Armistice Day Concert

Iffley Church

By Giles Woodforde

Viola players are the butt of jokes, but composers seem to have it in for horn players: it is they who often get the tricky solos, with nowhere to hide if a wrong note should accidentally emerge. So do you have to be a born risk-taker to be a horn player? A question for Nicholas Korth, principal horn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

"They say you've got to be brave or stupid to play the horn! A fight or flight mechanism kicks in. There's a good analogy with police dogs: a noise is made to scare the animals. They're all scared, but it's the puppies who go towards the sound to investigate that they choose. The ones that run off are no good. Playing the horn is a bit like that - it can be very frightening at times, but you go towards the danger."

Nicholas is also a composer, and his latest work Harmoniae Naturales lll: Shadows is to be premiered in Oxford - at Iffley Music Society's Armistice Day concert in the parish church on November 11.

Nicholas Korth

"It's tremendously exciting to have this opportunity" Nicholas told me. "Besides the BBC, I also work in a group called the London Conchord Ensemble, which has
performed a few of my pieces. I met the wonderful tenor James Gilchrist through the group, and I was fortunate enough to write a piece for him and Emily Pailthorpe, our oboist, using poetry by Ivor Gurney. It's an absolute joy to have artists of such quality and imagination taking your music further".

Shadows, Nicholas explained, aims to reveal a sound world that listeners don't necessarily hear every day of the week on Radio 3 or Classic FM.

"I've been fascinated by the world of natural harmony for about 15 years: for instance, if a cello plays a low note, our ears think that we hear just that note. But it is made up of several notes, or harmonics. Then I learned about overtone singing, where a singer sings a bottom note, and is able to simultaneously produce the harmonics, or overtones, of that note.

"In Shadows I'm using overtone singing to build up a thick texture of sound. I'm pre-recording a lot of the singing because of cost issues, and we'll be using amplification to move the sound round the church. As a result, hopefully, the audience will become more and more aware of the overtones, which are used to portray contrasting positive and negative moods: it's a coincidence that the premiere is on Armistice Day, but it certainly fits. In the middle of the piece, James Gilchrist sings a setting of Wendell Berry's The Springs, which describes the transformative power of the earth to heal the mind's wounds".

The Iffley concert also includes Benjamin Britten's Canticle lll, and American composer George Crumb's Voice of the Whale - this involves performers in masks and special lighting effects. But as Nicholas's premiere approaches, will he feel nervous?

"As an orchestral player I'm used to turning up and playing what's put in front of me. But with this there is a lot more to think about; the biggest thing is to get the mix right between the recorded music and the live performance".