Thursday, 12 March 2015

Sinfonia Student review - At Lunch 4

Britten Sinfonia At Lunch 4 
West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge 10/03/15

Harrison Varied Trio for violin, piano and percussion
Joey Roukens Lost in a surreal trip (world premiere tour)
Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2

Britten Sinfonia’s Lunchtime Concert series came to a flourishing Easter climax* with the ensemble’s performance of varied and fantastic instrumentation. Parallels can be drawn from the contemporary nature of both Lou Harrison and Dmitri Shostakovich, however the success of this
lunchtime concert came in its eclecticism, not its continuity. The two composers, whose works comprised the beginning and end of the recital, were active during a similar time, however their music could not be more dissimilar.

Lou Harrison’s Varied Trio for violin, piano and percussion is a wonderful gem of a piece, with influences from Gamelan music palpable and Native American sounds coming to the fore in Elegy, the central movement. Gould’s playing was sensitive and engaging, remaining particularly accessible as was Watkins' piano interjections in Bell Bowls. The real star of this piece was the fantastic Owen Gunnell, whose playing was virtuosic and displayed consummate technical prowess, remaining involved throughout. Even when playing rice bowls with chopsticks, Gunnell displayed musicianship and ability. The sporadic and broken-up nature of the work was not a hindrance to its effectiveness, rather this added to its charm.

Lost in a surreal trip, on its world premiere tour, by Dutch-born composer Joey Roukens was full of interest and style. Characterised by sharp contrasts in atmosphere and mood, the work began in an ethereal-like haze, and shifted through a pulsating club-inspired sections, to pop induced rhythms, finally to return to the shimmering opening material once more. Again, virtuosity aided the successful evocation of the piece. It is interesting that the extremely eclectic styles exhibited in Roukens' work were aptly reflecting in the altering ensemble size throughout the programme, first with the addition of cello and then with the removal of percussion. Again, Gunnell’s playing was especially sensitive, with his vibraphone technique evoking both intensity and subtlety.

Shostakovich’s second piano trio is a work of sublime intensity, and this was well managed by the trio of Huw Watkins, Thomas Gould and Caroline Dearnley. Written in 1944, in the midst of
WWII, Shostakovich’s composition reflects the tumult of the age, with incredible dissonance in the opening movement, unfolding from the fantastic opening cello solo, entirely in harmonics, convincingly played by Dearnley. The trio was gritty and powerful, while real emotional intensity was realised in the slow movement, effectively a funeral march; the opening piano chords evoke total pain and sorrow, while the violin line weeps with searing agony.

This was the first concert in a long while where members of the audience were visibly reduced to tears it was simply that wonderful, and moving. The final movement was equally persuasive, with Watkins’ playing reaching transcendental heights in his rendition of the Jewish-style ‘Dance of Death’ melody that has become so well-known and widely recognised. A fantastic crescendo was reached towards the end of the finale, concluding a resoundingly superb performance that had audience members captivated and exclaiming their delight come the final few notes. The ensemble’s weight, mettle and intensity was admirable, however the overall sound still required a little more grit in the cello.

This was a wildly persuasive performance, and a hugely enjoyable and engaging one too, reflecting in its repertoire and instrumentation the wide-ranging span of twentieth-century and modern chamber music.

Carl Wikeley (Sinfonia Student 2014-15)

This programme will be recorded in Norwich's St Andrew's Hall on Friday 13 March 2015 for later broadcast by BBC Radio 3.

*The final concert in the 2014-15 At Lunch series will take place on 30 June (West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge) and 3 July (St Andrew's Hall, Norwich) and feature the young musicians from Britten Sinfonia Academy. More information.

My Curves are not Mad

Next week Britten Sinfonia premiere a new work by young composer, Tom Coult entitled My Curves are not Mad. Upon notification of the title of the new work and then receiving the programme note for this piece we discovered that Tom had been influenced by Matisse's approach during his 'cut-out' period. Will, Development Director explores this phase in Matisse's output in this article.

Mes courbes ne sont pas folles. My curves are not mad. So wrote Matisse, in his 1947 limited-edition book ‘Jazz’, published at a time of his life when his health was failing. In 1941 he had been diagnosed with cancer, and although it somewhat dampened his spirits, a successful operation unexpectedly gave him a renewed energy although left him requiring a wheelchair.

