When the Marsyas Trio contacted me a year or more ago, an interesting chapter in my life reopened. They had uncovered Several Concertos, for flute cello and piano, and were planning to play it at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. It was a very long time since I’d thought about this work which I finished writing in early December 1980. I know it was then because I can remember taking the manuscript pages to the main photcopying shop in the middle of Glasgow, and passing an Evening Times seller who was calling out “ John Lennon Shot!”
What happened then to the piece is interesting to me, because I think it’s the story of much new music from that period, when we didn’t have the internet and digital recording to assist us. The trio had been commissioned by the fabled Lontano ensemble, who premiered it in Scotland and then played it fairly often. It amazes me to recall that the super-difficult piano part was played by Lontano’s founder, Odaline de la Martinez, whom we know now as a conductor, the first woman ever to conduct at the Proms. Other groups played it from time to time, and I can remember in particular some very good performances by Dinosaur Annex in Boston. Lontano recorded the piece at the BBC (such recordings happened much more often than now) and I’m sure I have that on a cassette somewhere in my loft. A crucial asset was that the work was ‘engraved’ (as we said in those days) and published by Novello, making it still for sale today, and therefore much more physically available than the majority of early 80s music is now.
Being a sort of jeu d’esprit about late 1970s complexity crashing into the concerto manners of the traditional concert hall, Several Concertos demands virtuosity and a lot of close rehearsal. As time went on, performances understandably tailed off; not entirely, but enough to make the piece an early curiosity. All this changed recently however with the intervention of the Marsyas players. They are amongst the elite of new music performers, and following a sucessful concert in Glamorgan, were invited to record their repertory for NMC. I spent a very detailed rehearsal with them at RHUL this week; it was unique in my experience to return to long ago music with such forensic enquiry. But I was also able, with so many years intervening, to hear the music as an outsider, an experience I’d genuinely compare to time travelling. Composers may be amongst the few who regularly undertake this sci-fi-seeming activity. Pictured are Marsyas performers Valerie Welbanks, Zubin Kanga and Helen Vidovitch. Val’s music on iPad, being marked up with Apple Pencil, would also have belonged to the realm of sci-fi in 1980.