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Dobrinka Tabakova writes double concerto for Lucas and Arthur Jussen: 'It shimmers with energy'

The AVROTROS Friday Concert cherishes both mainstream masterpieces and less heard and new repertoire. In the 2017-18 season no fewer than five (world) premieres are on the programme, three of them composed by a woman. - Come and see that from the national orchestras.

Friday 17 November will hear the brand new double concert Together Remember to Dance by British/Bulgarian Dobrinka Tabakova. She composed it at the request of Amsterdam Sinfonietta, joined for this occasion by Slagwerk Den Haag. Soloists are pianists Lucas and Arthur Jussen. The piece will have its world premiere on Thursday 16 November in Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. Seven questions for Tabakova.

What typifies you as a composer?

From around the age of seven, I took piano lessons and started to improvise frantically. That free way of expression has my great love, moreover, I want to communicate with the audience. These are two essential characteristics of my music. It makes me happy when people are touched by my work, but I am also fascinated by how sounds join together to form a musical structure.

Blistering energy

How did 'Together Remember to Dance?' come about?

After Amsterdam Sinfonietta presented my Concert for cello and string orchestra in 2008, they suggested the idea of a double concerto for two pianos, percussion and strings. This inspired me to write an exciting piece, with a blistering energy. My concerto has three movements, as is common in classical music. I especially like early Baroque music, because of the dialogue between soloists and ensemble. I find that more attractive than one main voice with accompaniment, which you often hear afterwards.

The first movement is called 'Together'. In it, the two pianos, percussion and strings each play their own role, with the attention constantly shifting from one to the other. In the slow middle movement, I wanted to create a spiral form of recurring themes that are slightly different each time. Hence the title 'Remember'. The last movement is called 'Dance' and has a constant pulse, but is also full of surprises. Together, these names form the title of my piece.

What was the first thing you did when you started your composition?

In this case, I had known for several years that I was going to write this concerto. I remember that immediately the idea came to me to give it a three-part structure, with a classical symmetry of 'fast, slow, fast'. I find it important to imagine how time slips during the duration of the new piece. Then I start sketching and improvising to find the themes and timbres of each movement.

Bulgarian rhythm

Your piece is on the programme alongside Bartók's 'Music for strings, percussion and celesta'. Did this inspire you while composing?

Works like Bartók's Music for strings, percussion and celesta, or Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps are icons of the 20e-century music. As a composer, it is impossible not to have studied and admired them. But while writing, I am totally focused on what I want to convey. I wouldn't be able to concentrate if another work haunted my mind in the meantime.

That Bartók studied music from my native Bulgaria and used Bulgarian rhythms in the last movement appeals to me. The finale of my concert is also a fast, kaleidoscopic dance, but I think the effect is quite different. Composing for this combination of instruments automatically evokes associations with Bartók. But that is true of any structure or work that resembles an earlier form. As creators, we have to be aware of the past, but also reflect the present and take steps forward.

Arthur (above) and Lucas Jussen, photo Dirk Kikstra

You were born in Bulgaria but moved to the UK, why?

My parents and I emigrated to London in 1991, where my father got a position at King's College; he is a professor of medical physics. I was already playing the piano by then, but it wasn't until I was in London that I auditioned for the junior section of the Royal Academy of Music. My parents understood that music was important to me, but perhaps saw me more as a performer. Nevertheless, they supported me when I indicated I wanted to start composing. I studied composition at the Guildhall School of Music and at King's College. I am grateful for that freedom, and for the trust they placed in me.

Rehearsals bring technology to life

You studied among others with Diana Burrell and George Benjamin. Who was most important?

Each of my teachers has his or her own compositional voice. For years, I had more than one teacher, so I underwent all these different teaching techniques and styles at the same time. I never experienced any pressure to create pieces that matched their style. I acquired my first degree at a conservatoire, which is a very practical environment. Especially compared to the more academic university, where I obtained my doctorate.

At the conservatory, we were surrounded by performers, the most fertile environment for a composition student. We could organise our own concerts, so we had to find musicians who would perform, make rehearsal schedules, conduct.... Thus, composition was taken from the classroom to the concert hall. I still cherish the conversations and discussions I had with each of my teachers. But it was the rehearsals with musicians that made all the techniques come alive.

Challenging the public

You also took master classes with Louis Andriessen, what was that like?

Louis Andriessen was in London for concerts in the early 2000s. One of the great aspects of studying at a conservatoire next to the Barbican Centre is that visiting composers often come there to give presentations and master classes. I remember submitting a portfolio and being allowed to show him some of my works. Among them were some sketches for a chamber opera; I think he had just finished a film collaboration.

We talked about collaborating with different artists, experimenting, challenging audiences and choosing different venues. I have great respect for how he has influenced Dutch music - and new music across Europe. It was special to be able to exchange views with him in person. I hope to see him at the premiere of Together Remember to Dance.

Good to know

16-22 November: tour of Amsterdam Sinfonietta
Candida Thompson conducting and violin
Percussion The Hague
Lucas and Arthur Jussen piano

Ford - Luccicare
Panufnik - Lullaby
J.S. Bach - Concerto for two pianos BWV 1060
Tabakova - Together Remember to Dance for two pianos, strings and percussion (world premiere supported by Ammodo)
Bartók - Music for strings, percussion and celesta

More info and tickets.

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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