articles on this page:
"Fine Music" Magazine, March, 2002
Variations for Orchestra
The Australian, March 1, 2002
Variations for Orchestra
Sydney Sun Herald, March 3, 2002
Variations for Orchestra
review, "Variations for Orchestra"
Sydney's North Shore Times, April 2002
North Shore Times: the year 2002 summary
The Australian, July 19, 2005 -
North Shore Times July 29, 2005
Daily Telegraph article, February 22, 2008
review, "Euphonium Concerto"
North Shore Times March 14, 2008
ABC FM radio station program notes
re- "Euphonium Concerto"
Daily Telegraph article, 16/09/13:
Legends of the Old Castle
"Legends of the Old Castle" world premiere
Sydney Morning Herald, 27/07/14
2MBS-FM "Fine Music" Magazine,
reviews of "Legends of the Old Castle",
February, 2017 performance in Baden-Baden
review of Woollahra Philharmonic Orchestra concert,
from the March 2002 issue of "Fine Music" magazine:
"Blow me down, it's a serialist!"
|A new composer with
a taste for 12-tone music
is nothing to fear,
as Lee Bracegirdle
writes for the inner ear.
by Rita Williams
Middle-earth may boast a clan of Bracegirdles, but there’s only one listed in the Sydney phone directory and he’s on the brink of a career milestone. It’s something Lee Bracegirdle can blow his horn about, but instead of joining his colleagues on stage for the world premiere of Variations for Orchestra, he will take a seat in he concert-hall stands.
Bracegirdle’s name stands out from the five 21st–century composers in the Sydney Symphony’s Meet the Music line-up this year, and not because of Tolkien. The orchestra’s associate principal of the French horn is unknown in composition circles. He readily admits to being a ‘spare-time composer’; Variations is his second orchestral work.
The first, 1998’s Divertimento for Orchestra is still to be performed publicly, despite having won that year’s Zoltan Kodaly International Composers’ Competition. It grew out of his Fanfare for the Extraordinary Individual, originally a stand-alone work scored for 10 brass instruments.
The provocative title stems from recent orchestral history. ‘There was the Fanfare for the Common Man by Copland,’ Bracegirdle explains, ‘and then this new work by Joan Tower, which the Houston Symphony Orchestra commissioned for its sesquicentenary [in 1986]: Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. She was doing it to put the wind up Aaron Copland, so I’ve put the wind up both of them by being completely politically correct.’ His wry smile twists as tongue prods cheek.
Bracegirdle is going on 50 but as a composer, he acknowledges, ‘you could say that I’m only 5 years old.’ Yet he’s too old to qualify for most composers’ competitions.
Hailing from Houston, Texas, and growing up in Philadelphia, his unmistakably American timbre has a little of the Dubya drawl but plenty of unplaceable vowel sounds. Like the French horn with other orchestral instruments, Bracegirdle has a knack for blending in. The greeting on his answering machine, for instance, says ‘hello and please leave a message’ in five languages.
Before his appointment to the SSO brought him down under in 1980, he lived a year in Mexico while playing in the Orquesta Filarmónica de la Unam, and three years in Bavaria, Germany, while a member of the Hof Symphony Orchestra. He met his wife there, and nowadays, a full-time orchestral job and helping to raise their two daughters leave little time for composing.
‘I’ve been dabbling in composition and arranging for years but had never taken it seriously,’ he says when we meet at his home in North Epping one sweltering Sydney day. ‘The [Kodaly] award didn’t give me any money; it got me some publicity. But the knowledge that the judges saw something in my music, and that the same prize had previously been awarded to such luminaries as Miklos Rosza, Pablo Casals and Georg Solti was very encouraging.
The ‘dabbling’ gave birth to a published collection of Christmas carols arranged for brass quintet, a published book of horn exercises that he considers less composition than ‘calisthenics or aerobics for the horn player’, and arrangements as well as new compositions for the Australian Chamber Ballet (ACB).
Bracegirdle arranged music for student big bands when he was studying at the Philadelphia Musical Academy and later the Juilliard School in New York, but it was when the ACB’s choreographer asked him for a tango that he looked seriously at being original.
‘As musical director [of ACB], I take big orchestral works like Stravinsky’s Petroushka and re-arrange them for our ensemble of six or seven musicians,’ he says. ‘When our choreographer asked if I would compose a contemporary, satiric sort of tango I thought, well, I haven’t tried composing for a long time, but I said all right, and it was a big hit at the show.’ His next composition is a work for ACB called Eat Pianist. ‘It’s going to have a bit of the macabre in it,’ he laughs.
Writing for the ensemble whetted his orchestral appetite, but composition is still no meal ticket. The SSO did not commission Variations for Orchestra, nor is it paying a performance fee, Bracegirdle says.
