Thursday, 21 August 2014

Tour of India - Part 3

The third installment of our India tour blog by orchestra manager, Annabel:

Greetings from Hyderabad, as the musicians are beginning their fifth concert.  The last few days have passed in a blur of early flights, car journeys, soundchecks and performances.  From Coimbatore we travelled to Chennai where our cellist, Eilidh Martin, has previously lived.  While there she helped establish the Sunshine Orchestra for underprivileged children, based at the KMMC Conservatory.  Although our schedule sadly didn’t allow us to visit the children, we were delighted that a number of them were able to attend our concert – and Eilidh had a chance to check that they are all still practising!  It was lovely to meet the children after the concert, and the evening ended with everyone in good spirits – so much so that, in a moment of carelessness in converting currencies, a bottle of wine with a price containing rather too many 0’s was purchased by the ensemble.  You live and learn….

From Chennai we moved to Mumbai where we gained our first experience of monsoon weather, with rain on both arrival and departure and much higher humidity.  Our concert here, at the National Centre for Performing Arts, was a notable highlight of the trip so far – the Mumbai audience were exceptionally welcoming and we were received very enthusiastically.

National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai
Another early start meant we were somewhat bleary-eyed when setting off for our flight to Hyderabad.  This didn’t last for long though as the realisation that a suitcase had been missed when loading our luggage at the hotel wakened me up somewhat.  A few phonecalls, a tense wait, and a slight dash through security and I made it onto the plane with the elusive suitcase, just.

At the start of the tour Ayaan Ali Khan told me that all of the cities we would be visiting have a distinctly different character.  On arriving in Hyderabad from Mumbai this was certainly true – it felt almost like an entirely different country! The rain and humidity have been exchanged for dry sunshine, and vibrant flowers line the roads.  Roads are less cluttered, and houses come in a multitude of colours.  So far, Hyderabad takes the place of my favourite city – although this may of course all change when we reach Bangalore, our sixth and final city, tomorrow.

Orchestra Manager

For full details of Britten Sinfonia's tour to India click here

Monday, 18 August 2014

Tour of India - Part Two

The second installment of our India tour blog by orchestra manager, Annabel:

We had a slow start to our general rehearsal on the afternoon of our first performance, with sound and lighting crew working around us, many people passing through the performance space, and the ever-efficient housekeepers still trying to vacuum the stage!  We experiment with three different stage layouts before settling on one that suits everyone best, ensuring sight-lines between all are good.  No sooner had we settled on this and the rehearsal begun properly, the waiting staff brought in cups of tea and biscuits – it was the earliest rehearsal break I’ve known.  Amjad Ali Khan and his sons joined us a little later for a full soundcheck – we are performing with amplification, in order to balance the three sarods and tabla against the Britten Sinfonia line-up satisfactorily.

The evenings performance went smoothly, with Jacqueline Shave and Adam Mackenzie (bassoon) introducing the Western pieces from stage. Our audience were enthusiastic, and were keen to chat to all involved in the performance at a reception following the show.  It was, as always, a relief to have finished the first performance in the run.

A free day followed, and a chance to explore Delhi.  Journeys were made to various temples, Karims (of Rough Guide to India fame) for lunch, and even a flute shop.  It was, however, Indian Independence Day, so many shops and roads were closed.  At the hotel, flowers in the foyer had been arranged in the shape and colours of the Indian flag, and uniformed men manned an Indian flag positioned on the lawn.

Jacqueline Shave and Kathy Shave
The following day we were to travel to Coimbatore during the early afternoon.  Seizing a short window of opportunity in the schedule, the majority of the group set off in the early hours for the 3 hour drive to Agra, to visit the Taj Mahal. A slightly lengthier journey than anticipated meant that it really was a whistle-stop tour before the journey back to Delhi for our plane to the most southerly part of India we shall be visiting.  Despite the early start and much travel, a spontaneous rehearsal was held in the evening as it felt like much had happened since everyone played.

A further free day followed, and another early start for the enthusiastically-exploring players – this time to visit nearby mountains and scenic railway, with a chance to explore a local town and various temples. An early night was then called for, ahead of our second performance today and beginning of intense travel tomorrow.  It has been an unusually-luxurious start to the tour, but from now on we travel and perform almost every day; our next stops on consecutive days are Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad.

Orchestra Manager

For full details of Britten Sinfonia's tour to India click here

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Tour of India - Part One

Britten Sinfonia's orchestra manager, Annabel is currently on tour in India with the ensemble. In the first of a series of posts she talks about the first couple of days of the trip;

Arriving at our hotel in the early hours of Tuesday morning I breathe a sigh of relief – both flight and entry into India are uneventful, other than a short dash around Delhi airport to find somewhat elusive immigration forms.  Nice to know that instruments and visas were both accepted by airline and immigration respectively.  After a sweltering wait at the airport and hectic car-journey the hotel is peaceful, and we are warmly welcomed.

