Jon Lord's Durham Concerto

For millions of Deep Purple fans, Jon Lord’s name will always evoke hard-rockin’ epics like Smoke On The Water or Child In Time, but since he quit the band in 2002 he has been building an international reputation as an orchestral composer.

In finest rock-legend style, he lives in an elegant hilltop retreat in rural Oxfordshire, where he prizes himself away from the struggle with crotchets and counterpoints to talk about his new composition, Durham Concerto.     

With his white hair and beard, sweatshirt and sheepskin boots, Lord exudes the benign air of a New Age country squire, far removed from his Spinal Tap years of frantic groupies and baying heavy-metal fans. We talk in his studio, an airy outbuilding full of grand and electric pianos, piles of music and shelves of CDs; a beefy computer displays composing software across its huge screen.     

It was in 2001 that the Durham Concerto first became a glint in Lord’s mind’s eye, when he was asked by Durham law graduate (and now novelist and merchant banker) John McLaren if he would write some music to celebrate Durham University’s 175th anniversary.     

“I was given a completely blank remit,” Lord says. “It was initially just ‘write a piece lasting 50 minutes to an hour’. It didn’t seem too challenging with seven years to write it in, but I gradually realised that composing an hour’s worth of music fit to be played in a building as amazing as Durham Cathedral was a big ask.”

Various ideas were kicked around, including a proposal from the Durham authorities to incorporate an electric guitarist, but Lord’s own instincts were to write in a purely orchestral idiom; however, he did eventually agree to write some passages that he would play on his trusty Hammond Organ.

The concerto’s final structure is a sequence of six contrasting orchestral pieces that aim to depict a Durham day. It opens with the grand and mystical The Cathedral At Dawn, evoking the building’s one thousand-year history, before voyaging through dance pieces, folk melodies and episodes of inner contemplation to end up at the statuesque finale, Durham Nocturne.     

“The word ‘concerto’ is a misnomer, somewhat,” Lord admits. “There are solo parts pitted against the orchestra, but it’s more in a concerto grosso style, using a group of soloists, rather than having massive show-off pieces. But we’ve got terrific players. If you’re going to use Northumbrian pipes you can’t do any better than Kathryn Tickell. I was thrilled to have Matthew Barley on cello – we’ve become good buddies. Ruth Palmer had just won a Classical BRIT for her recording of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto and she was brilliant, and threw herself right into it.”

Part of the concerto’s mission is to spread the word about Durham University (like everything else, education has become a cut-throat competitive marketplace), and performances are pending in Russia, the USA and Switzerland, as well as Liverpool.

Lord accepts that his rock-god history makes him a magnet for composing commissions – which include a piano concerto due for release by EMI Classics on March 24 and a new cello concerto for Matthew Barley – but he stresses that he has always been infatuated with both rock and classical music.

He studied piano from the age of five and later taught himself orchestration from Cecil Forsyth’s book on the subject, but at the same time he was a sucker for a blast of primitive rock ’n’ roll. Mature fans will remember Lord as the composer of the Concerto For Group And Orchestra, performed by Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1969.

It was one of the first attempts to fuse together the contrasting worlds of rock and classical music, and Lord praises its conductor Malcolm Arnold for his assistance with the composition, as well as for helping Deep Purple overcome the suspicions of the classical world.     

”In 1969, classical music was much more establishment-led and it felt almost like a secret society to us. Malcolm was our key to that world. I remember him saying to the orchestra ‘come along ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to make history, we might as well make music at the same time’. There are definitely Arnold influences in the Durham Concerto, and he’ll always be in my mind. He was a dear friend and is sadly missed.”

The Concerto For Group And Orchestra has enjoyed a new lease of life since Deep Purple resurrected it for its 30th anniversary in 1999, and Lord is considering writing a new one that would exploit recent developments in sound technology.

“With the original, we had trouble blending the band and orchestra,” he admits. “It would be fascinating to revisit the idea in my sixties instead of in my twenties.”

However, he’s convinced that all kinds of music share the same mysterious biological roots.

“Music is one of the most important things we have,” he says. “To me it’s at least as important as literature. I’ve been slapped down for saying that, but I’ll keep on saying it.”

Rockers who have turned to classics

Some argue that rock and classical music belong together like barbed wire and mayonnaise, but as rock musicians advance into middle age, classical music begins to exert a strange allure.

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters drew inspiration from the French revolution for his opera Ca Ira (Sony BMG S2K96439), roping in Bryn Terfel and soprano Ying Huang to lend classical lustre.

Paul McCartney, apparently feeling that his timeless Beatles catalogue wasn’t enough of a gift to posterity, has produced a stream of classical-ish compositions, and was delighted to win a 2007 Classical BRIT award for Ecce Cor Meum (EMI Classics 370 4242).

Mike Oldfield, who has dealt in extended compositions like Tubular Bells and Ommadawn since the early 1970s, has now stretched out into his first full-scale symphonic composition, Music Of The Spheres (UCJ 476 6206), featuring pianist Lang Lang.  

Other performers prefer to work on a more intimate scale. On his new album Tribute (Camino Classics CAMCD39), former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett pays homage to the revered classical plank-spanker Andrés Segovia with a selection of pieces from Bach, Granados, Barrios and William Byrd, alongside three of his own compositions.

In 2006, Sting decided to demonstrate that he is indeed the Renaissance man of rock by travelling back in time with his album Songs From The Labyrinth (DG 170 3139), an arty collection of John Dowland’s lute songs interspersed with readings from Dowland’s letters. Shrewdly, he employed ace lutenist Edin Karamazov to lend a gleamng technical sheen to the music.

But among the most promising exponents of rock-into-classical is Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who’s cutting a dash as composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra and basking in critical plaudits for his scores for the movies Bodysong and There Will Be Blood (Nonesuch 7559-79957-8).