Wednesday, 22 June 2016

A year in the life of Britten Sinfonia Academy

On Sunday 6 September 2015 a group of 30 young musicians got together for their first day of Britten Sinfonia Academy (BSA) 2015-16. With three quarters of the musicians new to the ensemble we improvised, played games and rehearsed Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. Over 10 months later the passionate and thriving ensemble, now all good friends, will be playing their last concert together of the year to include that same symphony. This group have worked hard all year, explored a variety of repertoire spanning a breadth of musical styles and grown and developed as an ensemble and as individual musicians. To celebrate an amazing year they will be performing their own At Lunch concert as part of Britten Sinfonia's 2015-16 series - At Lunch Five in Norwich, on Thursday 30 June, and Cambridge, on Friday 1 July.


“I cannot stress enough how lucky I feel to be able to play alongside professionals and individuals of such high standard, who all share the same love for music.”
Katie, violinist BSA 2015-16
Ahead of the upcoming concerts we want to take a little look back over the past year and celebrate the achievements of this delightful, talented and passionate group of young musicians by looking at some of our favourite moments.

“It is so difficult to pick a highlight from the BSA year! All the time I have spent with the group has been really fun and it has been exciting to watch the group grow. One of my favourite things this year would have to be the concert at the Barbican where we played Vivaldi and Stravinsky – it was an exciting performance and the enthusiasm and commitment from everyone was so thrilling!
And my second highlight is lunchtimes?! I really enjoy the breaks we have in rehearsal days where everyone relaxes together eating whatever food they've thrown into their bag from the fridge that morning, and then sharing cake (hooray!), football, and general nattering. It's such a lovely collection of people!!"
Ali Reid, Britten Sinfonia violin 

“My favourite moment was performing at the Barbican with Nicola Benedetti. It was one of the most amazing opportunities BSA has given me. She was really inspiring and gave fantastic advice alongside our regular professional coaches to make it a thoroughly enjoyable experience in a wonderful venue.”
Lucy, 2nd year in BSA on violin and viola 

“It is the young people we have the good fortune to get to know over a BSA season who make it all worthwhile. 
My favourite moment this season was about half-way through the year, there was a particularly shy lovely individual who played with a very beautiful, very musical and very small sound. Course 4 was three days of rehearsing Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union. This astonishing, relentlessly pulsing piece is 20 minutes of intense, gritty, ugly fortissimo requiring absolute and unfailing concentration. This is not pretty music, it is not dainty, softly spoken, polite Cambridge music. This is raw, rude and unapologetic. 
This piece was performed in the Barbican foyer the following weekend where it was met with enthusiastic applause from curious and intrigued passer-bys. Our vibrant young players looked happy but exhausted as they filed off the stage past me. At the back of the group, someone was looking far from rung out – she was bouncing and flushed. Brandishing her instrument at me she “That was f….” she stopped herself and amended “That was just AWESOME!”
Jen, Creative Learning Director 

"This year has been incredible fun, and the breadth of opportunities and repertoire has been extraordinary! In particular learning Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union for our performance in the Barbican was informative and incredibly enjoyable, and it introduced me to Andriessen’s work which I have since grown to love more and more."
Morgan, 2nd year in BSA, clarinet

"What’s really struck me throughout my year working with the fantastic young people of the Britten Sinfonia Academy, is the level of creativity, enthusiasm, and commitment within the group. A particular memory that comes to mind was a morning rehearsal session with composer Kenneth Hesketh, where the players were invited to share their own short compositions on a given theme/style. Not only was I hugely impressed by the sensitivity, imagination and musicality of the work being shared, but I was also struck by the supportive, appreciative and very respectful environment created by every member of the group. That was a very special moment for me and I feel very optimistic about the future of the arts knowing that such a positive, professional culture is being cultivated in these young players who are the upcoming generation."
Jamie, BSA Trainee Mentor, bassoon

