective movement marked by a lyrical and mournful melody passed between the instruments of the quartet. The fifth movement is more lighthearted and whimsical, before the final Andante maestoso, which brings the work to a triumphant, majestic conclusion.


© Nigel Simeone

WEIR Judith, Airs from Another Planet

I once read of an idea to establish a human colony on Mars which was at once visionary and practical. In order to acclimatise themselves, potential settlers would at first live together, sealed off from the human race on a remote Scottish island.

This is the music of the Scottish colonisers, several generations later, marooned on a lonely and distant planet; the ancient forms of their national music almost completely lost in translation, with only the smallest vestiges of the national style remaining.

Three traditional melodies are quoted, but as if refracted through space time, far distances and strange atmospheric effects. These are ‘The Leys of Luncarty’ (heard on the horn in the opening Strathspey); ‘Ettrick Banks’ (played on the clarinet in the Traditional Air) and ‘Miss Margaret Graham of Gartmore’s Favourite’ (played by everyone in the Jig).

© Judith Weir

WEIR String Quartet (excerpt for ‘Close Up’)

This string quartet was written by a composer who is making music today, the wonderful Judith Weir. A piece full of mysteries, inspired by a medieval Spanish tune. This quartet sounds like a strange landscape where it’s easy to get lost among these lopsided rhythms where nothing is quite as it seems…

WHITEMAN Nina, cybird cybird

Nina Whiteman uses Movesense sensors and Holonic Systems software alongside AI-manipulated field recordings from her daily commute to create a work in which alien sonic environments are explored through gesture.


Nina’s own programme note:

Research tells us that birds find it harder to learn their songs against a backdrop of traffic noise, and that their songs tend to occupy a narrower and higher bandwidth as a result of these stresses. I began to imagine birds as hybrids of technology, flesh, feather, and imposing chaotic environment. The Birds Aren’t Real conspiracy claims (satirically) that all birds have been replaced by robot drones. I began to wonder what it would be like if they had.


The Cybird Trilogy of multimedia works with live performers has grown from this engagement with machine learning, artificial intelligence and the natural world, and charts the ‘adventures’ of a cybird character that is inhabited and portrayed differently in each work. Its concerns are ecological, musical, and technological.


Holonic Systems (via the Holonist app) allows Movesense motion sensors to communicate with various software. The motion sensors are used to convert bird-like performer wing movements into audible phenomena, through control of playback speed (MaxMSP) and of a modular synthesiser app (MiRack)


WITTER-JOHNSON Ayanna, Draw the line

Ayanna Witter-Johnson

Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a multi-talented singer, songwriter, pianist and cellist. She has a phenomenal mastery for seamlessly crossing the boundaries of classical, jazz, reggae, soul and R&B, to imprint her unique musical signature with her virtuosic tap, strum and bow with her cello into her sound and vibe.


“As a second-generation Jamaican born in Britain, my music is a body of work that represents, celebrates and pays homage to my ancestral heritage, culture and identity,” explains Ayanna.


An acclaimed and celebrated performer, Ayanna has collaborated with many stellar artists, including Anoushka Shankar, Nitin Sawhney, Andrea Bocelli and Jools Holland. She has also toured extensively across the UK, Europe and the US.


After graduating with a first-class degree from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Manhattan School of Music, Ayanna participated in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme. Soon after, as Emerging Artist in Residence at London’s Southbank Centre, Ayanna performed as a featured artist with Courtney Pine’s Afropeans: Jazz Warriors. Later,

whilst studying in the USA at New York’s Manhattan School of Music, she became the only non-American to win ‘Amateur Night Live at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NYC.


As a composer, Ayanna has been commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Güerzenich Orchester, Ligeti Quartet, Kronos Quartet and The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company to name but a few. She was also selected as an arranger/orchestrator for the London Symphony Orchestra (Hugh Masekela, Belief) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Urban Classic).


