Thursday, 4 February 2016

Hannah Kendall reflects on the OPUS2016 workshops

Across two days in January the Barbican hosted the OPUS2016 workshops in which ten composers from the scheme had an opportunity to work on their piece and receive valuable feedback from Britten Sinfonia musicians: Thomas Gould, Huw Watkins and Ben Chappell. The workshops were open to the public for the first time so that all composers, musicians and music enthusiasts were able to observe the exchange between Britten Sinfonia musicians and the shortlisted composers, and learn from this fascinating and challenging process. Hannah Kendall shares her experience:

I’ve been an admirer of Britten Sinfonia for a number of years, and so it was a privilege to work so closely with the superb musicians from the ensemble, its executive team, and the 10 shortlisted composers from the OPUS2016 initiative recently. Not only was it an enriching artistic experience through gaining a deeper knowledge of the music of my peers, I also had the opportunity to have an insight into the overall ethos of one of the UK’s leading ensembles.

Supporting contemporary music, and composers in general is integral to Britten Sinfonia’s attitudes. How incredible to have two whole days dedicated to new works by 10 different composers, and performed in such great detail. I really enjoyed the openness of the sessions. Thoughts were shared freely between the musicians, composers, and audience members, which allowed for fascinating discussions. A particular in-depth conversation focused on how each of the composers generate their musical material, and how this might translate to being performed by an acoustic instrument if achieved through a computer programme.

As well as ‘Composer’, I had also been given the title ‘Diversity Ambassador’. I like it! Redressing the imbalances in new and classical music in general is very important to me. Whilst conversations around this topic didn’t specifically come up over the two days, I was very much encouraged by the fact that Britten Sinfonia was demonstrating that it’s at the forefront of their activities.

I loved meeting and working with such talented composers. I particularly admired the confidence that they each displayed through in their writing skills, which were strikingly individual. They all very much deserved to be selected for OPUS2016, and I’m looking forward to hearing more.

Hannah Kendall

The winning composer will be invited to write the piece as a commission for the award winning At Lunch concert in December 2016. The prize will include a dedicated rehearsal for the commissioned piece 6-8 weeks in advance of the concert, three performances of the work (London, Cambridge and Norwich) and a commission fee.

Watch this space, OPUS2016 winner will be announced soon!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

What is Britten Sinfonia Academy?

When we asked current members "What is Britten Sinfonia Academy?" these are some of the responses we got:

Britten Sinfonia Academy (BSA) is an exciting and dynamic training opportunity for talented secondary school aged musicians from the east of England. Now in its fourth year, BSA is looking to recruit a new generation of musicians for the 2016-17 season. We are looking for young people who love music, are open to new ideas and have a healthy appetite for adventure.

As a violinist I often find myself surrounded by musicians at rehearsals and as conversations flow someone inevitably asks me what my job in the Creative Learning department at Britten Sinfonia involves. BSA is one of many projects the team works on and it is certainly one of my favourites. That doesn’t, however, make it easy to condense what BSA is into a short conversation! “BSA’s players get together to play chamber music alongside our Britten Sinfonia professionals who are really engaged in their development. They explore fantastic repertoire, perform in amazing places, challenge themselves musically with new skills in different musical settings, have a blast, make new friends and and and … the list continues!”   

BSA is captured best in moments. One of my favourites, for example, happened this year. I met an incredibly shy violinist, joining us for the first time at the beginning of the season. She barely said two words at the first rehearsal except to offer to help us set up. This last weekend (half-way through our current season) she sat down as one of two solo lines opening a performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines, she took a deep breath and her smile lit up the room along with the beauty of her playing. The rest of the ensemble followed her confident leadership and I could barely recognise the quiet player offering to help with music stands from just a few months ago

“I feel so lucky to play alongside professional musicians and individuals of such high standard who all share the same love for music.” – Current BSA member 2015

One of the nicest things about BSA in a way has nothing to do with playing music. It is the environment in which members can support each other and where new, life-long friendships are born. At our most recent course, I watched a group of 18 players squeezed into a small room, trying to work out where they should seat, what part to play, who was in charge. Following a hectic start, the group started to shape and they worked out exactly who to watch and at what point it was their turn to lead or to help the person next to them. It was fascinating to watch a group of very different individuals of different ages and backgrounds work together to become a single ensemble.

“The academy and orchestra members have shaped me as a musician and given me great memories – not to mention friends for life”BSA alumni violin 2013

BSA is a unique experience for these young people; an experience which compliments their musical activity with their teachers, schools and county youth orchestras. Over a season in a series of intensive courses run ordinarily over 2 weekends during term time, BSA offers skills and development which players then take back to their musical lives elsewhere. We hope, whether they go on to join the music profession or simply to continue to play for pleasure,  that they’ll take the pioneering spirit of adventure, the desire to push the boundaries and explore new possibilities which they learn at BSA, with them.

Applications are now open for chamber orchestral instrumentalists of Grade 8 standard. Applicants need to submit a competed application form together with a statement from their teacher. The successful applicants will be invited to a first round individual audition in April. A selection of players will then be invited for a second round, group audition day in July.