“This was my second year and whilst it was really sad to see some of the older members move on to start University, or live overseas, it surprised me how quickly the new group gelled as an ensemble, which is great because we’ve done some amazing and challenging projects this year and I’ve really enjoyed every course. 
In particular I really enjoyed the focus on contemporary repertoire at the beginning of this year and I have found the rehearsals for the new commission by Kenneth Hesketh exciting, especially when he participated in one of our rehearsals as it was great to clearly see his intentions of how the movements are to be played in order to have the effect he wants us to create, I’m really looking forward to the concerts in a few weeks time!”
Aimée, 2nd year in BSA, viola 


The young musicians of Britten Sinfonia Academy for 2015-16 have worked so hard all year – always with eagerness, fearlessness, determination and passion. We look forward to finishing the year with two amazing concerts and hope to see you there!

Emily, Creative Learning Assistant


Tickets are still available for At Lunch Five, featuring music by Philip Glass and Beethoven, and world premieres from Kenneth Hesketh and BSA member Jasper Eaglesfield, performed by Britten Sinfonia Academy. Hear it in Norwich St Andrew's Hall on Thursday 30 June 1pm, and Cambridge West Road Concert Hall on Friday 1 July 1pm. Click here for more information and booking via our website.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

A Concerto Grosso named Salmigondis - Ken Hesketh

Later this month the young musicians of Britten Sinfonia Academy will give the first performance of Concerto Salmigondis as part of At Lunch Five. Ahead of the premiere, we asked composer Ken Hesketh to share his experience of writing this work, which was also inspired by Handel manuscripts from the Fitzwilliam Museum, for the young ensemble...


Writing for a young group, without conductor, using the music or some aspect of George Frideric
Handel (to be found in the marvellous Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) is not the type of
commission that comes across my work desk every day, or even every year. Don't get me wrong - it intrigued me and the unforeseen is certainly a good thing, at least musically. Thus, I accepted the commission.

My work is (far more often than not) rhythmically agile and turbulent, usually rapid in harmonic
change and generally quite tricky to pull off. I like it that way. However, I also like working with
younger players, especially those who have technical facility and musically open minds. The brief
necessarily challenged my usual way of working and so this particular commission became an enjoyable conundrum that needed to be solved and one that in doing so sharpened my lateral thinking skills. There are various approaches I could have pursued - graphic score, some form of aleatoricism, some sort of post-minimal knitting music (rhythmically repetitive to get around the no-conductor stipulation). The list of options could go on as you might imagine. However, the Handelian requirement of the brief gave me a clue as to how to proceed.

During the workshops with Britten Sinfonia Academy, led by the wonderful Rachel Byrt and
Christopher Suckling, I was able to indulge my early joy of the music of Handel, specifically from my years as a chorister and as a young school boy. One of my first Dover edition scores was the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, or Twelve Grand Concertos, HWV 319–330, by Handel. The other was the complete Brandenburg Concerti. Both are now discoloured with age and show signs of early dog-earing. Being able to peruse the delicacies and riches of the Fitz Handeliana collection (thanks to Rachel Sinfield and Dr Suzanne Reynolds at the Fitzwilliam Museum for such access) was a real joy, particularly in the company of Rachel and Christopher. Seeing the young performers from BSA enjoying their exploration of the collection was a delight. The introduction by Dr. Suckling to various aspects of Handel's music, life and times really enthralled the young players and in the process suggested a way for me to combine aspects of the collection in my own new piece. Amid the manuscripts on display during the workshop was a carillon part from the final chorus of Part 1 of L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (an ode by Handel based on the poetry of John Milton) titled "Or let the merry bells ring round". In my correspondence with Dr. Suckling regarding the carillon part, he sent me the following rather splendid quotation from Charles Jennens to Lord Guernsey, 19 September 1738:

"Mr Handel’s head is more full of Maggots [an 18th century term for an earworm] than ever. I found yesterday in his room a very queer Instrument which He calls Carillon (Anglice a Bell,) and says some call it a Tubalcain, I suppose because it is both in the make and tone like a set of Hammers striking upon Anvils. ’Tis play’d upon with Keys like a Harpsichord, and with this Cyclopean Instrument he designs to make poor Saul stark mad."

