Andrew Downes' Sixth Symphony defies lockdown



by Christopher Morley
(for 26.11.20)

Andrew Downes' Sixth Symphony was due to receive its premiere from the Central England Camerata at Hagley Hall last month, but Covid-19 restrictions led to the event's abandonment. Did the composer see this as a setback in his 70th birthday year?

Emphatically not, as Andrew explains, looking forward to an official launch of the symphony at a 'watch party' on Facebook at 3pm on Sunday November 29.

" We saw the cancellation of the 6th Symphony as an opportunity rather than a disappointment. The proposed performance at Hagley Hall would have played to quite a limited audience due to the small capacity of the venue, whereas the virtual premiere on the 29th November could hopefully reach many times that number.

"It also gave us the opportunity to have the new symphony recorded in an ideal acoustic (with suitable social distancing) at Huntingdon Hall in Worcester, and at the end edited to produce a fine result. We were also able to ask our New York Film Academy trained daughter, Paula, to produce a film to accompany the music."

Andrew, former Head of Composition at what is now Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and an accomplished countertenor, has lived through various medical problems, not least a disastrous accident which led to his being hospitalised at Stoke Mandeville Spinal Unit for many months, leaving him severely immobile. Yet his concern remains with others who are in difficulty.

"During this dreadful pandemic, our performing colleagues have lost virtually all their work, and many of them are either living in poverty or forced to seek employment which doesn't further their musical careers. With the compensation from my back injury, I have been able to offer employment via this recording to professional musicians, to the mutual benefit of us all."

Throughout Andrew's career he has been hugely supported not only by his wife Cynthia, but also by their daughters Anna and Paula, both highly successful musicians in their own right.

" I have always been aware of the exceptional quality of his music," says Anna.

"As a child I would wake up on weekend mornings to the sounds of Dad composing and I would know, even at a very young age, that it was profoundly exciting and good. Then to hear it come together in concert was thrilling. Undoubtedly we are a strong family and support each other - I am very aware of how lucky we are to have that. So mainly for me it is understanding the value of the music, but also enhanced by the strong family bonds."

Paula is quite emphatic. "For me it isn't family feeling. If the music wasn't good I wouldn't want to promote it. The music isn't good though, it is truly great and it deserves to be heard far and wide. I feel it is my responsibility to get this out there. I can't help it!"

Anna describes how she set up the Central England Ensemble in 2001.

"I wanted to promote the music of Midlands composers - obviously that stems from being Andrew's daughter and wanting to promote his music but additionally I was very aware of the large numbers of talented young composers he had nurtured during his time as Head of Composition and Creative Studies who were just starting out and who needed performances of their music.

"As a performer, the other aim was to stage large scale symphonic works at a high standard in the same concerts as the Midlands works. Over the years the core membership has developed and cemented and is very loyal. Our conductor Anthony Bradbury and I, and many other people, always say that there is something truly unique about CEE, and I do feel a lot of that is because we are performing the music of Midlands composers and that gives it vitality and originality - it makes us stand apart from other amateur orchestras and that is exciting to be part of

"Central England Camerata is a different beast as it is a professional chamber orchestra. During my 20s and 30s I gradually built up my professional freelance work as a violinist, so wanted to run my own group. I set this up in 2013 and we accompany choral societies and promote our own concerts such as 'Come and Sing Messiah' I never have any problems recruiting because the players are all paid! They are a superb bunch of freelancers who I have worked with in many different orchestras. During lockdown, Paula and I decided this was an ideal opportunity to record as much of Dad's music as possible as musicians were readily available! For most of us it has been the only paid work since March which meant recording this great sixth symphony was extra special. All of my players love playing Dad's music because he orchestrates so well."

Anthony Bradbury, conductor of both the Central England Ensemble and Central England Camerata (and previously of the Midland Youth Orchestra and Birmingham Festival Choral Society), tells me of the disappointment when the projected premiere of Andrew Downes' Sixth Symphony had to be cancelled.

"It was indeed hugely frustrating, but a feeling replicated by many musicians around the world this year, of course. It was certainly going to be a special occasion to perform the premiere of the Sixth Symphony at Hagley Hall.

"However, I'm just so grateful to the Downes family's perseverance that a 'Plan B' was created i.e. a socially distanced audio recording session with an online release. Whilst a virtual presentation of a new work is not quite the same as a live performance would have been, it does have the happy legacy of a recording 'in the can' which I am sure will be helpful in securing further performances of the work in the future.

"This was the first conducting gig I had done in over 8 months - and my first-ever under 'socially distanced protocols' - but I think we all adapted well to the unusual circumstances of having to be spaced 2 metres apart, with perspex screens in place to further reduce the risk of any infection spreading.

"To be honest, I was just thrilled to be making live music again with my fellow musicians after such a long period of enforced abstinence!"

Anthony then goes on to describe his enthusiasm about Downes' music.

"There is a directness to Andrew's music (it wears its heart on its sleeve), and a transparency to the scoring which is surprisingly challenging to bring off. I'm always fascinated by its rhythmic structure too - his trademark is a consistent underlying pulse that becomes ever more complex in its sub-divisions and bar lengths which keep players and audiences alike on their toes. And I also warm to Andrew's ethos - like Britten, he's a passionate believer in amateur music-making and the importance of broad participation."

*The Watch Party launching Andrew Downes' Sixth Symphony, "Nature Fights Back", inspired by various features of the local landscape, is on FaceBook on November 29, 3pm. Also available on YouTube and on Donations to Stoke Mandeville Spinal Research.

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