Eight hours later and I’m being briefed about a press conference that is to happen later the same day.  From Britten Sinfonia, Jaqueline Shave (Leader) and David Butcher (Chief Executive) are to take part, along with soloist Amjad Ali Khan and personnel from our promoters. All goes well, and both interesting and unusual questions are posed. We are told later that an unusually large-contingent of press attended – there were certainly many photographers!

Soon after, I am hunting for straight-backed chairs (for our string players) and music stands. A breakdown in communication means that music stands don’t arrive until half way through our rehearsal, so we fashion make-shift stands from chairs, folders and i-pads.  This first rehearsal is intense, with time being taken to discover the best way of rehearsing Sarod Concerto Samaaga, which features the Britten Sinfonia line-up of string quartet, flute and bassoon, together with a tabla player and three sarod players including composer and soloist Amjad Ali Khan. Helpfully, arranger David Murphy is on hand to assist.  The work was originally conceived and premiered with Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but David has made this new chamber arrangement for us and we’re delighted to be giving the world premiere in Delhi.

A film of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performing Samaaga

Within the programme we are also to perform a solo-set of Western works – including Purcell, Mozart, Philippe Hersant, and Machair to Myrrh, a composition from our very own Jaqueline Shave, for string trio and tabla which takes the listener on a journey from Machair (on the Isle of Harris), to Morocco!  We soon discover that the tabla tuned to A, which is required for the work, is going to be impossible to source in Southern India, as tablas tend to be more common in the North of the country.  Thankfully, Anubrata Chatterjee, our tabla player, makes a few adaptions and he and Jackie are soon finding their way around the piece, with Anubrata learning the work by ear.

A lengthy rehearsal calls for a well-deserved evening of relaxation, and the orchestra are therefore delighted to be invited to dinner with Khan Saheb and his family.  A fabulous evening was had by all, with wonderful food and warm company.

Orchestra Manager

For full details of Britten Sinfonia's tour to India click here

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Britten Sinfonia Academy Aldeburgh Residency

Britten Sinfonia Academy have just returned from Snape Maltings where they joined Aldeburgh Young Musicians for an intensive week-long chamber orchestra course themed 'Britten Inspired'.

The young musicians explored existing repertoire and also developed new material created by young AYM composers for full ensembles and smaller chamber groups. The course was led by Britten Sinfonia's violinist Clara Bliss and composer Dobrinka Tabakova, and the musicians were joined by Bridget Carey (viola), Sarah O'Flynn (flute), Lucy Railton (cello) and Matt Yardley (trumpet).

Here are some photos showing what the Academy got up to during their week in Aldeburgh:

Early morning yoga on the Hepworth Lawn (c) Otis Luxton/AYM

Every morning began with a warm-up with everyone

warming up
An informal sharing of work by AYM composers

Small ensemble rehearsals
(c) Otis Luxton/AYM

(c) Otis Luxton / AYM

A rehearsal with an AYM composer
Of course there were breaks from the music including lunchtime football matches
and walks in the beautiful surroundings of Snape
Dobrinka Tabakova rehearsing her new piece with the ensemble

Full ensemble rehearsal
Of course the management and professional musicians managed to find time for fish and chips on the beach

Dobrinka Tabakova (composer) and Mateja Kaluza (Britten Sinfonia Creative Learning Assistant) admire Maggi Hambling's famous sculpture inspired by Benjamin Britten

To find out more about Britten Sinfonia Academy click here

Monday, 14 July 2014

Music, concerts and composing according to Ben Comeau

Ben is a young Cambridge-based composer who won the 2014 Cambridge University Composers’ Workshop. As a result Ben is writing a piece for our 2014-15 At Lunch series which you can support through the Musically Gifted campaign. Ben is in his final year studying music at Girton College, Cambridge, where he divides his time between composition, piano, organ and jazz. He has written and performed two piano concertos, performing the second in venues including Birmingham Symphony Hall and St. Martin's in the Fields.  On organ, he won the inaugural Northern Ireland International Organ Competition, playing part of his own transcription of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. In this blog post Ben discusses his inspirations, what he's listening to currently and what advice he'd offer other young composers;

How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?
I'm not sure it's my place to answer this, but I think it's safe to say I'm curious, scatter-brained, obsessed with a huge variety of different kinds of music, and always seeking to learn new things.

What's your earliest musical memory?
Getting Hanon piano exercises stuck in my head after listening to my dad teaching the piano at home from my bedroom all day.

What do you like most about composing?
To be completely honest: the ego boost after teasing a new sound into the world. And the knowledge that I might be able to affect peoples' thoughts and emotions; my own thoughts and emotions as much as other peoples'.

