Instrumentation 3333, 4331, timpani, 3 percussion, harp, solo violoncello, strings (188.8.131.52.8)
First Performance 14 August 2017, Royal Albert Hall, London; Guy Johnston cello, BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3
With thanks to The MacDowell Colony and Aldeburgh Music where the work was created.
On an eventful morning in August 2015, when Bray began working on the cello concerto, she read the devastating news over breakfast that the so-called Islamic State had destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra, including the historic and Hellenistic First Temple of Bal and the Temple of Baalshamin, dating from 323-31 BC. Although their destruction inevitably formed the focal point of the news, this barbaric act did little to deflect attention away from the human horror and suffering being endured in the region.
The use of moral outrage as a motivation for art, although new to the composer, provided a means by which she could both seek to comprehend such tragic and traumatic events and create something to which others may equally relate. And, while it was important to situate the work in real events, this concerto is entirely an abstract reflection of the situation and on conflict in its wider sense. The razing of the temples provided an inception for the piece, the emerging humanitarian crises forming its body, with the motivating factors of power, identity, religion, humanity and territory.
Shortly after beginning work on the piece, Bray came across a documentary about Tim Hetherington, the inspiring investigative photo-journalist, who was sadly killed in Libya in 2011 in a bomb explosion. Hetherington described the absurd allure of conflict zones; struck by the hidden pull he often felt when away from them to return, find the stories, and show the world what is happening in the darkest corners of our world. It is evident, certainly for Hetherington, that his experiences in conflict zones were hard to shake off on his return to life at home.
With both of these motivations, the concerto began to take shape. The piece snaps between adrenaline-filled conflict sections and ‘real’ life at home, where even there, the mind is in another place. The abnormality of war and what has been experienced remain, creating a numb, blurred, fragile experience that makes one question which life is ‘real’. Between each section and beginning the work, sits a gritty, sometimes eerie interlude, suspending time and pulse: it functions as a transition, a conduit into and out of the conflict zone or real life, almost like a dream sequence. These disorientating interludes take as their starting point either the low humming of a helicopter close by or the intense high-ringing ‘heard’ after an explosion. The cello darkly sings out, defiantly. As in recurring memories, varied repetitions hauntingly return throughout. Sections cut in and out like a cross-faded video between two different worlds.