Syzygy is a set of three highly contrasted pieces for brass quintet and chamber or small orchestra. The project arose from my 2006 collaboration on Sound Carvings from the Bell Foundry with Stockholm Chamber Brass, which led to a request from them for a work combining the quintet with orchestra that could be performed in Sweden and the UK.

The work is part of a series of concertante pieces in which I have, for many years, sought to re-think the relationship between solo and massed forces; my previous works have sought ways to pursue an interactive, reflective relationship. This has in turn directed my orchestral thinking toward emphasis on chamber groupings, whose fresh acoustic mixtures have become more important to me than massed orchestral tutti. For this reason Syzygy draws upon the greater individual identities and chamber possibilities of the chamber orchestra: indeed one can chart a progression, in the work’s three pieces, from the treatment of the orchestra as a solid mass (in movement I) to its role more as a collection of individual soloists (in movement III).

The title refers to an alignment of three or so heavenly bodies in which the middle planet obscures the others’ views of one another. Here, the bodies are the pieces: the second piece, being the largest, separates two very different pieces on either side. Piece I is a stately meditation; Piece II moves from a whispered beginning to an steady building of power and climax; Piece III is energetic throughout. As in a planetary syzygy, pieces I and III remain disconnected, not only in expressive mood but in treatment of the solo brass quintet – which, like the orchestra, evolves during the work: in piece I the quintet is a separate entity, isolated from and ignorant of the orchestra (save for a solitary clarinet) – yet, when we reach piece III, the five brass soloists have become more concerned with orchestral ensembles than with one another. The central piece mediates between these, the quintet (still a unit) interacting with the orchestra in a manner closer to the traditional concerto. In all three pieces a wide variety of extended sounds is sought from almost every instrumental department; every musician on stage is a soloist.

Syzygy was commissioned by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra with Stockholm Chamber Brass, and was premiered by these forces under the baton of Paul Watkins, in Örebro Konserthus, Sweden on 28th February 2013.

c Piers Hellawell 2011