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The 60th birthday year of Mark-Anthony Turnage in 2020 is launched with a new horn concerto, Towards Alba, followed by opera stagings in Germany and Sweden and concert features in London and Aldeburgh.

Mark-Anthony Turnage's 60th birthday on 10 June 2020 is at the centre of a year of celebrations for the composer, launched on 16 January with the world premiere of his new horn concerto Towards Alba. Written for soloist Richard Watkins, the work is given its first performance at the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen as part of a concert focusing upon the horn.

Turnage describes how "the work grows out of the idea of the horn-call before dawn, which has a long tradition going back to the Romantics and has intrigued me for a long time. Twenty years ago I wrote a piece called Four-Horned Fandango which was very much concerned with the world of Schumann and Brahms that I grew up with. Other background influences in the new piece have been the fanfare-style writing which I admire in many of Tippett's works such as the Sonata for Four Horns and Symphony No.4, and Oliver Knussen's Horn Concerto. One thing I've noticed about horn concertos from Richard Strauss to the present day is that they are concise, no doubt for very practical reasons, so my work comes in at around the 20-minute mark."

Cast in the classic fast-slow-fast format, the concerto opens with Alba, summoning an Occitan poetic form of dawn beloved by the troubadors, often signalling the end of a night of love. The second and third movements have titles referencing English poetry on related themes by Philip Larkin and John Donne, Aubade and The Sun Rising, as described by Turnage: "For the movements based on poetry, I always start with the text and its imagery, and then develop the music from there, sometimes to the point where the 'line' of poetry becomes hidden. The Larkin text is quite dark - very much about fears of mortality surfacing during the night, wheareas the final Donne poem is more about dawn signalling the return to life and ongoing love, but in an unruly way energised by the sun."

Further new works in the opening half of Turnage's 60th birthday year include Owl Songs, written in tribute to his composition teacher, mentor and friend Oliver Knussen who died last year. The premiere promises to be a highlight of a Wigmore Hall portrait concert by the Nash Ensemble on 24 March with soloist Claire Booth. Scored for soprano and eight instruments, Turnage's collection of songs features the owls that so personified Knussen, drawing upon a wide range of poets including Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, Tennyson and Edward Thomas. Black Milk, commissioned by Psappha and featuring acclaimed jazz singer Ian Shaw is premiered in Manchester on 30 April. This new setting of the famous Death Fugue poem by Paul Celan, written in the bleakest time at the end of World War II, fulfils an ambition held by the composer for many years.

Opera stagings in the early part of 2020 include the arrival of Aletta Collins's original production of Coraline in Stockholm in February. Folkoperan presents the Swedish premiere of this family opera based on the dark novella by Neil Gaiman, conducted by Anna-Maria Helsing. This complements the new production by Nina Russi of Coraline which continues its run at the Zürich Opera during the same period. February also brings a new production of Anna Nicole by Bernd Mottl at the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, the opera's third staging in Germany.

Back in the UK, Turnage reaches out to the next generation of performers and composers with a saxophone-centred masterclass and concert at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (9 January), a 60th birthday feature at the Royal College of Music – where he is Research Fellow in Composition – including Crying Out Loud and his Beethoven-inspired Frieze (29 and 30 January), and a birthday concert at the Royal Academy of Music (24 April).

Turnage is a featured composer at 2020 summer festivals celebrating his 60th. The Aldeburgh Festival, in his birthday month of June, includes a range of his music on the concert programme, continuing his special association with the festival. Repertoire includes Frieze performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Owl Songs given a second performance by the Nash Ensemble, Winter’s Edge played by the Piatti Quartet, and a new set of three songs for Allan Clayton, following the tenor’s recent success performing Turnage’s Refugee song-cycle. Turnage was a composition course director on the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme this year and will return again in 2021.

New recordings in the birthday year include an all-Turnage chamber disc from the Piatti Quartet, including the premiere recording of Winter’s Edge, to be released on the Delphian label in Autumn 2020.

If you have plans for Turnage performances in 2020 please email us on [email protected] so we can include them in our web calendar.

UPDATE: World premiere of Owl Songs at Wigmore Hall cancelled due to Coronavirus outbreak.

>  Further information on Work: Towards Alba

Photo: Philip Gatward

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