An interview with composer Dani Howard

Her first opera, Robin Hood was premiered earlier this year by The Opera Story in
London [see

my review

], her new orchestral work Gates of Spring will open the 75th

Cheltenham Music Festival

tonight (5 July 2019) with

Elim Chan

conducting the London Symphony Orchestra,
and her orchestral work Coalescence opens the

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

‘s 2019/2020 season with

Vasily Petrenko

conducting the orchestra. I met up with Dani recently in London to chat
about her new pieces, and find out how writing her first opera had gone.

Dani often bases her subject matter on the forces required and the length
of the piece, so as Gates of Spring was required to be a short
concert opener it is quite light-hearted, written for a full symphony
orchestra with a big tuba solo. She describes Gates of Spring as
being loosely based on the founding of Cheltenham as a spa town, with the
title referring not to the season but to the gates which the founder of the
spa put round the original spring. Her piece takes a musical journey which
depicts Cheltenham as a beautiful old farmhouse, the spring being
discovered by a young entrepreneur and the spa developed. So we have an
atmospheric beginning, an idea, an outpouring of excitement, a false sense
of confidence, doubts growing and then events building, at the end the two
musical ideas representing the old and new Cheltenham merge.

is somewhat longer, which forms the first work in Vasily Petrenko and the
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s opening concerts (19 & 22 September
2019) of the orchestra’s 2019/20 season. Dani confesses herself very
excited to be working with Petrenko.

When writing works, even apparently abstract ones, she likes to have a very
clear story and she talks about a solo tuba piece which arose after seen
the optical illusion whereby the wheels of a car going fast can suddenly
seem as if they are going backwards. Coalescence was inspired by a
walk she used to take every day, where she suddenly noticed a huge old tree
which had grown round an iron railing, completely absorbing half of the
railing. In Coalescence this has become an analogy for how naive
humans are in thinking that they can overpower nature. So for Dani the
brass represent the humans, and the rest of the orchestra nature, and the
work is about a challenge between the two, but by the end neither side is
the winner. Coalescence has been Dani’s favourite piece to write
so far, and she describes the process as very emotional partly because the
environment is something that interests her.

Dani was born and grew up in Hong Kong where her parents worked (both had
travelled there from the UK, met, liked the place and stayed). When she
came to the UK to study she also found other little differences, growing up
the television had been different, she did not get all British people’s
jokes and there were other differences like things in politics. Yet she was
very English, so she started out not quite a foreigner but not quite
fitting in, though this has gradually changed over eight years she has been
here. And it does mean that the friends she made in the UK are from all

As a result of her Hong Kong upbringing, she had no experience of opera
growing up. But as a composer it was something she knew she wanted to do at
some point, and she loved the experience of writing Robin Hood,
yet she was also very nervous. It was her first time writing an opera, and
also her first time writing for operatic voices (before that she had only
writing one choral work), and also the length somewhat scared her ( Robin Hood is a substantial three-act work).

Prior to writing Robin Hood she needed a clear idea of the
structure of a work in her head before she started writing, and with a
clear time line she would plot out the emotional content to ensure that the
piece flowed. With Robin Hood she read the libretto each morning
but could not see the shape of the full 90 minute work, there was too much
information and too many changes of mood. So in the end she had to break it
down, act by act, scene by scene, and the over time she could look back at
the music she had written and see the bigger picture.

One of the things that she enjoyed about writing the opera was how
collaborative the process was. Usually composition is quite a lonely
business, but though the bulk of composition for Robin Hood was
done by the end of 2018, so much work was done collaboratively after that.
Whereas writing an orchestral work can be quite impersonal, with the opera
she was able to work with the singers. It helped that they had a great
team, with all the performers really wanting to be there.

They started with a general idea about the opera, talking about characters
and voice types, then Zoe Palmer
wrote the libretto, collaborating with Rebecca Hurst, and because Palemr
was based in the USA there was not so much back and forth.

Polly Graham

, the director, became involved after the first draft and then Dani started
writing. It was very much a learning process for Dani, and she feels she
grew in confidence and ability during the process. She would love to do
another opera ‘at some point’ and she feels that her experience with Robin Hood would enable her to contribute far more in the initial
discussion about the piece.

Her first instrument was a drum kit, at the age of five, and she still
loves rhythmically driven music. Her main instruments were cello and piano,
and she received cello lessons from the principal cello of the

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

. She took the instrument seriously but did not want to be a performer. Her
cello teacher taught her more than the cello, she credits him with teaching
her music and it was whilst doing studying for her GCSE Composition
examination that she realised that she wanted to be a composer, and she
sent on to study composition at the Royal College of Music

Dani describes her music has having a clear rhythmic drive, and refers to
her style as post-minimalist; she love minimalism but whilst she uses lots
of repetition her style is not minimalist. Whilst not strictly tonal, her
pieces are harmonically accessible. She refers to Benjamin Britten (his
studying at the Royal College of Music was one of the reasons why she
wanted to study there), John Adams and
Debussy as great influences, along with Brahms’ chamber music. She is very
interested in the music of new American composers such asNico Muhly, Mason Bates (here
she mentions his opera The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs).

She has a number of projects lined up for next year, and we also talked
about the hope that Robin Hood might get further performances,
enabling her to re-visit the score. As well as the orchestral premieres in
Cheltenham and Liverpool, she has some chamber music being performed in
Liverpool by the

Pixels Ensemble

and the pianist from this group, Ian Buckle,
will be premiering her piano piece The Earl St Vincent, during the

Full details of all the performances of Dani Howard’s music from the events
page of

her website.

Robert Hugill

product_by=A interview with Dani Howard, by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Dani Howard