Look up TubalCain in the bible (Genesis 4:22) by the way (and Jubalcain if you have a few minutes after that).

The carillon part itself seems to be transposed by a perfect fifth (it sounds in D, but is notated in G). I therefore chose to put a quotation from this part in G (though the surrounding texture of my work is anything but G, D or anything else). There is speculation, according to Dr. Suckling, that Handel's carillon "had thick bars to sound like [an] anvil with pitch higher than written notes (for metal bar free at both ends, thicker bar = higher pitch)".

The one extra-musical element present in my work comes from a painting, "The Charming Brute" - a caricature by the French engraver, painter and set designer Joseph Goupy of Handel (dated 1754) - which also resides at the Fitzwilliam museum and suggested the title for one of the movements of the Concerto. The story behind this painting is fascinating and there is a recounting of it in the Monthly Epitome and Catalogue of New Publications, Volume 2, Jan to Dec 1798 (reproduced below):



An interesting insight to Handel’s culinary generosity!

In order to bring these elements together I chose a musical form called the pasticcio (literally pasty in Italian); a musical work built from an adaptation of an existing work (or works). Handel worked with the pasticcio form throughout his life, for example in Muzio Scevola (1721) and Giove in Argo (1739). My work for BSA, Concerto Salmigondis, utilises this form. The word salmigondis is a synonym for pasticcio (salmigondis is a French word meaning a disparate assembly of things). Loosely based on the Concerto Grosso form, similar to those found in the Op. 6 concerti, it is in five sections - Intrada, Lento, Leggiero – The Charming Brute, Musette and Hop Jig. The antique titles and forms of the movements have been freely interpreted and, if one is frank, resulted in a neoclassicisation of my style for this particular work. The concept of the concertino and ripieno groups from the Concerto Grosso form is utilized (mostly formed of principle strings and harpsichord, but also, in the ‘Brute’ movement, of various groups of flutes, oboes and brass); the carillon part from the Fitz Handeliana collection also peeks through textures in various forms in the third movement. Four of the five movements are based on music written when I was about the age of the average BSA member (the 'Brute’ movement has no antecedent). The reworking of the originals includes extensions and recastings as well as the imposition of various episodes for the concertino groups on the extant materials’ formal arcs. This frequently meant taking the originals down very different compositional routes allowing me to have a great deal of fun in the process.

After hearing a rehearsal of the completed work for the first time with BSA I was convinced I had
fulfilled the brief. I had enjoyed doing so, and it was clear - wonderfully clear - that BSA really
enjoyed what I had written. When that happens it's a wonderful feeling as you might imagine. Being able to cut one’s musical cloth accordingly and to quickly commit to a project outside of the everyday was something Handel was pretty good at. I greatly enjoyed doing likewise, just for a moment, and in the process communicated, interacted and responded to the wider musical world in a way that usually evades me.

Ken Hesketh (composer)

Concerto Salmigondis will be performed by Britten Sinfonia Academy as part of At Lunch Five. Tickets are still available for both performances, in Norwich's St Andrew's Hall on Thursday 30 June, 1pm (tickets), and in Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall on Friday 1 July, 1pm (tickets). More information can also be found on our website.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Jacqueline Shave - celebrating 10 years as Britten Sinfonia Leader

This April we celebrate Jacqueline Shave's first ten years as Britten Sinfonia's Leader. A unique and inspiring musician, we talked to some of our principal musicians and others about what makes her so special...
Jackie taking her bow after directing Strauss' Metamorphosen in Wiltshire in April 2016.


