Who or what inspired you to take up composition and pursue a career in music?
I began playing the piano at an early age and then became a chorister at St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol, where I developed a passion for singing and the organ. I was able to take this forward through courses with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the RSCM Millennium Youth Choir, later becoming the MYC’s assistant conductor working alongside David Ogden and Daniel Moult.
I vividly remember the first performance of one of my pieces: a very simple carol written for the St George’s Bristol Composition Competition, which was adjudicated by Peter Philips and the main prize was having the piece sung by the Tallis Scholars. This competition morphed into the National Centre for Early Music composition competition, and winning this a few years later in 2010 spurred me on to compose.
I really enjoyed being at Wells Cathedral School for Sixth Form – it was the first time I was surrounded by musicians and I enjoyed living there so much that I applied to be Senior Organ Scholar at the cathedral in my gap year before studying at Trinity College Cambridge.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Stephen Layton has been one of the biggest influences on my career. He gave me numerous opportunities to write pieces for the choir, most of which have been recorded for release in 2018. I also arranged carols and light music for recordings and tours, plus several pieces for the annual River Concert when the choir sing from punts on the river outside the Wren Library on the backs. While at Trinity, I also studied orchestration with John Rutter, who is the most knowledgable musician I’ve ever met. He has an encyclopaedic understanding of the repertoire and helped me enormously not just with composing but with guidance on score presentation and the extraction of orchestral parts.
My writing is often influenced by whatever I have recently been listening to, and I regularly refer to Benjamin Britten as I love his musical ideas and the diversity of his output. As I’ve been working on more orchestral writing, I’ve explored more music by Ravel, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams, and have just finished an analysis of some of James MacMillan’s works; I really admire the way he has shaped his career and love listening to his music.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Balancing an academic degree with several concerts a week was sometimes a challenge! During my third year I ran The Gesualdo Six’s inaugural composition competition which ended up attracting far more attention than I had envisaged; we ended up with almost two hundred entries from around the world. It was incredibly exciting to visit the college post room and have a pigeon hole bursting with new entries in the days leading up to the deadline, though I was only weeks away from taking my final exams…
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m really proud to have accompanied the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge on discs of Stanford and Howells, recorded at Hereford and Coventry cathedrals respectively. For the unaccompanied discs, I have several memories of re-writing a piece overnight to be recorded by the choir the next day – sometimes this extremely concentrated effort produces my best work, though I probably have to be careful not to rely on this burst of inspiration at the last-minute…
I had a wonderful time last summer (2016) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a group of twenty musicians performing my Chamber Opera, The Snow Child. I’ve since written a companion work and hope to complete a set of three before too long, with a run time of approximately 60 minutes and accessible parts for the singers and instrumentalists alike, in the hope that it will be widely programmed, perhaps by some schools or universities.
I was delighted to be asked by Nigel Short to write a piece for Tenebrae to accompany Joby Talbot’s ‘Path of Miracles’ – ‘Footsteps’ was recorded by Tenebrae and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain Fellowship Octet, and has subsequently been performed by numerous choirs around the UK.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Often a particular festival or event will have a specific era or genre in mind, and with The Gesualdo Six I’ve built up a wealth of concert material, beginning with Machaut and other Flemish/English/Italian early music composers, right through to music written for the group by composers including Joanna Ward and Sarah Rimkus. Both Joanna and Sarah have since written works for Cambridge Chorale; I really enjoy programming works by my contemporaries as it also gives me inspiration in my own compositions.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The Gesualdo Six were St John’s Smith Square Young Artists in the 2015-16 season, and we’ve given about seven performances there with two more in the pipeline for 2018. Richard Heason and the team have been incredibly supportive, not just through their support of our composition competition, but in organising opportunities with the group in mind, including the performance of Arvo Pärt’s Passio earlier this year.
It’s always special return to venues that I grew up performing in, and it’s been particularly special to give concerts as part of our Summer Tours in St Mary Redcliffe Church and Holy Trinity, Westbury-on-Trym, where I spent many of my formative years.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Conducting Bach’s St John Passion in Trinity College Chapel was an amazing experience, as was directing Arvo Pärt’s Passio at St John’s Smith Square with the composer in the audience. It was very special to perform my work, ‘Footsteps’, with Tenebrae in Exeter and Truro cathedrals recently – something as simple as seeing copies of the work laid out in the choir vestry before the performance was a really proud moment, and I was pleased to be able to thank the performers who joined Tenebrae for the performances.
I have also had the opportunity to perform John Tavener’s monumental The Veil of the Temple in Trondheim, Norway in 2015, where I was asked to sing in the chorus and some low bass solos, before ending up playing the organ from the fourth movement onwards!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think success can sometimes be as simple as a ‘thank-you’ from an audience member after a concert – perhaps uplifting them after a hard day – as well as a positive review or an award. As a composer, it’s fantastic to have my work performed around the world and I try to get to as many performances as possible – not just because I am keen to hear how the performers have interpreted my score but also to thank them for programming the work and develop relationships with musicians across the globe. It’s a small world, but certainly big enough to meet a lot of fascinating musicians.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Practice is key – I’ll forever be grateful to my mum for sitting me down on the piano stool and getting me to do those scales, because now I can look at a piece of music and interpret it at the piano, and these millions of connections lead to compositional ideas when the fingers find the right spot on the keys.
It’s also important to remember that failure or rejection can allow even better opportunities to present themselves. Having worked with the choristers at Wells Cathedral, I felt I was really suited to the organ scholarship at St John’s College Cambridge, but I ended up at Trinity. At the time I saw this as some kind of failure – I wasn’t quite good enough to get my first choice – but now I couldn’t be more grateful for the time I had and the people I met at Trinity: years which have been instrumental in my career.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I found that question difficult to answer 10 years ago, and still find it very difficult now! I’ve really enjoyed the past year and have had the opportunity to perform in some magnificent concert halls and churches around the world, and hear my music performed by new choirs and ensembles, so I think I’d like to follow this trajectory and see where it goes!
Owain Park will conduct The Gesualdo Six on 14 December and BBC Singers on 15 December. Both concerts will take place at Temple Church, as part of the 2017 Temple Winter Festival.