With his limited mobility Matisse acquired a new assistant, the beautiful Russian Lydia Delectorskaya, and with her help set about creating a new style. Gouaches découpés – cut paper collages with gouache – have come to be seen as some of the defining works of his entire output. Indeed, Matisse would probably agree with this thought; he wrote at the time “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated”.

So, what are these gouaches découpés, Matisse’s cut-out style? Well, Matisse himself referred to it as ‘painting with scissors’. He would cut the shapes out freehand, on prepared paper that had been painted with gouache, and with the help of his assistants would arrange and rearrange their composition until he was satisfied. These cut-outs would then be attached to the wall of his studio, whereupon Matisse would then continue developing their form: adding new cut-outs, moving them around, modifying them. When he was entirely satisfied, they would be transferred to a board or canvas. The walls of his studio would be covered by these cut-outs, and at a time when his mobility was deeply limited, they gave Matisse a way to change and improve his environment. I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk…” he said. “There are leaves, fruits, a bird...”

The finished works were vividly colourful and striking. In ‘Jazz’ Matisse displayed twenty figurative prints, which took inspiration from the improvisatory nature of jazz music. As he began work Matisse used a brush to write little thoughts to himself – ‘My curves are not mad’, for instance – and he was so taken by their simple visual appearance he suggested to his publisher that they be used in the finished book, juxtaposed against each print.

The resulting publication represents a defining part of Matisse’s ‘cut-out’ style, and some of the individual prints, such as ‘The Fall of Icarus’ are recognised the world over. However, the book is but a small part of the overall output of this period. Many other works were created in this style, including the famous ‘Snail’ which now hangs proudly in the Tate Modern, London, and of course the Blue Nudes of the early 1950s. What the book ‘Jazz’ also doesn’t convey is the sheer scale of some of the cut-out works. The ‘Snail’ is a not-inconsiderable nine square metres of riotous form and colour. ‘La Perruche et la Sirène’ (the parakeet and the mermaid) is a spectacular and triumphant 25 square metres. However, for sheer impact, nothing beats the stained-glass windows of the Chapelle de le Rosaire, which Matisse took on as a tribute to one of his nurses during his 1941 illness, who later became a Dominican nun.

As he thought his life was coming to an end in 1941, Matisse found a new sense of purpose, determination and creativity that over the following fourteen years was to ensure his place as one of the 20th century’s most revered artists. His works hang on walls the world over: bold and inescapably colourful. “I have the mastery of it”, Matisse wrote in a letter to his friend André Rouveyre. “I am sure of it”.

Will Harriss
Development Director

You can hear the world premiere of Tom Coult’s new work My Curves are not Mad, inspired by the structure of Matisse’s works, in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden, from 20-22 March 2015. For more information click here.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A Workshop to Remember - A Sinfonia Student's experience

Cambridge University Composers Workshop - Saturday 7 March 2015

Britten Sinfonia Musicians: Thomas Gould - Violin 1, Bridget Carey - Viola, James Kenny - Double Bass, Peter Francomb - Horn, Huw Watkins - Piano

Univeristy of Cambridge Students Musicians: Nicholas Bleisch - Violin 2, Ben Michaels - Cello, Simone Maurer - Flute, Chloe Allison - Clarinet, Carl Wikeley - Percussion

Conductor: Hugh Brunt
Guest composer: Judith Weir

Having moved to Cambridge from Australia five months ago, I was eager to hear the music currently being written by young composers during the Composers Workshop. It also provided an opportunity to explore the music, and record it under tight time pressures, in an ensemble of Cambridge music students and professionals from Britten Sinfonia.

The workshop began with an address from composition lecturer Richard Causton who spoke, from what was undoubtedly a personal experience, about the journey of a composer’s work: from an imaginary representation inside their head, to the first time they actually hear it played by a real ensemble in real time. He warned the students the experience could be shocking, but it would allow them a unique opportunity to fine tune their composing. Eminent composer, Judith Weir, attended the workshop to give advice to the students.

