A Himalaya Concerto

What is it?

A Himalaya Concerto is a full-scale work for the concert platform. It is a three-movement concerto for clarinet in A and concert grand cimbalom, lasting just under half an hour.

I chose to use the Clarinet in A in preference to the instrument in B-flat because of its somewhat darker tone in the lower register. The delicate and brittle tones of the cimbalom are ideally suited to the musical landscape although I accept that the cost of engaging a professional cimbalom player may make orchestras think twice about performing the work.

In additional to the two solo instruments it requires an orchestra consisting of

Piccolo
Flutes (3)
Oboes (2)
Cor anglais
Bassoons (2)
Double bassoons (2)

Horns (4)
Trumpets in B flat (2)
Tenor trombones (2)
Bass trombones (2)
Tuba

Timpani
Tubular bells
Violins 1 and 2
Violas
Cellos (of which one solo)
Double basses

Listen

The following sequence of photographs and video clips gives you an insight into what was in my mind as I composed the third movement, Machapuchare. Its jittery mix of 5/4, 5/8 and implicit 5/16 rhythms convey well the brittle combination of fear and joy of life in one of the world's most stunningly majestic earthquake zones.
WARNING: Viewers may find some of the photographs taken at the time of the 2015 earthquakes distressing.

Learn

On 25th April 2015 an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck the region of Nepal to the northwest of Kathmandu. It killed nearly 9,000 people and injured nearly 22,000. Two aftershocks on 12th May were of magnitudes 7.3 and 6.3, occurring to the east of Kathmandu. At least a further 153 people were killed and 3,200 people injured. A small UK-based charity People Against Poverty was running a relief project in Nepal at the time of the earthquakes. The charity’s CEO Val Huxley suggested to me that I could write a song to help promote awareness of the humanitarian needs arising from the earthquakes. Coincidentally the clarinettist and saxophonist Idris Harries (Queensland, Australia) asked me to compose for him a new clarinet concerto. So was born the idea of a concerto to support the charity’s work in Nepal.

Looking back now, I am surprised that I did not feel more trepidation about having taken on such a major music project. Up to that point I had not written anything for the clarinet or the cimbalom, never mind a full-scale concerto. Yet I cannot recall feeling anything other than a determination to get on with the job.

It didn’t take much thinking to decide on the title because I have long been an avid reader of books on exploration and mountaineering, by writers such as Sir Chris Bonington. Mountains fascinate me. It didn’t take long either to come up with a structure for the concerto. I named each of the three movements after iconic mountains in the region affected by the earthquakes. Thus the first movement is Ama Dablam, which one passes on the approach to Everest base camp from Nepal. The second movement is Dhaulagiri, seventh highest of the world’s mountains and a real climber’s peak. It is massive and stands out very prominently from the surrounding area. The third movement is Machapuchare, whose fishtail-shaped twin peaks tower over the town of Pokhara. It is regarded by locals as the abode of Shiva.

I love the cimbalom. I’ve lost count of how many years I’ve spent working in Romania (I speak fluent Romanian) where it’s more or less ubiquitous. So for what it’s worth, this concerto is also my way of saying thanks to the people of that lovely country for enriching my musical experience.

The modality of the music is symbolic. The first two movements are written predominantly in a symmetrical octatonic mode of limited transposition, into which occasional splashes of more conventional modality intrude rather like shafts of sunlight piercing mountain cloud and mist. For the last movement the music shifts into an almost Balkan-sounding mode with a sharpened fourth and a flattened seventh, before reverting in exuberant style to the octatonic mode that opened the concerto. There’s loads more that I could say about A Himalaya Concerto but I’d like to leave the last word to three people whose judgement I trust, starting with the man for whom I wrote the work.

A major new work - stunning

I love it. I enjoyed the moodiness and swirling mist of the first movement, dark and dramatic, very cinematic; the expression of emotions in the second movement, with that sliding clarinet; and the third movement, which for me is so joyful. The music is so fresh, beautifully written and takes you straight into the heart of the Himalayas.

... Idris Harries, Clarinettist, Queensland, Australia
Fantastic work

The first movement carried reminiscences of Stravinsky and also of Prokofiev's piano concertos. The melodic theme in A was developed and carried forward to perfection; the secondary theme in C was a good contrast to this. The second movement was a nice extension of the previous material and had Mussorgsky-esque moments, particularly the interplay between clarinet and cimbalom. The final movement was brilliant. I adored the way it approached an almost shimmering Gamelan-type texture at times. Thanks for a great listen.

... Charles Jackson-Allen, Musician, Trowbridge, England
Very impressive work indeed!

I must say that the clarinet part certainly is challenging. You have stretched the instrument to new paths.

... Louis Panacciulli, Music Director, Nassau Pops Symphony Orchestra, NY, USA