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Sally Beamish: Composer, Violist, and Mistress of Multitasking

One of Musikdorf Ernen’s artists this season is the highly sought-after and equally personable British composer and violist, Sally Beamish.

A Londoner by birth, she didn’t particularly want to move North to Scotland when her Glaswegian husband Robert Irvine, a fine cellist, suggested it. But the unsettling 1989 theft of her concert viola, the birth of their first child, and the fact that she was getting a few composing commissions, all came together at once to spur the decision. And while motherhood precluded a touring schedule in her family’s early years, it meant her composing came more into the foreground.

Fast forward, she has joined a core of people in Ernen who come here every year, both seasoned professionals and young musicians keen to gain experience and learn from the older players. Sally’s viola today is an instrument her daughter, a trained violinmaker, made with the idea of selling to pay for college tuition. Ultimately, Sally bought it to “keep it in the family,” and her daughter heard her playing it for the first time when the Kammermuisk Plus* configuration played Sally’s “Hill Stanzas” here in the Ernen church.

Interacting with the players over her own compositions is exciting, but Sally says she doesn’t have to be out there and lead operations. She prefers to stand back when fine musicians are playing, encouraging them to decide how to interpret the score. In “Hill Stanzas”, for example, she marveled at what pianist Alasdair Beatson brought to the piece, and how concertmaster Daniel Bard absolutely “assimilated it, the sparks almost flying between them.”

In the red-gingham-decorated “Wallieserstube” of the village’s “Hotel Alpenblick,” Sally took time out from a busy rehearsal schedule to tell me more about her music, her return to the viola, and the special place that musicians hold as she composes.

How did you first come to music?
My mother, a violinist, taught me to read music when I was 4, and from an early age, I used the skills she gave me to create my own music. She took me, at about 8, backstage at Sadler’s Wells, where I bumped into the great Peter Pears in full costume. Benjamin Britten’s sea music impressed me then, and I wanted to write sea music, too. My mother taught me the violin starting when I was about 9, which didn’t always go well, and my technique deteriorated when I gave up the lessons with her. I continued to play anyway, and actually, it was her mother, my creative, maternal grandmother – always baking, dressmaking, gardening – who passed on the urge “to make things,” probably influencing the composer in me most.

Were there other musicians in the family?
Yes, my paternal grandmother was a pianist and singer who, sadly, hadn’t been allowed to do either professionally; She and I often played piano duets together, though, and she helped shape my piano skills, sight reading, and understanding of chamber music. So I got lots from both sides, really.

When did the viola come in?
I discovered it at about 15, when I was in the school orchestra. Peter Morgan, our wonderfully encouraging Head of Music, told me this: “If you play the viola, Sally, you’re going to get to play with better people.” Since there weren’t any other viola players there, I got to practice and play with some very gifted older girls, and soon realized that with the viola, I could get into the music from the middle of things. Later, I was accepted into the National Youth Orchestra as a “general musician” – just as Judith Weir and Simon Rattle were – but less for my viola audition, I was told, than the fact that I could play piano, and had been composing.

Farther down the road, the great Peter Maxwell Davies was your mentor.
Indeed, and he also became a dear friend. For Max’s 80th, in fact, I wrote a set of variations on his well-known “Farewell to Stromness,” so heavily disguised, I thought, that nobody would recognize it. The tune itself, of course, comes in at the end like a kind of a joke, and everyone laughed at that at the party. But Max told me later that he had heard it in the very first bar.

How would like your music to be described in the future?
It doesn’t much matter, because I think what I want to do with it is simply communicate. I love hearing the different ways people play and describe my work. That’s part of the thrill of this wonderful alchemy in the triad among composer, musician and audience. As a writer, you don’t need performers, unless you’re a playwright. As a visual artist, you just put up your work so people can see it. But we composers have this wonderful extra process of the input of musicians, and that’s highly important to me, being a performer myself. As his assistant, I also learned from Max how vital it is to put a kind of a “map” on the pages of the score that signal to the performer what you are trying to say.

Why is that so important?
Because the map that we give our musicians is all they have to go on when we’re not there.  What does a tempo mark at the top of a score really give the performer? Nothing really. But if you put at the beginning, “Andante, gently,” or offer “feeling” words as well as tempo indications, they know where you’re coming from as soon as they start to play. During rehearsals for “Hill Stanzas”, for example, one or the other might say, “I feel it wants a crescendo there. Is it missing in the score?” And I’d take that idea if they were right, and mark it in my score. I’m going to make a final edition, namely, following this performance.

Have such additions been made before?
Yes, because the concerto was written for the Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam, who, having already performed it with four different orchestras, was hugely influential in what has gone into the score since. You don’t really want to publish a piece before you’ve heard it played; the musicians bring all sorts of ideas, and you think, “Oh, I’ll put that in,” or “I want that always to happen.” That was certainly the case with his input, too.

With all your many commitments, do you ever get a chance to relax?
Difficult, especially now that I’ve got two parallel careers, composing and playing, and have of course, to practice every day. But this return to playing has been like a gift; it’s been fantastic. At the Ryedale Festival, I played a quintet of mine, and then the Mozart G-minor quintet. In the Trondheim Festival in September, I’m the featured composer, and will also be playing quite lot of my own pieces. What’s more, my Judas Passion with the orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is coming up in September in London.

How to you explore that in your music?
The work approaches the story through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, the voice of “Why can he not be forgiven?” Theologically, Judas is the only character who never is forgiven, and David Harsent’s libretto draws brilliantly on all the various theories for why. One is that Judas was disappointed with Jesus’s not being the fiery leader he wanted to follow, so by delivering him to the authorities, he gave Jesus the platform to prove himself. Judas was, of course, essentially “called” to do what he did; betrayal was in the prophecy. So somebody had to do it, and my thought is that Judas just drew the shortest straw.

Ernen, Monday, 7 August 2017, by Sarah Batschelet