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A Cambridge Composer: Brass Orchestras, Inclusive Music, and World-class Musicians (Part 2)

Jay Richardson (2015) is composer in residence at the Cambridge Corn Exchange and has just had his residency extended.  He talked to Kit Smart about his experiences so far, and what comes next.

You said have you some ideas you’re looking forward to, what are those?

We have two very exciting projects lined up this year.  One will be with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) who have just appointed a new conductor.  I think their first ever female conductor and I’m probably right in saying the youngest female conductor at the head of a major orchestra in the UK.  She’s Lithuanian, her name is Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla and she will be conducting a piece in January.  It will be a piece based on a collection of folk songs from East Anglia from a project called the Full English which was run by the English Folk Dance Society. You can find a full list of partners to this project here.

They collected works, including manuscripts from Vaughan Williams and other composers, and went around in the early 20th century to the English countryside from people who weren’t professional musicians but made music anyway.  So people like folk singers, but not how we understand them today, people whose job was farmer, labourer, boot maker etc.  I will be arranging them for a chamber group from CBSO with a matching group of younger players from Cambridgeshire music.  We will also have pupils from local Cambridgeshire schools writing three of the movements and I’ll be working on the same material as them.  This is an even more inclusive project than the ones I’ve worked on this year.  It brings in an orchestra that haven’t been at the Corn Exchange since I think 2010, so we’re very glad to have them back.  It brings in local schools as we have aimed to do in the past, and it brings in some of the popular heritage of the place.

The second project is not fully developed yet, largely because it will be premiered in June 2018.  We do know that it will involve Esther Yoo who is our new artist in residence. She’s an internationally acclaimed violinist who has just released her second album for Deutsch Gramophone, she was a BBC new generation artist and has gone on to great things since then. We’re very glad she’s artist in residence.  She played brilliantly in a piece that I wrote a couple of years ago for the Corn Exchange at the start of my first year (Read about this composition here).  She’ll be playing, the Royal Philharmonic orchestra will perform it.  We’re not sure who’s going to be writing it yet fully. I will write parts of it and probably some other people who are not professional composers will work with me, but that’s a sketchy outline.

It sounds like everything you do is very inclusive and collaborative, is that part of the vision?

Yes.  More than just collaboration with whoever happens to be available, the Corn Exchange and Cambridge Live are very focused on working with people who might not otherwise have access to high quality music education.  That’s something that has become increasingly important as government funding for music and the arts has diminished. Organisations like the Corn Exchange are very perceptive and very commendable for picking up what has been dropped.

As composed in residence I’m part of the Create Programme.  It’s basically a vision; it’s partly a set of guidelines for how we should go about organising community projects and partly a set of partners like me, Cambridge lives, and a number of Cambridgeshire schools. The orchestras we work with also commit to being part of it.  That is Cambridge Live’s development and outreach programme.

It sounds very local, it sounds like what you do is a product of the people and the place. Do you enjoy that?

Yes, I love it. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by how feasible it is. Not easy or cheap; it’s expensive and doesn’t bring short—term financial rewards for the people involved.  It’s because of that it’s difficult to justify to a board of trustees or whoever is interested in the money part, but once you are committed it provides substantial long-term returns in terms of community engagement and people’s enjoyment of the project.  When a concert you’ve organised for money doesn’t go well it’s essentially failed.  When something you’ve organised to help people doesn’t go so well, yes you tend not to have got everything you wanted to get out of it, but the chances are that somebody else did, and you got part of what you wanted.  These projects have a lot of variety and the people running them have a lot of different goals.  You hit a multiplicity of birds with stones and give other people stones to hit their own birds with!  Other people share in the tools you’ve providing.  You can reach a large number of people, and that’s what makes it financially worthwhile as well.  You get a lot out for your investment.  The thing that keeps me interested is imagining 15 years down the line that the 5 year old trumpet player to whom I’ve been explaining what I want from the third trumpet part, will go the Royal College of Music and will partly do that because he realised a trumpeter can have a career, the third trumpet desk can be valued and enjoy working on the piece, and that an instrumental performer can work with a composer.  I make no apologies for saying this, it can be more fun than working on dead composers’ work.  That’s certainly the case for me.  People I know well write music that’s incredibly visceral and exciting for me because I know them well.

There are a lot of hidden benefits and the one that stands out to is that any one of those 75 brass players could have got something valuable and lasting from the project.

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