Clare & Jackie in Norwich in Jan 2016
She is a wonderful musician and a natural, gifted leader. She directs with passion and commitment. Every rehearsal is injected with her enthusiasm and positivity - and this is shared amongst the players. Jackie's attitude in rehearsals is serious and fun. She skilfully and respectfully handles all our different personalities - things can get very heated when we are under pressure preparing for a performance with limited rehearsal time. She will steer everything in the right direction, often with humour, taking everybody on board. The culminating concerts, the success of which she is utterly committed to, always feel like a real collaboration of our work and ideas.  Jackie is a special person. We are lucky to have her!
Clare Finnimore, Principal Viola 

David & Jackie collecting an RPS award in 2013
Jacqueline's musical credentials and spirit embody the artistic ethos of Britten Sinfonia; a collaborative chamber musician of pure class and quality, hungry to embrace a wide range of music and collaborations from across the musical spectrum. It must be palpable to audiences watching and listening, how much she is adored by the orchestra and the many collaborators we’ve worked with over these years, and there’s no doubt that her artistry, inspiration and pure unfettered love of the music we play, has had so much to do with the orchestra’s happy success over these years.
David Butcher, Chief Executive

Jackie Shave is a musical force of nature. She has led and directed Britten Sinfonia over the last ten years with a magical combination of warmth, passion and inspirational music making. She ignites every project she undertakes. Her direction of Bach's St. John Passion was a triumph of unashamed emotional commitment combined with technical mastery. It was a highlight of my musical career and a privilege to participate.
Caroline Dearnley, Principal Cello 

Jacqueline Shave is simply one the most inspiring musicians I have had the privilege of sharing a stage with. Britten Sinfonia is deeply collaborative but in the end we would follow her anywhere without question. The Bach St. John Passion she directed was a deeply moving experience for us all and a 3-year journey for her. I will simply never forget it. She led the same piece for me at Dartington last summer with amateur forces and was equally as inspiring.
Nicholas Daniel, Principal Oboe


Thomas & Jackie in 2011

I've learned so much from sharing a desk with Jackie over the years in Britten Sinfonia - her unfussy leadership style, flamboyant musicality, and her special ability to deal with stressful situations by relaxing everybody around her. With leaders as good as Jackie, who needs conductors?
Thomas Gould, Associate Leader





Miranda & Jackie rehearsing in 2012



As ever this season, Jackie has been a real inspiration through her fabulous musicianship and unparalleled ability to encourage each member of an ensemble to give of their best. Britten Sinfonia is propelled by her into meteoric flight in any given genre or period of music, taking the audience with her.
Miranda Dale, Principal Second Violin



She’s such a fantastic leader – she’s very charismatic. You can tell that she’s thinking about so much more than just the notes.
Elena Langer, composer


This April and May Britten Sinfonia tours a programme specially curated by Jacqueline to celebrate her ten years at the helm of the orchestra. With performances in Wiltshire, Cambridge, Norwich and London the concerts feature a Bartok string quartet movement, a Mozart piano concerto with soloist Benjamin Grosvenor, Strauss' Metamorphosen and the world premiere of a new work by Elena Langer, commissioned and written especially for Jackie. Find out more here.

In both Norwich and London, Jacqueline will discuss her role as leader/director with Fiona Maddocks in a special pre-concert talk.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

An introduction to new music - as recommended by composers...

At Britten Sinfonia, commissioning and performing new music is a huge part of what we do, but we know that new and contemporary music can be daunting if you haven't had much experience of it before. Our upcoming concerts in April feature two world premieres - Bryce Dessner's El Chan, which will feature in our At Lunch Four programme, and Elena Langer's story of an impossible love, which will be performed in our programme featuring pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.

To get you in the 'new music' mood, take a listen to our Spotify playlist of works by the composers we've commissioned in our 2015-16 season (including Bryce Dessner and Elena Langer). We've also asked the OPUS2016 shortlisted composers for their suggestions of what to start with if you're looking to explore more...


