I. Thermals - II. Far Cliffs - III. Life Force
The inspiration for this concerto came in several guises.
When living in Brighton, Adrian remembers staring in wonder at seagulls that appeared to be hanging stock-still in the sky, hovering on a thermal current. The same image impressed him years later while on holiday on the South African coast, staying with friends whose house overlooked the vast expanse of False Bay. He began thinking how he might set a gull’s flight to music and how to describe the world from the gull’s point of view.
Another prompt came from his former agent Claire Baughan, who suggested he might consider writing a work that could act as a companion piece to The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, the tone poem for violin and orchestra that has long been a favourite with British audiences. The violinist Fenella Humphreys, with whom he has closely collaborated on a number of works, agreed that it would be a sensible ploy, not least because Vaughan Williams’ lark only ascends for fifteen minutes. It often leaves a tricky gap in the programme to fill, while the soloist is only on stage for a small portion of the concert.
The final piece of the puzzle came when, several years ago and rather randomly, I gave Adrian a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and suggested its themes would work well set to music. A cult classic from the seventies, the story tells of how Jonathan the gull is rejected from his flock, finds a mentor, learns about forgiveness and love, and achieves transcendence through the perfection of his flight. Adrian’s concerto picks up on some of those themes and the overall shape of the story, while not being tied to any of its detail. Where Vaughan Williams’ lark soars over the earth, so the gull will over the ocean. Further musical inspirations were found in the dreamier episodes and ethereal writing of the Britten and Walton violin concertos and the bracing rhythms of Bartók.
There are three movements through-composed into one journey, with the gull our guide on the violin throughout.
The gull’s travels start by circling over an ocean panorama, with a soft figure in muted strings and harp suggesting a gentle seesaw of thermal currents. The wide descending intervals of this motif immediately give a sense of space and freedom and of a bird content in flight. The rhythms tighten into ‘Scottish snaps’ as the gull tries out more challenging moves: steep banks, nose dives and quick slips of direction. As the orchestra begins to battle against this display, so the gull responds with a defiant solo, a lyrical cadenza.
After the solo, the thermals return and the gull is left to fly high and alone, contemplating the sky and what might lie beyond. This is the second movement. A quiet accompaniment sustains the flight from below, with the violin finding its highest reaches. The harmonies shift and pose questions, but a calm pervades.
The final movement is an assertion of life force and energy. The gull is transfigured, pure spirit and light. There is a triumphant surge in the orchestra, launching the bird skywards like a rocket. Motifs return from the previous movements, but now with extra shine and vigour. Aside from one poignant return to the dreaminess of the very opening, the finale is all about momentum and resolve. Each drift down is countered with a concerted soar upwards. By the end the gull, sky and sun are one.
There is an invitation to hear in the music a reflection of Adrian’s own personality and journey: keeping going despite adversity, celebrating life in the now, seizing the day — and in so doing, finding release.
Words by Jon James