What inspires you?
Just sound itself – I almost never get inspired to compose by anything extra-musical. I often get inspired after listening to someone else's music though.

When was the last time you experienced writers' block, and how did you move on from it?

I can't exactly remember when the last time was, but I often find simply taking a break or listening to some contrasting music can help. Sometimes I just need a good sleep. I've been fortunate to only ever have short-term writers' block.

What advice would you give to other young composers?

Compose as much as possible; analyse other musical works in lots of depth; analyse your own work – it's easy to feel polarised about your work, either falling in love with it or thinking it's worthless (sometimes changing overnight about the same piece) but it's perhaps better to analyse which elements in the piece make you fall in love with it, and what weaker elements might cause you to temporarily hate it. You can then work on improving the weaker elements.

Which musical instrument do you wish you could play, and why?

I've recently become interested in the saxophone, because of its astonishing variety of timbre. I've been inspired by John Zorn's extended repertoire of weird and wacky squeaking sounds from the instrument; I don't know anything about how to actually produce such sounds. I also wish I were a good singer – I think there's something fundamentally spiritual about the human voice, going to a deeper level than any other form of music making. A central feature of most, if not all, 'primitive' societies was communal chanting, often with a religious purpose. Unfortunately I'm not blessed with a fine voice.

How do you feel about new music and what we're trying to do with Musically Gifted?

New music is obviously inherently experimental, in the very literal sense that it is generally an experiment to see if something will work or not. Some new musical experiments will be failures and will not move anyone, will not stir emotions or have any other use. Other musical experiments will open up vast realms of human emotional experience, move us to tears or open our eyes to an entirely new way of looking at the world.

If “music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”, then it's interesting how often we are finding new things which have not been expressed or said before, which could not be expressed except through music. I don't believe that most of us have tapped through a tiny fraction of the range of experiences the human brain is capable of, and music almost certainly has far more to say to us than has yet been said. Of course, this all requires a positive attitude towards the idea of experimentation. We must dedicate time and resources to opening up new musical avenues, and there is lots of potential reward for this.

Musically Gifted is a brilliant endeavour which is investing in the search for new forms of human expression and communication.

What's your musical guilty pleasure?
That's a strange concept really. Any kind of music that brings you pleasure pretty much justifies itself, without one needing to feel 'guilty' – I think? I can get really into Queen or Abba, albeit in small doses…

If you turned your iPod on now, what would be playing?

I’m currently starting to explore indie rock – I’m fairly unknowledgeable, but the last thing I listened to was some Grizzly Bear which I enjoyed (mainly for the harmonies/structures; I can't enjoy the vocal style so much). I've also been listening to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite; I've made an organ transcription of the work, and I’m performing it for my final recital-exam at Cambridge University.

The last concert you saw?
I play in far more concerts than I go to see (for better or worse)! The last I played in was Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, in Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. The last I saw was a student piano recital by Sasha Valeri Millwood, in Girton College, Cambridge. He improvised links between the pieces; apparently a common practice in the 18th century. I wonder if this could be revived in the 21st century – I'm a big fan of improvisation.

If you hadn't been a musician, what might have happened?
I can't remember imagining myself to ever be anything other than a musician – but I also have a big interest in philosophy, politics and ethics, with an activist streak. I might have been an environmental campaigner, or gone into academic study of philosophy.

Any plans for the summer?
Travel (not sure where), practice, read!

Ben's new work will be premiered during the At Lunch 3 performances in London, Cambridge and Norwich in February 2015. Find out more here

Support Ben's new work through the Musically Gifted scheme - your chance to buy a gift and create new music. More info here

Monday, 16 June 2014

Patrick John Jones on Composition

A new work by Patrick John Jones opens Britten Sinfonia's 2014-15 At Lunch series which sees performances in Cambridge, Norwich and at London's Wigmore Hall in November and December 2014. Patrick won OPUS2014 our open submission competition for unpublished composers and is on the roster of Musically Gifted composers you could help support. In this blog Patrick answers questions about himself and his music.

How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?

Imagine a cross between a less good-looking Jarvis Cocker (minus the singing ability), a better-looking T.S. Eliot (minus the way with words), and a less funny Simon Amstell (minus the big curly hair).

That may or may not be almost, but not quite, entirely unlike me.

What do you like most about music and composing?
One of the most enjoyable parts of composing is when the ideas for a piece gather momentum and I can lose myself in shaping and refining the sound world that I am trying to create. Similarly, the music I like has a compelling power that can completely absorb my attention. I live for the moments when my mind is engaged with that kind of intensity.

What inspires you?

Original, potent ideas that are realised with passion and dedication. (This can apply to anything that involves human creativity, not just music.)

How do you feel about new music and what we’re trying to do with Musically Gifted?

