Tuesday, 9 June 2015
Composer Series - Alissa Firsova
The World Premiere of our new commission, Tetra, has now been and gone (28 May, 2015) but we still have many performances of it scheduled over the remainder of the year. It has been a fascinating piece to learn and rehearse, as each movement is so varied. We have also now had the privilege of working on it with each of the composers which has added a new dynamic to the music and really enhanced our understanding of how best to perform it.
Our next interview in the composer series is with one of Tetra's four composers: Alissa Firsova. Alissa is multi-talented, excelling as a pianist and conductor in addition to her abilities as a composer. Described as a 'rising star' by The Observer and a 'formidable talent' by The Times, her music has been heard everywhere from the Proms to the Verbier Festival.
As the daughter of two eminent composers, you must have grown up thinking it totally natural to write music. However, which came to you first: performing or writing?
I started composing as soon as I began to take piano lessons at the age of 6 in Dartington. Before I knew how to notate, I would sing and sometimes play at the same time and my father would write the music down for me. After a while I began to notate my own piano pieces and wrote my first slightly larger piano piece at the age of 8, called “Singing of the Birds”. Interestingly, I just incorporated it into my orchestral piece for this summer’s Proms in my piece, Bergen’s Bonfire. I remember playing this piano piece to my parents’ composition teacher, Edison Denisov, And he said to me jokingly, “Do you want to become a composer? You can’t be better than your father but you can be better than your mother easily.” He was teasing my parents of course and luckily there never has been any rivalry between them. But I actually wanted to do something alternative to my parents, so my main aim was to become a pianist. It wasn’t until I entered the Purcell School that I was offered 2nd study composition lessons and soon after, at the age of 14, won the BBC/Guardian/Proms competition with my piano piece, Les Pavots. As a result, I immediately received several commissions and from then on decided to become a composer as well.
You are a pianist and conductor as well as a composer. Do you have a favourite discipline? Also, do you find that they always complement each other, or are there times where you have to restrain one part of your training in order to let another part flourish?
I find the variety of composing, playing and conducting so fulfilling and all three definitely compliment each other. For me it was always very important to be able to create the source of a feeling through my own music as well as embody and express the music of my beloved composers. I could not do one without the other and conducting is something which arose out of this performing/creating duality - marrying it together. Some of my favourite concert experiences were when I would direct a concerto from the piano, conduct and write a piece for the concert as well. Studying conducting helped my piano playing a lot, not only in structural, physical and breathing ways, but also it helped me to think of sound from a much more orchestral perspective and to be more independent and decisive in my interpretations of works. Ideally, when writing music, I would like to concentrate purely on that and take time out, a bit like Mahler used to do, going to his composing huts in the summertime. But often I have to balance my time between playing and composing simultaneously, which can be quite difficult. At the moment, most of my time is taken up with composition and piano concerts, but this summer I will get to conduct my double cello concerto with the Concertgebouw Camerata - of course I have to write the piece first!
Your movement of Tetra is inspired by Frida Kahlo. What was it that drew you to this particular historical figure and how did you incorporate her into the music?
In the past, I have found it fascinating to write music inspired by art and literature. When I saw Frida Kahlo’s name on the list, I immediately was drawn to it and looked up her paintings. The Tree of Hope struck me greatly - the painting is divided into two, there are two Frida’s: one is lying on a hospital bed in deep pain on the Sun side of the painting - as a symbol of the Aztec blood sacrifice to feed the Sun. The other is in a beautiful, traditional red dress sitting on the edge of the bed on the Moon side - a symbol of strength. This painting is a perfect representation of Frida’s life - a constant struggle and agony, yet always belief and hope for the future. The title was also appealing to me, as most of my music has a positive nature and I was very taken by the polar Sun and Moon depiction as I had just written my orchestral piece, Bergen’s Bonfire, inspired by an apocalyptic dream I had, where I could see the Moon and Sun in one landscape, before the Sun exploded.
Tetra uses the opening theme from Henriette Renié’s solo harp work, Légende as a motif to link all the four movements together. How did you incorporate this into your composition?