I played flute and piccolo in 4 of the 6 compositions, all of which had a distinctly different style and story. Bertie Baigent’s Mr Hetherington’s Hat for eight players which, in his words, was “inspired by the story of John Hetherington, the haberdasher once supposed to have been the inventor of the top hat… This work captures the atmosphere at the first sight of the hat: the astonishment of the crowd, and the jovial insouciance of Mr Hetherington.” Bertie used very little material for the composition and combined the instruments in groups of unison which were framed with short and punchy silences. As the players and conductor, Hugh Brunt, became more familiar with the score, we began to capture the humourous, light character of the piece. Judith praised Bertie’s exhaustive use of sparse material to create a texturally and rhythmically interesting composition.

In complete contrast was Alex Tay’s The Bleak Winter which “is a reference to the famous carol and poem. The piece draws inspiration from the first verse, where Christina Rosetti describes the earth, winds, snow, and water, and imagines the four separate elements freezing and crystallising.” The score was complexly layered in regards to rhythmic and melodic elements. Tonal and chordal colours were explored through an emphasis on extended techniques across the instruments. The very dense nature of the composition was aided by the structure which featured a recurring section of semiquavers in the flute part. For many of the instrumentalists, this was the most technically challenging piece of the day, although we also appreciated how hard Alex must have worked to conceptualise and notate the music.

Rhiannon Randle’s Nachtgedanken meaning ‘Night Thoughts’, “depicts lying awake at night plagued with insomnia, and tracks a progression of thoughts on life, death and fate.” I had already played this piece prior to the workshop and found it intriguing to see what a different group of musicians could bring in terms of interpretation. Originally conceived as an orchestral work, Nachtgedanken also worked well for chamber ensemble. Judith noted the piece utilised effects more than harmonic or melodic material, which I thought successfully underpinned the dream-like shifts of the piece..

Joy Lisney’s movement I of Sinfonia Piccola is to become a multi-movement small symphony for chamber orchestra which, coincidentally, starts with a lone piccolo note. Much conversation was given to the way in which the piece had been notated. Joy had given a lot of thought as to how she would represent the rhythms across the entire piece. A number of players felt the score looked more difficult than needed and raised some good alternatives to how the notation might be simplified. Initially, I too was troubled by the complex notation, however I realised this was a good opportunity to extend my reading abilities; and that perhaps sometimes notation should challenge the musician. Once I took on this mindset and worked out the subdivisions, I felt I had a better understanding of the piece.

In the last hour of the workshop, we gave a concert of all the pieces which were also recorded. This was a demanding process as there was little time to prepare between each piece. Hugh must be commended for not only his preparation of the scores before the workshop, but for his ability to change from the character and style of one piece so quickly to the next. This gave me the opportunity to hear the other two compositions that didn’t require flute. Robert Laidlow’s Traveller of the Inferno incorporated extended string techniques which had me craning my neck to see where the sounds were coming from. Daniel-Lewis Fardon’s Break juxtaposed material for solo cello against the rest of the ensemble, and was perhaps my favourite composition of the day. Credit must go to Ben Michaels for his virtuosic cello playing.

Overall, the workshop was a huge success for the composers, ensemble, and audience. It is satisfying to hear such contrasting music being written by young composers in Cambridge. 

Simone Maurer (Sinfonia Student 2014-15)

The winner of the 2015 Composers Workshop will be announced on our website in mid-April. 

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A Development Director in Amsterdam

It’s not often that the Development team gets to travel with the orchestra for a concert overseas, so when the chance came to hear Britten Sinfonia in the world-famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, our Development Director, Will Harriss, jumped at the chance.

Midday, Friday 27 February 2015: Off to Kings Cross to catch the Eurostar with the rest of the orchestra. Everyone’s on time, our Orchestra Manager is busy handing out boarding passes for the train. The group is a mixture of chatting musicians, guarding their instruments carefully – afterall, a musician without an instrument won’t get very far on stage. Of course, some instruments can also be hugely valuable. It can all make touring with an entire orchestra reasonably tricky for orchestra managers – does an instrument need a separate seat? Can any instruments be hired at the destination, and how will that affect the performance? What instruments are required for which works in which concert programmes?

