Interview | Composer and Pianist Huw Watkins

Interview | Composer and Pianist Huw Watkins

Composer and pianist Huw Watkins was born in Blackwood in 1976. His breakthrough came at the young age of twenty-two, when his Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments was premièred to wide acclaim by the Nash Ensemble. Since then he has risen to become one of the most well-regarded musicians of his generation in the UK.

Huw spoke with Steph Power ahead of the second performance of his Violin Concerto by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with soloist Alina Ibragimova, for whom the work was commissioned by the BBC Proms in 2010.
The concert takes place tonight, 28 June, at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7.30pm.


SP: You established a firm relationship with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales very early in your career; after they performed your Sinfonietta in 2000 they commissioned a Piano Concerto and you yourself played the solo part in the première with them in 2002. Did you find that working with BBC NOW at such an early stage helped you to find your orchestral voice, as it were, as a composer?

HW: Yes I was very lucky to have the chance to work with an orchestra early – and regularly too. I’ve written a few pieces for BBC NOW and they’ve performed other pieces of mine. It’s very difficult for composers to get opportunities to have professional orchestras play their music so I’ve certainly appreciated that over the years.

More recently your Concertino was performed by BBC NOW – with Chloë Hanslip as soloist.

Yes, she did a fantastic job – that was fun! And I grew up listening to BBC NOW. My first experience, I suppose, of proper orchestral concerts was at St David’s Hall with them in the eighties. And I think they’ve just got better and better, particularly recently!

Yes they have for sure – which bodes extremely well for your Violin Concerto I think! Who were your earliest compositional models? I gather you were taught by Robin Holloway and Alexander Goehr, and then by Julian Anderson. But what music were you really drawn to early on?

Well, I think Britten actually. Benjamin Britten was a huge influence throughout my teens and I love all the early twentieth century masters like Bartók, Stravinsky, Ravel, Shostakovich – all those people. Then, when I went to university, I immersed myself in more radical contemporary voices. Sandy Goehr in particular was an interesting figure to study with because he’s incredibly well connected and is just one of those very rare composers who’s good at talking about music! It’s not something that composers tend to be all that good at!

Yes – and he’s very steeped in what we’ve known as the Second Viennese School [Goehr’s father was the conductor and Schoenberg pupil Walter Goehr].

Definitely steeped in that. I mean, his father knew Schoenberg – not to mention Messiaen, Boulez and so on. So there were lots of connections from him and stories – he’s a very good story-teller as well.

HUW WATKINS - 02 / 2005 Credit: Hanya Chlala
Huw Watkins. Credit: Hanya Chlala

You’ve written a lot of pieces for solo instrument plus ensemble of various sizes – as well as a lot of chamber music and so on – and seem to favour fairly traditional, classically-based forms. Do you have a compositional model in mind regarding the writing of concertos in particular?

Well no, not really. Lots of composers have written violin concertos recently I think – partly because there are so many brilliant enterprising violinists around who want to commission them. I suppose mine is like a classical piece in that it’s in three movements but beyond that, the actual material I hope is new and fresh and original. Of course, because I’m a performer as well, I’m very aware of classical models and I find it inspiring to take things as a starting point but I wouldn’t want to think of myself as a sort of ‘neo-classical’ composer.

That can be a real catch-all phrase can’t it?

Yes, it can mean all sorts of things – usually slightly disparaging ones!

Yes that too, even when applied to past figures like Stravinsky.

Exactly, yes!

So would you say that your concerto writing is most informed by your own performing? – because obviously you’re a virtuoso solo pianist and accompanist in your own right. Do you see yourself as following any tradition as a composer-pianist?

Yes, it’s a tradition that’s sort of gone away a little bit but there are still people who are – Thomas Adés is the example that leaps to mind; but yes, I can’t imagine any other way of working. I can’t imagine why I would be a composer if I wasn’t a pianist and why I’d be a pianist if I wasn’t a composer. I think the two are very closely linked for me. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing concertos actually – I like the unashamedly virtuosic aspect of it. I like pitting one soloist against a huge orchestra and find all of that really inspiring. Especially when you’ve got somebody like Alina you know who’s a brilliant, brilliant player – so captivating.

She’s an incredibly fiery and intense player!

Exactly, yes she is. She’s wonderful – intelligent and accurate as well.

Could you say a bit about the Violin Concerto itself? How did it come about?

Well, I’d written a solo piece for Alina, the Partita; an unaccompanied piece when she was a BBC New Generation Artist [2005-7]. We got on well and had done concerts together – I’d been playing for her as an accompanist. So I think she just really wanted to make a concerto happen! I’m not sure who exactly made the decision but, well, the Proms then commissioned it and I said ‘yes’ very quickly!

What sort of thing might an audience look out for when listening? Are there any particular aspects – or landmarks so to speak – that they might listen for?

Oh it’s difficult to give somebody a guide – but focus on the violin, she leads it. Well, it’s a ‘proper’ concerto in the sense that occasionally the violin drives the music and occasionally the orchestra sort of eggs her on or interrupts. So listen to the relationship between the violinist and the orchestra, which is very dramatic and even aggressive – and then sometimes quite lyrical.

So you have a dynamic relationship with the play of contrasts and opposites happening throughout the piece?

