For several years I've been having a "what can we do about it?" discussion with oboist Melinda Maxwell who (among her many fascinating creative activities) tutors the NYO's oboe section. Our thoughts centred round NYO Inspire, a training programme for young players nominated by their music hubs for an intense few days of extra tuition and workshops, some of it led by NYO members themselves.
Our questions concerned repertoire for the Inspire woodwind days; it appeared that no-one had ever written any orchestral-scale music for woodwinds only, excluding brass entirely. Just before the first lockdown in February 2020, I visited the Inspire 'woodwind camp' in Liverpool and heard the amazingly pungent sound of 80 flutes-oboes-clarinets-bassoons. They were playing some good classical music, in ingenious arrangements, but nothing had actually been designed for them. An obvious answer to the question began to loom - I needed to write a Big Woodwind piece.
Fast forwarding through the following two Covid years, when I had no excuse but to get on with this brilliant idea, I turned up this weekend with a finished score (titled "Fresh Air") to the NYO's course in Newcastle, where the orchestra were preparing for a tour culminating in a Proms appearance. Programmes Director Craig West had kindly contrived to lure the orchestra's entire woodwind section into a studio, where we were able to have an expert-level playthrough, under conductor Naviena Selvajarah, before taking the piece to an Inspire course next year.
Having slogged somewhat through the actual writing of this score (for which I now think periodic low spirits during the pandemic were to blame) I was taken aback, in a good way, by the lucidity of the overall sound - which is obvious really, as they're mostly high instruments which we use for their very brightness in the orchestra. An extra thrill was the audibility of the bassoon section, something that's so often an orchestral worry. But the six-part bassoons provided a richly reliable basis to everything, somehow pinning all those higher instruments together into one place. It was a very exciting experience for me to hear this familiar ensemble sounding completely different. This unusual project confirms my feeling that as composers we rarely get these chances to approach the orchestra from genuinely new angles.
Pictured - I know, it's Gateshead. Our NYO course took place in Northumbria University.