Kenneth Hesketh - *Horae (pro clara)* in Quarterly Review

"one of the most thought-provoking productions of new music in recent years" — Stuart Millson

A stream of CDs arrives each month on our desk, with a recent eye-catching new recording from the Swedish label, BIS, which – in its clean, sharp, immaculate packaging – often champions contemporary music. Kenneth Hesketh (b. 1968) is a British composer who seems to have developed an unparalleled sound-world: a modern impressionism of unceasing invention; of suspension and movement; of layers of sound – varying from (as in the 12-movement work, Horae (PRO CLARA) (Breviary for Clare) from 2012) the sound of “the tiniest humming bird” and an “evening full of linnet’s wings” – to a desolate Molto misterioso, ‘for now we see through a glass, darkly’. Performed by Royal Philharmonic Society Award-winner, Clare Hammond (she secured this year’s prestigious RPS ‘Young Artist’ category, and is also a dedicatee of Hesketh’s work) the new disc, produced by BIS engineer, Robert Suff, must rank as one of the most thought-provoking productions of new music to have appeared in recent years.

Earlier this month, The Quarterly Review was extremely fortunate to secure a few moments in Clare’s demanding schedule for a discussion and wide-ranging interview, and we began by discussing Kenneth Hesketh. I ventured to suggest how the composer’s music was – unlike some contemporary compositions – (pleasingly) lacking in confrontational emotions, and instead, represented something more in-tune with a desire for peace and order in the human spirit – Hesketh being, to some extent, a British version of the Japanese composer and sage, Takemitsu. Clare’s response was extremely interesting: “There is a great deal of light in Kenneth’s music, and I can see your idea about Takemitsu. There is, though, also a contrast in his works, between the extreme complexity of turbulent passages, and the many sections which are lightly textured and lightly coloured.” I wondered if, as was the case with Britten who often wrote specifically with the voice of tenor, Peter Pears, in mind, that Hesketh – similarly – composed for Clare Hammond’s style and personality as an artist. “During the compositional process, Kenneth might have a clear picture of something, discussing it with me, but ultimately he writes music which can be performed by anyone. But the second work on the CD, the breviary, was written for me – with the idea that I would fully realise this clear aural picture.”

Another composer close to Clare’s heart is the Polish contemporary master, who came to settle in Britain, Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-91). Having recorded, performed and “curated” much of Panufnik’s work, the pianist sees his output as music that combines the deeply personal and the universal: “I am fascinated by the relationship between the music and the biographical points in his life: his music is actually autobiographical, a response to what has happened to him – from the Second World War, to his time in Krakow and beyond. Yet there is a lyricism, a connection with humanity and the human voice, as well as abstract theoretical reflections which would appeal to the mind of a musician and performer – for example, the way in which one work is conceived as a cycle of ‘fifths’”.

Clare also has a strong bond with overlooked contemporary British music, having performed last year at Suffolk’s William Alwyn Festival. I asked her if it was a “duty” for British musicians to champion our native composers: “Within my own work, I find many such pieces to be inspiring, and it is important for them to receive platform time. They are appealing and expressive. I feel that the English composers add diversity to our programmes, and as a result of that it’s not just a ‘duty’ to perform them. The location of the composers, such as Alwyn in Suffolk, adds a narrative to the music.” But what is Clare’s approach to the important campaign in classical music to reach out – especially to younger audiences, which – sadly – seem to have little exposure to music and the arts? In appealing in new stylistic ways to new listeners, could classical music be in danger of losing something of its magic, or its ritual? Clare continued: “As an artist, I cannot have a barrier to my audience. I must have contact with them, and I often introduce music to an audience of young people, providing a preface to what they are about to hear. A spoken introduction helps. I retain formalities, but sometimes such formalities may not have a relevance to some audiences, so I would engage with them in a different way. I find this very satisfying.”

The QR congratulates this remarkable musician on her RPS Award and we thought that it might be useful to know what plans lie ahead. As one might expect, she is in huge demand as a solo and concerto artist: “I am looking forward to the Cheltenham Festival, and in October I will be curating BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts for the Belfast International Arts Festival. I will also be performing in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, but as yet the programme for the latter has not been announced.” We shall keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Autumn South Bank season…