Thursday, 23 July 2015

Elena Langer on composition

In May 2016 Britten Sinfonia premiere a new work by Elena Langer, commissioned by Britten Sinfonia with support from the William Alwyn Foundation. Elena is one of the composers you can support through the Musically Gifted campaign. Find out more about Elena in this blog post as she answers questions about herself and her music...

How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?


What’s your earliest musical memory?
My granny’s drunken singing at parties

What do you like most about composing?
As a child I preferred composing to playing piano because it was less repetitive and took less time

What inspires you?
Bad weather

When was the last time you experienced writers’ block, and how did you move on from it?
Last block was last week. Moved on from it like all proper composers – with alcohol!

How do you feel about new music and what we’re trying to do with Musically Gifted?
I personally prefer old music, but Musically Gifted sounds like a good idea

What would you like to be recognised for?
For my delicious beetroot salad

What advice would you give to other young composers?
I should quote Sofia Gubaidullina here who said to an overly prolific colleague of mine – ‘don’t pollute the atmosphere!’

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
Lutoslawki’s Chain 2

If you turned your iPod on now, what would be playing?
I haven’t got an iPod!

The last concert you saw?
Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne

If you hadn’t been a musician, what might have happened?
I would have become a better and more roundly educated person

Which musical instrument do you wish you could play, and why?
Percussion – because there are so many of them and maybe it would develop my sense of rhythm…

Any plans for the summer?
To swim

Is there anything else you want to share with the world?
I wrote an opera ‘Figaro Gets a Divorce’. It will open at the Welsh National Opera in February of 2016 – I would like the world to come and see it!

You can support Elena's new work and get regular updates on its progress via the Musically Gifted campaign - click here for more info

Elena's new work will be performed during the Benjamin Grosvenor programme performed on Wednesday 27 April 2016 at Cambrigde's West Road Concert Hall, Friday 29 April at Norwich's St Andrew's Hall and on Sunday 1 May 2016 at London's Milton Court. Click here for more info and to book tickets.

Friday, 10 July 2015

P-bones and Stravinsky

Britten Sinfonia and Norfolk Music Hub’s Wider Opportunities Celebration Day 
Wednesday 8 July 2015

“I didn’t like to ask in front of the children but, what on earth is a ‘P-bone’?”  

It is early on a bright, Norfolk Wednesday morning and St Andrew’s hall, rescued some 550 years ago from the destructive orders of Henry VIII, is decked out from stage to wall in a sea of stack-able chairs in the monarch’s favourite crimson. These are carefully and laboriously divided into sections each of which is identified with colourful laminated signs:

“Reserved for violins x 60”
“Cellos x 10 (plus some violas)”
“Clarinets x 68”
“P-bones x 60”

This is Britten Sinfonia’s Wider Opportunities Music Celebration Day fuelled by the unflagging good cheer and excellent organisation (and funding) of the Norfolk Music Hub. It is the lull before the storm as we are expecting 60 ukuleles, 15 flutes and 30 xylophones and miscellaneous brass in staggering numbers to join those already marked out to make up a total of just over 300 primary school children and their teachers. They will join 11 of Britten Sinfonia’s musicians for a celebration of instrumental learning. Today we’ll play, sing, compose and perform together under the creative guidance of workshop leader and composer Fraser Trainer.

Britten Sinfonia’s leader Jackie Shave is mustering her troops before the children arrive. In addition to playing alongside the young musicians, Britten Sinfonia have prepared a special performance, a little taster of where they might one day be if they continue the hard work they’ve been putting in at their instruments. “Remember”, she reminds fellow strings Miranda Dale, Kate Musker and Billy Cole, wind players David Cuthbert and Joy Farrall, brassers Alex Wide, Tom Rainer and Chris Smith, pianist Simon  Lane and percussionist Jeremy Cornes, “make everything big, do what you are doing but even more so. We’re playing for children remember and this should be the most exciting thing they’ve ever heard or seen.”

She might have been describing the whole day which is big and more so! The children arrive, colour co-ordinated armies, musical weaponry in hand, under arm, or casually slung across a shoulder. Positions are jostled for, a ukulele tumbles to the floor and a violin loses a string. Fraser wields a microphone over the cacophony of noodling and hissing “shushes” from vigilant teachers. He begins to sing, a call and then, a breathless moment of sudden quiet before the sweetness and power of 300 young voices raised in melodic response and the day has begun.

