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An interview with Tabea Debus

Recorder player Tabea Debus launches her third album XXIV Fantasie per il Flauto on 10th April 2018

Commissioning new music is not an everyday occurrence. It takes time and careful planning and there’s still risk involved; there’s no guarantee you’ll get what you want at the end of it!

In 2017, CMF worked closely with Tabea Debus to commission thirteen new works from thirteen leading contemporary composers. Commissioning so many new works at once is a rarity in itself, but when you consider that these are works for solo recorder – an instrument often pigeon-holed in the early-music world – the project is all the more remarkable.

XXIV Fantasie per il Flauto is the culmination of a two-year project, one that was instigated by Tabea’s wish to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the death of her Baroque hero, Georg Philipp Telemann, whose Twelve Fantasias for Unaccompanied Flute is one of the stalwarts of the recorder repertoire.

The album presents a complete recording of Telemann’s Twelve Fantasias interspersed with twelve of these new works, each of which is a response to one of Telemann’s fantasias. The contemporary composers include established names such as Colin Matthews and Ronald Corp, rising stars like Dani Howard and Leo Chadburn, and two CMF alumni: Alastair Penman and Misha Mullov-Abbado (now a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist).

Together these 24 (XXIV) fantasias form a rich anthology, a hybrid work almost, which is both a natural extension of Telemann’s own ravenous appetite for new musical styles and a true picture of what it is to be a recorder player in the 21st century.

CMF Artist Manager, Tabitha McGrath caught up with Tabea ahead of the launch at Dr Johnson’s House on Tuesday 10th April.

How did this project come about?

Last year I really wanted to find some way of commemorating Georg Philipp Telemann, who died 250 years ago in 2017. Having always looked for an excuse to play (and learn) all of his twelve flute Fantasias, the idea to combine this with my passion for contemporary music seemed like the perfect project.

Which part of this project has been the most exciting for you?

Meeting and collaborating with all the contributing composers – and of course learning their pieces!

What does Telemann’s music (and in particular his fantasias) mean to you?

A recorder player himself, Telemann writes so well for the instrument! Although technically the Fantasias are composed for the flute rather than the recorder, they are ideal unaccompanied additions to any concert programme. With regards to my project, I’ve particularly enjoyed the freedom that comes with adapting them for the recorder and taking them into the 21st century – especially deciding which size of recorder to use, which tone and which sound colour.

Is it important for musicians to commission?

Absolutely! We are often so busy studying, exploring and playing music from the past that we have to remind ourselves of the importance to support and perform the music of our own time, and the opportunities that come from communicating with living composers! As a recorder player the lack of repertoire from the late-18th and 19th centuries is an encouragement to commission and a chance to add to the fairly limited stack of ‘original’ recorder works.

Have these new commissions taught you anything?

All of them have challenged my own perception of what is and isn’t possible on the recorder. Most of the composers had not written for the recorder before and thus their approach to this unknown territory has been very refreshing, and reminded me of the sheer unlimited possibilities this instrument holds.

What do you hope will be the legacy of this project?

I hope the new pieces will become an important part of many recorder players’ concert programmes and encourage others to develop their own projects and collaborations.

Why did you decide to record these pieces?

Apart from practical reasons (documentation of the project for myself and the composers) the pieces were written for me so I wanted to be the first to record them as well. Additionally, the recording scenario added another aspect to playing the pieces outside concert performances, and it has been really exciting (and challenging) to record my first complete solo album.

Tell us about the recording process – where and how did you record the album?

I only started planning the recording a few months before the actual sessions, so I was lucky it all came together! We had three days of recording sessions in St Mary’s Church in Harrow-on-the-Hill at the end of October; Adam Bunks then had the first edits ready only a couple of weeks later, although it was another three months until the CD was printed.

This is your first solo recorder album – how did the recording experience compare with your ensemble sessions?

In some ways recording a solo disc was much more straightforward than a recording involving a number of players. On the other hand it’s so much more “open”, i.e. every single noise in and outside the venue was immediately audible and so we had to stop much more often than I had anticipated. Finally, due to the nature of the project and commissions, the large number of (12) different recorders required nearly as much logistic planning as a chamber music recording 😉

How did you come to play the recorder?

Coincidence! A friend of mine wanted to have lessons when we were about 6 years old, but didn’t want to go alone. He stopped after a year or so, but I liked it so much I continued with the lessons.

What has been a recent career highlight?

Apart from premiering all the CMF commissions in various solo recitals across England and Germany, I’ve just been on tour with The English Concert to play the recorder obbligato in Händel’s Rinaldo in Seville, Madrid, London and New York!
(Review of the New York performance)

What are you looking forward to in the coming season?

Lots of exciting projects and concerts coming up this summer, including solo recitals presenting my new album, collaborations with La Serenissima, a new contemporary music project with LSO Soundhub and the YCAT finals at Wigmore Hall in May.

This recording and launch will be the culmination of your bespoke project with CMF, has CMF been useful to you?

I couldn’t have done this project without CMF! Firstly it is down to their persistence that we ended up commissioning 13 new pieces (despite my initial hesitations with regards to the right number of new works 🙂 With our combined efforts, we managed to get a stunning array of emerging as well as well established composers on board. The luxury for me was that I only had to think about the musical, playing and creative side of the project as CMF took care of all the administrative and financial aspects, and have continued this invaluable support throughout the project and the CD recording. This project has really helped me create a unique project and define who I am and what I do as a professional musician – and that’s all thanks to the CMF Artist Programme!