Daniel Kidane:

Don’t be scared to immerse yourself in to something new – you have nothing to lose but so much to gain.









Robert Peate:

Anything and everything – just keep listening and be open to what you hear. Don’t worry about ‘understanding’, just experience it (more than once if you can).


Neil Smith:

There are some great pieces to begin with such as Berio’s Sinfonia or Xenakis’ Rebonds but sometimes the best way in is to listen to more experimental popular music. Anyone who enjoys a bit of Autechre shouldn’t struggle with the best bits of Stockhausen or Boulez. There are also lots of British composers who write music I still consider beautiful in quite a traditional manner: take George Benjamin’s amazing Written on Skin for example.




Andrew Thomas: 

Find a sound/texture you like and follow how it develops during a piece - be open to all the parameters of sound available in contemporary music and embrace what you don’t understand - the music I most admire is the music I don’t understand!


Andrew Baldwin:

My advice would be to start with a composer(s) you know and like, and list what musical ideas you like about them (what is common in their music etc). Then consult with a music friend that knows of other composers that use similar processes/ideas. Suddenly you will notice your listening repertoire growing and discovering some great music. I created a Spotify playlist that my teacher and I came up with of works that I would find interesting, and there hasn’t been one piece that I haven’t taken something away from – as well as discovering some new favourite contemporary composers.



Emma Wilde:

I think people should not be afraid. Most people have been confronted with modern art in some way even without knowing it, they have probably been to an art gallery or exhibition and modern music is no different. My listening recommendations would include anything by Ligeti as I think that was the first contemporary composer I really connected with. Also the German composer and pianist Nils Frahm, his live shows are electric, he has a great connection with the audience and is a really innovative composer and performer, there are many good videos on YouTube.

 

Margaret Haley:

Tune in to Radio 3 programmes: Late Junction, and Hear and Now. Listen with an open mind. Listen to recordings as much as you can, then listen again. Music festivals can also provide a great way of sampling new music, e.g. HCMF shorts.





Sohrab Uduman:

Start with whatever is to hand and whatever grabs your interest for whatever reason, however seemingly profound or trivial it may appear to be. It is not life-threatening, will not cause you physical damage and will not, probably, change your political allegiance. It is art, a voyage, an adventure; an opportunity, at the very least, to step out of routine and ‘normative behaviour’ and experience something that should prove beautiful, moving, revelatory and subversive.




Gonçalo Gato:

An open mind and receptiveness to the fantastic, as opposed to the ordinary. Also, it is important to look for concerts that feature some sort of introduction carried out by music historians, musicologists, or composers themselves. This will provide context and prepare the listening experience for those who find it more difficult.




James Hoyle:

I don’t believe in starting with something ‘easy’ - I’d suggest to just throw yourself in, listening to as many different types of new music as possible. There’s such a wide variety out there so there is surely something for everyone.





At Lunch Four features Bryce Dessner's El Chan, Schumann's Piano Quartet Op.47 and a selection of Bartok's folksong-inspired Duos - Norwich Fri 8 Apr, Cambridge Tue 12 Apr & London Wed 13 Apr. Find out more.

Benjamin Grosvenor directs features Elena Langer's story of an impossible love, Mozart's Piano Concerto No.27 and a works by Bartok and Strauss - Bradford on Avon Sat 23 Apr, Cambridge Wed 27 Apr, Norwich Fri 29 Apr & London Sun 1 May. Find out more.


