Kevin Volans on his new piano concerto and string quartet

Kevin Volans’ work features in a concert presented by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) on 11 November in Birmingham. The group will premiere his fourth piano concerto with soloist Barry Douglas, and his String Quartet No. 12 will be given its first performance by the Signum Quartet. CMC asked Kevin Volans about the new works.

How did this piano concerto come about?

I approached BCMG about it. They had commissioned the big Partenheimer Project, and I thought they would be interested in this idea. They were. And then we were lucky to get Barry Douglas again. My original idea was to have no conductor, and like the Partenheimer Project, divide the ensemble into three spatially separate groups and invite the audience to move around during the performance. BCMG are very adept at playing with click tracks. However, as the piano part developed, I felt it would make it unreasonably difficult for the soloist to play with a click track. So I lobbied for a conductor. We are lucky to have Geoffrey Paterson.

What are some of the challenges when writing for piano and orchestra?

The history of piano concertos is perhaps the greatest challenge. There are so many wonderful works - from Mozart on, and it’s difficult to put this out of one’s head when writing. In the second piano concerto I decided to take on the tradition, but in this case, I was firstly given a very different instrumentation, and I chose to develop the material from some other pieces I had just written, specifically a piece for seven flutes, which involved seven-part canons. So that diverted my ideas away from the tradition somewhat. At the back of one’s mind, though, is that cutting comment on contemporary opera directors: ’Rather than do the obvious, they do the ridiculous’, so one wants to depart from the tradition, but, in the words of John Cage: no silliness!

The other work on the programme - also a premiere - is my 12th String Quartet. It’s derived from the same material. It’s a longer piece (36 minutes) and almost entirely pizzicato. Less exuberant, more introverted.


Have you been influenced by any particular piano composers or concertos when writing this work?

I don’t think so - but I have given this no particular thought.

This is your fourth piano concerto. Did you envisage when you wrote your first concerto over 20 years ago that you would go on to write four piano concertos?

Not particularly, but I enjoy writing them, so may continue.

Given that you’re a pianist, does writing for piano come easier to you than writing for other instruments, or is it the opposite?

Much more difficult, as you have the repertoire programmed into your hands, and it’s hard to get rid of that. I can almost not touch a piano without playing something of Brahms No. 2.

This is also the second concerto written for the soloist Barry Douglas (who premiered your third concerto in 2011). Are there any connections between the two works when it comes to how you have written for the soloist?

There is a connection, but only in the form of a mean joke. Barry said, ‘Please make this one easier than the last!’, so I included some quotes from the third concerto (which he already knew, of course), but cast in different rhythms. What’s mean about this is that Barry has to unlearn the material from the third concerto to play this piece.


The other work on the programme is your String Quartet No. 12, which will be performed by the Cologne-based Signum Quartet. You spoke before about how you found writing for string quartet easy. Is this still the case?

The more you know a genre, the easier it becomes, I suppose. Certainly it’s far far easier than my next big commission - a concerto for large orchestra and uilleann pipes. This is unknown territory for me …

The wonderful thing about the string quartet is that unlike the piano, or even a wind quartet it has such a vast (traditional) array of colours and textures. And they can play without having breathing pauses, fatigue etc. So in many senses it is easier than writing for the piano or other wind, brass or vocal groups.

Kevin Volans Spotlight takes place on 11 November 2016 at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham. More information here.