Apply here to join the BSA adventure: BSA 2016-17

Creative Learning Co-ordinator

Monday, 25 January 2016

Sinfonia Student review: At Lunch Two

At Lunch Two: West Road Concert Hall, Tuesday 19 January
Stephen Wilkinson

Although this programme, the second in this season’s At Lunch concerts, was created as a celebration of texture, thanks to the musicians’ skill and sensitivity it became a showcase of artful balance and ensemble. The 250-year timespan of the pieces, stretching from Bach to a new composition by Anna Clyne, showcased similar techniques and sound worlds which formed parallels between temporally- and geographically-distanced composers’ works, which was hinted at by the title of Ligeti’s Continuum. The result was a varied programme, which attested to the richness and intertextuality of the Western classical tradition.

Despite the spacious dimensions of the 500-seat concert hall, the musicians created an intimate atmosphere from the very beginning of the programme, which began with the welcome addition of the sinfonia from Bach’s BWV21. The instrumental movement set the tone for the rest of the concert, drawing the audience into the fine textural world of J.S. Bach’s 1714 cantata in its stately pace, which was maintained by the whole ensemble, despite the absence of a conductor and with no perceptible intervention from Jacqueline Shave. At the outset of the concert, the ensemble’s disposition outlined a key element of the concert. The soprano, Julia Doyle, was seated by the harpsichord at the rear of the ensemble, allowing her colleagues to take centre stage. This was a programme in which no divide was felt between the vocalist and the instrumental group, instead promoting a sense of unity, which added to the overall impression of balance.  

Julia Doyle’s silvery soprano was a perfect fit for the ensemble from which her first soft sighs of ‘Seufer, Tränen, Kummer, Not’ seemed to issue in the aria from BWV21. Doyle’s expressive singing never compromised the intimacy created by the ensemble’s sparse accompaniment in this movement, establishing a mood which was carried on into ‘Chi m’addita, per pietà’, the first of two arias from Scarlatti’s Due arie notturne dal campo, arranged by Sciarrino in 2001. Whilst Doyle afforded a slightly more indulgent, warmer tone to this Italian aria, she once again appeared to work with the string players who, even in monophony, achieved a beautifully subtle balance, which supported the soprano perfectly.  Doyle’s repeat was adorned with understated decorations and never detracted from the searching, internalised mood that was shared by both the first Bach and Scarlatti arias.

Sciarrino’s layered string texture, particularly in the use of harmonics, found an interesting parallel in Pärt’s Fratres for string quartet (played today by Jacqueline Shave, Miranda Dale, Clare Finnimore and Caroline Dearnley). An example of Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’, a neologism of his own coinage, the success of this piece was testament to the instrumentalists’ superb grasp of balance. The four voices were so unified that the impression was of one instrumentalist rather than a quartet. The steady unfolding of Pärt’s ‘tintinnabular’ variations was effected so skilfully that the entire audience was completely motionless, including four rows of schoolchildren, as the piece’s sense of expansive timelessness stretched out, a notable achievement in a lunchtime programme of only one hour.

The ensemble found a new, more expansive, positive tone in the second Scarlatti arr. Sciarrino aria, ‘Non to curo, o libertà’. The imploring, internalised vocal tone Doyle had found up to this point was replaced with an enriched, confident warmth as the piece swung onwards. Doyle’s postural change here, opening up to the audience and allowing herself more movement, also marked this shift whilst her vocal performance always remained as restrained as the elegant strings. In the absence of oboist Marios Argiros, this all-female outfit was reunited in Bach’s soprano aria ‘Tief gebückt und voller Reue’ from Cantata BWV199, in which the pious timidity of his earlier work is replaced by a more self-assured tone. In response to this shift, the ensemble’s accompaniment was generous yet never overpowering. In return, Doyle’s attention to the soaring, more expansive soprano lines, although allowed to blossom from the instrumental texture, never detracted from her colleagues’ sensitive playing. Bach’s BWV187 aria ‘Gott versorget alles Leben’ saw the whole ensemble united in this warmer, fuller sound which accompanied Doyle’s more lavish tone in her declaration of ‘Weicht, ihr Sorgen’ (‘Worries, be gone!’), with the soprano and oboe lines joyfully interweaving above an accompaniment which glittered with harpsichordist Maggie Cole’s rich spread chords.

Cole’s performance of Ligeti’s Continuum saw the harpsichord’s capabilities span from its role in Bach’s cantatas to a more modern setting. Ligeti’s piece is at once reminiscent of Bach’s keyboard works and of twentieth-century minimalist techniques. The piece’s gradual changes and sense of steady crescendo created a sense of Cole taking a Baroque invention in all its intricacy of form and demarcation of individual notes, and slowly melting it down until smaller elements are lost in a blurred and blended sound world in which only broad changes can be perceived. As the piece moved towards the higher registers of the instrument, the percussive sound of the plectrums falling back onto vibrating strings suggested other more recent realisations of the harpsichord’s capabilities with a hint of musique concrète. Cole’s flair and sensitive playing were rewarded with applause worthy of this accomplished performance.

