Young saxophonist Jess Gillam has premiered John Harle's new 22-minute saxophone concerto, Briggflatts, to a standing ovation on London's Southbank.
It was the centrepiece of a concert given in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 May by the BBC Concert Orchestra and Bramwell Tovey. Harle wrote the concerto especially for Gillam and it's a marvellous vehicle for her outstanding talents. The concert was later broadcast on BBC Radio 3 (and made available to listen again on catch-up until 21 June - starts at 32:15).
The title is that of an epic poem by Basil Bunting (1900-1985), itself named after a Quaker meeting house near Sedbergh in Gillam's native Cumbria. There are three movements: 'Flares'; 'Garsdale' and 'Rant!'. The latter, dance-inspired movement (infused with Cumbrian folk-tunes) also features on Gillam's debut album from Decca 'Rise', which shot immediately to the top of the UK classical charts on release in April 2019.
Harle writes of the piece:
Briggflatts is the title of an epic autobiographical poem by Basil Bunting (1900-1985) and is the inspiration for this work for Jess Gillam. The title comes from the name of the Brigflatts Quaker meeting house near Sedbergh in Cumbria, which Bunting attended regularly.
Bunting believed that the essential element of poetry is the sound, and that if the sound is right, the listener will hear, enjoy and be moved, and that there may be no need for further explanation.
“Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound – long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of the vowels, the relations of consonants to one another which are like instrumental colour in music. Poetry lies dead on the page until some voice brings it to life, just as music on the stave, is no more than instructions to the player. A skilled musician can imagine the sound, more or less, and a skilled reader can try to hear, mentally, what his eyes see in print: but nothing will satisfy either of them till his ears hear it as real sound in the air. Poetry must be read aloud.”
(Basil Bunting. 1966. 'The Poets Point of View’.)
Bunting had to wait over 30 years before he was properly recognised in Britain – in 1966, with the publication of 'Briggflatts', which Cyril Connolly called ‘the finest long poem to have been published in England since T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets’. 'Briggflatts' was first read at The Morden Tower, Newcastle, in 1965, in a poetry group organised by Tom and Connie Pickard. It was famous for attracting modernist poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Basil Bunting.
Above all, the effect of 'Briggflatts' is accessibility and vocal colour, and on re-reading the poem I was attracted to the idea of a ‘suite’ for Jess Gillam as it allows for independent movements to parallel the episodic, disparate and seasonal sections of the poetry.
I wrote 'Flare' and 'Garsdale' after long sessions of piano improvisation in direct response to the poetry, whereas 'Rant!' was written as a fantasy on Cumbrian folk music directly.
(The trumpet tune that introduces the final section is ‘The Ulverston Volunteers’ – Jess herself is from Ulverston.)
I owe a debt of gratitude to Ed Heslam for his compilation of Cumbrian folk music, 'Music of Cumberland and Westmorland', without which much Cumbrian music would be lost.
Above all, my hope is that Briggflatts as music is as accessible and colourful as the poetry, and like the poem, can be appreciated on first listening.
From Basil Bunting’s 'Briggflatts':
‘Great strings next the post of the harp
clang, the horn has majesty
flutes flicker in the draft and flare.’
‘In Garsdale, dawn:’
Briggflatts is, of course, dedicated to Jess Gillam - the young virtuoso saxophonist with huge energy, a soaring sound, and an unforgettable presence, and Briggflatts takes its inspiration from Cumbria, her own part of England.
© John Harle, 2019