Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Birtwistle's interaction with landscape

In May, we celebrate composer Harrison Birtwistle's 80th birthday with performances in Cambridge and as part of the Barbican's Birtwistle at 80 season. In this article composer and programmer, John Woolrich explores Birtwistle's preoccupation with the English landscape in his compositions.

Harrison Birtwistle once described the Lancashire countryside in which he grew up as a kind of Arcady. His continuing interest in the natural world retains the influence of that rural upbringing: one of his most recent pieces, The Moth Requiem, is a setting of the names of extinct English moths.

As a student Birtwistle took his music to show Vaughan Williams, ‘I had a sort of Vaughan Williams forgery under my arm, (which was my music…). Vaughan Williams was modern music to me when I was a student’.  He was ‘very much part of my formative years and my awareness of what creativity was’. Birtwistle has described Melancolia 1, his lament for clarinet and strings, as his ‘Tallis Fantasia’.

Like Birtwistle, Gustav Holst’s approach to landscape, even in a miniature like his canon The Fields of Sorrow, is the impression it gives of traveling, and of time and space changing the perspective as the journey unfolds. For both Holst and Birtwistle the interaction of landscape and time has been a compositional preoccupation.

Birtwistle, like Vaughan Williams and Holst, uses landscape as a metaphor in his music. It may be a real one, like the mysterious prehistoric hill in Wiltshire that lies behind Silbury Air, or imaginary ones (rather like Holst’s Egdon Heath, another piece that has had a place in Birtwistle’s imagination). Birtwistle has a (Paul Klee-inspired) orchestral piece called An Imaginary Landscape. Another Wiltshire landscape has its own music in Yan Tan Tethera. The mythical story of Yan Tan Tethera is an explanation of the groaning sound made by the wind whistling round some sarsen stones in Wiltshire.

John Woolrich

Britten Sinfonia perform a semi-staged concert performance of Yan Tan Tethera on Thursday 29 May at the Barbican as part of Birtwistle at 80. More info

On Friday 23rd May in Cambridge and Friday 30 May at the Barbican the orchestra perform Fields of Sorrow, a programme tracing three English composers (including Birtwistle) response to landscape and national identity. More Info

John Woolrich is a distinguished composer and programmer, and a close friend and collaborator of Britten Sinfonia. In November 2014 Britten Sinfonia celebrate his 60th birthday with a special concert featuring the London premiere of his Violin Concerto. More Info

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Conquering notes and practising sections

Britten Sinfonia Academy have been hard at work over the last couple of months, focusing on performing chamber music and also the new work by Philip Cashian written specifically for the Academy.  Claire (Britten Sinfonia Academy flautist) tells us all about what the Academy have been up to;

Britten Sinfonia Academy met for three days in February to focus on some chamber music works chosen for us; these included Spohr's Nonet in F, Dvořák's op.77 String Quintet, Schubert's Trout Quintet, works for two violins and piano and works for cello quartet. As the flautist, I played in the nonet, and also Bachianas Brasilieras by Villa-Lobos, a piece for eight cellos and soprano- I played the soprano part. Most of the three days were spent in our chamber groups working on our pieces, with input from a Britten Sinfonia tutor in each group who coached us through the pieces. It was fantastic to be able to explore some new chamber music and experience working in a small ensemble, as a few of us hadn't had many opportunities like this before. Everybody contributed ideas to how we wanted the piece to sound, and everybody's instruments and playing styles were taken into account. At the end of the weekend, each group presented the piece they'd worked on and the rest of us gave them feedback. During the course we also worked on some of the orchestral pieces: Beethoven, Stravinsky and Bartok. It was my favourite course of the year so far!

In March we also met for three days. This course was orientated around working on the repertoire for the summer concerts. The woodwinds were given a new piece: Milhaud's wind quintet La Cheminée du Roi Réné. We spent most of two of the days working on this as well as a wind quartet by Françaix, while the strings practised the Bartok Romanian Dances and some Christian Woolf exercises. The Trout Quintet and Villa-Lobos groups also got some time to practise their pieces.

