New composers usually find it difficult, or rather near-impossible, to have their work performed in professional circumstances in front of a critical audience. DARE, a pioneering and visionary collaboration between the University of Leeds and Opera North, and the first partnership of its kind in Britain, goes quite some distance towards improving the situation, stating that it intends to “inspire and stimulate new ways of thinking and working.”

Orchestra of Opera North
Orchestra of Opera North

For its Composer’s Forum at the splendid Howard Assembly Rooms next to the Grand Theatre in Leeds, sixty hopefuls submitted works. Five of these were invited to write a new piece for the Forum, which was then worked on with the Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Andrea Quinn, over a period of three days. Four of them were actually performed.

Christopher McAteer’s Ornatus Mundi (“Decorated World”) is a continuation from an earlier orchestral work, Exornatio Mundi (“Embellished World”), and was relatively brief but impressive, which brought to mind the thought that perhaps we should have heard both pieces in sequence. Brass features heavily, with a very interesting use of the horns, which carry melodic lines forward with great power. The counterpoint is skillful, especially at the conclusion, and the whole thing is punctuated by astringent percussive outbursts reminiscent of gamelan.

“Marinela”, the title of the next piece, is the name of a Romanian teenager (Marinela Badea) who was trafficked into Britain and forced to work as a prostitute. Composer Emma-Ruth Richards was horrified by the story and was moved to create a chamber opera based on it. She describes Marinela as its “musical genesis”, and is hoping that the intensity of the musical experience will cause audience members to become activists for social change. Emotional states are represented by several motifs heard throughout, and a main theme on the oboe is a folk tune from Romania. The piece is a real, disturbing narrative, highly charged, and the closing bars are simply beautiful. In the extended pause before the applause following the final pianissimo statement, I guessed that there might be plenty of potential for activism here.

A “wodwo” is a mysterious wild man of the woods, encountered by the hero in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. According to composer Kim Ashton, writing in a handout, these men can take on a number of “refined qualities, including a certain grace of movement.” His piece, Sumwhyle with wodwos, begins quietly – a few tentative steps into the undergrowth – before a startling series of woodwind shrieks, no doubt representing the wodwo’s less refined aspects. With extensive use of woodblocks this adds a Japanese flavour: some sections could be used as a soundtrack for a film about samurai. Stylised dances (grace of movement?) in 6/8 time make up the main body of the piece, violins soaring high over low woodwinds, and there is a sudden volcanic discharge towards the end.

Harbinger by Colin Broom has definite cinematic connotations, very successfully imparting a sense of foreboding which would be most appropriate in a horror film like The Exorcist, one with a touch of old-fashioned religion (though a director with a Dracula theme in mind would be interested as well). Constantly repeated flute phrases, emphatic pizzicato and a relentless snare drum provoke feelings of deep unease, as if a character is getting closer and closer to some sticky end, or as if a public execution is about to take place. This was the most exciting piece for me, against strong rivals.

Each of the works created for the Forum has been recorded by Opera North, with copies made available to the composers. The DARE New Composers Forum 2013 is open for applications.