These days, a title such as “The Spark Catchers” might sound like a trilogy of young-adult fantasy novels, soon to be adapted into a series of movies coming to a theater near you.
In reality, “The Spark Catchers” is far less fanciful: a 2012 poem by British writer Lemn Sissay, commemorating the mostly Irish-immigrant women who went on strike over safety conditions at an East London match factory in 1888. The title is a lyrical reference to keen-eyed workers at the factory who caught and crushed flying sparks before the building was set ablaze.
Which brings us to the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. This week sees the U.S. premiere of composer Hannah Kendall’s orchestral work “The Spark Catchers,” which had its world premiere in London’s Royal Albert Hall during the 2017 BBC Proms. It was performed by the four-year-old Chineke! Orchestra, made up of young black and minority ethnic classical musicians from the U.K. and Europe.
Kendall, who will be at Benaroya Hall for three performances of “The Spark Catchers,” will stay another day for an “In the Spotlight: Hannah Kendall” event on Monday, June 10, in Seattle Symphony’s new Octave 9 performance space.
During a phone interview, Londoner Kendall, 35, says her 10-minute “The Spark Catchers” is not a programmatic piece (i.e., it’s not an instrumental retelling of Sissay’s specific narrative). Instead it’s a flowering of the collective identity many Londoners experienced at the onset of the 2012 Summer Olympics, which were held in that city. That match factory, long vanished, had been built on one of the edges of what became Olympic Park, hub for the games.
“There are layers to the poem,” says Kendall. “Immigration, social justice, historical context. I like that it was commissioned for the occasion of the games. Things were starting to become politically unstable, and since then they’ve become even more unstable. But walking through the streets of London during the Olympics, you could feel national pride.”
Kendall’s “The Spark Catchers” begins with the bright, ethereal feeling of shooting lights, then rushes at the audience with splashes of anxiety atop forbidding stretches of drama, before ending on a commanding, if somewhat questioning, note. For much of its time, the piece has the feeling of a sleepwalker roaming through danger.
Raised in Wembley as the child of two parents from Guyana, Kendall says she came to composing “quite late. I’d never thought of composing before the age of 20 because I’d never seen anyone like myself doing it. Certainly not a woman of color writing contemporary classical music.”
She studied music at the University of Exeter and the Royal College of Music. She credits those experiences for encouraging her to go forward as a composer.
Kendall has certainly been lauded by the U.K. press and the nation’s cultural establishment. On this side of the pond, she recently made her U.S. orchestral debut with the world premiere of “Disillusioned Dreamer,” commissioned and performed by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. In January, American ensemble JACK Quartet performed the world premiere of her “Glances/I Don’t Belong Here.”
At Octave 9, a small ensemble will play several of Kendall’s older and newer works, including “Vera” (2008) and “Network Bed” (2018). She’ll also be in conversation.
“It’s just an opportunity to present some smaller works and give me a chance to talk about my compositional process, future projects, artistry,” she said. “I’m really excited about it.”
“Hannah is able to create atmosphere through her beautiful orchestrations,” says Jonathon Heyward, 25, who will act as guest conductor for SSO’s performance of “The Spark Catchers.” Heyward will also lead (speaking of atmosphere) Holst’s “The Planets” and Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 on the program.
Another U.K. talent making a Seattle debut, Heyward has been on a meteoric rise as a young artist, including conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic last year with soloist Hilary Hahn, and leading symphony orchestras in St. Petersburg, Prague and Basel. He was recently appointed chief conductor of Germany’s Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie.
Kendall “brings things to life, and you have a clear idea of the journey she’s taking you on, which is incredibly lucky for me as a conductor,” Heyward said.
Seattle Symphony presents Kendall’s “The Spark Catchers” on a program with Holst’s “The Planets” and Haydn’s Symphony No. 98, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 6; 8 p.m. Saturday, June 8 (sold out), and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 9; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 206-215-4747; seattlesymphony.org. Also: “In the Spotlight: Hannah Kendall” — an evening of conversation and chamber music, 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 10; Octave 9 Raisbeck Music Center at Benaroya Hall; $25; seattlesymphony.org.