One of the most satisfying aspects of managing the CBSO Youth Orchestra has been commissioning and premiering new music. Contemporary music is a vital part of the training of 21st century orchestral players, and over the ten years since we launched the Youth Orchestra in 2004, we’ve been lucky to work with some of the most exciting of the rising generation of British composers. Tansy Davies’ Streamlines (2007), Luke Bedford’s Più Mosso (2009), Ben Foskett’s Leckey (2011) and Charlotte Bray’s Black Rainbow (February this year) are all striking, colourful and powerfully original – and have been thoroughly enjoyed by our young players.
Obviously we wanted to commission something special for the Orchestra’s 10th birthday in November 2014 – so when an old friend of the CBSO, Mark-Anthony Turnage, let us know that he was planning an orchestral work to commemorate the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, we jumped at the chance. It’s a co-commission with the Brugge Concertgebouw in Belgium and the Orange County Youth Symphony in the USA; we agreed that the CBSO Youth Orchestra would give its UK premiere. When we learned that he’d called it Passchendaele – after the savage battle on the Belgian section of the Western Front in the autumn of 1917 – we knew to expect to expect something personal and deeply-felt; after all, Turnage has already addressed the Great War unforgettably in his BCMG commission The Torn Fields and his opera The Silver Tassie.
Four days into rehearsals, it’s already made a powerful impact on us. I’m not giving too much away to say that it begins with a lamenting solo trombone and fades to silence with a quiet horn call. In between, in just 10 minutes, it moves through hope, pain and sorrow: there are distant trumpets, haunted string melodies, and great jagged eruptions of feeling. I keep being reminded of a sort of modern answer to Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, written with the benefit of a century of painful hindsight. Passchendaele is raw, lyrical and poetic without a trace of sentimentality: in other words, exactly what we’d hoped for from Turnage. It’ll fit perfectly before Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge and Holst’s The Planets at its UK premiere on Sunday: new music with a timeless appeal.
Ivan Hewett in The Telegraph, ‘Can Composers ever effectively commemorate WWI‘