The nocturnal theme from Scarlatti’s Due arie notturne dal campo was echoed in Anna Clyne’s new work, This Lunar Beauty, co-commissioned by Britten Sinfonia and  Wigmore Hall. As W.H. Auden (whose poem Clyne sets for soprano, oboe, string quartet and harpsichord) and Benjamin Britten were collaborators as well as close personal friends, there was a sense of reuniting the two as the Sinfonia that bears Britten’s name played Clyne’s setting of Auden’s poem. The piece neatly encapsulated many of the programme’s explorations, mixing suggestions of British folksong with a more modern, avant-garde sound world. The setting of the poem’s second stanza sees rising scalic melismatic patterns in the soprano, echoed in the instrumental lines, suggesting a raising of the eyes and voice to the lunar object of the persona’s meditation. These more expressive, confident voices then surrender to a once again personal, introspective mood.

This programme showcased the capability of a small group of musicians to work together in order to create a diversity of moods and to highlight unobvious intertextual and intertemporal links between a range of pieces. Given the amount that this programme achieved, it is surprising that it lasted only an hour. It is testament to the quality of the musicianship and the diligence of the programming that the lunchtime concert was not only intellectually appealing but also contained many moments in which a weekday’s inevitable busyness seemed to melt away. All of the musicians are to be congratulated for today’s subtle yet no less powerful, varied or transporting performance. 

Stephen Wilkinson (Sinfonia Student 2015-16)

Monday, 18 January 2016

What inspires composers?

Ahead of the OPUS2016 open workshops taking place this week at the Barbican (Friday 22 & Saturday 23 January), we asked our ten shortlisted composers what inspires them...

Robert Peate:

Everything really... I still get very excited when I see/hear people playing instruments, and the idea of writing music is still an inspiring thing. Apart from music itself anything with a strong character or feeling to it can suggest ideas... it’s hard to say exactly where and when and what you’re inspired by most of the time, a lot is also subconscious I think. Nature is always a source of fascination, pleasure, truth and inspiration to me though, as are relationships between people.

Margaret Haley:

Visual sources. Abstract paintings, e.g. Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky. Poetry often shapes the outcome of my vocal music. Astronomical phenomena have a strong bearing on my music for traditional instrumentation. The rotational forces of the cosmos have certainly influenced my writing over the last decade.

Neil Smith:

My pieces can be the result of inspirations from almost any subject or area. They don’t always have to be extra-musical, as often I find particular musical ideas are inspiration enough to write a piece. Recent pieces have been based on Spanish poet Lorca, the nature of musical speeding up and slowing down, the phenomenon of discovering historic hoards, the science of animation and Arabic art. In the past five years I have found science in particular a fertile are for exploration. Scientific models can be represented in fascinating musical ways. This is something I want to explore more in the future.

Emma Wilde:

Everything but particularly other art forms, visual art, drama, dance, poetry and literature, all sorts of music, lately I think listening to electroacoustic music has changed the way I think about composing a lot. I listened to a lot of popular music growing up and still do and I think this has had a big effect on me too.

Gonçalo Gato:

I would say that what inspires me is indeed the mystery music still is, and how it makes me feel and think all sorts of things. I get inspiration from other people’s music because it transforms me, and because I can hardly picture myself living without it. Music is a kind of ‘speaking sound’, and in this sense I can hear the human voice in it. I am also an audiophile, very interested in Hi-Fi and acoustics. I take much pleasure from the ‘plastic’ aspect of sound and from sound reproduction fidelity.

James Hoyle:

Many things inspire me: recently these have included visual art, medieval music, architecture, food, political issues... It’s impossible to pin down any one point of inspiration because I enjoy the fact that many seemingly unrelated things can collide together as I work.

Andrew Thomas:

Anything from a novel, a line in a poem or an image to a noise, sound or smell from traveling and the real world. I gain constant inspiration from contemporaries and older composers and would cite particular influence from Nielsen, Sibelius, Purcell, Ligeti, Harvey, Grisey and Japanese music and aesthetics.

Andrew Baldwin:

My inspiration for pieces is often drawn from eclectic places – unless it is a commission with a specific theme. I have a big interest in orchestration and find that I spent a lot of time of this once my musical ideas are formed. I always find brilliant examples in the works of Ravel, Varese, and Takemitsu, as well as contemporaries Philip Hurel and Magnus Lindberg. My compositions often take a directive to effect the listener in a range of emotions.

Sohrab Uduman:

A difficult question since I cannot pin it down to one thing. The impulse, idea, can come from a number of sources; fine art (particularly important for me in recent times), literature, landscapes, environmental sounds, pieces I have heard, plain curiosity. Any piece I write usually takes up something that was present, to one degree or another, in a previous piece of mine.

Daniel Kidane:

Everything and anything. It could be a sound, or something visual or perhaps an idea I want to explore.

Click here to book your free place to attend one or both days of the OPUS2016 open workshops at the Barbican (22 & 23 January).