United Kingdom Composer and Conductor, Jacques Cohen in Conversation with Robert Beattie
Jacques Cohen is known equally as a conductor and a composer. He has worked with a number of distinguished orchestras and ensembles and he is the Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Isis Ensemble. He has won a number of awards for his conducting, including the August Manns Conducting Prize and the Constant and Kit Lambert Award, and has conducted a vast range of repertoire from Monteverdi to the present day. He has written a wide variety of compositions, including operas, orchestral and choral works, songs and chamber works and transcriptions of pieces by other composers. He will be conducting the Isis Ensemble in two of his works at a concert in the South Bank’s Purcell Room on 31 March: Love Journeys, which is a song cycle based on the poems of James Joyce, and a transcription of Brahms’ First Clarinet Sonata. I asked him about his background, activities as a conductor and composer, forthcoming concerts, compositions he is currently working on and future recordings.
Robert Beattie Can you tell us a little bit about your background and musical education?
Jacques Cohen I studied Music at Oxford University and then I got a conducting scholarship to the Royal College of Music (RCM). I also won a scholarship to study composition with Tony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) but RCM agreed to pay all my fees and maintenance costs which is why I opted for conducting rather than composition at that point. Composition was more of a back room activity while I was at the RCM but it gave me an opportunity to hone my craft. I have been happier with the standard of my compositions over the last 10 years and I have also gained more confidence and proficiency during this time.
RB You have composed a wide variety of works including operas, orchestral and choral works, songs, chamber pieces and transcriptions of works by other composers. Which of your works are you most proud of and why?
JC You want every new piece to be the best you’ve ever written and more original than the last as it represents the development and distillation of your own thoughts and ideas. I was particularly proud of Yigdal which I composed in 2006 which is a Fantasia on Traditional Jewish Themes for String Orchestra. I am also very proud of Love Journeys, which we are performing for the first time on 31 March at the Purcell Room at the South Bank – it is a work for soprano and string orchestra. A lot of my works are in one movement and there is a narrative and dramatic arch through the movement – Yigdal is in that format. Love Journeys is different as it consists of seven short movements – six of the movements are settings of poems in the collection, Chamber Music by James Joyce. Chamber Music consists of 36 poems which describe the progress of a love affair: it starts by describing the initial joy of falling in love and the early bloom of love but it goes on to describe the transience of these feelings and the heartache of being left. The first three poems in Love Journeys are taken from the early part of the collection and describe the joys of love. There is an interlude for strings which describes the passing of time and the last 3 poems are taken from the later part of the collection and deal with the more fraught elements of the love affair.
RB How do you decide which instrumental combinations to write for and what draws you to particular material?
JC It depends on what it is that you, as a composer, are trying to convey. With Love Journeys the decision was very easy as the opening poem in Joyce’s collection refers to strings and a string orchestra provides a nice cushion of sound for the voice. Strings have enormous flexibility and you can draw on their vast range of capabilities in ways which do not drown out the singer. There is an enormous variety of textures in Love Journeys and some of the intimacy that you find in chamber music but there are also some massive sounds – something like the effects I wanted to achieve when I was orchestrating Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev. I remember seeing a production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress which used wonderful sets by David Hockney and everything in the opera – words, music, lighting, sets – all seemed to fit perfectly together. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is an amazing piece as the composer seemed to find just the right combination of instruments and a unique sound that fitted the text. You always strive to achieve that unique sound. With Yigdal I wanted to write an expressive piece and string orchestra seemed the right medium.
RB Which of the great composers do you most admire and by whom have you been most influenced?
JC I particularly admire Stravinsky – like many people, I love the early ballet scores but I most admire the late serial works. I always think composers work well when they are not quite in their comfort zone. The Symphony of Psalms for example provided a challenge to the composer in terms of setting religious texts with all their intensity and sincerity. He managed to achieve an entirely unique solution – I don’t think there is any other work quite like this. I also love some of Stravinsky’s late serial works like the Aldous Huxley Variations and the Requiem Canticles. I also love Mozart’s music – I admire his craftsmanship and technique and the way he is able to integrate musical structure so seamlessly into his scores in such innovative ways, as in the last movement of the Jupiter Symphony. I want my music to move people rather than for them to see it as some abstract intellectual exercise and both Stravinsky and Mozart were able to do this while at the same time having a superb grasp of harmony, form and structure. I also enjoy listening to composers whose music is not like mine, like Bach or Birtwistle. I remember listening to a performance of Birtwistle’s Down by the Greenwood Side – the piece does not seem to have any harmonic logic but somehow it manages to pack a punch. Bach’s music is almost superhuman in a way – he has a superlative grasp of all the technical aspects of music but there is something lofty and Olympian about his music.