The work is exactly as its title purports: a theme followed by 10 separate movements that grow out of it. To vary the theme, Bracegirdle uses the serialist techniques developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century. Anyone thinking it’s too early in the new millennium for a dodecaphonic renaissance can rest assured: the composer delivers a score that breaks as many of Schoenberg’s rules as it adheres to (after all, it’s not like the inventor stuck to them).
The point of returning to 12-tone music was to free Bracegirdle’s mind for the journey – serialism was a passport to unexplored territories; a tool for unlocking the ears from tonality’s tyrannical grip, the 12 tones becoming a Fellowship of the Music.
‘Many things I had written up until this point were really programmatic. They had a reason for being, like the tango; it was done for a purpose with a title and theme in mind. I wanted to try the absolute opposite with Variations,’ he says, ‘that is, to take the most abstract possible bit of music that you could find, which is a 12-tone row, a dodecaphonic row, that has no connotations whatsoever, and plant it as a seed in some fertile soil somewhere in my subconscious and see what happens.’
Bracegirdle is no latter-day zealot of the Schoenberg school. “In this day and age, you can use strict serialism if you want to, but I think you’re almost copying someone else if you do,’ he says. ‘I think you have the right to take it and say, all right, I like the idea of using dodecaphonic ideas. In other words, do not repeat any note in a string of melodies or tonalities until you’ve actually used all of those that are in the chromatic scale up until that time. Then you’re going to help yourself stay away from tonal centres.’
He elaborates on the theme: ‘Staying away from tonal centres will always give you that meandering quality where you find the beauty in atonality itself, without expecting it to resolve. If you keep hearing one note within that chromatic 12-tone row more often than another one the ear will be tugged in that direction and that will become the tonal centre. If you want to concentrate on the beauty in the colours themselves, the beauty in the clash of the sounds, the dodecaphony is a very good way of just setting up a bit of a guideline to avoid tonal centres.’
While he is happy to take an ad hoc approach to serialism, Bracegirdle has little but disdain for concert hall performances of that other arch movement of 20th-century music, minimalism. ‘I think there is a gradual progression in what humans can learn, what the brain can absorb, and I think that in the creative arts that front edge has to be constantly pushing forward,’ he says. ‘I don’t think in the year 2001/2002, composers should be composing music that has funky rhythms in the background, dominat-tonic-dominat-tonic tonal centres, triads of major and minor chords, and be taken seriously.’
Several of the variations in his work, as well as the theme, constitute serialism by the book. In the cheekily-named variation, Analyse This, Bracegirdle delights, ‘the thematic material is absolutely everywhere – there’s almost nothing in it that is not connected to the theme.’ Elsewhere, however, he gives in to the odd tonal centre, steering a course towards the orchestral radiance of orthodox serialist Anton Webern’s short pieces for orchestra, rather than the driving tonality of minimalism.
‘The beauty of really good variation, if you take for instance Brahms’ Haydn Variations is that the relationship each variation has with the theme it’s based on is very often just subliminal. It might be the chordal progression, it might be just a couple of little figures within the theme itself that repeat. Maybe you won’t hear those things at first, but I think the inner ear of the brain is excited when it recognises thematic material subliminally.’
Listening to excerpts of Variations recorded for a Sydney Symphony education kit, reveals the abstract, 12-note seed sprouted multifarious forms. Each variation has a character and drama of its own. In the variation titled Meditation, chords of notes from the theme are slowly repeated , like a mantra passing through woodwind, brass and string sonorities, a floating backdrop to single-line melodies. Scherzetto di Duetti e Trii is full of frenetic energy, while Recuerdos de la Recoleta bounces with rumba rhythms. It is one of only two variations in the set where, Bracegirdle says, he let himself be drawn away from abstract musical ideas towards a program.
‘After I’d started Recuerdos I imagined a scene where people were busking in the middle of Plaza San Martin in Buenos Aires and I thought, well this is going to be the title of it.’ He thumbs through the score and pauses to point out ‘this is the traffic coming in, the brass playing the traffic, and this is the thematic material being hammered out by the glockenspiel and flutes.’
You will need to hitch your subconscious to the Interlude if you are to hear the theme. Looking at it on paper, tuned and untuned percussion play the 12 notes one at a time, with soft drum rolls and clouds of shimmering cymbals. ‘It’s like each note is a brooaaar,’ says Bracegirdle. ‘You have to imagine every other note because it’s not there. The ear is challenged to hear the untuned percussion as a pitch as well, to fill in the gaps and try to slowly go through the 12-note theme.’