This is all a new side of the orchestra to me. My role is to raise the funds for the orchestra, to allow it to reach the highest of world-class standards in concert halls across the world. But even complicated funding applications seem to have nothing on the touring logistics of a chamber orchestra. I’m busy pondering all this when we are allowed to check-in and find some much-needed lunch and coffee.

3pm: Our concerts team are calm and organised, despite newly-bought coffee being dispatched over the floor. It also turns out that lunch needn’t have been bought – an unexpected upgrade for the entire orchestra and soloists means that lunch – and some half-decent wine – is served at 150mph on the way to Brussels. I’m told that this isn’t standard on orchestral tours (!) but I think everyone’s in agreement that this is a pleasant way to travel across the continent…

6pm: We arrive in Brussels, and tickets for the final stage of the journey are given out. I go for a coffee with one of the soloists and begin pondering again the sheer scale of touring an orchestra. For this one concert date we are taking roughly 30 musicians on tour, with four soloists, 28 singers from the excellent Polyphony, and their conductor Stephen Layton. That’s over sixty people, and we are joined by our Orchestra Manager – the unflappable Annabel – and Concert Director, the equally unflappable James. Polyphony have a tour manager too – hello Fran – and Britten Sinfonia’s CEO David Butcher and Artistic Planning Director, Nikola White are already in the Netherlands for meetings, as they plan the orchestra’s future seasons through to 2018 and beyond. The choir, too, are already on tour for a prior concert. If you totalled up the annual ‘musician mileage’ by the UK’s professional choirs and orchestras, it must be into the many millions.

It’s quite astonishing by any standards, but it also reinforces the need for our environmental planning; for shorter European tours we aim to minimise our impact through catching the train (as we did today) rather than flying, for instance.

10.30pm: We’re all checked into our hotel. The final leg of the journey was uneventful, and the hotel is a short walk from the Concertgebouw, which will make tomorrow morning a bit easier to manage for the players. Off for some food and a beer, in the excellent company of composer Joey Roukens, for whom Amsterdam is his home. We talk about his forthcoming commission for our ‘At Lunch’ series, and it’s fascinating to hear about his recent and future works. Afterwards it’s back to the hotel, and reassuringly the choir have all booked in, fresh from their concert that evening.

Morning, Saturday 28 February 2015: It’s confession time for me – from looking at the management schedule for the tour, I knew that about 58 musicians and singers would all be trying to get breakfast at the same time, and I also knew that the breakfast room in the hotel didn’t have 58 seats. So I decided to have a bit of a lie-in, a late breakfast, and aimed to get to the Concertgebouw just after the start of the rehearsal. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to walk down Amsterdam’s leafy streets to get to the hall, which rises majestically in front of you.

What’s that? Britten Sinfonia’s name is in lights on the front of the building? And on the posters outside? It’s a real thrill to see, and also knowing that we’re playing in the hall’s ‘Saturday Matinee’ series – one of Europe’s most prestigious concert series.

Inside the hall, I strolled down the corridors, and before I knew it I was listening to Haydn’s gorgeous Nelson Mass. The hall itself is unique and beautiful, and rightly has a place as one of the world’s finest acoustics. Built in the late 1880s, it is richly decorated, with the names of composers dotted around the hall in celebration. Some 900 concerts a year take place in the main hall and its associated recital hall, to an audience of over 700,000 people. It’s hugely exciting for Britten Sinfonia – which 20-odd years ago was just starting out – to be on stage.

A bit later the players are getting to grips with Shostakovitch’s tricky Chamber Symphony, which is being directed by Jacqueline Shave, the orchestra’s Leader. It has a vitality about it – an urgency and directness that is completely mesmerising. It’s just as well, given that it’s also going out live on Dutch national radio, but I’m reminded again just how special this band is.

2.15pm: Before we know it, it’s time for the concert to begin. The hall is packed; matinee concerts here are apparently always really well attended, and the audience is both young and old, of all backgrounds. It’s lovely to see such a mix of enthusiastic people, who simply want to come and hear interesting repertoire, played really well. Polyphony are on triumphant form, too – they give an encore (an unaccompanied work by Arvo Pärt, since you ask) at the close of the concert, after which everyone is on their feet applauding.

