A new work by composer Luke Styles, Tracks in the Orbit, a saxophone concerto for jazz legend Iain Ballamy, will receive its first performance at Cardiff’s BBC Hoddinott Hall on 29 April 2022.
A second new work, Voices of Power, a Three Choirs Festival commission for contralto soloist, choir and orchestra, will receive its world premiere Hereford Cathedral on 28 July.
Tracks in the Orbit will be performed by Iain Ballamy, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Fiona Monbet. The work, co-commissioned by BBC NOW and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, will receive further outings later in Tasmania and in company with the Brittany Symphony Orchestra. Hilary Summers, the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir and the Philharmonia Orchestra under conductor Samuel Hudson, meanwhile, are ready to bring Voices of Power to life this summer.
Luke Styles’s saxophone concerto inhabits the intersection between classicalcontemporary idioms and jazz, territory he explored often in earlier works and during his teenage days as a jazz bassist. The composer first met Iain Ballamy in 2014. They bonded over Emulsion, the new music festival Styles created with jazz saxophonist Trish Clowes. “We brought together Trish’s band Tangent, Iain’s band Food and my contemporary music group Ensemble Amorpha,” he notes. The two men remained in touch. After receiving a newsletter from the composer about his forthcoming stage works, Ballamy responded with a challenge. “Iain messaged me to say, ‘Enough of this opera stuff – how about a concerto?’ I took him seriously so we looked for ways to make it happen. BBC NOW were very keen on the idea and on working with Iain, so it grew from there.”
While the solo part of Tracks in the Orbit is written out, it grants licence to the soloist to improvise in places and embellish the music as the mood dictates. The work’s title and ethos was inspired by Styles’s reading of Hamlet’s Mill, an extended essay from 1969 about the primeval origins of human knowledge and its proposed transmission through myth. The controversial book enters the speculative realm of archaeoastronomy in search of the relationship between mythology and the repeating patterns and periodic changes observable in the night sky.
Luke Styles was also influenced by a conversation with Iain Ballamy about ‘devotional music’ rooted in ritual. Styles structured ‘Devotion’, his concerto’s second movement, around a cantus firmus and made use of Olivier Messiaen’s eight-note Mode 6 scale, one of the French composer’s so-called modes of limited transposition, here and elsewhere in the piece. “Tracks in the Orbit is about ‘Hamlet’s Mill’ turning and the planets grinding their tracks in the heavens,” the composer comments. “The idea of this ancient knowledge of the night sky certainly feels connected to the music, even if it’s hard to say exactly how.”
Voices of Power, to a libretto by poet and author Jessica Walker, contemplates the nature of power across the centuries. Its six protagonists include figures as diverse as Boudica and Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great and Margaret Thatcher, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacinda Ardern. “Our intention was to examine different aspects from power seen from the perspective of powerful women,” notes Luke Styles. “We look at powerful women conforming to a classic male stereotype: Margaret Thatcher, for example, lowered her voice to sound more authoritative, like a man. That downward shift in pitch will be quite clear and playful in the music. Boudica and Elizabeth I illustrate the violent use of power, but we look more at Elizabeth’s single-minded rejection of family and relationships. It ends with aspects of power that are more collaborative, compassionate and long term in their application, what we probably need from our leaders if we’re going to survive into the future.”
Voices of Power stands as a natural successor to Styles’s hour-long symphonic song cycle for bass-baritone, chorus and symphony orchestra, No Friend But The Mountains (2020). Composing the latter, he notes, delivered invaluable lessons on how to write effectively for chorus, on dramatic pacing, when to insert orchestral interludes, and how to develop the trajectory of one solo voice over the course of a long piece. His Three Choirs Festival score was written for choristers aged fourteen to twenty-five, talented young singers ready to take and hold the spotlight, and for a soloist he first heard while working as an usher at Wigmore Hall.
“I was captivated by Hilary Summers from that moment,” recalls Luke Styles. “It’s great now to be able to write for a voice of such extraordinary power and range. Her contralto straddles four octaves and defies traditional gender classifications. It touches the baritone register usually associated with male singers but also reaches to the top of the mezzo-soprano range, which you’d normally expect to hear a woman sing. There’s this chameleon-like presence to her singing which I find fascinating and fun. I want to play with that in Voices of Power as part of a piece that belongs to the great choral tradition of the Three Choirs Festival.”
Friday 29 April 2022, 7.30pm
Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
Fiona Monbet conductor | Iain Ballamy saxophone | BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Luke Styles Tracks In The Orbit (world premiere)
Thursday 28 July 2022
Sam Hudson conductor | Hilary Summers contralto | Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir | Philharmonia Orchestra
Luke Styles Voices of Power (world premiere)