Ayanna has released three EPs (‘Truthfully’, ‘Black Panther’ & ‘Ella, Reuben & Ay’) and put out her debut album ‘Road Runner’ in 2019, with its two subsequent singles’ Nothing Less’ and ‘Crossroads’, via her own independent record label (Hill and Gully Records). Ayanna has worked with producers Marc Mac (4Hero), James Yarde (Terri Walker, Jamelia, Eric Benet) and recorded with featured artists, including pianist Robert Mitchell and rapper Akala.


With her January 2021 surprise-released EP ‘Rise Up, Ayanna again combined reggae, classical, jazz and R&B to celebrate black culture and identity to uplift and inspire the next generation. The stunning collection of three tracks and videos featuring Akala on ‘Rise Up’, Cleveland Watkiss on ‘Declaration Of Rights’ and the ‘Rise Up Riddim’ have received a huge amount of critical acclaim.


Ayanna said, ‘In ‘Rise Up’, I created a song with a strong message specifically influenced by my Jamaican heritage. The starting point was a dancehall riddim that informed the main cello riff. Lyrically, I challenged myself to create something uplifting with an uplifting message, and it just flowed. I wrote the song for the next generation in the black community to remember they are the key to the future. To celebrate their culture and to be proud of it. Now is not the time to give up on your dreams. No matter how hard things seem, Rise Up, embrace our history and claim our birth rights of freedom and joy.”


Many of Ayanna’s remarkable tracks have received airplay on radio stations, including BBC Radio 1, 1Xtra, 2, 3, 4, 6, BBC Radio London, BBC Manchester, Jazz FM and Scala Radio. Her TV credits include BBC One, London Live, Channel 4 (Sing It Loud: Black and Proud), BBC Proms and a stunning performance on Later…with Jools Holland (BBC One).


Despite the challenges of 2020, Ayanna took it all in her stride and continued to create music. She performed a special Livestream for Royal Albert Hall, took part in Trinity Laban’s Virtual Orchestra and picked up an AIM Award nomination for ‘Best Live Act’. In addition, she presented two shows at Wigmore Hall, appeared on BBC Radio 3’s ‘This Classical Life’ podcast, co-wrote and featured on Anoushka Shankar’s Grammy single ‘Those Words’ from the Grammy-nominated Love Letters EP. Ayanna also collaborated with and featured on Nitin Sawhney’s stunning single ‘Movement Variation II’ taken from his acclaimed recent album ‘Immigrants’.


2021 was a stellar year for Ayanna. Collaborating with Solem Quartet as part of their Beethoven Bartok Now series, she has also had her song ‘Draw the Line’, commissioned by The Hermes Experiment, and featured on their sophomore album ‘Songs’. Ayanna also featured on the track called ‘Flow My Tears’ with John Aram, the arranger for Phil Collins. The song is a slick, modern-day reimagining of English composer John Dowland’s 400- year-old music. That year saw Ayanna return to the live stage, headlining at London’s iconic Jazz Café and Kings Place. She made additional performances supporting Nubiyan Twist on their UK tour, participating in ‘Jazz Voice’ (the opening of the London Jazz Festival) at the Royal Festival Hall and a 22-date US tour with Opera superstar Andrea Bocelli.


In 2022, Ayanna continued her composition work with several commissions for ensembles and orchestras, including a Royal Philharmonic Society Commission for the Philharmonia Ensemble (‘Equinox’). Her talent saw her compose for the sold out, hit theatre production, ‘The Collaboration’, at London’s Young Vic Theatre, and composed additional music for the renowned documentary ‘Hostile’.


With two headlined shows at London’s Purcell Rooms, and a headlined show at Wigmore Hall featuring guest artists, Ayanna’s continues to inspire with her composition ‘FAIYA!’ performed by the LSO in Trafalgar Square (conducted by Sir Simon Rattle), and collaborating on a number of live performances with ‘Solem Quartet’ of her composition ‘Island Suite’, which was originally commissioned by them as part of their ‘Beethoven Bartok Now Part IV’ series.