4.15pm: Backstage after the concert, there’s a palpable buzz about the concert. Everyone knows it went well, and there’s a chance for the concerts team to catch up with some of the players afterwards.

5.15pm: No rest for our indefatigable Orchestra Manager. She’s still got to ship an entire orchestra, instruments and choir back to the UK. So it’s into buses for the journey to the airport. The concert was utterly thrilling – I’m biased but also confident any of the other thousand or so people present would say the same – but for the players there’s no hanging around. It’s back to Blighty to start learning the repertoire for the next concerts. In fact, on the final leg of the journey I asked one if the violinists what the following day had in store.

“Well…” she said. “It’s fairly relaxing. Leisurely breakfast, then a few hours of practice, then I’m doing a recording session in the evening in London…”

Monday, 16 February 2015

Meet Alasdair Beatson

Pianist, Alasdair Beatson performs Han Abrahamsen's Double Concerto for violin, piano and strings alongside Thomas Gould and Britten Sinfonia this March. He took some time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about himself;

What has been the highlight of your career so far? 
A few years ago I was Artist-in-Residence in the new concert hall in Perth, the Scottish town where I grew up.  It was for me a unique opportunity to tie two separate parts if my life together - to bring some of my favourite colleagues, including Pekka Kuusisto and the Doric String Quartet, to a truly excellent hall in my pretty and modest home town.   

When are you happiest? 
Playing the music of Fauré!  I've become quite obsessed with it - the beauty of his perfect scores, the adventure in his harmonies, and the ecstatic sweep of his passion - what joy! 

What is your greatest fear? 
I hate spiders and regularly hoover the ivy outside my kitchen window. 

What is your earliest musical memory? 
Of LPs the Beatsons listened to at home - Harry Nilsson's musical fable "The Point", or "Switched-On Bach" which has a magnificently camp album cover and rather sacrilegious electronic-baroque content. 

Which living person do you most admire, and why? 
I marvel at musicians who at the height of the profession retain their artistic integrity and maintain a balanced ego despite enormous pressures and seductions to the contrary - I might mention András Schiff or George Benjamin. 

What was your most embarrassing moment? 
Probably falling over on stage during a televised performance.   

What is your most treasured possession? 
My music scores, which are well-leafed, quite heavily marked, and companions to my continuing exploration of the repertoire. 

What would your super power be? 
To make spiders go weak at the knees. 

If you were an animal what would you be?
I'd hope to be an eagle, perhaps one of the Sea Eagles living on the Isle of Rùm. 

What is your most unappealing habit? 
I sleep indulgently and copiously, an average of nine hours, which seems so wasteful during waking hours. 

What is your favourite book? 
I love to read, mainly contemporary fiction - current favourites are Ned Beauman Boxer Beetle, John Williams Stoner, Salmon Rushdie Midnight's Children and Dave Eggers What is the What. 

What is your guiltiest pleasure? 
Extravagance with food - eating a bit too well or too often!  I live just a few streets away from Brixton Village - a wonderful indoor market with a vast number of talented, independent, friendly chefs who test my self control on a daily basis. 

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? 
Perhaps some composers who never met but might have much to talk about - Schumann and Fauré, Haydn and Stravinsky, Satie and John Cage.  One would wish to spend time on the seating plan. 

If you could go back in time, where would you go? 
1920's Paris, as lived by Hemingway in his memoir A Moveable Feast

How do you relax away from the concert platform? 
With friends, with books, with whisky, and with walking - around cities, through the countryside and in the hills. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 
I don't believe I've achieved anything truly great, but I do think I aspire to it and perhaps someday... 

What is the most important lesson life has taught you? 
That it is possible to strongly hold a belief or desire and simultaneously be open to alternatives.

In a nutshell, what is your philosophy? 
To try to be true to oneself, and true to the music.

Alasdair Beatson performs Han Abrahamsen's Double Concerto at London's Milton Court on Friday 20 March 2015,  Norwich's Theatre Royal on Saturday 21 March 2015 and Saffron Walden's Saffron Hall on Sunday 22 March 2015. Click here for more info and  to book tickets.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Sinfonia Student review - At Lunch 2

Sinfonia Student David Roche shares his experience of our At Lunch 2 programme, which was performed on Tuesday 13 January 2015 in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, and featured a new work by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho...


