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Duncan Ward: Showcasing Global Groove and Dramatic Tales

‘The audience should float away from the 16 November concert with a new sense of community … they will have sung their hearts out, and I hope they feel the warmth and spirit of collective musical magic’ – Duncan Ward


By Duncan Ward

10-minute read

Duncan Ward conducts the LSO in November 2023 for two concerts that capture his musical personality. Read on to find out more about his long relationship with the Orchestra and the inspiration behind his programmes.

Duncan Ward conducting, looking down and holding a baton

Duncan Ward © Alan Kerr

Working with the LSO

The LSO is one of the most fantastic, flexible, responsive orchestras on this planet. It was amazing that they were actually the first professional orchestra I ever had the chance to conduct in a masterclass, in 2010 at LSO St Luke’s, when I was 20. I will never forget that first feeling of the Orchestra’s response, and how the slightest gesture or movement, or seemingly thought, could translate into a musical happening. They are just heaven to work with.

I have been so lucky that, since that day, we’ve had regular chances to work together. The following year, I was taken for the 2011 Panufnik Composers Scheme, so to have the chance to write for these brilliant musicians was also fantastic.

We have done such a range of projects over the last few years, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, to streamed concerts during the pandemic, again with a wide range of repertoire from George Gershwin to Grażyna Bacewicz. It is a thrill to reunite with the LSO and a long-awaited dream of mine to perform in front of their home Barbican audience, and especially to have two such different programmes, with many of the sides of my musical personality and upbringing, to explore.

Abel Selaocoe, Gary Carpenter, Béla Bartók & Samuel Barber

The audience should float away from this concert … with the warmth and spirit of collective musical magic.

This concert, part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, has a lot of groove in it, a lot of rhythm, a lot of folk and dance roots. Whether it hails from South Africa, Hungary, America or Liverpool, it is music that’s very close to me. I didn’t grow up in a family of classical musicians and I taught myself to play on a little electronic keyboard, belonging to one of my elder sisters, by ear. I started improvising at a young age and Scott Joplin’s music was one of the things that hooked me first. This progressed as a teenager into more funk and big band styles, then in my twenties, I had the chance to work quite a lot with musicians from all over South Africa, some of which I now discover are Abel’s old school friends! So this performance is a great chance to build a programme with a lot of those inspirations and links together, building towards Abel’s new Cello and Voice Concerto, Four Spirits.

I had always known about Abel Selaocoe when we were both students in Manchester. But early in the pandemic, I saw a streamed concert of his with Manchester Collective and thought, wow, this is a musical dynamism that is really taking people somewhere! I wanted to imagine a concerto with him and maybe some percussion and orchestra, and was thrilled to join a group of co-commissioners, together with my orchestra in the South Netherlands, to bring this to life. This piece, Four Spirits, is incredibly unique and is very special, drawing on Abel’s South African heritage. He’s playing the cello in ways that you can’t imagine, and his voice, from the deep throat singing to the sort of soaring, lyrical baritone, coupled with his presence on stage, is really infectious. It is going to be a great thing to bring this to the London audience here at the Barbican.

The concert starts with Gary Carpenter’s Dadaville, a dazzling curtain opener inspired by an intriguing sculpture from Max Ernst, and it really gets the floor grooving. A tuba riff emerges, followed by a sassy baritone sax solo; it’s very cleverly crafted. We move immediately across Europe to Béla Bartók’s Dance Suite. Again, it is infectious in its very different sorts of rhythms, but in a way that links us to the rhythmic patterns we hear in Abel’s piece.

Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Dance of Vengeance follows, and is a piece I fell in love with as a teenager, hearing it once on the radio. I remember being in the car and arriving where we were meant to be going and saying: ‘No, no, don’t turn it off, don’t turn it off. I have to hear the end!’ And it’s not performed often. There is an extraordinary journey from this very sparse string texture with a little mysterious funky xylophone motif through to this wild frenetic frenzy at the finish. It’s a thrilling piece and we’ll really ramp up the tension and energy towards the finale of this concert: Abel Selaocoe’s Cello Concerto. The audience should float away from this concert with a new sense of community and what it means to have a shared musical experience. Probably they will all have sung their hearts out and I hope they feel the warmth and spirit of collective musical magic.

Info & Tickets: Thursday 16 November 2023 8pm, Barbican

Béla Bartók, Leoš Janáček, Ernest Chausson, Claude Debussy

Taras Bulba … is such a powerful, thrilling, rhapsodic, energetic [piece] to get your hands on. I can’t wait to be doing this with the LSO.

On 23 November, we have a programme combining four masterpieces from the turn of the 20th century, hailing either from France or Eastern Europe. These are two musical worlds that I adore and all our pieces paint a vivid picture or tell a story. There’s a lot of romance in this concert, some unrequited, some leading to tragedy.

Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba is a gruesome tale and the audience can hear the drama in the music. I first encountered the piece as a musician in the National Youth Orchestra. We performed it at the BBC Proms with Sir Colin Davis. I’ll never forget that there wasn’t quite enough time for the technicians to finish setting up before our sound check in the hall – and it meant that I didn’t get to try the organ. Towards the end of the piece there is this moment where the organ comes crashing in, and I had set the organ on half volume, with what I thought was the number of stops needed; it doesn’t sound so loud where you are from the keyboard as the pipes were a long way up. When I came in, the entire orchestra just fell about laughing. I mean the whole thing ground to a halt. They started to cheer! The BBC technicians rushed up to say: ‘I’m sorry, it’s too loud, sorry Sir Colin. It’s not possible.’ And he was in playful mode and he turned to the orchestra, saying: ‘Is the organ too loud? No, that’s exactly how it should be’. So I don’t promise that the organ will deafen the audience in the Barbican, but it’s a thrilling moment in this music.

I’m delighted Isabelle Faust is joining us for this concert. I’ve long admired her and think she plays with such a depth of attention, and seriousness of intention. In the first half, she performs Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No 1, which lay lost in a drawer for over 50 years until the violinist for whom it was written, Stefi Geyer, felt she could play it. It was hidden for so long because she couldn’t respond to the composer’s love. But when rediscovered, it is clear that the work is a very pure, romantic, and incredibly touching love letter that, in a way, is a portrait of them. In the second half, we hear Ernest Chausson’s Poème, the story of which was originally based on a Russian novel, and the concert closes with Claude Debussy’s heavenly masterpiece La mer, with all its tales of the sea and its various states of calm and drama.

Of all the pieces I love in these two programmes we’ve created, Taras Bulba would be the most thrilling for me to physically conduct. It’s a phenomenally difficult piece to perform and to play. Janáček has this totally unique sound world, but it’s somehow always awkwardly written. It can be very uncomfortable for the instruments. You also have very abrupt changes of gear and style and momentum to navigate. But it’s such powerful, thrilling, rhapsodic, energetic music to get your hands on. I can’t wait to be doing this with the LSO.

Info & Tickets: Thursday 23 November 2023 7pm, Barbican

November with Duncan Ward