Graham Jackson 1967-2012

A sad post this time, I’m afraid. Today sees the funeral in Trinity College, Cambridge of my immensely talented friend and colleague Graham Jackson, who died last week after a long battle with cancer at the age of only 45, only weeks after conducting his farewell concert with the Niederrheinische Sinfoniker, the German orchestra based in Krefeld and Mönchengladbach with whom he had spent nearly decade as their highly successful musical director.

You can find an English obituary on Norman Lebrecht’s blog at http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2012/07/british-conductor-45-dies-after-long-illness.html : however, it only tells a fraction of Graham’s story. When I first met him as a fellow undergraduate in Cambridge he already had the reputation of being able to master more or less anything to which he cared to turn his hand – a bassoonist in the British National Youth Orchestra, highly accomplished organist and scholar (arriving at Trinity College to read mathematics before becoming a First Class music graduate), anyone who knew him will surely agree that Graham was endowed with musical and intellectual gifts of which most people can only dream.

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Graham Jackson rehearsing ‘Darum trauert das Land’, Krefeld, May 2009

Subsequently moving into the world of professional opera, Graham had made his mark internationally as a conductor by the time I caught up with him a few years ago, when he commissioned my piece Darum trauert das Land (‘Therefore the land mourns’) based on the poetry of Georg Trakl (1887-1914) for a series of performances with the Niederrheinische Sinfoniker. Graham was an unflaggingly devoted advocate of New Music, and he tackled my score with irreproachable commitment, professionalism and meticulous attention to detail. At the same time, while he certainly directed the orchestra with impeccable clarity, this was no neutral ‘contemporary music conducting’ of the sort that is all too frequently encountered within the New Music scene; equally at home in Mendelssohn or Brahms, Graham’s approach was marked by a warm but unaffected human lyricism privileging substance over effect, as much as by his formidable analytical skills and tireless energy.

During my highly enjoyable time working with him and the Niederrheinische Sinfoniker, it was evident that he was regarded with great esteem and affection not only for his artistic achievements but also for the way in which he and his family were a genuine presence within the local community. It was clear that, unlike many conductors of his generation, Graham was no mere figurehead primarily using his post as a career springboard for prestigious guest engagements elsewhere. Instead, everyone I encountered testified to his deep and sustained commitment to his work and fellow musicians. Talented young conductors are not so uncommon, but those who couple outstanding ability with Graham’s level of transparent integrity definitely are. Our thoughts go out to his wife Adrienne and their four children at this exceptionally trying time for them.

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I also owe a second work in my catalogue to Graham, the organ piece Pelikan der Wüste (‘Pelican of the Wilderness’) commissioned by his  friend Reinhold Richter for the 25th anniversary of the organ in St Helena’s Church, Mönchengladbach-Rheindalen; the first performance in September 2009, which Graham attended, was to be our last meeting. Pelikan der Wüste takes its title from a haunting image taken from Psalm 102:6, a text which couples the profound expression of human affliction with the promise of ultimate comfort and restoration :

My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass. But you, O Lord, sit enthroned for ever; your renown endures through all generations. You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favour to her; the appointed time has come. […] For the Lord will be rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. (Psalm 102:11-13, 16-17)

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