Kaija Saariaho’s instrumental writing is incredibly exciting and sophisticated, Nocturne is especially so and it proved to be an awesome opener. The rhythmically-loose, choppy, folk-style music moves into and out of broad musical gestures concomitant with spectral music: diaphanous trills between open strings and harmonics at a pace that prevents the lower pitches from ‘speaking’ properly; playing extremely close to the bridge in order to coax out a shimmering, unpredictable range of overtones (violist Garth Knox* calls this ‘irising’); looking to the sounds themselves to find an organising principle– all completely mesmerising in performance. The very strong hints of Scandinavian folk music were almost as striking, check out Benedicte Maurseth’s latest release Overtones to hear what I mean - similar soundworlds! Violinist Jacqueline Shave brought the work to life: a moving interpretation of a hefty composition.
Light and Matter was the second of two Saariaho pieces on the programme. The composer notes the influence of ‘the changing light and colour of Morningside Park’, especially ‘the continuous transformation of light on the glinting leaves’. The beautifully intricate, delicate instrumental writing and its evolution into dense, nebulous music certainly invites the listener make comparisons between the programme note and the composition - the hidden complexity of musical sound being used as a metaphor for light. The looming, resonating piano made me much more aware of the temporal nature of timbral sound: the attack and decay of its’ sounds drawing attention to one of the central precepts of the composition – gradual transformation. The trio gave a superbly assured performance of a difficult composition, the same being the case with the remaining works.
Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho
The Debussy suffered from a slight tuning issue with the cello’s low C but this did nothing to detract from the performance as a whole. I was particularly fortunate as I heard the sonata performed in rehearsal prior to the concert where there was no such problem, it was played impeccably on the first attempt and I was the only audience member at the time… which was nice (no iPhones or whispering). Caroline Dearnly’s vivacious performance and Huw Watkins’s perfectly-matched pianism cut through the bricky tone of the concert hall with ease, an extremely secure, visually-engaging performance that, along with the final piece, served to concretize the concert as a success. 
The Fauré was, along with Nocturne, the best performance of the concert.  Well-paced, gorgeously subtle rubato in the strings; crystal-clear, perfectly appropriate accompaniment from the piano; the visual presence and fantastically lyrical performance from the cellist, especially in the first movement, really brought the piece to life. The interplay of the cello and violin gave the work a wonderful narrative drive, the performers responded to each other’s phraseological nuances, a dialogue that set their parts away from the piano – refreshingly liberal.
As excellent as the performances were, I was far less concerned with the Debussy and Fauré. To my mind there’s something considerably more interesting in the compositions created by living, working artists: they are able to defend and discuss their works, contribute to new depths of expression, new ways of making, and new ways of thinking. There is so much music one can engage with and the major, most frequently performed repertoire constitutes a very, very small piece of an outrageously tasty, terrifyingly large, yet-to-be-fully-discovered pie. 
It is extremely reassuring to see a successful professional ensemble commission works and dedicate so much to contemporary classical music. It was particularly pleasing to hear, firstly, a living composer’s music as the centerpiece of a concert and, secondly, a female composer’s music as the centerpiece of a concert – living composers and women are woefully underrepresented in classical music** (see Bachtrack’s most recent survey). It seems outrageous that the two things are uncommon enough to be worthy of notice. Also, having lived in a few other cities I can say with some certainty that new music does not get its deserved share of performances, especially performances by musicians as committed and excellent as those in Britten Sinfonia. The people of Cambridge are very lucky to have this music available and should endeavor to make the most of it, however demanding it may seem on first hearing!
*Explore Garth Knox's Viola Spaces here.
**Click here to read a
n article from The Guardian exploring our current male-dominated classical music industry.
David Roche (Sinfonia Student 2014-15)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Brussels Sprouts and Christmas Carols

Ahead of the looming excitement of Christmas day we asked our Musically Gifted composers what they're most looking forward to and what they really think about Brussels sprouts... 

All of these composers will have new works premiered by Britten Sinfonia this season, find out how you can get involved on the Musically Gifted website. Watch our Christmas video here

Ben Comeau

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
Unashamedly highbrow response!  Any of Bach’s Christmas music, especially O Jesulein süß (O Little One Sweet). Poulenc’s four Christmas motets. Messiaen’s Dieu Parmi Nous for organ.

