New music

Simon Holt The Yellow Wallpaper | Plus November’s premieres across the UK

The text which inspired Simon Holt’s The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s turn-of-the-century, proto-feminist short story of the same title – has been with the composer since he was a student at the Royal Northern College of Music more than thirty years ago.

It has followed him through his entire working life, as he told CM in an interview at the time of this work’s original planned performance, ‘and the closer I got to it, the more I thought: “I really have to do something about this”. It was an itch which wouldn’t go away. Since then it was just a question of getting round to it really, and finding the right place to do it.’

Simon Holt Photo: Andrzej Urbaniak

Simon Holt
Photo: Andrzej Urbaniak

Unfortunately that first performance itself, originally scheduled for April 2012, has also had to wait: the original soloist, Lisa Milne, was forced to pull out of the performance, ‘unable to perform a work of this duration due to illness’. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has rescheduled and Elizabeth Atherton will be the soloist on 29 October.

The opportunity to act on the short story’s inspiration had finally come for Holt as he was looking for a piece to complete his three-year term as the BBC NOW’s composer-in-association. Having previously envisaged an opera, he decided to take the opportunity to write a 30-minute piece for orchestra, soprano soloist and three-soprano, three-alto chorus. Holt engaged poet and librettist David Harsent (librettist for Birtwistle’s Gawain and The Minotaur) to adapt the original for a new libretto.

‘It follows the story,’ says Holt, ‘that a woman and her husband have taken this ancestral home for her to get over her “nervous disposition” with a rest cure. Gilman herself was put on the rest cure, and she wrote this story to tell the world that this really was not the way to deal with creative people. In the room she’s in there’s this wallpaper, and she starts to see a person behind its hideous, unknowable pattern. It’s a projection of her psyche – her innermost woman trying to escape her situation – and she tears all the wallpaper off in an attempt to allow her to escape; but of course she’s not there. So there’s that very dogged collapse into madness through the half hour.’

Holt has employed ‘about 40 players’, cutting out the violas and cellos from the string section, using single winds, and adding three percussionists. The six female voices are dotted about in the strings and are ‘part of the wallpaper’. ‘They reflect the woman, and become what she’s thinking.’

Why this particular orchestration? ‘Especially in concerto pieces I seem to have to lose something. The orchestra has to fit with the drama – it’s not a mask that a composer wears – and then it kind of writes itself once I’ve got the instrumentation. It has to feel like it’s bursting out of its box.’

‘I’m fascinated by people fighting their impossible situations – they might find themselves in a corner but they fight their way out – and the idea of the hero striving for things.’

Departing the BBC NOW, Holt described the orchestra as ‘hugely underrated’ and said the appointment had been ‘absolutely fantastic’ for his development. ‘I now have an orchestral catalogue where I didn’t have one before – or at least just scraps. I have written five pieces for them and now have twelve orchestral pieces.’


The fourth New Music North West festival, the largest yet organised by the Royal Northern College of Music with the University of Manchester, runs for a week from 26 October to 2 November in Manchester, billed as ‘the UK’s largest festival of new British music’. More than 30 concerts will see premieres by David Curington, Emma Wilde, Helen Seddon-Grey, David Horne, Ian Stephens, Stephen Pratt, Anthony Gilbert and Benjamin Gait among programmes including recent works by featured composer Edwin Roxburgh and others including Philip Grange, Joe Duddell, Gordon Crosse, Edward Gregson, Andy Scott, Adam Gorb, John Casken and Larry Goves.

There will also be concerts showcasing works by composition students at the University of Manchester (2 November) and Chetham’s School of Music (31 October); composers David Horne, Aaron Parker, Tom Rose and Ian Vine will perform their own new works with Larry Goves’ House of Bedlam ensemble (30 October); and the RNCM’s Sound Histories project, which featured more than 60 world premieres by RNCM students at the British Museum in London in July, will get a Manchester outing (28, 30, 31 October & 1 November). Performers at the festival include the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena, Psappha, Ensemble 10/10, RNCM New Ensemble, Manchester University’s new music ensemble Vaganza and Trio Atem. Full details online.

Alec Roth Photo: Helen Smith

Alec Roth: 12 October premiere
Photo: Helen Smith

Leeds Lieder Festival has commissioned two works as part of its commitment ’to keeping the art-song repertoire fresh’: Alec Roth’s Four Garden Poems sets poems by the American poet Amy Lowell (12 October), and Judith Bingham’s My Heart Laid Bare sets texts from Baudelaire’s Journaux intimes (13 October).

David Owen Norris has set the final sermon of novelist and cleric Laurence Sterne as part of celebrations for the Tristram Shandy writer’s 300th anniversary. The sermon’s final line, ‘Sterne, was the man’, provides the work’s title. Actor David Bradley will play the speaking part of Sterne, with period instrument accompaniment and a choir made up of 40 local schoolchildren. ‘Sterne’s epitaph says it all,’ says Owen Norris. ‘Sound head, warm heart, and breast humane. Add to that his astonishing mind, and the fact that the man could really write, and you have something irresistible. What a privilege to set to music these brilliant phrases, pertinent and polished as a diamond.’

On 31 October, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series profiles French composer Christophe Bertrand with the UK premieres of his works Virya for four musicians, Madrigal for soprano and ensemble and Yet for 20 musicians. Bertrand won multiple prizes and commissions on the continent before his death at the age of 29 in 2010, described by the Philharmonia as ‘one of the greatest compositional talents of our time … a precocious master of timbre, texture and rhythm’. Alejo Pérez conducts with soprano Elizabet Calleo and presenter Unsuk Chin, in a free concert because of the Meyer Foundation’s support of the Music of Today series.


The critics were distinctly underwhelmed by two world premieres at the end of August. Tod Machover’s Festival City, given on 27 August at the Edinburgh Festival by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Peter Oundjian, was the ‘weak link’ of the concert for Richard Morrison of the Times: ‘Machover never really decides whether to depict a dark, moody metropolis … or to create a recorded collage of typical Edinburgh sounds, bagpipes and all. So he tries to do both. The orchestra is deftly and busily used, but the format doesn’t convince.’

‘It’s cleverly put together and it’s gimmicky,’ wrote Kate Molleson of the Guardian. ‘Is this the future of composition? I hope not.’

‘Not all the [Proms] premieres have set my heart on fire,’ said Ivan Hewett of the Telegraph, suggesting that Charlotte Seither’s Language of Leaving (28 August, BBC Singers and the BBCSO under Joseph Pons) ‘sounded as if the Clangers had been locked up with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and were hooting plaintively to be let out – as well they might, since the orchestra’s music was so deadly dull.’

For George Hall of the Guardian, ‘curiously, the purely instrumental aspects of the work, notably a flamboyant use of percussion instruments, especially swanee whistles and flexatones, made a more obvious impact than the subtle vocal colourings threaded through it.’

There was a better reception for Anna Clyne’s Last Night of the Proms opener on 7 September, Masquerade, ‘an appealingly exuberant curtain-raiser,’ said Martin Kettle in the Guardian. It ‘had a cinematic brio’ according to the Telegraph’s Ivan Hewett, and was ‘a giddy, mosaic-like swirl round an English country-dance,’ said the Times’ Richard Morrison.

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