Venturing into new territories, Ayanna was cast in a cameo role in the new Amazon Prime series adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Anansi Boys’, alongside greats such as Whoopi Goldberg, which airs in 2024. She is currently on tour (EU/UK/USA/Canada) with Peter Gabriel as a member of his band (voice, cello, piano) for his upcoming album i/o.


Ayanna is a performer of extraordinary versatility, due to her musical prowess, mesmerising vocals, non-compromising lyrics, and ability to deftly reinterpret songs on the cello. Her must-see live shows are intimate journeys that chronicle her experience as a female artist in the 21st century.


Ayanna Witter-Johnson is the very definition of eclectic soul.


© www.ayannamusic.com


Draw the line (2020)


Commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust for soprano Heloise Werner and double bassist Marianne Schofield of The Hermes Experiment. Draw the Line is a duo for soprano and double bass. A song anchored by a driving, organically built bass part that reflects and explores the depth of sadness and frustration that arose between two friends, from different backgrounds, unified by the series of lockdowns in London 2020, yet divided as a result of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The vocal part, a lament with powerful lyrics that seek to explain the source of those feelings of frustration now brought to the surface. The raw energy of the uncompromising double bass part explodes in a demonstration of the pain of the conflict. ‘It’s your word against mine, every single time, every single time, we’ve got to draw the line’. The intensity of the story leads to a moment of release reflected in the middle section which features the passages of bass played harmonics. This release is, however, short lived. An understanding is never quite reached. “Losing a legacy based on abuse, choosing ignorance is no excuse” are lyrics that portray a tough reality that is hard to swallow. The main theme attempts to return with an explanation but ultimately, we have to just ‘Draw the Line’.


© Faber Music

WOLFE Julia, LAD for 9 bagpipes (arr. for electric guitar by Sean Shibe)

Julia Wolfe studied at Yale School of Music where she became associated with fellow composers Michael Gordon and David Lang, and in 1987 they formed the Bang on a Can collective. The trio soon attracted considerable attention for their Bang of a Can Marathon festivals of new music in Lower Manhattan, with single performances lasting almost a full day, where the audience was instructed to dress and act informally and to come and go as they pleased. Wolfe’s music is rooted in the American minimalist style of composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but laced with the aggressive drive and energy of rock music.

LAD, for 9 bagpipes, was composed for the 2007 Bang on a Can Festival and first performed by a bagpipe ensemble led by Matthew Welch. It was Welch who introduced Wolfe to a variety of techniques on the bagpipes, most notably the long crying glissandi which Wolfe describes as “a crazy siren-like sound”, and “animal sounds” that recall a heavily distorted electric guitar.

Welch later performed a version for eight pre-recorded bagpipes with himself playing the ninth part live, an arrangement recalling the series of Counterpoint works by Steve Reich. In 2018, Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe adapted LAD for live electric guitar accompanied by a backing track. In Shibe’s  words “there’s something really destructive and terrible about it [LAD], but it also has a redemptive element too.”

© Tom McKinney 2022

WU TONG, Rain falling from the roof

Wu Tong is a Chinese composer and performer (primarily on the Chinese bawu and sheng) who became a founder member of the Silk Road Ensemble, led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and has appeared as a virtuoso soloist with orchestras including the Chicago Symphony and New York Philharmonic. An extremely versatile musician, he was also the vocalist in the first rock band to broadcast on Chinese television. 


Rain Falling on the Roof is a kind of song without words with flexible instrumentation. It has been played by Wu Tong himself on the sheng, and recorded by Yo-Ya Ma and Kathryn Stott in a version for cello and piano. Wu Tong himself has written that his inspiration was a very contemporary response, during the Coronavirus pandemic, to an ancient Buddhist story: ‘Upon hearing the sound of the falling raindrops, I was reminded that people depend upon peaceful coexistence with each other and with Mother Nature to live in true harmony. No one exists in isolation.’ 


© Nigel Simeone


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