On the final day of the course, Philip Cashian came to work with us on his new commission Strix. We spent the day conquering the notes and then practising sections in more detail. Phil gave us pointers on how we should play the particularly difficult passages and how we should apply our musicality to the music. By the end of the day, the piece we all had a hand in creating back in October had come to life. It was a fantastic weekend, and we're all really looking forward to performing our repertoire in the summer concerts!

Flute, Britten Sinfonia Academy

Find out more about Britten Sinfonia Academy here.

The Academy will be performing in Cambridge (1st July) and Norwich (5th July) for our At Lunch 5 concerts. For more info click here. The programme will include the premiere of Philip Cashian's new work, Strix. You can help support Philip's Academy commission through Musically Gifted.

Find out more about Philip Cashian's new work in this short film

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Brett Dean on composition

Australian composer and violist, Brett Dean joins Britten Sinfonia in May for the world premiere tour of his new work, String Quartet No. 2 (And once I played Ophelia). Here he talks about what he loves most about composing and his thoughts on the Musically Gifted scheme.

How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?

Paul Hindemith jamming manically on a MIDI viola in Tom Waits' band.

What do you like most about music and composing?
What I love most about composing is not really knowing exactly how a piece is going to unfold, so that there’s a certain mystery about the adventure.

What inspires you?
All manner of things, from all sorts of directions; stories, other works of art, human relationships…

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

New music is what I myself am living for, and I think that the Musically Gifted programme is a terrific way of finding new people who are prepared to take ownership of music, to give them a completely different appreciation of the act of creating something new.

What was your reaction when Britten Sinfonia commissioned you?
I was very excited, also to use it as an opportunity to delve into the Ophelia character, a character that’s inspired me for a long time.

What would you like to be recognised for?

Reconnecting performance and composition – the way a lot of music-making used to be.

Musical guilty pleasure?
"Dreamer" by Supertramp (ooh, that sexy electric piano!)

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

A G&T and something good on the telly.

If you hadn’t been a musician, what might have happened?
I’d always hoped to open the batting for Australia, but they never called me.

You can support Brett Dean's new commission via the Musically Gifted scheme. The closing date for donations is Friday 11 April 2014.

Brett's new work will be featured in our At Lunch 4 tour to Cambridge, Norwich and London. For more details click here.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Jacqueline Shave on Bach's St John Passion

This April, Britten Sinfonia's leader Jacqueline Shave directs unconducted performances of Bach's St John Passion. In this blog post she describes how she has immersed herself in the work and how she is preparing for the performances.


Having spent a great deal of time over the past year immersed in this great work, I am wondering if it should perhaps be presented with an X certificate rating, so extreme are the range of human emotions and behaviour found within it.

I first experienced the St John Passion as a mature student at the Britten Pears School in Snape, where Nicholas Daniel and I worked intensively on many of the arias with Peter Pears and a group of young singers and instrumentalists from around the world. It made a deep and everlasting impression on me, and it is particularly moving to be here thirty years on, again with Nick, shaping this work together.

It is of course a great privilege and responsibility to be at the helm, making decisions, as performances of Bach can vary enormously. I have spent many hours listening and feeling and I have come to the conclusion that there is no definitive way of performing Bach's music. Bach himself was always experimenting and making changes. He offers us a palette of many colours.

I have decided to use a harpsichord with the voice of the Evangelist throughout, as it seems to bring a human and expressive dimension for the listener, in contrast to the halo of the organ sound surrounding the voice of Christus. Britten does the same in his 1971 recording, but these days it is often performed with organ and no harpsichord. We are also using a lute, which brings an exquisite ancient timbre, and of course the plaintive gamba for "Es ist Vollbracht", one of the most unconventional and original arias that Bach ever wrote.

