Composer Iain Farrington on his First Night of the Proms commission for virtual orchestra

The British composer and arranger has been commissioned to write a 'mash-up' of Beethoven's nine symphonies for this year's Proms, most of which will be taking place online

Iain Farrington

Iain Farrington will be playing a major role at this year’s BBC Proms, having written a ‘mash-up’ of Beethoven’s nine symphonies for the First Night. It will be performed and recorded remotely by the five BBC orchestras and choirs, who will come together as the ‘BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra’. Farrington is also a pianist and organist.

 

‘It’s been impossible to predict when and how live music will be possible again. When it became clear that the BBC Proms couldn’t happen in the normal way this year, I was commissioned to write a piece to be performed remotely.

I took Beethoven’s music and put it in a musical washing machine to see how the colours would run. What’s come out is a collage of fragments that sum up his music: heroic, witty, defiant, turbulent, tragic and reflective.

I had to consider the logistics and difficulties of recording remotely, because the 350 players have to record separately and yet somehow still stay in time. The scale of the ensemble was a real advantage, though, as I could use ten solo bassoons or 20 horns, which is a lot more than you find in a usual symphony orchestra.

Inevitably, I think some of the sadness of the present time has found its way into the piece as well, which feels unavoidable. Being an arranger of so many different types of music has definitely influenced my own style. Although I write within classical structures, my music often has a jazz influence in terms of harmony and rhythms, and also takes in gospel, funk and blues. I’ve always seen music as a glorious melting pot, blurring boundaries and reflecting life’s varied experiences.

As a performer, I often programme my own pieces, whether they’re solos or with ensembles. You’re able to learn from the inside what works for the performers and the audience, and how to keep scores clear and playable while also being detailed and alive. I’m always aware of the time pressures in rehearsals, so I think that music should come together quickly – particularly when working with non-professionals.

Listeners want to know where a piece is going. I think of them as a passenger that you’re taking on a drive – no matter how unpredictable or bumpy the journey, you can still see the road markings, so you won’t get lost.’

This interview appears in the August 2020 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

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