Elaine Agnew's Dark Hedges Debuts at BBC Proms

The Ulster Orchestra and Ulster Youth Orchestra combine at BBC Proms with a new work inspired by the Antrim countryside

Antrim-born composer Elaine Agnew has a CV as long as... well, lets say Berlioz's The Trojans, which is very long indeed.

Having graduated from Queen's University and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Agnew went on to become the first RTÉ Lyric FM Composer-in-Residence. Her tenure there was so successful that RTÉ asked her back the following year.

Agnew has composed new works for international orchestras such as the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, has performed with the likes of acclaimed pianist Romain Descharmes and has had the pleasure of having her recordings presented to the Queen and President Barack Obama during state visits to Ireland.

But all of that seems to pail into insignificance when the conversation turns to Agnew's newest work, Dark Hedges, which was commissioned by the BBC for their 2012 Proms season.

Dark Hedges will be performed by the Ulster Orchestra and Ulster Youth Orchestra, accompanied by flautist Sir James Galway – returning to the Proms for the first time in ten years – at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, August 4 at 2pm.

The prospect of so many musicians performing one of her pieces seems to tip the excitable composer over the edge. 'Yesterday we had both orchestras coming together for the first time to rehearse with Sir James,' Agnew beams. 'We had about 160 musicians rehearsing in the Ulster Hall. It was... My god, just an incredible experience.'

As she composes herself (no pun intended), I refer to the word 'passionate' in my iPhone dictionary and am very surprised indeed to find that Elaine Agnew's name is not given as the definition...

'This will be my first ever performance in the Royal Albert Hall,' Agnew continues, 'and the fact that it’s actually a premiere makes it so much more exciting. It’s such a huge gathering of musicians that, in terms of the logistics, I’m not sure it will ever be performed again. But we broadcast live on BBC3 and BBC iPlayer, and hopefully, at some point, BBC Radio Ulster will broadcast a recording of the piece in full.'

The BBC Proms is, according to Agnew, 'the largest classical music festival in the world', and this year officially runs from July 13 to September 8. Coinciding as it does with the London 2012 Olympic Games, the BBC determined to involve young musicians from across the UK to perform alongside experienced professionals.

Agnew has already spent time with the UYO at their annual summer school, where she worked closely with individual sections of the orchestra and where the musicians had the time and space to 'learn and develop the piece, get their heads around it all'.

The theme behind Agnew's composition is an interesting one. She reveals that Dark Hedges was inspired by a particular location in the County Antrim countryside which was surprisingly close to home. For fans of the HBO drama series Game of Thrones, it will perhaps be familiar.

'The title Dark Hedges is taken from an avenue of stunning beech trees near Stranocum in north Antrim,' explains Agnew, who lives within a short drive of the trees.

Dark Hedges

'You've probably seen the photograph. It’s an image that I’ve known for years – this beautiful avenue where the 150-year-old beech trees have intertwined, so that when you walk underneath it’s almost completely dark – but I always assumed that it was taken in America or New Zealand, where they have fabulous landscapes.

'It was only recently that I learned that, actually, it's here in Northern Ireland. It's not sign posted, there’s nothing at all to say you’re at the Dark Hedges. It used to be an avenue into a golf club called Grace Hills, but then they changed the road system, so now it’s just a little country road, and it’s the most beautiful place.

'So when the commission came about, I thought I needed a starting point, not only that would inspire me to write the piece, but so that when the musicians came to play it they would have something tangible to grab onto. I thought that Dark Hedges is such a great title – there’s a certain mystery to it.'

The piece will also be given a certain gravitas by the involvement of Sir James Galway, one of Northern Ireland's most famous musical sons. Now based in the States, 'Sir James', as Agnew refers to him, travelled back to the city in which he was born to rehearse with the UYO and UO before they all relocate to London for the weekend. Agnew is as enthused to be working with Galway as her young musicians are.

'We’ve been knitting him into the piece nicely,' says Agnew. 'The orchestras were both very much prepared to work with Sir James, but he’s got such a great personality that he’s put all the young musicians at ease. It will certainly be a highlight of their careers to be working with a musician of his stature.'

The time for rehearsals, however, is almost over. London, it seems, is the place to be this summer, and Northern Ireland is certainly playing its part. Agnew promises that lovers of classical music can expect a performance to remember from this unique collaboration between Northern Ireland's two most prestigious orchestras.

'It’s your standard classical concert,' explains Agnew. 'Two halves of about 40 minutes with an interval. The concert will begin with Shabria’s España performed by the UYO. Then the UO perform Mozart’s 5th Concerto with Sir James, and then it's Dark Hedges. In the second half the two orchestras come together to make a super duper orchestra to play Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.'

For more information on this and other classical concerts on the BBC this summer, visit the BBC Proms website. Visit Elaine Agnew's SoundCloud page to listen to previous recordings of original compositions.