Classical: Ringing in the changes

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jonathan Dove has a lot to celebrate: 50 years of British orchestral life and a commission from BT that could give his latest work as many as 80 performances. The composer tells Louise Jury why he wants to set the isle ringing.

Plain Bob Major was one inspiration. Oxford Treble Bob Minor and Grand Sire Doubles had a bearing, too, though Cambridge Surprise Triple Minor failed to make it into the final score.

Asked by the Association of British Orchestras to create a piece of music on the theme of celebration (to mark the ABO's 50th anniversary), composer Jonathan Dove decided to turn to the joyous sound of bell-ringing, where Plain Bob Major is a stalwart peal regularly heard in churches across the land (and not some long-forgotten relative of the former PM).

"Bell-ringing is a peculiarly British activity and an image of national pride," says Dove. "Europe has the carillon [a set of bells operated from an organ-like console], but not British-style change-ringing - an inexhaustible stream of abstract melody which is part of our cultural heritage. It's the most public, and the loudest, piece of British musical activity. It seemed like an appropriate image for a piece on celebration."

Dove consequently took himself off to his local public library to explore the intricacies of the peal notation further. "There were all these fascinating charts," he says. "I'd heard some of the names before, but I'd never worked out how it was done." The resulting work, The Ringing Isle, incorporates traces of the traditional sound of church bells in its material.

Thanks to sponsorship from BT, ABO members can hire the parts free of charge. With over 80 orchestras represented in the organisation, Dove's five-minute overture thus has the potential to become one of the most performed pieces of contemporary music in the repertoire. The score (which helpfully exists in two versions, one for symphonic, one for chamber forces) received its world premiere from the London Philharmonic on the South Bank earlier this month, and another 11 performances are already scheduled across the country, from Leeds (next weekend) to Belfast, Birmingham and Ipswich.

"It was Handel who called Britain the ringing isle," says Dove, "when he came to England in 1714 and found all the church towers were ringing out peals which were the kind of melodies he'd never heard before. Ringing Isle is rather a magical title, suggesting a way of looking at Britain as this magical island which you might come across on a sea voyage. Ringing the changes - what a great title to take you through to the Millennium. There's also quite a nice pun - it's commissioned by BT."

The 1997/98 BT Celebration Series is an extention to a three-year sponsorship deal that began in 1984. Each year BT commissions a new work and then sponsors orchestras to perform it. The first commission, Britannia, was written by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, followed by Partita for Orchestra by the US-based expat Richard Rodney Bennett in 1995 and The Creatures Indoors, a collaboration between composer Stephen Montague and poet Jo Shapcott, last year.

Celebrations are becoming a Jonathan Dove forte. He composed the Fairest Isle fanfare for Radio 3's year-long Purcell's tercentenary celebrations. Open to Me the Gates was written for the Queen's opening of Britain's first ecumenical church, and the wind serenade Figures in the Garden (recorded by EMI) was composed for Glyndebourne's Mozart bicentenary season in 1991.

That's the same year that Dove, now 38, became musical adviser to the Almeida Theatre in London, where his input has included the music to both Diana Rigg's Medea and Ralph Fiennes's Ivanov. Having composed three large- scale community operas over the years for Glyndebourne Education, he is now working on a full-length opera to be premiered by Glyndebourne Touring Opera next year and taken into the main summer festival in 1999.

Forthcoming performances of `The Ringing Isle': 6 Dec, English Northern Philharmonia at Leeds Town Hall; 22 Jan, RSNO at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall; 19 Feb, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at Colston Hall, Bristol