Thursday, 24 March 2016

The creation of Link Explorer

Back in May 2015, I tumbled out of Shoreditch Overground station for a meeting to discuss the possibility of running a series of ‘relaxed’ concerts making them more accessible to audiences with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). There was to be no particular therapeutic agenda, rather, we wanted to identify and address some of the barriers to SEND audiences attending a concert just like any other concert-goer. Feeling painfully uncool in the hip East London surroundings, I made my way to Oxford House and the offices of Children and the Arts. Oxford House on Derbyshire Street was established in 1884 as the first “settlement house” where students and graduates from Oxford undertook a period of residential volunteering to learn first-hand about the realities of urban poverty. Today, the trendily restored building (all steel and polished concrete) continues a legacy of social conscience with affordable office space (in addition to Children and the Arts, it is home to community dance and drama organisations, ethical fashion designers, the British Union of Spiritist  Societies, Food Cycle - recycling surplus food for the homeless - and the Phoenix Community Housing Co-Operative – among others), a gallery and performance spaces and regular community learning and engagement activities. It seemed fitting therefore that my meeting about engaging with SEND audiences and participants should take place in a building which, for 150 years has housed efforts to engage with the marginalised, the forgotten, the difficult and, if we’re very honest, the scary.

As human beings, the unknown is always challenging at best and at worst, terrifying. For the privileged young graduates of Oxford’s Keeble College, coming to work in what was the most deprived corner of East London in the late 1800’s must have been an eye opener. Britten Sinfonia, was about to step into similarly unfamiliar and difficult territory; the world of disability and special needs. 

Have I raised your eyebrows? Have I perhaps said something, even at this early stage, which might be offensive? Inappropriate? Or, god forbid, politically incorrect?

No, not yet but it's early days and the question is an example of one of the many challenges we face voyaging into new territory with which we’re relatively unfamiliar, with which the orchestral industry has engaged only in a relatively limited way, and in which we are certainly not expert but in which we’d really like to make a positive contribution.

In a previous incarnation with another orchestral organisation, I recall asking players to be involved with a project for Cooltan Arts, a London-based charity for adults with mental distress (I googled it and ‘mental illness’ is a term they prefer not to use - mental distress better describes, in a less discriminatory fashion, their clientele). I had little success in my recruitment efforts and was surprised and saddened. Here were a reliable group of enthusiastic, warm and caring musicians who greatly valued the projects with which they’d previously been involved. Why were they now reluctant? Incensed, I switched from email to phone (things were clearly getting serious) and called one of them. "It’s not that I don’t want to do it," he explained, "it’s just that I’m not an expert and I wouldn’t want to do something wrong, upset someone, say the wrong thing or make someone have a terrible experience. I don’t know anything about physical or mental disability; I’m not trained in that kind of work!"  

And there it was. Much as the will is there, we worry that because we’re dealing with the less-well-known, we don’t have the way.

Even at my meeting just talking about it, I found myself worrying if I was doing or saying the right thing. It started well, I described the difficult journey amid rush hour commuters as ‘completely mental’ and, having dropped my note-book and its stuffing of loose notes, photocopies and clippings all over the floor, apologised for being ‘a complete spaz’. The more I tried not to be offensive, the more I inadvertently seemed to be so. I don’t ordinarily use these words, honestly, I haven’t used them with any frequency since the school playground in the late 1980s but for some reason, my anxious attempts to be utterly correct resulted in their bubbling irrepressibly to the surface with embarrassing frequency.

For those of us who don’t work every day with engaging SEND, it is worrying to think we might stumble as we take our first, exploratory steps and understandably, we are therefore inclined to step back and let the experts take over. For any person, a negative experience can have long-term effects and for a vulnerable person, it seems fair to assume the effects may be magnified.

The pitfalls are very real but, they’re not unique to SEND work so why, when SEND is involved are we so cowed by the fear of failure? Why do we immediately feel that SEND is something other, beyond our familiar frame of reference?

I wonder if it has something to do with the profile of this work. It’s topical which means that failure is trotted out like a cautionary tale. It’s a hot topic and hot is hard to handle correctly. We fall automatically into the trap of thinking about SEND (them) and the concert (us). SEND audience members (them) and non-disabled audience members (us).