The end of project sharing is indeed celebratory, and one of the highlights for everyone is the chance to put down their instruments and perch at the edges of their seats for Britten Sinfonia’s performance. Anyone familiar with the orchestra’s concerts will know that one of the highlights is the compelling physicality of Jackie and her colleagues’ performances. Today is no different and three hundred young faces light up when the first notes of Stravinsky’s Ragtime ring jauntily out through the hall. The final drum beat is met with spontaneous whoops of appreciation and much bouncing in seats. Even the most seasoned of the professionals on stage cannot help but crack a smile at such genuine enthusiasm.

Afterwards the musicians - older and young - cluster in groups to exclaim over new instruments they’ve not seen before, ask questions “how do you make that sound?” or make suggestions “you should play loud all the time”. The relative merits of one instrument’s tone over another’s and Stravinsky’s compositional technique compared to the day’s other creative ventures are discussed in depth. The gaps in ages and experience melt away simply leaving 311 musicians sharing their art.

At the centre of one group, our question is answered: A ‘P-bone’, it is loudly explained, “… is like a trombone, only cooler, way cooler, ‘cos you see, get this right, you can get all different colours! Mine plays the best because it’s blue. The blue ones are the best and I can play really loud! Listen to this …” He waves his instrument enthusiastically, narrowly missing the opportunity to decapitate a classmate. “Nah don’t worry” he says soothingly when we gasp at his willful disregard of the fragility of a musical instrument handled with such enthusiasm, “its plastic, right, so we can’t smash it, see.” He thumps the bell as though greeting an old friend. P-bone – plastic trombone – but clearly here is the next generation of brass player through and through! 

Jen House
Creative Learning Director

Find out more about our Creative Learning team and their work here.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Saffron Walden, 140 primary school children, 25 teenagers and the world premiere of FUNKY PEANUT

Britten Sinfonia has been working with Saffron Walden County High School (SWCHS - home to the exceptional Saffron Hall) and ROH Bridge to develop music-making in schools in Braintree and Saffron Walden. Developing their musicianship and leadership skills, twenty five sixth-form students from SWCHS have been training for a year to become Music Ambassadors and gain their Gold Standard Arts Awards. This June, the Ambassadors lead their own creative music-making workshops in local primary schools, under the guidance of workshop leader John K Miles and Britten Sinfonia musicians. Over these two weeks the Ambassadors and Britten Sinfonia have been working with 140 children from 11 primary schools culminating in two Summer Schools and final performances for friends and family taking place in Alec Hunter Academy and Saffron Hall. To listen to the compositions that children and Music Ambassadors performed in the final performances (including FUNKY PEANUT) please click here.

In this blog we hear from participants Katherine Semar Junior School, and Music Ambassador Phoebe Tealby-Watson as they share their experiences of working together:

Reflections from Katherine Semar Junior School

Katherine Semar Junior School was given the opportunity to participate in the SWCHS Music Ambassador Project organised by SWCHS and Britten Sinfonia. Throughout the Autumn Term, Year 5 children were involved in a variety of composition workshops led by composer, John K Miles, and sixth form music students culminating in a final performance at Saffron Hall.

Copyright ROH/N. Strugnell
This project has had an extremely positive influence on the music development at KSJ, not only on individual children, but also on the way music is taught within the curriculum. The children have gained more confidence to create their own rhythmic and melodic ideas when composing in the classroom and want to explore and experiment with fresh, innovative sounds and textures on composition projects. The opportunity to observe the various composition workshops has also inspired the music specialist at KSJ to be much more adventurous in the way composition is taught within the music curriculum. It has encouraged more of a ‘think out of the box’ approach rather than being too rigid and ordered.

"I enjoyed forming our own little bands and creating our own music around a theme." shares one of the children.

The Summer Music School has also been a positive experience for KSJ musicians. Children from Year 4 and 5 had the opportunity to be part of a 70 piece children’s orchestra performing with members of Britten Sinfonia conducted by composer, John K Miles.

Copyright ROH/N. Strugnell
Over 3 days children were part of a series of vocal and instrumental rehearsals where they learnt various performance techniques focusing on achieving the best sound when singing and playing together as part of a large group. These included good posture and presentation, learning how to rehearse in orchestral sections, and listening out for different musical queues from the conductor to achieve perfect timing and good voice projection. Children were also given opportunities to improvise solos with the orchestra group.

Another element of the Summer Music School consisted of sixth-form Music Ambassadors leading small group workshops with the aim of composing a piece of music based on the ‘carnival’ theme. Children were fully involved in the creative process choosing the lyrics as well as the rhythmic/melodic content. Children also made decisions on the style of the piece and on how to structure the final composition ready for performance.