As soon as the music begins there is the pulsing human heartbeat of the bass line, the painfully beautiful dissonance of oboes and flutes, and the turmoil of the string semi quavers. Bach leaves us in no doubt that this is serious, strong and passionate. There is no gentle ' warm up'. He throws us directly into the emotion. Imagine hearing this at the first performance nearly three hundred years ago! I find it hard to listen to this opening without feeling greatly disturbed, almost angry, at this vision of a vast stirring soup of mankind. It is as if everything is revealed; the tragedy and beauty of the entire Passion.

It is masterful how Bach frames the work with the two great Choruses; the harrowing first, and the moving, loving "Ruht Wohl" at the end. We are also given the communal ‘commenting’ element of the exquisitely beautiful chorales and the vivid depiction of Christ's trial with the chorus almost shouting with hysterical intensity.

Amongst all this Bach gives us the ' freeze frame' emotions of the arias, when all action stops, and we have time to explore and reflect on what is happening. Time seems to stand still in "Betrachte Meine Seel", the intensely moving soul searching Bass aria where one hardly dares breathe for disturbing this precious place that Bach has created for us. In the next aria "Erwage", we have time to ponder on the battered, bruised and blood-stained back of Jesus. It is truly miraculous how, in the midst of the piece, Bach is able to evoke such introspection in the listener by this change of pace.

Ultimately we want to create a powerful shared experience by performing this work unconducted, and to show the directness, the unbridled immediacy, and the raw power contained in Bach's music.

Jacqueline Shave
Britten Sinfonia, Leader

Britten Sinfonia perform Bach's St John Passion on Wednesday 16 April at Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall, Thursday 17 April at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Friday 18 April at London's Barbican, Saturday 19 April at Saffron Walden's Saffron Hall and Sunday 20 April at Norwich's Theatre Royal. For more info click here

You can also hear Jacqueline Shave and Stephen Williams (Principal Double Bass) talk abuot the St John Passion in a previous podcast, SinfoniaCast 21

Monday, 3 March 2014

A perspective on the Composer's Workshop

In February we held our annual University of Cambridge Composer's Workshop. Six composers were selected to work alongside composer Luke Bedford and conductor, Gerry Cornelius in a day-long event which was also open to Britten Sinfonia's audiences to attend. Sinfonia Student, Giverny McAndry went along to discover what the day involved and find out more about the compositional process;

Luke Bedford said at the conclusion of the day that ‘composing is really hard’. As a largely non-composing musician who is often made to conjure new music as part of my studies, I can testify to this fact; to those who compose for pleasure or for a living though, this statement has other ramifications. In a musical world where anything goes, no dominant style rules and compositional custom are not present in the same way they were centuries ago, it is increasingly difficult for young composers and their work to stand out. The Composers’ Workshop, though, showed how despite this, six young composers from the University of Cambridge were not deterred by, but excited by these arguably dim prospects.

The workshop ran as part of a competition for University of Cambridge students, which required them to submit compositions for a mixed ensemble of a maximum of ten players. The coveted prize is a Britten Sinfonia Commission, which would be performed at Wigmore Hall, across Eastern England as part of Britten Sinfonia’s award-winning At Lunch series 2014-15, and recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  For the workshop itself, an ensemble made up of Britten Sinfonia musicians and top university instrumentalists was conducted by Gerry Cornelius; the six works shortlisted for workshop were to be rehearsed in the presence of the composers, who were at liberty to discuss and change aspects of their work, with a view of formally submitting a proposal outlining their vision for a commission following the workshop day.

With notation technology becoming ever more popular, the opportunity to hear what compositions sound like in real-time is increasingly valuable. Gerry Cornelius’ description of the day as more of a ‘forum’ than a day of rigorous rehearsal fit the day’s course, as topics of interest ranged from terms of expression, clef preferences, instrument customs, and the most reliable way to tear a newspaper (an often neglected tool of the percussion section). It was evident from the day of workshops that interaction with such experienced musicians was of even greater worth: the questions batted back and forth between observers, composer, conductor and performer alike proved to be mutually fruitful, often resulting in changes being made to the work at hand. The works were dissected eagerly at all tiers of detail – nuances in the score, practical limitations of instruments and broader issues of concept were discussed with equal fervour – with the recorded performance made at the end of the day showcasing the progress made in each piece from their short time in spotlight.