I remember calling a Deaf and Blind…sorry, a hearing and visually impaired … sorry, a deaf blind composer and performer and asking him how we should bill him in the programme. He laughed heartily when, embarrassed, I said that honestly, I really didn’t know what the correct terminology was and that I hoped he wouldn’t be offended by my call. "Everyone’s different," he explained, "everyone identifies in different ways. Some people use the word ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘d’, others prefer ‘hearing impaired’, some use the pre-fix ‘profoundly’ but for me, that doesn’t accurately describe my personal hearing loss and I don’t really like labels anyway so I’m happy with whatever you like. I am human though, and I might change my mind!"

Well thanks, I thought, that’s not terribly helpful!  But then, as the conversation percolated over the following days, it occurred to me that is was the simplest and wisest piece of advice anyone had ever given me about working with SEND; everyone’s an individual, everyone’s different, everyone will have a different way in which they identify. Suddenly, it seemed simpler. If I stopped thinking about ‘SEND’ as an ‘other’, a collective unknown, a group outside my frame of reference and started to think about individuals, their unique needs, abilities, backgrounds, opinions, means of expression and so on, then I could even the playing field and we would all be on the same page. Rather than trying to find a way to fit SEND into a normalised frame, I could change the parameters; widen the frame to include all of us in all our special individuality.

As this realisation took place some years before my Oxford House meeting, it is clear that it was not a quick fix. We’ll always be a little anxious when we venture out of our zones of familiarity and unfortunately, in my case, this usually results in an episode of slapstick buffoonery. Focusing on individuals and what a person can do, their ability rather than disability levels the playing field. We don’t have to be experts because we’re all in the same boat. We can get involved, try things out, challenge and be challenged by a new frame of reference.

Jen, Creative Learning Director

Find out more about Link Ensemble in this blog

On Saturday 2 April 2016 in Cambridge Britten Sinfonia presents its first 'relaxed' family concert. Find out more about the Link Explorer Family Concert and book tickets here

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Visceral, emotionally charged... thoughts on Seven Last Words

Ahead of our performances of James MacMillan's Seven Last Words our Artistic Planning Director describes why she has a particular 'soft spot' for this emotionally charged piece.

Friends often ask me about the concerts we have coming up here at Britten Sinfonia, and I’m in the enviable position of always being able to wax lyrical about the next thing we’re about to do, since my role allows me to have a hand in planning all our events.  I’m never going to give the green light to anything I don’t want to hear in a concert, so the seasons are always chock full of wonderful works and spectacular artists.  I don’t generally have “favourite" concerts, as each one is so very different, with its own back story and compelling drama.  However, I have to admit to an enormous soft spot for our forthcoming event over Easter, since it features one of my Desert Island Disc pieces (er, should Kirsty ever invite me on the programme):  James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross.

I first met James MacMillan whilst I was working at the Philharmonia Orchestra, where one of my roles was planning the orchestra’s new music series, Music of Today.  I loved managing this series (which is still going strong, incidentally), with its bite-sized concerts offering staggeringly good performances of brand new music, all for free. The real creative brain behind the series at that time was James MacMillan, who held my hand and guided me throughout, shaping the content of the series, introducing me to a whole host of composers from across the globe, always so generously and with great care to offer balance and variety.  Since that time I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on several of Jimmy’s new works over the years, here at Britten Sinfonia, but his Seven Last Words has always remained a really special work for me.

MacMillan’s vocal writing is always incredibly effective, and as a choral scholar, I would’ve dearly loved to have got my teeth into singing this; sadly it wasn’t composed until after I’d left college and had well and truly hung up my vocal chords.  Of course, the subject matter is emotive in itself, but the vocal writing is so visceral, contrasting  with the beautiful string lines so painfully at times that it moved me to tears the first time I heard it; and the heavy silences that occur throughout the work are so emotionally charged that I always find it impossible not to be affected.  In our world of what can seem like ceaseless over-emoting on a daily basis, I am more than grateful for that.

