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Childlike and wise, fantastical and truthful: Introducing the music of Richard Ayres

The composer of Peter Pan has made a name for himself melding madcap whimsy with solitary melancholy – an ideal context for J.M. Barrie’s tale of the boy who refuses to grow up.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

10 July 2015 at 11.50am | Comment on this article

A horn soloist plays a distorted call. Then he pegs it to the other side of the stage and plays a soft, echoey response. He runs back again. The sequence is repeated a number of times. It’s part of a movement entitled ‘Valentine Tregashian dreams… of the Swiss Girl’.

Not exactly what you’d expect from a horn concerto. But that’s OK, because this isn’t a horn concerto – not quite, anyway. It’s the first movement of Richard Ayres’s No.36 (NONcerto for horn). Like several of Ayres's works, it’s inspired by the Alps: the soloist is calling from one mountain peak, and echoing this call from another. In the second movement, the soloist is concealed from view for certain sections; the third tells a little story – through both the music and a set of projected titles – about someone called Anna Filipiova, who has disappeared or perhaps died.

No.24 (NONcerto for alto trombone) hints at another sort of story. The soloist, rummaging around in a cardboard box for a mute, doesn’t know what he or she is meant to do. The occasional, guessed-at solo lines keep fading out awkwardly into silence. The situation is funny and unexpected at the start, but by the end gratingly tense.

Given that Ayress instrumental works display such deeply theatrical elements, it’s no surprise that he is drawn towards opera. No.39 (The Cricket Recovers), first performed in Aldeburgh in 2005, is an opera about a cricket suffering from depression and an elephant trying to kick a tree-climbing habit. Ayres followed that with Peter Pan, commissioned by Oper Stuttgart in 2013 and performed now by Welsh National Opera. Both operas are based on children’s stories – Peter Pan on the famous book and play by J.M. Barrie, The Cricket Recovers on a novel by Dutch writer Toon Tellegen – and both of them remain entrancing for children. But they also hint at more serious, grown-up themes.

The same whimsical combination of light and dark, innocence and experience can be felt in Ayres’s other works too – even in No.36, in which themes of solitude and death lurk behind the madcap comic setup. No.42 (In the Alps), written for soprano Barbara Hannigan and the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble in 2008, is described as ‘an animated concert’, or ‘mountain melodrama’. A young girl, stranded on top of a mountain, is taught to sing by the animals. Dressed in exaggerated alpine garb, she desperately sings, ‘Bring me someone’. Eventually, a mute trumpeter hears her and sets out on a rescue mission – but he doesn’t have an easy time of it.

All the while the music darts between disparate styles and ideas, from Richard Strauss pastiche and music imitating cicadas to an evocation of the Big Bang and a moving, melodic lament. Peter Pan varies just as widely – perhaps even more so – with its huge diversity of characters and settings. Haunted by the percussive ticking of the crocodile’s clock, the score is vividly ethereal one moment and filled with manic woofing the next, fleetingly taking in klezmer and folksongs along the way.

It makes perfect sense that Ayres has been drawn towards Barrie’s classic tale. Peter Pan pits swashbuckling, pirate-filled adventure against domestic scenes, and stars a hero who never wants to grow up but finds himself drawn towards the adolescent Wendy, on the cusp of adulthood. Like so much of Ayres’s music, the story is at once childlike and wise, fantastical and truthful.

Peter Pan runs 24–25 July 2015 on the main stage at the Royal Opera House. Tickets are still available.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

10 July 2015 at 11.50am

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Keith Warner, J.M. Barrie, NONcerto, Peter Pan, Production, Richard Ayres, Welsh National Opera

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