The shortlisted composers (Robert Busiakiewicz, David John Roche, Benjamin L A Picard, Alex Woolf, Ben Comeau and Gregor Forbes) ranged from first year undergraduate students to postgraduates, and each showed impressive individuality and vision to which the ensemble adapted to wonderfully. The success of the workshop was to the credit of all the shortlisted composers and musicians involved in the day – I speak for everyone who attended when I say the variation contained within each session was highly stimulating and inspiring for all involved. Britten Sinfonia’s collaboration with the University of Cambridge is at its peak here; if the prize of a Britten Sinfonia commission was not incentive enough to enter the competition, the workshop stage is surely a fascinating and invaluably useful stage worthy of the application of any budding composer.

Giverny McAndry

Photos (c) Alice Boagey

To find out more about becoming a SinfoniaStudent click here

Monday, 24 February 2014

William Cole on composition

Britten Sinfonia will premiere William Cole's new work, Versa est in luctum in March. Through the Musically Gifted scheme you can help support William's new work - donations close at 5pm on Friday 7 March. William was the winner of the 2013 University of Cambridge's composition workshop held in partnership with Britten Sinfonia and recently graduated from Clare College, Cambridge. We asked William a few questions about himself and his inspirations;

What do you love about Music?
I do a lot of singing. From a young age I’ve sung in a lot of large spaces. My attraction to music, a lot of the time, is how music sounds in space. And it depends on the acoustic, like large cathedrals. I’ve sung a lot of church music where you have soaring lines and lots of space so there’s time for the music to really sound in a large space. This piece will be in a smaller concert hall but I still feel like that tactile sense of sound in a space is really important to me.

As a child, what brought you towards music?
I was a chorister. There is something very physical about making music and I liked the sense that music was something that you had a rather relaxed attitude with and just did all the time. Treating it with respect but not too much reverence, which I think is quite important for composers and musicians today, to not spend too much time worshiping the music but treating like a living object.

What inspires you?
The music that I do, that I sing and play is often a starting point for music, and actually the notes themselves as well. The way they interact and the games they seem to be playing in and of themselves I find really inspiring when I’m sketching.

The process of sketching is utterly absorbing and it breeds itself, you can start with a very small object and you just explore it, and see it from different angles. It almost seems sometimes that out of a small idea there can be four or five pieces that go in different directions somewhat. So a lot of the time I don’t actually lack for inspiration, it is actually finding the right space and frame for the idea that is the challenge.

So in terms of inspiration, it doesn’t often work that it’s just a musical object that appears to you that you just then put down on paper; a lot of the time the inspiration has to do with one particular gesture that you think might start a form rolling. A lot of the inspiration is about form and shape and the dual process is to try to find the material that suggests that shape and then try to get the material into that shape. I suppose the inspiration comes from extra musical things or other music, but also from the very process itself.

Are you inspired by anything else than music?

Landscape is often a very powerful force. I’ve done a lot of travelling as a musician, touring, and seeing a lot of different things. Not necessarily nature, often urban landscapes are very exciting to see. Words, text, the relationship between text and a piece of non-verbal music is an interesting one, how some words can inspire a particular sound. I suppose it depends on what type of poetry you’re working with. But actually, music is the main influence.

What do you think about new music and what we’re doing with Musically Gifted?

It’s absolutely brilliant because it opens up the piece in terms of ownership to a larger number of people. I think theres something really beautiful about a piece of music which everyone feels is part of a collective ownership. Like music that we all know, folk songs, the national anthem, big hit tunes that we sing at football grounds and the rugby grounds.

I can’t imagine that what I write will be sung in a football ground but the hope is that it has some kind of feeling of being part of those who come to listen to the piece, that it feels like an event that is shared amongst us rather than just between composer, player and then audience. So they’re not the last link but there’s a full circle and they’re there from the beginning so it’s one collective object.

