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

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Stravinsky vs. Mozart

Ahead of our programme entitled Stravinsky & Neo-Classicism featuring Barbara Hannigan this May, Britten Sinfonia programme note writer, Jo Kirkbride explores the classical line of descent from Mozart to Stravinsky;

If Mozart and Stravinsky were both alive today, it’s unlikely that they would be friends. Although both their music and their careers share many common themes, the two had strong – and opposing – opinions when it comes to the meaning of music.

For Stravinsky, music was not about expression:

(C) Boosey & Hawkes

Stravinsky: ‘I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc... Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.’

But Mozart could hardly disagree more:

Mozart: ‘Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.’

Despite their differences, Stravinsky learned a lot from his predecessor and many of his greatest works owe their inspiration to Mozart’s masterpieces. Stravinsky was also outspoken about his respect for Mozart’s genius:

Stravinsky: ‘I remember being handed a score composed by Mozart at the age of eleven. What could I say? I felt like de Kooning, who was asked to comment on a certain abstract painting, and answered in the negative. He was then told it was the work of a celebrated monkey. “That's different. For a monkey, it's terrific.”’

Both found fame with their large theatrical spectacles, and both were no stranger to controversy. When La clemenza di Tito was premiered in September 1791, the audience – who were more familiar with Mozart’s thrilling opera buffa – responded less than enthusiastically and the mood was best summed up by Empress Maria Louisa, who famously dismissed it as ‘German hogwash’. The audience were a lot less polite at the premiere of The Rite of Spring – its subject was considered so scandalous that it caused a riot in the theatre, and the Musical Times later wrote in their review that ‘practically, it has no relation to music at all as most of us understand the word.’

In the mid-1920s Stravinsky began to explore the music of the past in what became known as ‘neoclassicism’. Although the name is misleading, as this period encompassed much more than just the classical era, Mozart became a central figure in Stravinsky’s look back at western classical music history. For Stravinsky, this period was characterised by delicate, stripped-down forms and procedures, and he abandoned the large orchestras demanded by his previous ballets (such as Petrushka and The Rite of Spring). More importantly, he revisited classical and baroque techniques, pitting classical harmonic principles against the new sound worlds of the twentieth century.

It wasn’t just the music that he borrowed from Mozart either. The story of The Rake’s Progress is another incarnation of the Don Juan legend, which was made most famous in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Stravinsky’s work is unmistakeably a homage to Mozart’s original: it is scored for the same forces as Don Giovanni and imitates many of the hallmarks of Mozart’s operatic style, including the traditional recitative and aria forms. Only the harmonic language gives away its modern birth date, and even this is sometimes distorted to affect a more convincing portrayal of the classical style.

So what of the suggestion that Stravinsky’s neoclassical works are just cheap rip-offs of Mozart’s best party pieces? Stravinsky had his own answer for that:

Stravinsky: ‘Lesser artists borrow, greater artists steal.’

(c) Jo Kirkbride

Britten Sinfonia perform Stravinsky & Neo-classicism with Barbara Hannigan on Tuesday 5 May at Birmingham Town Hall, Wednesday 6 May at the Barbican, Saturday 9 May at Saffron Hall and on Tuesday 12 May as part of the Brighton Festival. For full details and to book tickets click here.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Fifteen hundred new audience members? Lucky us!

The Cambridgeshire Key Stage 1 tour funded by Cambridgeshire Music Hub and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation visited 9 schools between Monday 23 and Friday 27 March 2015. Each school hosted a 1 hour concert as part of Live Music Week, presented by workshop leader Jessie Maryon Davies and featuring five Britten Sinfonia musicians. 


Pianist Dinis Sousa sounds a little worried on the phone. He apologises that he can’t talk for long because he’s in the middle of teaching but he’d like to just run a few things by us.

“So, we’re doing nine concerts in five days?”


“With three concerts in one day on the Wednesday?”


“Fifteen hundred children in total?”

“Mmm hmmm.”

“Oh right.” 

There’s a short pause.

“Are we really playing Adès, Bartok and Debussy?”


A longer pause.

“Cool! See you on Monday!”


It is grins all round on Monday morning when five exceptional musicians come together to rehearse Neoma and the Night Time, the concert they will tour with workshop leader Jessie Maryon Davies through Cambridgeshire’s primary schools. The tour will give over 1500 primary school children in nine schools (including two special schools) the opportunity to experience world class performance and explore great music in the kind of programme for which Britten Sinfonia is renowned. Today’s rehearsal venue may be adorned with a giant banana chart encouraging five to seven year-olds to eat their five-a-day, but the atmosphere is all professionalism with such challenging repertoire on the musical menu.  

Violinist Ruth Ehrlich suggests they begin with Bartók’s Contrasts. The fast, humorous Hungarian folk rhythms (originally commissioned by Jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman) will represent a mischievous rooster in the concert’s story. Clarinet player Kimon Parry laughs remembering “The first time I looked at this piece with friends at Music College in London we got as far as this third movement and decided it was too hard! We ended up in the pub instead.”

When the moment arrives to play the leaping, fast patterns tossed between clarinet, violin and piano during the performance that afternoon, one hundred and seventy pairs of small eyes widen. The excitement is infectious and a new, technical difficulty of playing the piece presents itself: trying to play the clarinet while smiling!

Bartók’s boisterous energy and colour, also evident in two duets performed by Ruth and cellist Caroline Dearnley, sits beautifully in contrast to Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute which also features, representing the day-dreaming of heroine Neoma.

“It’s interesting” notes flautist David Cuthbert, “here you have one of the great cornerstones of the flute repertoire and you’re used to performing it in the hushed, semi-dark of a formal recital. This week I’ll be walking right in among the audience while I play to bring them as close as possible to the music. Their reactions will colour the performance, enhancing the wide range of tones, colours and textures. It really brings it to life.”

The power of the music and the young people’s reactions and engagement with the performances is no more pronounced than at the performances in special schools. At a key moment, children are invited up to conduct the ensemble with a simple series of hand gestures. Carolina is ten and has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Her face lights up as the music swells when she stretches her arms out as wide as she can and then suddenly drops to a whisper as she brings her palms in close. She dances on the spot and her delight is mirrored on the faces of the musicians. “It is extraordinary. These children never have the chance to be in charge of anything in their lives and now, in this moment, they do” explains a teacher. “It’s very emotional.”

As the story ends, the magic of the performance hangs in the air and children file out under the gentle wash of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. They have found their voices in song, been inspired to lead music themselves and their imaginations have taken flight on backs of the great classical composers.  

It is Friday, there is just one more school on the tour schedule and there is a real glow in the Creative Learning office at Britten Sinfonia. We have the good fortune to work not only with some of the best musicians in the UK but we are reminded, not for the first time, that they are also versatile and inspirational torch bearers for a bright future for classical music.  

Jen House, Creative Learning Director

You can find out more about our Creative Learning department and the other work they do on our website.

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.