“The Summer School gave children at KSJ a real sense of achievement in all they had learnt and created in the workshops over the 3 days. The final concert made all the children feel proud to be part of this special community music project” 
(Mrs S. Jorgensen from Katherine Semar Junior School)

Copyright ROH/N. Strugnell

Reflections from Phoebe Tealby-Watson (Music Ambassador)

Phoebe Tealby-Watson (Music Ambassador) (c) Elizabeth Hunt
"I have really enjoyed the projects with Britten Sinfonia this year where we have explored and created music with Year 5 children from a range of schools. I already found it easy to interact with children, but these projects have helped me to develop this so that I can be effective in a creative situation with them. I have become more confident in assuming authority and have become better at engaging a group in something that may be unfamiliar to them. For example, I have learnt to adapt how I speak about music to a group, in order to speak in terms that they can understand. I have also learnt some basic conducting skills such as being able to count in or signal dynamic changes.

As well as developing the ability to work with children to create music, I have developed in my own ability as a player. I have explored new ways to create music with my instrument and have particularly developed in my improvisation. I have also been able to learn by ear more easily; this is something that I could already do as a singer but I am now also capable of on my violin.

But besides developing these skills, the work with Britten Sinfonia has just been really enjoyable. I have loved the enthusiasm and creativity put into the projects from all those involved: the members of Britten Sinfonia, the music teachers, the Music Ambassadors and of course the children themselves. It has been a privilege to be given such a great opportunity and to be able to learn from such amazing professional musicians."

To find out more about our Creative Learning department, who organise and run these type of projects, please visit our website.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Edward Nesbit on compostion

Edward Nesbit won Britten Sinfonia's OPUS2015 competition for unpublished composers. His new Horn Trio, Lifesize Gods, commissioned by Britten Sinfonia and Wigmore Hall, as a result of winning OPUS2015 will be premiered during the At Lunch 1 tour on Friday 27 November in Norwich with further performances in Cambridge (1 Dec) and at London's Wigmore Hall (2 Dec). In this blog post Edward answers a few questions about his work and life.

How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?
I like music.

What do you like most about composing?
The excitement of it: to get to the end of a day’s work and think ‘that passage of music didn’t exist this morning’ is a real thrill. Especially when things are going quickly, and I am pleased with and even surprised by what I am writing, this feeling can be one of the most exciting things I have ever experienced.

How do you start a new work?
This varies hugely from piece to piece.

Occasionally I know what the title of a piece will be before I start writing, and this can help to clarify my ideas hugely. I have, for example, recently been working on a piece called Like Some Forgotten Music, which is a quotation from Anne Enright’s novel The Forgotten Waltz. It is a phrase I find extremely evocative, and that has shaped the rather archaic sound-world of the piece.

Sometimes I sit down to start a piece with no pre-conceptions at all, and I just see what happens. Sometimes this leads to disaster and I have to scrap what I have written and start again multiple times; sometimes, however, this approach can lead to the most interesting results, and I produce work which I could never have imagined in the abstract.

Before I started Lifesize Gods, my horn trio for Britten Sinfonia, I knew that everything I wrote would be repeated – literally every phrase has repeat marks around it. This semi-arbitrary restriction has far-reaching implications for the syntax and structure of the piece: nothing can ever be a surprise, for example, as the second time that material appears it would cease to be surprising. I quite commonly employ this kind of procedure to help get me started with a piece, and to help me push my imagination in new directions.

Sharps or flats?
Actually, I’m pretty keen on white notes.

Tea or coffee?
Strong black coffee. A lot of it.

What and/or who inspires you?
It’s always listening to music for me. Composing is a very abstract and cerebral activity – after all, you don’t actually hear a note of what you’ve written until after you’ve finished the piece! This is a very odd situation in some ways, I find that the extreme disconnect between what I spend my days doing and what I am ultimately trying to achieve can occasionally be disheartening. In this situation, listening to music I love – above all, Sibelius – reminds me what is possible for music to do, and that all the hours of hard work are worth it.

What’s your advice for budding composers, or anyone considering entering OPUS2016?
Work tirelessly at honing your craft – and I use the word ‘craft’ deliberately – and never be satisfied with what you have written.

What would you like to be recognised for?

Although, of course, having a ‘big’ career would be nice, I’m really not driven by recognition at all, and it is the profound satisfaction of being proud of a piece of music I have written which drives me. Having said that, I do hope that I have something individual to say musically, and I would like that to be shared with as many people as possible.

