Mark Isaacs reveals how, in his imaginative new chamber symphony, it will be the voice that rocks the cradle.

World Premiere

My new Chamber Symphony came about through a process of collaboration. Harry and Julie Johnson, avid music-lovers and concertgoers, generously wished to commission a new work, without any specific idea of forces. Needing to know the destination of my writing, I considered to whom I could put their proposal.

Some years ago, David Rowden, artistic director and clarinettist of the Omega Ensemble, had floated the idea of a collaboration. David seized upon the opportunity, telling me of a concert in 2015 in which the group would be performing a large chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, with guest soprano Jane Sheldon. Would I like to write the new work for the same concert? I jumped at the idea, and since Jane would be performing in the concert, I could also include her voice in the score – an opportunity impossible to resist! 

The forces having been decided upon, I needed some further direction. Last year I had heard a wonderful Omega Ensemble concert that featured two chamber symphonies (by Arnold Schoenberg and John Adams). I myself had written my first (orchestral) symphony in 2013. These factors caused the penny to drop: I would write a chamber symphony!

My orchestral symphony was very traditional in structure, so the chamber symphony was a chance to look at the medium anew, as a “compression” of symphonic form: in length only 16 minutes; in number of movements only three; in instrumentation just 12 instruments, from which I strive to get something of the sound of a Romantic orchestra; in the structure, amongst the other ways I found to knit things tightly together, I decided to skip over the customary recapitulation of the opening theme in the first movement and postpone it until the finale. Lastly, I decided to eschew text and just use Jane’s wordless voice as a special feature in the middle movement – a Berceuse (cradle song).

Some might say all this leanness makes it a divertimento, but given the cyclic recall of themes and the use of the voice in one movement – amongst other symphonic hallmarks – I consider it a symphony that has structurally, as its kernel, that “compression” idea. It really “gets on with it” and doesn’t hang about much at all!

I find a lot of my material as my fingers improvise at the piano, and I always strive for my music to be lyrically melodic, surprising, rhythmically interesting, colourfully orchestrated and contained within a satisfying formal structure. I happily stand on the shoulders of what I have learned from the giants of classical composition, but when my jazz experience pokes through in some way, I don’t resist it. I think all that is there, and more, in the Chamber Symphony.


Work Chamber Symphony
Composer Mark Isaacs
Scored for Classical chamber orchestra and soprano
Commissioned by Harry and Julie Johnson
Premiere City Recital Hall, Angel Place, July 20 
Performers Omega Ensemble and Jane Sheldon*
*Unfortunately, due to illness, soprano Jane Sheldon has been replaced by award-winning opera star, Lee Abrahmsen

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