Nikola
Artistic Planning Director


Performances of Seven Last Words from the Cross take place on Sun 20 Mar at Birmingham Town Hall, Wed 23 Mar at Cambridge's King's College Chapel and Fri 25 Mar at London's Barbican Centre. For full details and to book tickets click here.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Sinfonia Student review - At Lunch Three

Sinfonia Student Helen shares her experience of our At Lunch Three performance that took place in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge on Tuesday 23 February...


Having never heard the combination of flute, viola and harp before – as well as being an enthusiastic Debussy fan – I was particularly looking forward to yesterday’s At Lunch concert with Britten Sinfonia. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t disappoint: the programme provided a fascinating and varied exploration of instrumental texture and colour, masterfully performed by Emer McDonough (flute), Clare Finnimore (viola), and Lucy Wakeford (harp). The blending of these three instruments created an extraordinary atmosphere in West Road Concert Hall – the perfect form of escapism in the middle of a busy day.

The concert opened and closed with works by Debussy, which gave an attractive symmetry to the programme. McDonough’s performance of Syrinx immediately drew us into the sound of the flute. Syrinx is a pivotal piece in the flute’s repertoire and one I have heard performed several times, but never quite like this: McDonough combined hauntingly lyrical melodic lines with delicate, acrobatic phrases in an almost hypnotic fashion, featuring moments of extremely soft dynamic which filled the vast space of the concert hall with remarkable ease. It was a breath-taking – if slightly eerie – insight into the range of colours the flute has to offer.

Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason 
(c) Samantha West
The flute was joined by the viola and harp for the next two items. As well as introducing me to a new combination of instruments, this section of the programme also exposed me to the music of Takemitsu and Daníel Bjarnason, two composers I had barely encountered before. In fact, I have discovered something new at each of the Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch concerts this year, which is one of my favourite aspects of the series. Both pieces draw upon mosaic-like processes, resulting in fluid and fragmented textures in which short melodic ideas pass between the three instruments. In the Takemitsu, I particularly enjoyed the occasional moments where these fragmented parts converged onto a more unified triad or melodic line. What really stood out here was the blending of the viola and flute: I was not expecting two such different instruments to combine into such a homogenous timbre. These two instruments often seemed to work as a pair against the harp; Bjarnason particularly exploits this texture in the second section of Parallel, in which the flute and viola, playing sustained chords beneath a prominent moving part in the harp, gradually shift from the background of the texture to the foreground, capturing the listener’s attention as the harp slips away. Such subtle changes in texture always occurred seamlessly and organically, due to the carefully balanced and sensitive playing of the performers.

Next, the programme focused exclusively on the sound of the harp, with a performance of Donatoni’s Marches by Lucy Wakeford. This piece brought yet another new discovery: I had not previously appreciated the versatility of the harp as a solo instrument. Marches was a true showcase of harp technique, displaying a virtuosic range of sounds, colours and dynamic extremes; like Syrinx, the quietest moments of Marches were particularly captivating. I enjoyed the occasional jazzy harmonies emerging from the texture, which was again built from very fragmentary material – a clear preoccupation of this programme.

Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp provided a return to the Syrinx sound-world for the end of the concert. The piece generally featured more homogenous textures than the other works, exploring yet more textural possibilities of this combination of instruments. Indeed, what most struck me about this piece was the fact that there was never a sense of one ‘solo’ instrument being accompanied by the others, as might be expected from a sonata model. The three performers participated equally and, despite their differences, no instrument seemed out of place. The remarkable cohesion of the performance has encouraged me to consider other instrumental combinations that might provide unexpected unity. Like so many Britten Sinfonia concerts, At Lunch Three demonstrated the benefits of thinking outside of the musical box.

Helen McKeown (Sinfonia Student 2015-16)


Don't miss At Lunch Four - featuring Schumann's Piano Quartet and a new work by Bryce Dessner - Norwich 8 April, Cambridge 12 April, London 13 April. More details.