Any embarrassing music-related moments?
No comment! I do, however, have an irrational fear of misreading the details of the ensemble for which I’ve been asked to write and submitting a piece written for the wrong instruments. That would be pretty embarrassing…

The last concert you saw?
Carolin Widmann giving the world premiere of Julian Anderson’s poem for violin and orchestra In Liebliche Bläue with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall. An amazing piece and performance!

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?

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

Schnee by Hans Abrahamsen.

If you hadn’t been a musician…?
I’d love to have been a novelist. I love composing due to the joy I feel at creating things, and I’m pretty sure that writing novels would give me the same satisfaction – although I’m less sure that anyone would want to read my books!

The best gift you’ve received?
I love being given books across which I haven’t come before, and being directed towards reading material which it wouldn’t have occurred to me to read.

Is there anything else you want to share with the world?
As a composer who is interested in literature, my biggest dream is to write opera. I always have ideas for operas floating around in my head, and I hope to have the chance to write one as soon as possible!

You can help support the development of Edward Nesbit's new work, Lifesize Gods, through Britten Sinfonia's Musically Gifted campaign. Click here for more details.

For full details of the world premiere tour of Edward's Horn Trio click here.

Are you an unpublished composer living in the UK? Why not apply for OPUS2016? Click here for full details.

Monday, 11 May 2015

“Is cheese an instrument?” – A creative eruption in the first phase of Britten Sinfonia’s Link Ensemble

The Link Ensemble is a new creative group, led by Duncan Chapman, integrating students with special education needs at Comberton Village College with their GCSE peers through two-day music workshops with Britten Sinfonia musicians. Creative Learning Graduate Assistant, Emily, shares her insight into the group's first workshop...

When I’m not in the Creative Learning office at Britten Sinfonia, I can be found working with children with special education needs in a local school and so I was particularly excited when I had the opportunity to be involved in the first day of Britten Sinfonia’s Link Ensemble, a creative ensemble integrating SEND students with their GCSE peers through music. The project, in partnership with Comberton Village College, Cambridgeshire Music Partnership and Orchestras Live, has been in the pipeline for a number of years and it so it has been amazing to carry out the ideas of my colleagues and get this project off the ground.

Over two days we explored and created music at Comberton Village College with an enthusiastic group of 25 students, some with a variety of special educational needs alongside their mainstream peers. With so many different and distinctive musical voices to be heard the workshops were alive with energy, creativity and playfulness. From the onset a young student posed the question “is cheese an instrument?” which both baffled our musicians and became the catalyst for many creative, out-of-the-box suggestions throughout the day. To see students begin to open up to the musicians, to question and challenge them was a fascinating process to observe as their confidence in musical ideas and direction grew. An aspect that was also evident in the creative relationship between the students, something that the project hopes to build upon.   
Creative Learning Coordinator, Mateja, explored the difference in string sounds with a student who has limited sight. 
Photo credit: Comberton Village College
Led by Duncan Chapman, we explored the expansive sound world that we could create as a group using guitars, pianos, a recorder and various percussion alongside three Britten Sinfonia musicians on flute, viola and bass clarinet, (I proudly took on the role of triangle player). Everyone contributed musical ideas as we built up a collective sound – even using recording to loop and delay ourselves to create new sound experiences.  Bass clarinettist Jack O’Neill commented that, ‘everyone’s input was valuable and vital, making for a joyful and sometimes unexpectedly powerful musical experience... I found it inspiring that everyone was given the space and time they needed to express themselves, ask questions and develop their ideas.’ Take a listen online here to some of the creations from these exciting workshops; we will build upon these ideas throughout the project.

Although this was just the first phase of the project, it already feels like we’re building a solid and creative collaboration that will flourish and develop over the next two phases in July and November, culminating in a public performance on the main stage at Saffron Hall on Saturday 21 November. I am eager to watch the group’s creativity take on a life of its own – the excitement is in not knowing where this will take us – watch this space!
A group discussion of developing ideas on the second day of workshops with workshop leader Duncan. 
Photo credit: Comberton Village College

Emily Moss
Creative Learning Graduate Assistant

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Peterborough Music Takeover day - O to make the most jubilant song!

On Saturday 18 April, Peterborough City Centre was alive with the sounds of the Music Takeover: all sorts of music… in all sorts of places…!  Recorders and ukuleles in the shopping centre, choral groups in the city square, pop bands on pop-up stages and solo artists and duos in cafes and restaurants. Everywhere you turned, up popped someone to serenade you while buying a coffee or nipping to the shops.