During the performances, Bracegirdle hopes
the audience will leave serial analysis to
the inner ear and be aware only of the music’s
effect. ‘I’ll be happy if people come out being entertained,
having laughed or feeling like they’ve been
kicked in the stomach, but not being able
to say, oh yeah, I heard the retrograde inversion
in the third variation. If that happens I’ll have to go back to the
(2-MBS Fine Music - March 2002)
from The Australian, March 1, 2002
"Wandering Chameleon turns composer for SSO"
by Anne Lim
French horn player Lee Bracegirdle describes himself as a chameleon. In his 49 years, he has changed colour many times. From rock and soul player to orchestral musician, from instrumentalist to conductor to composer.
As a student at New York’s Juilliard School, he earned money touring the U.S. with rock and soul bands. “I’ve earned money in almost every musical genre you could imagine, but my heart was always in quality, serious music,” he says. For 25 years, the Texas-born musician has played in orchestras on three continents, from Mexico to Germany to Australia, where he is Associate Principal Horn with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. “ I feel happy anywhere,” he says.
All that time spent sitting in orchestras proved the perfect incubation period for his latest transformation. Next Wednesday and Thursday, Bracegirdle the composer makes his orchestral debut when the SSO plays his 28-minute work, Variations for Orchestra, at the Sydney Opera House. ABC Classic FM will broadcast the Wednesday concert at 8pm.
Bracegirdle is the SSO’s second in-house composer to have his work performed, the other being first violinist Georges Lentz. “It’s rare that there is a composer who composes well enough that his own orchestra plays his music. It’s rare to have one in an orchestra – it’s almost unheard of that you have two…. so it’s quite a big coincidence that Georges and I ended up in the same orchestra together. If you don’t mind me saying so, I think it’s two very nice flowers for the SSO to have in their buttonhole.”
Conductor Richard Gill, who chose to program Bracegirdle’s piece as part of the SSO’s Meet the Music series, describes it as “very skillfully orchestrated”, with each variation having its own character. “Lee has given a very different slant to serial music. He knows the orchestra very well and his understanding of the instruments is very good. He hasn’t used them in a willful way or an experimental way. It’s a very mature piece.”
Bracegirdle’s is a totally different compositional style from that of Lentz, who is noted for his wonderful sense of orchestral colour. “Lee is much more interested in the melodic and harmonic ideas that are going in,” Gill says. “So they are quite different – both very, very gifted.”
Bracegirdle upped sticks and dragged his wife and daughter to Germany in 1990, to blow his life savings on studying conducting under Michael Gielen at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and to work in 1991 as assistant conductor at an opera house in the former East Germany. After returning to Sydney and the SSO in 1992, he started hiring himself out as a conductor, and in 1996 set up the Australian Chamber Ballet with Argentinean choreographer Adrian Dimitrievitch. He began composing for the ensemble, which integrates dancers and musicians on stage in new repertoire for dance.
Conducting has gone on the back burner, though, since he won first prize in the Zoltan Kodaly International Competition in 1998 for his orchestral work Divertimento for Orchestra. Increasingly, the spare time he used to devote to conducting is being consumed by composing.
His next project is a black comedy in dance and music, Eat Pianist, for the ACB, which he hopes will be performed later this year. But, with a family to support, he has no ambition to give up his SSO job. “You simply cannot feed a family on being a serious composer,” he says. “You might be able to feed your grandchildren on royalties, after you become posthumously famous, but I can’t count on that, so I’ll stick to things the way they are.”
from Sydney's Sun Herald, March 3, 2002
review: Variations for Orchestra -
Sydney's North Shore Times, April 2002:
"Aussie composers hit the right notes"
"Variations for Orchestra", a work
by Lee Bracegirdle, a Juilliard-trained horn
player in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.....was
premiered in a Meet the Music program, conducted with energetic assurance
by Richard Gill. ....a 12-tone row with 10 variations that
exhibit ingenious, multi-coloured scoring,
with never a dull moment.
The final impression recalls the treatment more than the thing treated.
This is clever stuff !
(reviewed by Mr. Fred Blanks)
North Shore Times, December 18, 2002
"Fred's Ear on the Year's Best"
North Shore Times
"Best Australian Work [of 2002]: Lee Bracegirdle's Variations for Orchestra (S.S.O., Richard Gill, Opera House, March)"
review of the world premiere performance of
Ammerseelieder from "The Australian" (19/7/05):
"The composer's score, with its Mahlerian-Schönbergian tinge was attractive, evocative, and cleverly orchestrated. I regularly found myself smiling and nodding in admiration at his inventive use of instrumental colours."