RB I find Stravinsky and Mozart very similar in many ways. You have composed an opera The Lady of Satis House and have another one, Magic Potions, in the pipeline. Can you tell us about your operas and the themes you are exploring?
JC The Lady of Satis House is based on the character of Mrs Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Virtually all of the libretto is based on Dickens’ original words. I have written the second of my operas, Magic Potions, in short score and we did a workshop on it at the Tête-à-Tête Festival. It’s partly a spoof, but like all spoofs about things we really love, it is also a homage. The main character enlists the help of a lover and grandmother to help kill off an uncle with three magic potions but none of them have the desired effect. I’m hoping to write it out in full score in 2016.
RB What compositions are you working on at the moment and when can we expect to hear them?
JC I’m working on a big choral work which deals with the subject of the Exodus and am also writing a work for the Piatti Quartet. The inspiration for the quartet was four Stradivarius instruments which are all in glass cases in the Royal Palace in Madrid. The piece uses a Spanish folk melody but all the instruments are playing in different keys – representing the separation by the glass – and they all come together in the end. The Fitzwilliam Quartet are also premiering a work of mine on 3 April at St Mary’s Church in Walthamstow which is based on the Bach Chorale Nun danket alle Gott. It reflects the struggle of life but retains an optimistic outlook – I often find Beethoven’s music is like that.
RB The last movement of his penultimate piano sonata is something I particularly associate with that feeling. You are the Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Isis Ensemble. Can you tell us a little bit about how the Isis Ensemble was formed and your ongoing work with them?
JC The Isis Ensemble was formed in 2005 and we are fortunate in that a lot of the musicians are eminent chamber musicians and soloists. Robin Ireland, for example, is a violist in the Ensemble and he worked with the Lindsay Quartet for many years. The Ensemble was formed from a group of top ranking players all working on a freelance basis who came together to make the best music they could and to champion new works. It started off as a string orchestra but over the years it has expanded to a full orchestra.
RB As well as your own new work, the Ensemble is playing a work by Panufnik at the South Bank concert on 31 March – can you tell us about the piece?
JC The piece is called Modlitwa and the outer movements were written by Andrzej Panufnik and the middle movement by his daughter, Roxanna. The piece features in the Music for Strings CD which I recorded with the Isis Ensemble in 2007. The work is to celebrate the centenary of Panufnik’s birth – I think his music is increasingly being played and appreciated by a wider international audience so it is just the right time for this piece. The concert will have a very romantic flavour: as well as Love Journeys, the Ensemble are playing my transcription of Brahms’ F minor Clarinet Sonata as well as works by Sibelius and Dvorak.
RB What do you think are the most important ingredients when you compose a new piece of music? I sometimes listen to contemporary Classical works which use, for example, atonal or serial techniques and I find them very uninvolving. When Schoenberg shattered the traditional tonal system, I often think he was reacting to things like the anti-Semitism that he saw around him. However, a lot of his pieces are beautifully scored and evoke wonderfully imaginative effects and colours and they use classical forms. Pierrot Lunaire, for example, is a work which I find very disturbing and compelling.
JC Music is instinctive and it needs to be about conveying feelings – it is important for the audience to come away from a concert feeling something rather than viewing a new work as objectively interesting. I find Pierrot Lunaire works much better if the Sprechstimme is not sung at the precise pitch as it can mask some of the beautiful instrumental harmonies. It was a work I found difficult but I had to conduct it and came to understand it much better and you are right – it is disturbing.
RB How much of your time do you spend on conducting and how much on composing?
JC I spend about 50% of my time conducting and 50% composing – I tend to work for blocks of time focusing on one or the other.
RB You have made a number of recordings for Meridian including a critically acclaimed Music for Strings CD (review). What made this recording so successful and what recording plans do you have for the future?
JC The Music for Strings CD consisted of a series of short tracks, all which were world premiere recordings, including the work I have already mentioned by the Panufniks and a work by Malcolm Arnold. I think the fact that the tracks were relatively short and the music so diverse made the CD successful. Meridian is an excellent company to work with and Richard Hughes, their sound engineer, achieves excellent sound quality. I plan to record some of my transcriptions with them including Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Brahms’ First Clarinet Sonata and Rachmaninov’s C sharp minor Prelude, which I’ve transposed to D minor.
RB That’s the same key as his Third Piano Concerto so it’s a good choice! We’ll look forward to that disc appearing in due course. Jacques Cohen, thank you very much.