If you hadn’t become a musician, what might you have done?

I did quite a lot of acting when I was in school, which was fascinating. I also might have been a chef, I am a big cooking fan - especially a pudding or breakfast chef, probably would have been my career of choice.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
I’m a real fan, in my spare time, of Simon and Garfunkel. The sound of it is very beautiful, but also some of the songs, when they just have the same tune round and round again and different words, it’s exactly what Schubert was doing. The way that those words are set is unbelievably poignant sometimes, and using the same tune ever again has different meanings each time and you get a really bittersweet feeling. I can learn a lot from them. It’s not particularly guilty compared to what some people listen to.

That’s not guilty on any level!
No ok. Sorry. Shall I try again?! I don’t really have any guilty pleasures I suppose…

How and where do you relax?
I’m the kind of person, I think, that doesn’t relax very much. But when you’re on tour and you’re doing music, you kind of have little pockets of time where you have to switch off, because you have to switch back on. So because of that, I like to travel and explore new cities and new places. I like reading, and cooking, it’s quite a good way of relaxing.

How do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
Hopefully doing lots of different musical things. I’ve always composed but also sung and I do a lot of conducting as well. So hopefully I’ll find a way to keep all of these things in balance because I think they really feed into each other and they’re a really good way of not getting too obsessed on one thing at one time.

And finally, could you please summarise yourself in one sentence?
Omnivorous in a number of ways!

William Cole's new work will be performed by Britten Sinfonia as part of its At Lunch series on Friday 14th March at Norwich's Assembly House, Tuesday 18 March at Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall and on Wednesday 19 March  at London's Wigmore Hall. Click here for more info.

You can support William Cole's's new commission through Musically Gifted. Donations must be received by 5pm Friday 7th March. Click here for more info.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Meet Nicholas Mulroy

Many of our audiences were enthralled by Nicholas Mulroy's performance as part of Britten Sinfonia Voices in our recent At Lunch series feautring the part-songs of Schubert and Schumann. This Easter he returns to Britten Sinfonia to sing the role of the Evangelist in  Bach's St John Passion. He took sometime out from his busy rehearsal schedule to answer a few questions;

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I’m pretty excited about singing with Britten Sinfonia! But also, I’ve had the fortune to sing with some incredibly talented, dedicated and inspired musicians, so there are probably too many memorable experiences to mention.

When are you happiest?
Hanging around with my family.

What is your greatest fear?

That something awful might happen to them.

What is your earliest musical memory?
Singing ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ in school and crying at the sad ending. I had to pretend I had a headache.

Which living person do you most admire, and why?
My wife, Annie. She’s excellent in just about every way.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I don’t embarrass very easily, but I took a pretty spectacular fall during a show in Scarborough a few years back. Alan Ayckbourn, who was in the audience, said it was one of the best prat-falls he’d seen. I wasn’t brave enough to admit it wasn’t deliberate.

What would your super power be?
Something that made traveling take less time.

If you were an animal what would you be?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Being glued to my phone.

What is your favourite book?
I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude at the moment.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Cadbury’s Biscuit Boost.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Assuming all my friends are busy, how about JS Bach, Picasso, William Byrd and my wife? I don’t think it would be boring.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?
At this time of year, I always find myself incredibly curious to know what those first performances of the John Passion would have sounded like, and how they would have been received.

How do you relax away from the concert platform?
I’m a fan of Liverpool FC, which isn’t always relaxing as such, and England cricket (ditto). I like watching TV and of course spending time with family and friends. Standard stuff.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I’m hoping it hasn’t happened yet…

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

In a nutshell, what is your philosophy?

Be kind, constructive, or quiet.

Nicholas Mulroy performs the role of the Evangelist in Bach's St John Passion with Britten Sinfonia at Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall on Wednesday 16 April, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw on Thursday 17 April, London's Barbican on Good Friday 18 April, Saffron Walden's Saffron Hall on Saturday 19 April and Norwich's Theatre Royal on Sunday 20 April. Click here for further information.