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Celia Craig on Judith Weir’s new Oboe Concerto

27 Sep 2018
  • Behind the Scenes
by Paola Niscioli
Celia Craig on Judith Weir’s new Oboe Concerto

ASO: What’s your relationship with Judith Weir?

Celia: I’ve known Judith for 20 plus years, we’ve come across each other since I was a student. When I was a student at University of York, she had written a piece called Airs from Another Planet, which is for wind quintet and piano. Some friends of mine suggested that we should play it, which we did, and she remembers that performance. We performed it very soon after the Premiere by the Nash Ensemble in London and all really loved it.

I came in contact with Judith again because I was in a group that played at Spitalfields Summer Festival, which she programmed, and one of the pieces she programmed was the Oboe Sonata by Francis Poulenc. So she programmed my first ever solo national broadcast. 

So that’s how I knew her. I’ve also been aware of her being a good composer for a long time.

How did this piece, written by her for you, come to fruition?

It was actually my idea. I asked her first – I somehow knew that as an ex oboist it might appeal to her, and it did! and later the publishers and Simon Lord (ASO, Director of Artistic Planning) and the ASO came on board, and then just after we asked her she became Master of The Queen’s Music. So that was all amazing timing.

 When did you first read the piece?

Oh, she had the music plenty in advance. She sent me the score much earlier than most composers do, which is great. I think it’s probably March or something this year. I might be lying, it might’ve been April. Really impressive. She’s a professional composer, none of this last minute deadlines.

(laughs)

What was the timeline between you first asking her and you reading the piece?

I think that’s probably 2 years or so ago.

I also went to do Master Classes in London in January 2016, where we met up and we talked about it, the piece. We were both working at the Royal Academy of Music and she came to Master Class at Trinity College London.

She also wrote a blog post about it, so if you look on her website you’ll find her sort of discussing it. One’s called On Planet Oboe and the other one is called Oboe Optimism. It was before publicity, so she said “I’ve not told anybody, I’m just going to whisper into the internet that I’m writing an oboe concerto.”

And there’s an article she’s written about it in Limelight. I’m glad the idea held such a strong appeal for Judith.

Can you describe to me the piece and what it feels like to play it?

Her music is always very ethereal and Scottish in influence. Scottish is a bit of a strange thing to describe. Judith live in London, but she’s got Scottish heritage. There’s a kind of spooky, windswept, stark thing about her work: lots of silence and dramatic starts and finishes, it’s definitely a striking piece.

And then the second movement is a slow movement, it’s literally the saddest thing I’ve ever played. It’s so sad.

And what does it feel like to play – are you engulfed in that sadness?

Oh, certainly, and when you play that slow movement, yeah, absolutely.

She’s written it very carefully with long phrases, and then there’s a bit of time to recover, and then start again. It’s quite declamatory, it’s like speaking to people. There’s bits of it where you’re speaking and bits of it where you’re sort of singing.

What excites you most about the new concerto and giving the World Premiere?

The most exciting thing is that I think this is a significant new piece. The thing is, it’s got to be a piece that can be played more than once – it really is a fantastic piece.

There’s two or three major works for oboists and Judith knows them all because she was an oboist. So you can feel that. You feel that this is a significant addition to the repertoire. I haven’t even heard it with an orchestra yet, but I practiced it with piano and sent a recording off  to Judith and Dougie [Douglas Boyd].

And that’s the other thing, Dougie the conductor, is an oboist who recorded the Strauss Oboe Concerto most famously when I was a student. He was Principal Oboe of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, a wonderful group. So having him conducting as well… 

Although, musically the piece is nothing like the Strauss Concerto…  It’s like being an architect and building a really nice house rather than just a crappy one. It’s new and it’s really impressive. That’s how it feels. Distinctive, stylish, well constructed: well crafted by a professional.

How special is it for a performer to perform a piece that has been written for you for the first time?

I’ve just done it; an Oboe Sonata in Spain that was written for me by Stuart Greenbaum, and I remember thinking about how it special to offer these performances. And the other piece I played in Spain was a Cor Anglais work which was written for me, in London, a BBC commission.

This oboe Sonata was written by Stuart, Head of Composition in Melbourne. I went through that exact question in my head, I thought, this is my music and I know how it goes. Here it is, to fresh ears..’ You know, nobody in the audience will have preconceived idea of how it sounds.

So I’ve got to communicate to the audience and I’ve got to sell it to them who are hearing it fresh. If you hear a Mozart symphony you might have heard it a thousand trillion times. Sometimes you hear it fresh, but this is truly brand new. In fact, if you see a picture a thousand times, you can almost ignore it. So it’s that freshness, I really like that. I’d be really interested to see what they think of it.

How do you as the musician engage with people and talk about it after?

Definitely I talk with my peers, and I know quite a lot of people who are in the audience, like my parents for a start.  And Judith, of course. I’ll mingle in the audience and hear from them afterwards.

Also, ABC Classics are recording it as well, so that’ll put the pressure on.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the performance?

Something new. We’ll be giving them something that they haven’t heard before, and it’s not too – something that we call ‘squeaky gate’ – it’s not too modern. It has harmony in it for example, and the slow movement tune is just gorgeous. So well done Judith, because her work is quite often percussive, she takes to the piano in a kind of flashy way. She’s writing quite tuneful music, so I hope they take that tune away.

How important do you see it that orchestras perform new work for living composers?

Really important. If you think about it, the alternative is that you play the same pieces over and over again. You got to mix it up again. I’ve playedmost of the orchestral repertoire many times before. I can list them off every time a piece comes up, I think ‘oh yes, that was good in Barcelona… oh yeah, I remember when we did that in Nottingham.’ You know, and so I don’t have all of those pre-conceptions about a new piece, and I think: ‘oh good, something new!’

I think it’s really important to keep the performance fresh as well. And also, of course, to give work to new composers. How else are they going to get their music out there? And you’ve got to give them a chance to make a few failures too. The pieces that we’re playing regularly, your Tchaikovskys and your Beethovens, you don’t play their lesser known ones, you play their famous ones. But they’re tried and tested and they’ve had lots and lots of concerts. But, when you play new music, you can’t filter it out like that; you’ve just got to try it first. Everything needs a first performance.

Judith is a very significant composer, and it’s very exciting that she’s coming to Adelaide.

I’ve filled her in all the oboe-y history of Adelaide. There’s another Oboe Concerto, the Martinů, that oboists learn, and she learned it and I learned it. And she had no idea that I’m in the teaching position at Elder Con of the guy who commissioned it. And that is a big connection. 

Judith was very touched by that. The fact that she knows the name Tancibudek, it was at the top of the Martinů. She said “I had no idea it was Adelaide” and I said “neither did I until I got here.” And I’m in his teaching position now.

Watch Celia perform Judith Weir’s new Oboe Concerto at Master Series 8: Sibelius Ablaze on October 12 and 13.

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