Elaine Agnew


Type of Work: Orchestra
Instrumentation: Picc. 2 fl. 2obs. cl. bass cl. 2 bns. 4 hns. 4 tpts. 2 trbs. bass trb. tu. timp. 3 perc. (toms, tam-t, cym, bass drum snare drum, vib, xyl, woodblock, claves, maraca). harp. strings.
Length: 12 minutes
Commissioned by: Ulster Youth Orchestra
Premiere: 25 August 2000, Ulster Hall, Belfast.
Ulster Youth Orchestra, conductor Andrew Schulman.


I first experienced snorkelling and scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  I was immediately thrilled by the intricate movement patterns of the densely packed schools of tropical fish with their colourful bands and eye-catching shapes.  The outline of the shoal is ever changing with movement from inside to the edge of the formation and up and down.  They barely touch and at the least alarm will bunch together and dart away.

This adventure sparked off strong ideas - textural shades of light and dark in varying depths, smooth and intricate shapes contrasting with angular and darting movements and the change of focus from a large sound world to a solitary sound.  Sliding strings wash over the quietly busy wind and brass as they wheel and dart off unexpectedly.  Towards the end a percussion and harp cadenza highlights the calmness of the brilliantly lit shallows of the reef with its sustained sounds and motionless nature.  The orchestra finally charges to the end, only stopping when it comes Straight to the Point.

Straight to the Point was premiered by the Ulster Youth Orchestra then performed and broadcast by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in 2006 and later that year toured throughout Finland by the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland.  The Ulster Orchestra performed Straight to the Point during the 2009 BBC Radio 3 Invitation Series in Belfast with conductor Jane Glover and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  It was a featured piece during Elaine’s 2010 RTÉ Horizons Series.  Later this year a CD of all Elaine’s orchestral works will be released on the RTÉ lyric fm label featuring the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gavin Maloney as part of the Composers of Ireland series.

Jacqui McIntosh, Journal of Music Ireland:

Straight to the Point was influenced by Agnew’s experience of scuba diving in Australia’s barrier reef.  Agnew makes use of the bass clarinet and vibraphone to effect...weaving the instruments’ voices through textured layers of orchestration.  ....the long held notes also made an appearance in Straight to the Point where they more strongly implied sounds travelling through water and whales’ song.  Angular melodies conveyed the jerky dance of shoals of fish, this same theme returning later in a more legato and graceful form.  Especially effective was the 6-strong percussion section who used a gamut of objects including tubular bells and buckets of water to create an impression of an underwater world.  Agnew has remarked that the gestures of the performers as they play give direction to her work.  As the strings re-entered, bows in unison, the fish’s angular dance was not only reflected in the notes played but also by their movements.  Straight to the Point ended an excellent programme and (along with Heaven is Closed) was the highlight of the concert - both pieces played perfectly poised in the balance between restraint and letting rip”

Andrea Rea, Belfast Telegraph:

“Agnew’s music often employs small forces and manages always to convey the worth of every instrument used.  This work, on a larger orchestral canvas, retains that sense of every sound having a purpose and each note being heard.  Straight to the Point takes us underwater, and the composer turns her eye towards the creatures swimming there, their strange world conveyed with magical percussion effects in a particularly effective middle section”

Andrew Johnstone, Irish Times:

“The third of this year’s RTÉ Horizons concerts generated a memorably bright and upbeat atmosphere. The selection of contemporary works by featured composer Elaine Agnew took in some challenging enough listening but what made it especially engaging was the range of colour and the zestful delivery.
And with Straight to the Point, Brophy’s reading happily brought out a fierce individuality in the score.”