Britten Sinfonia’s Creative Learning department were delighted to be invited to take part in the event, and worked with local community groups to create and perform a brand new piece, ‘O to make the most jubilant song!’ which was premiered in Cathedral Square as part of the Music Takeover day.

We commissioned the wonderful young composer and music leader Omar Shahryar to work with four fabulous music groups. We hoped to challenge a diverse range of musicians from different ages, musical backgrounds and different community groups to come together to celebrate and champion their city.

Between January and March a Britten Sinfonia team visited each of four groups, Cantus Polonicum – the Polish Choir, City of Peterborough Symphony Orchestra (CPSO), Peterborough Choral Society and the Indian Dhol Ensemble a number of times, to get to know each other and to compose musical ideas. Omar then went away and compiled and modified these ideas, along with his own, and created the finished composition. We had two fabulous days, where all the musicians came together to workshop, rehearse and get to know each other before the big performance day.

On the concert day, (lucky for April) the sun came out, and the performers shined! The final piece was about 15 minutes long. It included complex instrumental sections for Britten Sinfonia and CPSO musicians, sections in English and Polish for the two choirs, and a massive party finish featuring the Dhol drummers and a catchy tune to get the audience singing along as well!

I think that all participants would say that the process was challenging! It was difficult to imagine what the final performance was going to be like, when workshopping and improvising on a cold January evening. but Omar took loads of inspiration and ideas from the participants and crafted them into a fabulous final piece. We were all singing and dancing at the end of the performance – and most importantly, all the musicians involved did themselves, and their city, proud. It was a wonderful performance to be a part of, and to see different communities and musical styles come together to celebrate!

Bravo to all who took part!

Special thank yous to:  Omar Shahryar – composer, Ellie Moran – mezzo soprano, Britten Sinfonia Musicians, funders Orchestras Live and Arts Council England and the event organisers Vivacity Peterborough.

Isobel Timms
Britten Sinfonia Academy Manager

Friday, 24 April 2015

Meet Iain Farrington

Pianist, orgainst, composer and arranger, Iain Farrington regularly appears with Britten Sinfonia in all four of these guises. This May he performs in our Songs of Vienna programme with Barbara Hannigan, and later in the summer Britten Sinfonia Academy give the world premiere performances of his new work, YOYO. Despite having such a busy schedule Iain took some time out to tell us a bit about himself.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Having a career in music has been the greatest highlight of all. I’m incredibly fortunate to have my favourite hobby as a job.

When are you happiest?
Performing wonderful music with wonderful people.

What is your greatest fear?
Terrorism. The London bombings had a big effect on my family and we’ve lived with it ever since.

What is your earliest musical memory?
Playing the recorder at primary school. There were big multi-coloured musical notes on the board to follow.

Which living person do you most admire, and why?
Rather than admiring one individual, I most admire aid workers and volunteers working in dangerous situations to help innocent people. Their bravery is astonishing.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
During a concert on the organ, the blower slowly packed up and the instrument gradually ran out of puff. The pitch sank lower and lower until it wheezed its last breath. Thankfully everyone clapped at the end.

What is your most treasured possession?
My piano, a 1930’s Broadwood upright. It’s taken a lot of pounding over the years, and I’ve written all of my music with it.

What would your super power be?
To be able to single-handedly rid the world of all military weapons.

If you were an animal what would you be?

A bird, having total freedom of movement and a beautiful singing voice.

What is your most unappealing habit?
You’ll have to ask someone else that one!

What is your favourite book?
Shakespeare’s complete works, especially ‘The Tempest’.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Chocolate chip muffins.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

William Shakespeare. He’s the greatest enigma, and there are so many questions to ask him, the first being: “So how many of those plays did you write?”

If you could go back in time, where would you go?
The 20 years from 1893 to 1913. It’s probably the richest period in European musical history, and to hear those great premieres from late Brahms to early Stravinsky would be amazing. Then I would take a ship to New Orleans to catch the birth of jazz.

How do you relax away from the concert platform?
Playing football with my two young girls.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m proud of the wide variety and breadth of my work as a pianist, organist, conductor, composer and arranger. I’ve created and performed a large volume of music in a whole range of styles and genres, in an effort to make concerts that are engaging and even fun!

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

It’s short and precious, so we should make it positive.

In a nutshell, what is your philosophy?

Do something good.

See Iain Farrington in concert during our performances of Songs of Vienna in Bradford on Avon on Fri1 May, Cambridge on Sat 2 May and London on Thu 7 May. More info
You can hear Britten Sinfonia Academy perform Iain's new work, YOYO on Tue 30 Jun in Cambridge and Fri 3 Jul in Norwich. More info