(reviewed by Murray Black)
The North Shore Times (29/7/05):
"Bracegirdle showed compositional flair with his five 'Ammerseelieder ', setting his own poems about life's incomprehensibility and inevitability to a musical idiom that recalled melody with meditative and excitable emotional effect."
(reviewed by Fred Blanks)
from Sydney's Daily Telegraph, 22/02/08
review: Euphonium Concerto -
The North Shore Times (14.03 2008):
"Often relegated to brass bands, the
euphonium gets little publicity as a solo
instrument. But composer Lee Bracegirdle
has come to its rescue with a Euphonium Concerto
- a colourful work with ingenious orchestration,
whose idioms reflect jubilation, a "witches
sabbath" and a concluding chorale."
(reviewed by Fred Blanks)
ABC Classic FM "Broadcast Highlights", April 2008, re- "Euphonium Concerto":
"...an evocative new work destined to occupy a special place in the instrument's repertoire"
click here to download radio station 2MBS-FM "Fine Music" magazine
article about the premiere of Violin Concerto
review of the world premiere of Legends of the Old Castle: Sydney, July, 2014
"Bracegirdle’s cogent and effective score was full of colourful timbres and gothic gestures, taking the harp solo from angelic strums to jangling blows."
(Joel Meares, Sydney Morning Herald)
reviews of the February, 2017 performance of Legends of the Old Castle in Baden-Baden, Germany, with Park Stickney as soloist
from the newspaper Badisches Tagblatt:
"Inspired by the wind-harp in the Old Castle"
"Harp concerto by Lee Bracegirdle thrills in symphony-concert / Thomas Rösner conducts a highly-motivated Philarmonic"
"An encounter with the wind-harp in the ruins of the “Old Castle” Schloss Hohenbaden, which the harpist and builder of Keltic harps Rüdiger Oppermann installed in one of its window openings, inspired the Australian composer Lee Bracegirdle during his residency in the Baden-Baden Brahmshaus to write his work Legends of the Old Castle for harp and chamber orchestra. This composition represented the highlight of the 6th subscription concert of the Baden-Baden Philharmonic in the Weinbrenner Hall of the Kurhaus conducted by Thomas Rösner of Austria.
The soloist in this work, which was premiered in Australia, was the American harp player Park Stickney, a friend of Oppermann and world renowned as jazz-interpreter. Jazz played on this biblical-historic instrument seems at first unusual. But after Stickney’s lively interpretation on an electro-acoustical concert harp together with chamber orchestra, this became well and truly imaginable.
Despite the amplification, one would have thought it might not to be easy for a harp to project through such an array of brass and percussion. But for Park Stickney that was no problem, with unbelievable virtuosity he staked his claim, especially with the help of the conductor and the “chamber orchestra.”
The composition is based partly on the tale of the evil margravine who held her baby son out of a high window of the castle to boastfully show him his future kingdom and accidentally let him slip from her hands, never to be found again. This stirring composition displayed at every phase of it to be as dramatic as the legends on which it is based - the many glissandi of the harp also reminded one of the wind harp in the castle ruins. The audience reaction was one of thrilled enthusiasm, applauding and yelling, and thereby they earned for themselves 2 jazzy encores from the soloist Park Stickney."
Karen Streich, Badisches Tagblatt, February 28, 2017.
from the newspaper Badische Neue Nachrichten:
"Old Castle unfolds musical magic"
"Philharmonic concert based on local influence / jazz-harpist performs as soloist"
"A particularly local colour painted the most recent concert of the Philharmonic in the Weinbrenner Hall of the Kurhaus. In the centre of the program stood a composition for solo-harp and chamber orchestra by the 1952-born composer Lee Bracegirdle with the title Legends of the Old Castle. This “old castle” refers to our own Schloss Hohenbaden. These walls, the legends that surround it, and the wind-harp that the Baden-Baden harpist Rüdiger Oppermann installed there inspired Bracegirdle for this work while he was in-residence in the Brahmshaus in Lichtental in spring of 2012. It doesn’t require much fantasy to hear from this music the wind-harp as well as the legend of the greedy and cruel margravine. According to legend her son slipped from her hands as she held him out of the window to show him his future kingdom. The child was never found, and since then the ghost of the margravine roams about the castle.
Accordingly, the music has a ghostly, mystical character, but also produces fairy-tale passages and speaks in a modern but urbane musical language. The harp, with its at times unconventional sounds was handled with great virtuosity by the famous jazz-harpist Park Stickney from New York, who after this performance in the classical field performed two fascinating encores in the style of his musical origins. After his first jazzy improvisation the cheers continued so long that he returned to the instrument for a second encore. This time he created improvisations on Dave Brubeck’s legendary piece “Take Five”, and reaped absolutely frenetic applause."
Badische Neue Nachrichten, February 27, 2017