Music for reflection – Alexia Sloane on the BBC Proms Inspire Competition and Aurora Orchestra

Young composer Alexia Sloane was one of five winners in this year’s BBC Proms Inspire Competition with her piece Elegy for Aylan.  It was first commissioned by the RPS and Classic FM for Classic FM’s 25th Birthday celebrations in 2017 and was inspired by the refugee crisis, Aylan being the 3-year-old Syrian child who was found washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015. 

In this summer postcard Alexia tells us about the piece, the Competition and how it felt to work with Aurora Orchestra.

We’re in the car on our way to Cambridge Station at 7.00 am as usual on Saturday for my weekly lessons at the Royal College of Music Junior Department. It’s pleasantly warm; the May swelter hasn’t quite kicked in yet.
‘The deadline for the Inspire competition is coming up’, my mum tells me. ‘You could enter it with your piece Elegy for Aylan?’
‘I wrote that piece nearly a year ago!’ I replied.
‘It’s the only relatively recent piece you’ve done that fits the duration requirements,’ she points out.
‘OK’, I sighed. ‘But don’t say I didn’t tell you when I don’t get anywhere with it.’

The marathon of A-levels wrestled down Inspire almost to the base of my mind where it lay buried – until the phone rang one morning. ‘It’s Lauren from the BBC Proms!’ my dad called out, sounding confused.

A couple of months later, my parents were organising my suitcase in the kitchen, and I was worrying about Inspire over my breakfast. ‘I’m really scared I won’t be able to speak to the players.’ This regular phobia of mine started to invade my mind when I walked into the BBC Radio Theatre on the 21st of August. My piece was third in the rehearsal schedule. As I watched the works of the two composers before me starting to unfold, I began to wonder for the 20th time that day how much someone must have bribed and paid the judging panel to select mine…

But when the amazing performers of Aurora Orchestra – a flautist, clarinettist, harpist and percussionist – came on stage to tune, something in the atmosphere created by the ensemble immediately loosened the grip of the fear that had caught hold of my being. It’s always such a privilege to work with musicians who are so open to performing new music. Aurora Orchestra seemed excited – anxious even –  to answer my constant requests for subtle changes of colour and more. Someone told me once that ‘most players would really rather be playing Beethoven.’; but this did not seem the case with Aurora. They addressed almost every question to me directly, rather than to the conductor Christopher Stark. He, too, seemed equally invested in the music and played an essential part in making me feel at ease.

Perhaps the highlight of my time at the BBC Radio Theatre (though one of the most terrifying too!) was when Hannah Conway, the lovely presenter from Radio 3 who interviewed all the winners and introduced our pieces at the concert, got the audience to read the poem I had written out loud. It had been inspired by the refugee crisis and was printed on the first page of Elegy for Aylan as well as the concert programme.

Aylan was the 3-year-old Syrian child who was found washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, sparking international outrage. I intended Elegy for Aylan to be an emotional reaction against the crisis, a collective reflection on a deeply distressing contemporary issue. Therefore the effect of the audience reciting my own words felt almost spiritual, like the Buddhist chants I sometimes use to musically complement my meditation practice.

The next stage of the Inspire competition will be a BBC commission, for which we will all receive professional mentoring and a performance broadcast on Radio 3. So far the whole experience has been very surreal. I am so grateful to the judges for giving me the opportunity to meet such incredible musicians, to hear the work of such talented young artists, and to share my own music with them too.

Visit Alexia’s website and follow her on Twitter.

Hear Alexia’s pieces Ricochets on 6 October at the Royal College of Music, and Turning to the wind, performed by the Brodsky Quartet on 19 November at Cambridge Music Festival.

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