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The Heart of Night: an interview with Anna Clyne and Greg Batsleer

12 Dec 2022

News Story

After an enforced absence of two years, it's a delight to be able to say the SCO Chorus Christmas Concert is firmly back in the diary. To celebrate, former SCO Associate Composer Anna Clyne (whose The Heart of Night gives the 2022 concerts their title) and SCO Chorus Director Gregory Batsleer kindly agreed to a short interview.

For the benefit of anyone who has yet to attend one, what is the idea behind the SCO Chorus Christmas Concert?

Greg: The SCO Christmas Concert is intended to be an opportunity for audiences to escape the usual Christmas hubbub, come into the wonderfully peaceful Greyfriars Kirk and hear the sublime SCO Chorus sing. Christmas is one of the most wonderful celebrations in the year and full of great music. In starting our Christmas Concerts we wanted to try an offer a different kind of Christmas programme, one which had a more reflective spirit at its core.

Lockdown caused the premiere of The Heart of Night to be postponed from Christmas 2021 to June this year. Bliss Carman’s poem may not be specific to any time of year, but has the change of season – from Christmas to the height of summer (and back again) – changed your perspective on the piece?

Anna: I am delighted that The Heart of Night will be performed this Christmas with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's choir under the direction of Gregory Batsleer. The text for the piece, The Heart of Nightby Bliss Carman, was suggested to me by Judith Colman, the SCO's Concerts Director. I completed the work in June 2020, and looking at the score now, more than two years later, it takes me back to the time of composing the piece, in the height of lockdown. I am grateful that the SCO contributed this commission to my composing schedule during what was a challenging time for all.

Greg: The time of year, the temperature outside, the sounds of the streets, the moods we are in all can have an impact in how we appreciate a piece of music. What is so wonderful about music is that there really are never two identical experiences of the same piece, and hearing this work in the days just before Christmas will no doubt frame it in a very special way.

Greg, could you tell us about Bax’s Mater ora filium? It appears to be very little known, but has quickly become a firm favourite of the Chorus’.

Greg: I first met this piece as a teenager when I sang it in the Rodolfus Choir and I have been longing to finding a setting to perform it again ever since. It is a totally unique piece of choral writing and the array of colour and textures Bax is able to find is utterly amazing. The SCO Chorus has really taken to this piece and I have no doubt our audiences will too.

You've been SCO Chorus Director for 12 years now. Are there any works you long to perform with them?

Greg: One of the great pleasures of working with this amazing Chorus is their fearless approach and open spirit to new music. We have performed a number of fantastic works over the last 12 (!) years. Looking into the future it’s hard to name a specific work that I’d like us to perform, though I am keen to for us to continue to embrace contemporary music and premiere new work by brilliant composers such as Anna. Beyond that I do think the choir would sing Monteverdi Vespers pretty well ...

Anna, what are your abiding memories of your time as SCO Associate Composer?

Anna: I have many wonderful memories with the SCO. The three highlights were working with Pekka Kuusisto and the SCO for the world premiere of Sound and Fury back in November 2019 (pre-pandemic); working with three talented emerging composers, Georgina MacDonell Finlalyson and Electra Perivolaris and Gillian Walker, as part of the SCO's New Stories program from 2020-2022 (during pandemic); and working with Gregory Batsleer, Andrew Manze, the SCO and the SCO Chorus for the world premiere of The Years in May 2022 (post-pandemic). I am also delighted that I had a chance to catch the SCO at the start of their US tour this past autumn in Amherst, Massachusetts where they performed Stride, a SCO-commissioned work for string orchestra. My residency with the SCO was an opportunity to reconnect with Edinburgh where I was a music student at Edinburgh University.

What have you been working on since?

Anna: I am currently working on a new violin concerto, Time and Tides, for Pekka Kuusisto. Following that I will be writing a piano concerto, a concerto for orchestra, a new work for the Swingle Singers and orchestra and next stop - an opera that explores the blazing art and the dark mystery of American poet, Emily Dickinson.

Are there any of your works you look back on and wish they got a bit more attention?

Anna: I would love for The Years, an SCO-commissioned work, to get some more future performances.

Finally, what are your plans for the festive season?

Anna: I live in New Paltz, which is in the Hudson Valley in New York State - 90 miles north of New York City. I have been living in the US for twenty years now, so Thanksgiving has become an important part of the festive season. Myself, my husband Jody, and our pup Penny, were joined by friends and family for a feast and hearty celebration.

Greg: Being with my family, being quiet and switching off. I can’t wait!

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