When the first notes of a new work being given its premiere by the Dacorum Symphony Orchestra sound out this weekend, you can be sure one member of the ensemble will be paying particular attention.
Because horn player Chris Cawley is also the composer of Three Celebratory Dances.
Retired teacher Chris, who lives in Leverstock Green, is no stranger to composing original works.
The former head of English at a school in St Albans was always closely involved in the musical life of the school, and his back catalogue includes pieces for voice, choir, orchestra and chamber groups, as well Christmas carols and other works.
He’s now studying for a masters qualification in composition at Goldsmiths College in London, and his new work will form part of his final portfolio.
Before the course began he had no formal musical education, beyond learning the piano as a child.
He took up the French horn while at university and is an established member of the DSO as well as other groups including the St Albans Symphony Orchestra.
“I have my father to thank for kindling an interest in music in me as a child and young adult, largely through recordings,” he said. “A great deal of my musical education, such as it is, has come from reading the sleeve notes from LPs and CDs.”
The first dance piece, the longest of the three, has its origins in an early orchestral piece which Chris admits he wasn’t happy with.
“I felt it was too diffuse in its textures and too introspective in its ideas, and I wanted to sharpen up my next piece, so I thought hard about how to bring rhythm into the foreground.
“As I started to form my ideas, around two years ago, it occurred to me that I was writing material that was dance-like, though not in any pre-existing dance form.
“As things progressed, a couple of holidays in Spain led to an interest in Spanish music and melody and some of these influences fed into my work.”
That Spanish influence can clearly be heard in the final piece, which is titled The Little Train of Soller.
Chris says the piece, which is strongly rhythmic but not in any particular form, takes its name from a ride he took on the famous narrow-gauge railway that runs from Soller to Palma on Majorca.
“I noted down the rhythms made by the noises of the train and used them in my music,” he said.
Although the work is getting its premiere this weekend, it could have had its first performance last year – but Chris admits that he’s not usually a very quick composer.
He had been working on a piece to feature in the orchestra’s 40th anniversary concert before Christmas.
“I had already started on what became the first dance, so I said I would work it up into something substantial.
“The idea was that I would write celebratory, up-beat music.
“As it turned out, it was not possible to programme the composition into the anniversary concert.
“I had only an incomplete version of the first dance until January of this year.
“I gave the orchestra each dance as I finished it. They got the last one shortly after Easter.
“The dances are written for a large orchestra and this inevitably means a lot of work.
“I can’t tell you how many hours – but a lot! I don’t work that quickly, usually.”
As the composer as well as a member of the orchestra, Chris has been closely involved in rehearsals.
“That might be intimidating if I were not a long-standing member of the orchestra and also on good terms with conductor Tom Loten.
“However, I expect to be told if I have made unreasonable demands on the players and have in fact made some changes to the score in the light of this.
“Performing is a very different process from composing and I tend to encourage players to think of the bigger picture, not the details of every note.”
“The conductor is in charge – it would be chaotic otherwise. But he will sometimes stop and consult me, or I may slip in a comment to him or the orchestra at a suitable moment.
“The conductor has the final say – but we haven’t had an outright disagreement yet!”
Even though the title of the work is Three Celebratory Dances, there are no plans to add choreography for a future performance although Chris admits: “It’s a lovely thought!”
The concert is on Sunday night at the Centenary Theatre, Berkhamsted School, from 7.30pm. Also on the programme are the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor with soloist Clare O’Connell and Symphony No. 4 in E minor by Brahms. Tickets cost £12 (concessions £10) for adults and are free to anyone aged 18 years and under. Tickets are available on 01525 229330 or from Claire Lloyd Properties, 173 High Street, Berkhamsted on 01442 879996. Visit www.dacorumso.org for more.