Jonathan Henderson will premiere the Australian composer’s new work with the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I believe that at the heart of the work is a sense of questioning and transformation,” Australian composer Lisa Cheney tells me ahead of the premiere of her brand new Concerto for Flute. Her work will be performed this Sunday by Australian flautist Jonathan Henderson and the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Michael Keen. “The musical landscape is still, but never stagnant as it slowly expands in energy, textural shapes, momentum and transforming beauty. The harmonic language is an organic and colourful blend, blurring sonorities, chromatic flute lines and shifting perspectives of light and dark that seeks out a strange kind of harmonic beauty.”

The 29-year-old composer is one of the fast-rising stars of the Australian composition scene and her work has been performed by ensembles such Plexus, Syzygy, Sydney Antiphony, the Queensland Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Australian Ballet, to name just a few.

Lisa CheneyComposer Lisa Cheney. Photo © Daniele Martinie

This new work commissioned by the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra, however, marks a milestone in Cheney’s career as her first concerto. “Throughout the process I was equally exhilarated to be writing for my very talented old friend Jonathan Henderson and apprehensive to be adding my voice to an already excellent and expansive existing canon of musical works for the flute,” she says. “With the exception of a beautiful cadenza that Jonathan and I shaped together towards the end of the composition process, I made the decision to step away from some of the more traditional images and concepts of a concerto. Written for reduced woodwind and brass, the Flute Concerto is a one movement organic and slow-growing cell that is constantly looking and reaching forward.”

Cheney has assigned no imagery or narrative programme to the work, rather “its concerns are purely musical.” She began with the flute line and the work evolved from there. “There were many sessions where I drafted harmonic and textural material, but the more I drafted, the more I realised it was the flute that was going to lead, follow and shape all the surrounding musical material in the orchestra,” she explains. “Over numerous international Skype calls and emails, Jonathan and I shaped the flute line together. It was pure joy and inspiration to work with him in this way. It was truly my favourite part of the composition process.”

“Lisa would send through scores and excerpts which I would play to her online or into a recording machine, which I would later send across with my notes,” explains Henderson, also 29, who is Principal Flute of the Estonian National Opera. “This process continued until some days before the first rehearsal, allowing the concerto to fully evolve until we were both on Australian soil.”

Jonathan HendersonFlautist Jonathan Henderson. Photo © Rasmus Jurkatam.

The concerto is also a first for Henderson – it’s the first time he has had a piece written for him and the first time he has collaborated so closely with a composer. He also has a background in composition, which naturally influences his way of thinking about music. “With this in mind I was very diligent in separating my role as performer in this project from my composer’s instinct,” he says. “When it came to collaborating with Lisa, my main aim was to give her as much artistic freedom as possible by broadening her awareness of the flute’s capabilities.”

And the flute’s capabilities deeply influenced Cheney’s compositional decisions in almost every way: “From arranging musical material structurally to exploring the amazing timbral changes in extreme registers, to moments specifically highlighting pitch bends, colouristic techniques, overblowing, articulation, stamina and more,” she says. “Jonathan was an incredible ally in this process; never saying no to any crazy proposal without having an alternative in place. I am extremely grateful for his input and as such, I believe his approach to music making is deeply embedded within the fabric of the work.”

The process of close collaboration in the creation of the concerto is mirrored in the interplay between soloist and orchestra. “A subtle dialogue between the orchestra and flute solo plays out across the work,” Henderson says. “The solo part appears to both echo and influence the orchestra simultaneously, however this interplay is mostly expressed in an introverted, subtle manner. Often the flute solo is suspended in the orchestra’s sonic landscape which cushions the flute line. It provides a certain resonant warmth, a wreath of shining sound around the flute’s sonorities.”

“At times the orchestra remains completely static whilst the solo part weaves active, rhythmic movements,” he says. “I very much enjoy these juxtaposing temperaments, as well as the way Lisa has entangled the orchestra and soloist so delicately.”

Lisa Cheney and Johannes FritzschLisa Cheney thanking Johannes Fritzsch at the premiere of her 2015 work Arcane by the Queensland Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Nick Morrissey

This entanglement is a feature from the very opening of the piece. “The work begins with closely related intervals often led by high strings and auxiliary percussion filling the space as the flute slowly emerges from the atmospheric world, blurring the traditional concerto roles of orchestra and soloist as the material blends in the space or rises to the foreground,” Cheney explains. “Framed and influenced by a virtuosic cadenza, the work appears changed as the flute leads the orchestra towards new ground.”

“Throughout the composition process I asked myself the questions: Where does the flute exist within the sound-world and how does it progress and transform? Does the orchestra influence the flute development or does the flute change the direction of the orchestra?” she says. “I have my own answers to these questions, but I would rather leave them unanswered for listeners to ponder in person.”

For Cheney, is there anything she hopes the audience will listen out for?  “Listeners are encouraged to journey with the flute soloist as they navigate a unique, atmospheric orchestral sound-world that is at any given time both: dark, beautiful, haunting, serene, at peace, unstable and in flux,” she says. “I recommend listening for the role of and sound quality of the flute line, the shifting colours and isolation of timbres in the reduced instrumentation, with saturating divided strings, condensed woodwind and brass and very few tutti passages.”

Lisa CheneyLisa Cheney. Photo © Daniele Martinie

“The work weaves gracefully throughout pitch clusters, hinting only slightly at passing tonalities,” Henderson says. “It is inexplicable how Lisa has the ability to make those clusters sound familiar and pleasurable, whilst her triads sound abstract and atonal.”

But for Henderson, it is the cadenza that is at the heart of this work and his collaboration with Cheney. “It contains the largest reflection of my own musical spirit which Lisa magically seems to have captured quite well,” he says. “Lisa and I collaborated on the cadenza quite intensively; it was sent back and forth between us many times and went through a creative and experimental editing process. For purely sentimental reasons above all, I feel the cadenza is most representative of our collaborative partnership.”

“It stands alone as an inner movement, anticipated by ten minutes of flute-orchestra interplay,” he says. “At the start of the cadenza the flute finally breaks free from its entanglement with the orchestra’s sound waves. There are powerfully explosive extremities, contrasted with introvert and reflective moments, inviting the audience to enter extraordinary new sound worlds. It is a challenging, intensely rewarding play.”

Jonathan Henderson will perform the world premiere of Lisa Cheney’s Flute Concerto with the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra at the Old Museum Concert Hall, Bowen Hills, July 23.