If so, what have been the best bits about working with CMF?

They have been super reliable in their support, always patient no matter how small or big the issues were, and most of all focussed on me as an individual musician and the overall aim of creating something personal that would help me achieve the next steps in my career.


Interview with Nico Muhly: “Write for your friends and behave well”

In a few weeks’ time, chamber music will crash against the concrete walls of the Collingwood Underground Carpark. Wedged inside a program of Schumann and Brahms, American composer Nico Muhly’s piece So Many Things will be performed by singer Lotte Betts-Dean and the Penny Quartet as part of this month’s Play On series.

Nico’s musical career has spanned continent and collaboration. The New York-based artist has received commissions from The Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall among others, and has worked on the scores for films such as The Reader and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. He studied at the Juilliard School and has conducted and edited for Philip Glass himself. His style ranges from American minimalism to the Anglican choral tradition. And we will hear this variety of style and experience in his music this March 23 – but first, we take a few minutes to introduce you to this composer.

Hi Nico! So – Play On. Tell us everything. How do you feel about having your work presented as part of this concert series?

I’m excited! One of the most exciting things for a composer is to write a piece and then see it have ‘legs’, which is to say, have people you don’t actually know well play your music. I’ve met Lotte Betts-Dean for about two seconds a few years ago. One of the things that thrills me about her singing my music is the combination of her devotion to contemporary music, but also the context of this program, which is Brahms and Barber and Schumann. I like when my music sits alongside older music.

Talk us through your piece So Many Things that’s going to be performed at Play On. What’s it all about conceptually, and what can audiences expect musically?

So Many Things is a special project for me; it sandwiches a beautiful, narrative poem by Joyce Carol Oates between two poems by CP Cavafy, in Daniel Mendelsohn’s delicious translations. The resonance between the three poems is, to me, quite moving. It begins rather kinetically and mechanically (it was originally commissioned for American pianist Manny Ax, so I had to give him something to do…!) and then dissolves into abstraction. The Joyce Carol Oates poem, which depicts a woman walking through a plate glass window, is urgent and spikey, and that texture gives way into a drone texture, with very slow-moving harmonies, and ends with the line: ‘…and you’ve been wholly remade into feeling for me’, a glorious apostrophe.

You’ve written for a crazy range of styles, from Anglican choral to American minimalism right through to opera, film, and stage. Amazing. Why have you chosen a path filled with diversity and versatility, rather than carving your own ‘niche’ in a particular style? 

I like doing a lot of different things, but would be, I think, perfectly happy to write just choral music for a year or work on a ballet or opera for a year. If I have a niche, I think it would be to not have one; this week, I am making an arrangement of a folk song for an Icelandic string quartet, editing my most recent opera, starting sketching out a bassoon concerto, and writing a piece of electronic music over which my friend in London is going to sing.

I’ve always thought that working in a variety of ways and context is as helpful as learning how to cook anywhere. If you can make a great meal with one knife and a hot plate, you can make a great one in a huge industrial kitchen, or over a few coals. Writing chamber music teaches you a lot of the skills you need to deploy when writing a film score, which happens in a fraction of the time with an exponential amount more energy and stress. But, in turn, a film score teaches you how to collaborate with a choreographer or rock band.

What advice would you give to young composers today who are looking to start their careers in any area?

There are two:

1) Write for your friends, and

2) Behave well.

The only reason I am doing even remotely well is because I spent the entire time I was in conservatory writing for my friends; a practice that continued through grad school, in the scary few years after, and to this very day. It’s almost never going to be the case that an orchestra is going to call you up at the age of 21 and be like, ‘Write us a symphony!’. In my case, it was writing for my friends — violists, pianists — who would then program my music on their recitals. So instead of being next to other contemporary music in an unintentional competition, the music was contextualised next to Stamitz, Hindemith, Bach…

Your friends can also teach you so much about the intricacies of their instruments, which then translates, down the road, into more confident and secure instrumental writing in any context, from orchestral to an arrangement of a folk song. So, even if your friend plays some weird historical instrument, or the organ, or the bassoon, get in there, and learn everything you can.

The second thing (behave well) is equally important — you need to not sh*t-talk other composers, you need to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, you need to act right in rehearsals, you need to learn when to make a comment or let the musicians find their own way to a solution. You need to figure out how detailed you want your scores to be, knowing that most musicians’ first impression of you is going to be on the first page of the part sitting on their music stand. Let your parts reflect as much work on your part as the thousands of hours of practice that got the violinist into that rehearsal room. I cannot tell you how many younger composers I see getting this wrong — expecting musicians to be mind-readers and acting a fool when things don’t go a certain way right from the start!

See Nico’s music performed by the Penny Quartet at Play On. Also featured on the program is singer Lotte Betts-Dean, and Pjenné in a second set. Gig takes place at 8pm March 23 in the Collingwood Underground Carpark. Be sure to pick up a copy of CutCommon’s inaugural print mag while you’re there: this concert is an event featured in our national Roving Launch.


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