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An interview with British composer Tarik O'Regan

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In advance of his May 8 evening appearance in Washington, D. C. at a special concert of his choral works performed by The Washington Chorus, the 36 year old British composer Tarik O'Regan chatted with us exclusively about his compositional style, past careers and being featured on the award winning "New Music for A New Age" series.

If you had to describe your compositional style in three words, what would they be?

Rhythmic, textural and organic: In my works for voice, I’ve often tried to adopt various ideas which we take for granted in modern orchestral writing. Actually, these three words sum up what it is I connect with when I hear a great new piece for orchestra.

As a former classical music reviewer yourself, how does this help you deal with critique of your work, whether it is positive or negative?

Writing reviews and writing music are two different jobs; it’s as simple as that. I was lucky enough to write reviews for The Observer in the U.K., which is only published on Sundays. This meant I could pick the very best pieces or recordings, and write only positively. The most negative reviews of my own work have also been the funniest. I think it’s much easier to be witty when not liking something. I like humor, and I like laughing, so I never take it personally if I see a bad review. I just have that extra martini instead!

The Washington Chorus has had several composers featured on their award-winning series "Music for A New Age Series" including Trevor Weston, Elena Ruehr and Nico Muhly. Talk to us about how your work was introduced to the group for this particular performance.

I received a distorted voicemail from Washington Chorus music director Julian Wachner and I could only pick out the words “Washington” and what I thought was “walrus." I phoned him back and was delighted to discover that he had me in mind for this series (as opposed to the Smithsonian's National Zoo), where each year they have a sort of portrait concert based around the music of just one composer with a little bit of chatting in between the musical items. Also, it’s good to be in the company of these fantastic composers as part of this great series.

You have had the opportunity to compose several commissioned works for a variety of choral groups. When are you are approached for such, what are some of the factors that determine whether you will accept the commission or not?

The biggest issue is time. My schedule is not set in stone, but there are significant commissions which are planned and contracted many years in advance of their premiere. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain to a commissioner that a new work will have to come after those which are already contracted. Most, however, are very understanding, and are happy to wait. Others can’t, and I completely understand that. The other obvious factor is funding. There just isn’t a standard fee schedule for all composers, which a potential commissioner can turn to, so sometimes it’s not possible for us to find a suitable compromise. But then there are other avenues, like co-commissioning consortium commissioning (where many commissioners come into a project together). Luckily, I have a great team of people working for my publisher Novello/Music Sales Classical who help me navigate all of this.

Financially supporting a musical career can be challenging for some. Share with us a little about your time as an investment banker and perhaps how that may have helped you to budget and balance resources in a way that would support your vision as a composer.

I worked for J. P. Morgan in London at various periods between 1998 and 2000. I had a wonderful time working with an extremely diverse group of people. They were also the heady years just prior to the dot-com bubble bursting, so everyone was in a good mood. The main thing I learnt was to ask questions immediately when a situation needed clarifying, and not to assume that everything would be fine in the end. The way this translates to my career now is that I think composers and other creative artists should not feel they have to shy away from discussing the financial side of their work when it’s not clear to them. I wish all students studying composition at universities would also be able to get a primer on copyright, commissioning, contracts, basic accounting and royalty streams. Just so they have the confidence to ask those questions when they need to be asked.

When you are not composing or involved directly with music, what do you do for fun?

Last year I herniated a disc in my spine. Rather than getting surgery, I took to physical therapy and exercise. And out of this came something which I’d hitherto thought to be no fun at all and exceedingly dangerous: cycling in Manhattan. I’m sure I’ll get tired of it soon, but for the moment it really is amazing fun!

What is one thing that most people may not know about you?

I’m obsessed with books on graphic design. I really don’t know why, but I’m fascinated by the whole idea of it. Maybe the influence of Mad Men is reaching a critical point, now that the show is coming to an end! For example this book just came out and I had to buy it!

What are you looking forward to most about your visit to D. C. and your time spent with The Washington Chorus?

I love D. C. at this time of year, so I can’t wait to be back. A 'portrait' concert like this is a really special, collaborative affair. And that word “portrait” is just right. I feel like Julian and The Washington Chorus are taking all the elements of musical life and painting a new image. It’s incredibly exciting, not to mention a great honor. So most of all I’m looking forward to that moment when the canvas is unveiled.

What is the very first thing you look forward to when a performance is over?

If there’s a chance to hang out with the performers over a few drinks, I always love that. It’s a bit like having your own Super Bowl post-game show!

Music director Julian Wachner will lead The Washington Chorus and guest soloists in works of British composer Tarik O'Regan on Thursday, May 8, 2014, 7:30 p.m. at The Church of the Epiphany. For tickets and more information, click here.

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