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Alvarez Chamber Orchestra Interview

Posted on 09 November 2008. © Copyright 2004-2024 Composition:Today

Geoffrey Alvarez
C:T talks to Geoffrey Alvarez, founder of the London based ensemble the Alvarez Chamber Orchestra

Tell us about the ACO, how it was formed, it's raison d'etre

The ACO has had two lives, in its first life, it was formed from musicians from the NYO, RAM, City of London School and ERMA and then, its aims were to play chamber orchestra works largely from the classical to the twentieth century repertoire with occasional premieres by myself and fellow composers such as Peter Copley. We attracted some of the best musicians as soloists, from Michael Collins to Nicholas Daniel and even Sir Colin Davis, who played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with us during one rehearsal fitting us in during his lunch break from his day job at Covent Garden.

Following a concert at St John’s Smith Square, I left London and disbanded the ACO to study for a D.Phil in composition at the University of York, conducting the new music ensemble there for two years. The repertoire there was all contemporary, from student works, SPNM workshops to classics by Boulez, Stravinsky and Bartok.

In 2006, I was a prizewinning finalist in the Tansman International Competition of Musical Personalities performing my concertino for piano with the Arthur Rubenstein Philharmonic Orchestra of Łodz.

It was there I was exposed to the music of Aleksander Tansman and was amazed to find how neglected he was in the UK, despite having enormous international acclaim elsewhere: his world tour in 1932-33 involving an audience with Hirohito and a week with Ghandi and an invitation by Milhaud to be a seventh member of Les Six are just two examples among countless others of his enormous recognition. It was this, in addition to conversation with his two daughters who were present at the competition, which motivated me to reform the orchestra, an organisation that seeks to champion excellence.

A very short while later, the ACO was reborn as a fully fledged charity with a board of trustees ready to tackle exciting, fresh recent and contemporary music that deserves to be heard.

Does the group focus on playing specific types of music?

There is a film by one of our supporters, Tony Palmer, ‘Towards the Unknown Region’, which I think sums up part of our ethic: we would like to explore areas in recent and new music that for reasons unconnected to quality is marginalized or ignored: the ACO reaches the parts other ensembles cannot reach.

This is not to say that we will not play works from the contemporary canon: we are, for instance, leading an important workshop at our host university, Roehampton, on the Folk Songs of Luciano Berio, but there are plenty of first rate ensembles already immersed in performing that important repertoire so, as already stated in the previous answer, we want to work on music that deserves exposure, irrespective of the vagaries of fashion and aggressive marketing; works which, when heard, eloquently defend their own case.

You have an upcoming season entitled 'Northern Ayres: An Anglo Polish Celebration', how do you go about programming your concerts?

This season, as I mentioned before, largely planned itself following my trip to Poland for the competition. I heard the music of Zygmunt Krauze, for instance, at a concert of the jury members, an illustrious panel which included Penderecki, Nyman, Holliger, Zur and others. His music stood out because of its simplicity, strength and technical finesse whilst Diana Burrell has a raw chthonic energy that contrasts with Tansman’s Parisien finesse and élan.

Northern Ayres was also programmed in dialogue with the composers, for instance; I wanted to perform his work Idyll for 4 soloists playing folk instruments (4 hurdy-gurdies, 4 bag pipes, 4 folk violins, 4 fifes, 16 bells) and tape but he advised against this in favour of more tradition forces mixed with melodicas.

Do you ever commission work? If so how do you decide who to commission?

Commissioning is of fundamental importance to the orchestra. We are honoured that the eminent composer Bogusław Schaeffer has already written us a Harp Concerto which will feature in a future season. This was for a very personal reason: he had worked with our harpist and International Liaison Officer Elżbieta Baklarz.

Whilst we will be approaching composers whom we have heard of and admire, this will be but one of many routes to commissioning: calls for pieces, competitions, workshops for student composers and independent submissions. If anyone has other suggestions, our board of trustees would be willing to consider them. The choice of commission will eventually always rest with myself as artistic director – but often, as in the case of our forthcoming competition for a piece for harp and chamber orchestra, other composers or musicians will be called open if specialist knowledge is required (in this instance, Roxanne Panufnik, a former harpist is one of our adjudicators for our harp competition).

What role do you think new music has in society?

I would say firstly that new music has many roles in society.

Since the Hegelian dialectic inherent in 18th classical music sonata form structures, the grandiose certainties of Bach, belief and the late Baroque have gone and we now have to ask questions. A society, religion, institution, indeed the ACO itself must be open to constant questioning. There is no lingua franca, but there should be lingua activa.

In addition to questioning, society should by refreshed by the spirit of adventure: as maestro Berio told me when I visited his flat in Florence, it is not enough to compose, you must go on a sea voyage – I would like to extend the metaphor further: the sea voyage suggests at least five outcomes:

(1) it can either take you to places you have not been before via a safe, storm free route
(2) it can take you to familiar places via a turbulent voyage
(3) it can take you to strange locations via a turbulent voyage
(4) you can cruise leisurely to a familiar place
(5) you can hit an iceberg.

With new music, the unexpected is often upon us, so that any of the five outcomes are possible, and indeed, what is an iceberg for some is Elysium for others.

Where can people find out more about the ACO?

The website is a good place to start:

The harp competition is found here:

In addition, I can always be contacted on any matters – including submission of scores, suggestions for commissions etc on the following email:

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2024

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