Exactly, there’s a lot of that – particularly in the last movement. There’s a lot of shifting rhythms and sudden changes of character. It’s quite intense, but there are other moments throughout where it relaxes – and I quite like not ending things as you’d expect. The first movement ends actually in a quite still, suspended way. Also – the whole piece – even though it works up to a huge virtuosic climax – fades away in a rather sort of sad, wistful manner. I quite enjoy doing that; pulling the rug from under your feet!

And so there are beautiful, lyrical moments which come throughout the piece and not just where you’d ‘expect’ to find them, in the middle movement for instance?

Well, thank you, yes, that’s a quality of the violin that I definitely didn’t want to neglect. It’s difficult for a composer to write a tune these days without it sounding hackneyed! – but I did also want to write lyrical, lovely-sounding stuff. Well I’ve done my best!

Your brother Paul happens to be a virtuoso cellist and I believe your father played the viola as well?

Yes, exactly!

So you’re steeped in strings really – and as an accompanist too.

Yes I love working with string players and I love the string-piano chamber music. That’s where I’m happiest I think, as a player, with that repertoire – actually rather than with solo piano music.

Would you say that’s helped to give you a special feeling or empathy in writing for stringed instruments?

I hope so, I’ve always been around string players. I did try to learn violin myself once, not very successfully! I don’t really remember how the violin works from the inside, but sometimes that can be a bit of a handicap actually – knowing too much about the instrument – as it can lead to not taking risks. I like to trust that, in the end, a player will be able to play what I write; whereas, if you knew that much more about the instrument itself, you’d be more ‘careful’. Alina can play anything really, so she loves being challenged and stretched and I wanted to try to write something that she’d have to work at!

How do you embark upon writing a piece? Does your initial inspiration tend to be purely musical, or do you rather get ideas from extra-musical sources or perhaps colleagues or family and friends?

It can be all sorts of things. It’s usually purely abstract; a musical idea. I usually spend time improvising and experimenting at the piano just jotting down everything until the ideas I like come to the surface. Occasionally there might be something extra-musical that might inspire me – but those things might be private and I don’t tell anybody about them. But they do sometimes happen.

What would you say is your main area of compositional interest – or areas perhaps? Do you find yourself thinking structurally, say?

I think about harmony a lot, and choosing the right notes. Again the word ‘acceptable’ is such a loaded term – and I certainly don’t mean ‘safe’ – but I want to write something that people can respond to without feeling they need PhDs or years of study. And I also want to write something new that excites me, so I think the challenge is finding something that does both really. And it’s down to harmony; basically, I think that’s the most important element for me.

Do you start with motivic cells and go from there, how does it work?

I don’t know, I feel like I’m in the dark half the time! I don’t have a real system – I wish I did because it would be easier! It’s mainly instinct and taste I suppose, and there are a few little things that one does, obviously, as a composer, that are ‘tricks’. But I certainly don’t have a system or a method like a lot of composers have – not with my recent music.

It sounds as if communication with an audience is very important to you.

It’s really important. And I’m aware that, on the one hand you’ll always get somebody in the audience who thinks it’s just horrendously modern and, on the other hand, you have your critics  and other composers who think the opposite – that it’s too old-fashioned. So you can’t communicate with everybody but, yes, communication is absolutely important for me. I’d hate for nobody to understand what I was on about.

This month you’ve had another big performance, in addition to the Violin Concerto with BBC NOW; the première of the Little Symphony with the Orchestra of the Swan – which, I believe is for string orchestra?

Yes that’s right. I’m composer-in-residence for them for a couple of years from 2012-14. They’re a lovely, enterprising chamber orchestra based in Stratford-upon-Avon. This is the first big piece I’ve written for them – although it’s called Little Symphony! – it’s a quarter of an hour in length. Yes, it’s been very exciting.

Do you have any plans to write a full-scale symphony? It strikes me that you’re a sort of symphonist in waiting in some respects – but you might disagree?

Well, I don’t know if I would call something ‘symphony’ but certainly, there is something in the pipeline, for me to write a big orchestral piece in the next couple of years. I can’t say too much more about it probably – but fingers crossed it’s all going to be confirmed! That will be a fun challenge! In the meantime there’s another concerto – a flute concerto actually – for the London Symphony Orchestra and their Principle Flautist Adam Walker, who’s an amazing young player in his early twenties. And actually Daniel Harding, a friend of mine, is going to be conducting it so that’s the next big project which I’m looking forward to enormously.

In tonight’s performance of the Violin Concerto, the piece will be performed alongside Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Actually, at the Proms première it was paired with Shostakovich’s 5th – which might be significant if you were the sort of composer who was obsessed with number symbolism!

Yes – it’s got to be paired with a 5th symphony! No, seriously, but it will be lovely to have Mahler 5 alongside it. That’s a great piece and I’m very happy whatever it’s paired with, but it’s nice for the Concerto to be alongside such a masterpiece, if a little bit intimidating!

Are there any plans to record the Violin Concerto?

Yes, there is a plan. I don’t know whether you know about the NMC label?

I do, yes. Your disc was one of the first in the series of twelve that they’re producing of British composers.

That’s it, yes, and they’re hoping to record the Concerto some time. At least – they’ve got a really interesting idea around those new violin concertos I was talking about; there’s a Harrison Birtwistle concerto and one by Colin Matthews that they’re thinking of perhaps coupling mine with – so that will be exciting and I hope that project comes off! And before that, I’m really looking forward to hearing the concerto here in Cardiff.

Best of luck Huw and thanks for talking with me.


Header photo: credit Hanya Chlala