Meet the Artist……Nicola LeFanu, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy, so clearly I had a role model. As a child I was more inclined towards writing plays but gradually composing music took over. No-one pushed me towards a career in music, it chose itself, really.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Four composers: My mother, my husband David Lumsdaine, my first composition teacher, Jeremy Dale Roberts, and my last, Earl Kim.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Composition is always a challenge, and one that I welcome. Fashion is a frustration! For example, throughout the seventies and eighties almost everything I wrote was broadcast on Radio 3. Then for the next twenty years very little was broadcast. Now things seem better, as I shall be BBC Radio 3 ‘Composer of the Week’ (April 24-28 2017).

And ‘location’ as well as fashion perhaps, since I moved from London to York in 1994, and UK musical life is very London-centric. (But I love living in York.)

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

It is a pleasure and a stimulus to know the context of a piece – what kind of programme it is part of, who the audience are likely to be and above all, who the performers are. Occasionally it can be a challenge to keep composerly independence while meeting very specific demands of the commission.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

A good working relationship with a performer is the greatest pleasure. And every medium offers its own pleasure – writing for orchestra is marvellous. Yet the challenge also lies in the medium. For example, composing an orchestral work might take a year, but there will only be two or three hours of rehearsal and maybe only one performance. An opera (also at least a year to write) will have two or three weeks of rehearsal and several performances or a run. A much more satisfactory ratio.

Of which works are you most proud?

‘The Old Woman of Beare’, a monodrama for soprano and large chamber ensemble, is perhaps my best piece. But I would also single out a couple of the chamber operas – ‘Light Passing’, a church opera set in Avignon in the 14th century, and ‘Dream Hunter’ which has a great libretto by John Fuller about the Corsican mazzeera.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Lyrical, dramatic. Harmony and voice-leading create and underpin the structure.

How do you work?

I work every morning (no email till after lunch!); I sketch with pencil and paper, then I use Finale to make the fair score. Sometimes I work at the piano and sometimes at a desk, it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

The best days are ones where I work right through but all too often life intervenes and I only get the morning.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I don’t deal with favourites really…Mozart, Janacek? Of my musical friendships, the New Zealand composer Gillian Whitehead is a close friend whose music I admire very much.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The first rehearsal of my first big orchestral piece, ‘The Hidden Landscape’ for the BBCSO at the 1973 Proms.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Cultivate your inner ear! Then for the outer ear, know how to value silence and be active in combatting noise pollution,

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

In an opera house watching one of my operas.

What is your most treasured possession?

As a child, my cat. Now that I have no cat, and since I am writing this on March 29th when the Prime Minister took UK out of Europe, I’d say my EU (Irish) passport is my most treasured possession.

To mark Nicola LeFanu’s 70th birthday (28 April 2017), Radio 3 will feature her as ‘Composer of the Week’ from 24-28 April.  Upcoming performances of LeFanu’s music include a birthday concert on 10 May in York with the Goldfield Ensemble, the world premiere of LeFanu’s May Rain in Oxford with the Orchestra of St John’s  on 16 May and the world premiere of The Swan with Jeremy Huw Williams at the Beaumaris Festival on 30 May.  

Nicola LeFanu has composed over a hundred works which have been widely played, broadcast and recorded; her music is published by Novello and by Edition Peters.

She has been commissioned by the BBC, by festivals in UK and beyond, and by leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists.

Her catalogue includes a number of works for string ensemble, and chamber music for a wide variety of mediums, often including voice. She has a particular affinity for vocal music and has composed eight operas.

She is active in many aspects of the musical profession, as composer, teacher, director etc. From 1994-2008 she was Professor of Music at the University of York. Recent premieres include works for chamber ensemble, for solo instrumentalists, Tokaido Road – a Journey after Hiroshige (music theatre) and Threnody for orchestra.

She was born in England in 1947: her mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy. LeFanu studied at Oxford, RCM and, as a Harkness Fellow, at Harvard. She is married to the Australian composer David Lumsdaine and they have a son, Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine.

www.nicolalefanu.com