The one you really can’t stand?
I’m usually very eclectic in my tastes, but Christmas really brings out the very worst in pop music. The tropes and cheap tinsel of Christmas hits are so depressing. I could probably enjoy Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody if it were an obscurity, but the Pavlovian response when it starts playing in a club brings out a rare misanthropic streak in me...

Favourite thing about Christmas?
Obviously (some of) the music. And if it ever snows, going out on a long walk.

Your Christmas pet hate?
The pop music...

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?
YES and then some! I could eat barrels of them.

Tom Coult

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
12 Days of Christmas – hands down the most structurally innovative of all Christmas songs. It’s a cumulative form with an irregular metre and irregular, additive phrase structure – introductory lines and the ‘partridge in a pear tree’ segment in 4/4, then incrementally adding 3/4 bars, excepting the 5th phrase (‘five gold rings’) which is in 4/4, after which point the melody of the following three phrases alters for each subsequent verse. I’ve done a diagram of the phrases in each verse – italics denote the changed melody after ‘five gold rings’:


The one you really can’t stand?
The Holly and the Ivy. The word setting is awful – all the lines seem to have different numbers of syllables that have to fit into the same tune, and accents fall on strange words. 'Of all the trees that are in the wood’ – very odd.

Favourite thing about Christmas?
The Father Ted Christmas special.

Your Christmas pet hate?
People moaning about Christmas decorations going up in October and November.

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?
No. Yes? Dunno. Was Pierre Boulez not available for this Q&A?

Iain Farrington

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
My favourite ‘original’ Christmas work is Britten's Ceremony of Carols: fresh, brilliant, and moving. To think it was composed on board a ship on the Atlantic during World War II makes it even more remarkable. Of the ‘traditional’ carols, I love the original 16th Century Coventry Carol which has such tension to it, unsettling major/minor shifts and uneven bar lengths. Also The First Nowell, especially as arranged by Elgar at the end of his The Starlight Express (nothing to do with Lloyd Webber!)

The one you really can’t stand?
Any of the contemporary pieces that are loaded with saccharine sentimentality, cloying harmony and butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-your-mouth naivety. Like having to eat an extra-large Christmas pudding in one go.

Favourite thing about Christmas?
The positive atmosphere, lights, colour, food and drink; all the best things to get through the darkness of winter.

Christmas pet hate?
Dewy-eyed and cynical TV adverts (Sainsbury’s, this year).

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?
Definitely, and all year round too. However, will we have to change the name if we leave the EU?

Joey Roukens

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
Although I don’t have any real favourites, I prefer the ‘classic’ Christian hymns and carols such as Adeste Fideles, Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, partly because of their sentimental value – I used to sing these as a child at school and with my mother, and partly because they simply have lovely melodies that are both tender and solemn.

The one you really can’t stand?
Most Christmas pop songs I can’t stand, but if I had to pick one, it would be Last Christmas (by Wham!) which I find the most aggravating Christmas song ever penned. All I want for Christmas is you (Mariah Carey) and Simply having a wonderful Xmas time (Paul McCartney) are pretty terrible too. The thing is, even the great Christmas songs become vexatious just by maddening repetition during the Christmas season.

Favourite thing about Christmas?
Christmas dinner with family!

Your Christmas pet hate?
See question #2 – hellish repetition of the same annoying songs, all the crappy programs and movies on TV, massive consumerism.

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?

Nico Muhly

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
Well, let’s back up and say that the all-time best is O Come, O Come Emmanuel, because there is nothing more joyful than moving from that minor mode to the expectant major on the word, “Rejoice!"

The one thing you can’t stand?
Everybody losing their mind about Christmas before Advent starts. 

Favourite thing about Christmas?
Having the entire city to myself. Everybody peaces out and I can walk up and down the middle of the street.

Christmas pet hate?
I actually have no idea what this could possibly mean. Do you mean is there a thing my dog hates at Christmas?

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?
Firmly yes! You just have to handle them right. Sometimes raw is the way forward, indeed, and other times, the opposite.