About new music: optimistic. One thing I am particularly excited by is the fact that we have almost immediate access to a profusion of different kinds of music. It makes it so easy to ignore any canon that is thrust at you, and allows the creation of your own canon of music and musical figures that are important to you. That can only be a good thing for creativity.

However, there is such an overwhelming amount being written now that it is impossible to keep up, and I am more interested in pursuing music that is new to me rather than staying on top of what is current. Every so often, though, I will hear something I think is really special in this vast mass of creative activity, and that is where my optimism comes from.

Ultimately, it is extremely important to allow composers to keep trying, and I’m very glad Britten Sinfonia is playing a part in that.

What was your reaction when Britten Sinfonia commissioned you?

Delighted! It was amazing to hear Britten Sinfonia's wind players so deftly tackle the scores given to them at the OPUS2014 workshop, and I’m really looking forward to working with them more.

What would you like to be recognised for?
Ideally: original, potent ideas that are realised with passion and dedication. Or streaking at a major sporting event.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
I like what I like unashamedly, as should everyone.

If you turned your iPod on now, what would be playing?
Currently the Bach Brandenburgs, played by Il Giardino Armonico. At the moment I keep obsessively coming back to the middle movement of number six.

At the end of a long day, how do you relax?

My mind can be very hyperactive after a long day, so I’ll often be in bed listening to something on headphones that will help clear my head before going to sleep. Perhaps some music with a mesmeric quality or an audiobook. I usually have a novel on the go too, as it's easy for my ears to get fatigued if I've been working on music all day.

If you hadn’t been a musician, what might have happened?

If my seven-year-old self had his way, I’d be a paleontologist. But because my close family is exclusively comprised of literature nerds, I’d probably be attempting to write a novel or an English thesis right now. Or clandestinely googling TEFL courses whilst working a nine-to-five.

Is there anything else you want to share with the world?

A pot of tea. Or two. Maybe a vat.

Patrick is writing a piece for wind quintet which will be premiered during our At Lunch 1 tour on Friday 28 November at St Andrew's Hall, Norwich, Tuesday 2 December at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge and Wednesday 3 December at Wigmore Hall, London. Click here for more information and booking details

You can support Patrick John Jones new work via Musically Gifted. Click here for more information.

Submissions for OPUS2015 are now open - click here to find out more.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Nikola White on Kaija Saariaho

In this blog post Britten Sinfonia's Artistic Planning Director, Nikola White, discusses how we came to commission Kaija Saariaho for our 2014-15 At Lunch series and her thoughts on the composer's style;

Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho has been on our wish-list of composers to commission for a long time and is the first Scandinavian composer we have commissioned. Scandinavia is such a power-house of cultural excellence, with the likes of Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Pekka Kuusisto all making a huge impact in the music world. I find Kaija particularly interesting as she’s a Finnish francophone; she went to study in Paris at IRCAM and has lived in the city since 1982.

When creating the programme for our At Lunch concerts, we are aiming to present a series that provides a good balance of both established and new talent, plus a breadth of compositional styles and instrumentation. Kaija’s music is all about the sound she is creating – I understand that when she was a little girl, at bedtime she used to hear very distinctive music "coming out of her pillow" – I love the idea of this – and apparently she used to ask her mother to "turn the pillow off"!
We’re delighted to have the opportunity of presenting her new piano trio in January 2015 and also, whilst not at all imperative, it is very welcome to have a female voice in the programming mix – I know that Kaija has been largely disappointed by the difficulties that female composers and conductors sometimes still face, and is saddened by the lack of progress in this area.

In many of her earlier compositions she has made use of electronics (such as Verblendungen, 1984) and created a sound-world full of colour and texture. It's interesting to see that in some of her more recent pieces (such as Laterna Magica, 2008), that don't use any electronics, she still manages to create blurry lines between textures that convey almost similar effects. And her opera, L'amour de Loin (2000) has lushly beautiful moments juxtaposed with acidic dissonances, whilst still retaining a musical consonance.

Although she has written for large forces where the colours she creates are overwhelmingly beautiful (such as Du Cristal, 1989), I find her chamber and solo works equally exhibit a fascinating array of colours. I also like the fact that she often writes specifically for artists who she knows and I think her admiration for them comes across in her musical expression, such as the flute pieces she has written for Camilla Hoitenga, and the cello works for Annsi Karttunen. Given that our At Lunch programmes are very much focussed on the individual principal players, and tend to exhibit a very collaborative process, I am sure that Kaija will enjoy this aspect of the commission.

Nikola White
Artistic Planning Director

Kaija’s Piano Trio features alongside her Nocturne for solo violin in our At Lunch 2 concerts in London, Cambridge and Norwich in January 2015. Click here for full information.

Help commission Kaija’s new piece via the Musically Gifted scheme. From as little as £10 you will receive many benefits including your name in the score and updates on the evolution of the piece.