Keith Bruce

WHEN I speak to the eminent composer whose latest work will feature at this year’s Sound festival in Aberdeen Art Gallery, it is just a week after the death was announced of Jessye Norman, the great American diva. In the context of many stories about one of the greatest operatic voices of our time and her sometimes demanding behaviour, it was an unexpected gift to be able to ask Judith Weir about their collaboration 20 years previously on a project that was a highlight of the careers of both women, performed at both New York’s Carnegie Hall and the BBC Proms in London in the spring and summer of the year 2000.

“My memories of her are very different from many others,” says Weir immediately. “We got on very well and I found her a very practical and exceptionally able musician.”

Weir was commissioned by the soprano to set texts by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Clarissa Pinkola Estes for a work entitled that attempted to redress the somewhat misogynistic perspective of Frank Schubert’s Frauenliebe und Leben (Woman’s Love and Life) in a new song cycle.

“She was a real specialist in new music and the music of Boulez and the Second Viennese School,” Weir reminds me, “but she left it very open to me to write the music I wanted to compose to the texts, so I tried to find a style that was tailored to her voice. Looking back, any clashes she had with people were about very practical things because she wanted everything to be right. So she was insistent about the lay-out of the orchestra and the noisy air-conditioning being turned off.”

As music writer Tim Ashley observed when he spoke with the work’s composer on the eve of its Royal Albert Hall performance, “you don’t so much interview composer Judith Weir as marvel as her beautiful mind roves from subject to subject.” In my more recent experience, she guided the trajectory of our conversation seamlessly through all the topics I had rehearsed without my needing to voice any prepared questions – regardless of the fact that we were 400 miles apart – so we glided effortlessly on to the real reason for my call, the premiere of The Big Picture, a bespoke work to celebrate the reopening of Aberdeen Art Gallery.

“I have always enjoyed writing for singers,” says Weir, “because each one is a unique personality. It is not like writing music for the clarinet, for instance. There is a bravery about what they do – and singers tend to approach me to write for them.”

In the case of The Big Picture, the challenge was to write for both an adult choir of good sight readers and another of school children and adults who would pick up their parts by ear. The composer teamed the choruses with a jazzy keyboard part for a portable electronic instrument, a clarinet in the gallery, and percussion, including marimba.

“It has been such an interesting process, because it had to be created for a space that no-one knows. There has been a third floor added to we can’t really guess what the resonance will be like, so I have used different textures.”

The selection of the words was down to Weir herself and she chose to find texts that celebrated colour because for the artists whose work is displayed in the gallery that is their raw material as sound is for a musician. She says she is always “reading poetry for professional reasons” and the texts include work by Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and Christina Rossetti alongside a traditional Irish folk song and the Christmas carol Green Groweth the Holly, penned by King Henry VIII.

The nod to royal lineage is apt because in 2014 Judith Weir was appointed the first female Master of the Queen’s Music, the composing equivalent of Poet Laureate, in succession to Peter Maxwell Davies. He had established that it become a 10-year, rather than a lifetime, appointment, for which she is extremely grateful.

“Life would have been awful! Ten years is a very generous stretch of time,” she says of a position that is very much what she wants to make it. “They are not big on job description at the Palace,” is how she puts it, although she does compose works for big national celebrations in London, like the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. These, she points out, tend to be choral compositions as well, “with some brass from the military.”

Another part of her interpretation of her role is to use the royal stipend to travel the country visiting schools, and as the highly readable blog on her website reveals, the last trip she made to Scotland was to speak to pupils at Rothesay Academy on Bute at the end of August.

Teaching has been an integral part of her life, including some years at Glasgow University and what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Although she was born near London, her parents were from Aberdeenshire and regular visits to family in Scotland, as well as work commitments, have kept her close to her Scottish roots.

Her account of the Rothesay visit, on the invitation of a music teacher she had worked with in another school, does not shy away from comparisons between the English and Scottish systems. She observes that the self-selecting group of interested youngsters she encountered would have been difficult to arrange south of the border, because of draconian curriculum restrictions.

“We treated them as adults, and composition is part of their exams, so we tried to do something they’ll find useful. Working with them I start from scratch, the hope is that by the end of the day we’ll have something to perform. I don’t have a show to put on, and try to pick up clues from the teacher.”

That practicality of approach is clearly something she shares with Norman, and Weir has also had great successes in the opera house, notably A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987) and The Vanishing Bridegroom, premiered in Glasgow in 1990. However her most recent work, Miss Fortune, suffered a savage critical mauling on its London debut, and although she shrugs that off, pointing out that composing is too attractive a task to be dissuaded by one bad critical reception, she says that anything new she writes in that line will probably be on a smaller scale.

Meanwhile, she continues to be very prolific in the concert hall and elsewhere. This year’s BBC Proms included a performance of her Forest by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo, a work she wrote for Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that was also recently played by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

“I have just finished a long list of commissions,” she says, “and before Sound there are two other premieres this month.”

Those works showed a close affinity with the one that handsel the re-opened Aberdeen gallery, as both are vocal works with poetry as their inspiration – and Scottish poetry at that. “The Scottish Poetry Library is my go-to source,” Weir confesses.

Hot on the heels of the European premiere of a new Oboe Concerto, The BBC Singers gave the first performance of blue hills beyond blue hills, with the Ligeti Quartet, setting the poetry of Alan Spence, at the Barbican. And just last week soprano Ruby Hughes premiered On the Palmy Beach, with pianist Julius Drake and cellist Natalie Clein at London’s King’s Place. Like Aberdeen’s new work it sets verse Weir chose herself, including poems by Kathleen Jamie and Norman MacCaig. It is also part of the venue’s year-long Venus Unwrapped programme, aimed at shedding a new light on music by women. The female composer Jessye Norman selected for that turn-of-the-Millennium project continues to pursue the working woman musician’s highly practical path.

The Big Picture is at Aberdeen Art Gallery at 10am and 11am this morning as part of Sound.