Hill Orchestra: A Celebration of Female Composers

talks to Hill Orchestra Conductor Samuel Read, President Alice Speed and composer Ceren Ayyıldız about the inspiration and work behind their upcoming concert.

By Matthew Prudham

Hill Orchestra is the only university-wide Orchestra that is unauditioned; its identity is based on inclusivity and community in musicmaking. So, their concert wholly based on little known or new compositions by female composers – both professional and student – struck a chord. It is indicative of the ensemble’s determination to show itself as different, as a place where musicmaking is valued in its true sense: the creation and enjoyment of music.

“We received diverse scores from composers all over the place, and the orchestra are really enjoying rehearsing them.”

I asked Samuel Read, this year’s conductor for Hill Orchestra, about the inspiration behind the theme: “I was thinking of themes and what Durham lacks in terms of concerts whilst doing my application for conductor last year – having a concert of music by female composers struck me as a theme that was needed at Durham”. Alice Speed, Hill Orchestra President, noted that this idea made Samuel stand out – especially since she really wanted to have a themed concert in second term. The music itself is varied: “sometimes a lot more modernist, others more early Romantic”, while student compositions form the core of the programme. The call for scores was published at the end of November, and the response was a“amazing”. Samuel notes that the orchestra “received diverse scores from composers all over the place, and the orchestra are really enjoying rehearsing them”.

Ceren Ayyıldız is one of the student composers whose work, Moonlight Minuet, will feature. Inspired by the work of Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen, specifically the former’s Clair de Lune and the latter’s Trois Mélodies pour Chant et Piano, Ceren first wrote the work for soprano solo and piano accompaniment during her Foundation degree. She adapted the work for orchestra in response to the call for scores, and added more experimental rhythms for the percussion and more exotic flair in the melodies.

Ceren is excited to show that female composers do exist and prosper ”.

For Ceren, a Music finalist, it will be touching to hear her first student composition, which focuses on her love affair with writing music, played by the Hill Orchestra: “composing and creating is like magic, but when it comes to the full realisation of the the soundscape, it’ll be something else”. The work, indeed, might sound somewhat different to how she imagined; and this is exhilarating.  She also advises the audience to listen attentively. “The piece is called a minuet because of its 2/4 metre and other characteristics throughout the piece, but it is questionable whether it is actually a minuet. This will toy with your expectations”.

Ceren Ayyıldız’s Moonlight Minuet will receive its public premiere on Sunday. Photo: Juliane Deil.

Ceren’s composition, alongside Megan Cunnington’s Fire and Hester James’ The Ascent, will be premiered by the orchestra. Samuel agrees that there is some onus on us to do the pieces justice as much as we can and give the world the first impression of these composers”. But, the orchestra have been working closely with the composers in the weeks building up to the concert. Samuel notes that “we are fairly comfortable in our interpretations of the music. The ensemble knows that they play how the composers want”. Indeed, the refreshing and different challenge from playing works by well-known composers has actually contributed to the ensemble’s morale. Alice stressed that “being able to see what Durham students are so capable of is so insightful for the orchestra. It’s helped them become more committed, returning week in, week out.”

The same effect has been felt from the other repertoire, Doreen Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite and Ina Boyle’s Symphony No.1. Samuel recalled that lengthy research was required in planning the concert. Yet, “a large part of the motivation for doing this concert was that the pieces were unknown, lost in time”, he stated. Ina Boyle was mostly active in Early 20th Century Ireland. Her career, however, was greatly impacted by World War Two. She had travelled to London for lessons under Ralph Vaughan Williams. But, these were cut short after the outbreak of conflict. Samuel notes that the concert will be “most likely the first performance of the new typeset edition of the Symphony from 2016 by the Contemporary Music Centre in Ireland”. His excitement is visible.

Samuel confesses that he himself was guilty of not knowing Carwithen or Boyle little more than five months ago.

Doreen Carwithen, meanwhile, studied at the Royal Academy of Music as a film composer; though Carwithen became more well-known than Boyle since she lived in London, again her music has been lost in time. Samuel also noted that there’s only one record of the Suffolk Suite that exists. It’s very exciting to perform pieces that have not been performed all that much. We are informing people about composers most likely unknown by them previously .” Indeed, Samuel confesses that he was guilty of this negligence little more than five months ago.

The Hill Orchestra’s poster itself highlights the combination of student premieres and musical revivals, as Carwithen’s and Boyle’s portraits sit behind a typical Durham riverside scene. Image: Isabelle Lanzrein.

The concert itself is an attractive, different, proposition to most. All three are confident that most of the audience will leave having heard something they have not before. Samuel recommended people to “come expecting something different and to broaden your musical horizons”. Alice seconded this sentiment. She added that you’ll find it exhilarating to find out that female composers deserve so much more recognition.” The concert will also raise funds for CoppaFeel.

For Ceren, this is the first time her work will be exhibited publicly. She is excited, evident from her determined smile, to show that “female composers do exist and prosper”. There’s a feeling between all three that this concert will make a difference. The orchestra will give the world the first taste of three great student composers and increase awareness for female composers. Further, they are rescuing from neglect two delightful but contrasting works by Boyle and Carwithen. This shouldn’t be a one-off, but rather a foundation stone for other student ensembles to follow in their stead.

The Hill Orchestra’s concert, A Celebration of Female Composers”, will be performed on Sunday, 15th March at St. Oswald’s Church at 8pm. Tickets can be purchased from https://www.musicdurham.org/event/hill-orchestra-concert-3/. More information can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/191236768784632/. Photo: Peter Liu.

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