On 13 February 2024 Rakhi Singh and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra give the Nordic premiere of Oliver Leith’s will o wisp (2022) at the University of Oslo. Singh and Manchester Collective premiered the work in December 2022 as part of their Places We Know tour; it was co-commissioned by Manchester Collective and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and funded by the British Council’s International Collaboration Grants.

The 19-minute piece for string ensemble is cast in four movements - ‘boom push fairy spook’; ‘rot spook’; ‘magic’; ‘knot face’. It bears several hallmarks of Leith’s style: gradual and slight alterations in pitch and harmony, using finely-calibrated microtones; monolithic figures that sit atop more gentle textures; slow repeating gestures whose meaning transforms over time. Lower strings imitate alpine horns, and in the final movement a solo violin dances freely over the rest of the ensemble.

Hugh Morris writes of will o wisp

Sitting in lockdown, thinking about people and socialising, Oliver Leith concluded that in this part of the world, “we’re all fermented souls”…One folkloric idea that probably comes from people stumbling home from the pub is the will-o’-the-wisp, a phantom light over the moorlands that offers passing hope to observers.

Leith’s work is equally fleeting, built on murmuring, swelling gestures that come in and out of focus, but which never definitively arrive at either state. It’s an approach to composing that leans into ideas around folkloric mythmaking; yet when it reaches its closest folky moment – a patchwork jig in the third movement – that idea is quickly buried under various versions of itself. Leith’s abstract score is like sand through a clasped fist: grasp it with it too much force and it runs away, but let it just sit there, and you might feel its presence more deeply.

February 2024 also sees the US premiere of Leith’s acclaimed debut chamber opera Last Days from the LA Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall – tickets available here. The production, co-directed by Anna Morrissey and librettist Matt Copson, will be conducted by Thomas Adès, who is also joined by longstanding Leith collaborators the GBSR Duo. It also showcases costumes by Balenciaga, which featured in Vogue last year. Actor Agathe Rousselle reprises the non-singing role of Blake, whose self-destructive spiral is at the centre of the 90-minute opera, based on Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film. An instrumental version of the aria Leith composed for Caroline Polachek played in the opera will receive its first performance from 12 Ensemble at Wigmore Hall on 16 September.

In February in the UK Leith will also be subject of a focus at Kings Place. On 15 February Ruisi Quartet perform The big house and A different ‘Fantasie from Suite no.5 in G minor’. On 28 February EXAUDI present Thrilly Marvel Chants, a specially curated programme from Leith, featuring a new work for unaccompanied mixed voices. On 6 April Thomas Adès conducts a new orchestral work by Leith commissioned by the Hallé at Bridgewater Hall.