I decided not to take a direct approach in terms of quoting the theme, but rather a reflective one. In the second half of my piece, which depicts the hopeful side, there is a “Tree of Hope” theme, which is like a response to the Legende motif only in a major key. The Legende theme already has some Spanish influences in its feel, so I developed this in the Tree of Hope theme, which is passed around the 4 harps to create a “branch-like” effect.
Your movement of Tetra utilises a lot of different ‘effects’ including the Bartok pizz and thunder effect. What was it that drew you to the more contemporary harp techniques?
This was my first time writing for harp other than as an orchestral instrument. I wanted to really explore the instrument as much as possible and it was amazing to discover how many effects the harp is able to create and how much it has developed recently. I was particularly drawn to the “Xylo” effect, so it will be interesting to hear how this comes out. The “Thunder” effect was very appropriate for the “car crash” opening depicting Frida’s unfortunate fate. Already with one harp, the “thunder’ effect can be very thrilling, so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to see what happens with 4 Harps!
What other commissions have you got on the horizon? On a similar note, which piece do you feel most proud of in your composing career?
Following the premieres of my double cello concerto in festivals in France and Italy and my orchestral piece at the Proms this summer, I will be on to my next commissions: a string quartet for the Tippett Quartet for Kings Place, a piano duet for the Francoise-Green piano duo for their St. John’s Smith Square series and a voice and piano work for a concert in Istanbul. It’s difficult to name a work that I feel most proud of, but I really enjoyed writing and conducting my Serenade for Strings with the English Chamber Orchestra and I was fortunate that my Stabat Mater for The Sixteen reached the “Top 10 Contemporary Works by Women Composers” recently, although I do have another unperformed Stabat Mater, which I would love to hear. I also enjoying writing my cello and piano Fantasy for Tim Hugh which we have performed several times already. It will also be performed during my Composer Portrait at the Proms on 27th August and Tim Hugh and I will play it again in the Roman River Festival on 17th Sept. I still really dream to write my first opera!
As a woman conductor, you are still quite a rare breed in what has always traditionally been a man’s world. How do you approach this and do you find the orchestra responds to you differently?
When I first started studying on the Royal Academy of Music postgraduate conducting course with Colin Metters in 2009, I was the only female conductor out of 6 students. The following year the ratio was 2 women to 6 men and in my final year the unthinkable happened - there were more women than men - 4:3! This was definitely a historical moment in the RAM’s history. I think people will always have their preconceptions, but times are really changing and it’s very encouraging to see more and more women rocking the podium. I have seen many wonderful women conductors and yes, orchestras always respond differently to everyone, but I do not see why there should be a gender barrier.
What (if any) musical styles or composers have shaped your own compositions? Do you find listening to a new piece of music can spark new ideas for your own compositions?
The biggest musical love for me has been Mahler - I find everything in his music: passion, pain, beauty, loss, hope, stuggle, triumph and this most beautiful bittersweet quality. I also really love Strauss and think these 2 composers have been the biggest influences on me lately, as well as Szymanowski. I go to concerts and the opera all the time and this inspires me a great deal, although recently I went to Dobbiaco, to see where Mahler wrote his last symphonies and to see the beauty of the nature where composers wrote their works can be an even stronger impression. Listening to Mahler’s music while looking at the landscape that inspired it was a life-changing experience.
Your brother is an artist. Have the two of you ever collaborated on a piece of art, and if so, do the traditional sibling rivalries ever surface?!
We have been involved in many projects as a family, which really brings us closer together. The first project arose at the Cheltenham Festival, when my parents and I were each commissioned a piece of music, and my brother painted paintings to go with each piece. For the Dartington Festival, my parents and I wrote a Family Concerto for piano and ensemble to celebrate Shostakovich: we each wrote a movement and I also performed it, while my brother painted several paintings to go with it. Another collective project was based on the Kubla Khan poem, where my brother painted a triptych to go with different movements of our piece for voice, violin, cello and accordion. We also wrote the Divine Comedy for the Dante Quartet, my father wrote, Hell, my mother wrote Purgatory and I wrote Paradise. My brother is now working on some large illustrations which will be displayed during a performance of the Divine Comedy Quartet in Torino in November by the Xenia Ensemble. We love these family projects and would be interested to do more in the future!
What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
A recording of the complete Mahler symphonies, a piano and a pool table.