Tuesday, 9 September 2014

In the words of John Tavener...

John Tavener has been renowned for his spiritual outlook and beliefs, which held great influence over his musical compositions. With a roster of around 300 works to his name (most of which are included in the graphic above), deep-held spirituality and religious devotion are clearly-manifest themes that recur in virtually all of Tavener’s output. In the months following his death press articles celebrating and remembering this great British composer abounded and his impact upon our musical history remains considerable.

Britten Sinfonia is delighted to be part of the Barbican’s Celebrating John Tavener series this autumn where we will be performing two concerts, the first will be the premiere of Tavener’s last completed orchestral work Flood of Beauty (taking place on Sunday 28 September 2014), followed by a performance of Kaleidoscopes with soloist Nicholas Daniel (Monday 29 September – Sunday 5 October 2014, London, Cambridge and Norwich). The latter performance is a particularly special one for us as Tavener’s oboe concerto Kaleidoscopes was originally written for Britten Sinfonia and Nicholas Daniel back in 2006 and it will be an opportunity for us to remember our personal connection with this great composer. For more information about these concerts please visit our website.

We hope that our performances will express our tribute to this great composer so rather than say any more here is Tavener in his own words with a selection of our favourite quotes...

On Beethoven

“I discovered the late quartets of Beethoven. I never liked them much before, they seemed forced. But now I could see how they arose out of the transcendence of such huge personal suffering. They’re such wonderful pieces, somehow beyond any style. They could have been written at any time.” 
(Telegraph interview 2013)

On Stockhausen

"Stockhausen was a searcher after truth, too. I know there are inane things in his music, but in his later works he was really on to something.” 
(Telegraph Interview 2013)

On Stravinsky

"Canticum Sacrum is wonderfully archaic [...] What Stravinsky does is extraordinary. It takes you on a journey from Gregorian chant right through to the modernism of Webern – and all in 17 minutes." 
(The Guardian 2013)

On popular music artists

"I had whatsername? ... Bjork. Bjork round to dinner the other night," he said, "and I want to write something for her. I don't see why not. She's far more intelligent than most classical singers." 
(The Guardian 1999)

"I don't hate pop music," he says. "I liked the Beatles, but then I knew them." John Lennon was his favourite. 
(The Guardian 1999)

On Schoenberg

"I was recently moved to tears by the beautiful pain of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet. And I think suffering has got something to do with that. Suffering is a kind of ecstasy, in a way. Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I've got." 
(The Guardian 2013)
On Mozart

"I have always regarded Mozart as the most sacred and also the most inexplicable of all composers. Sacred, because more than any other composer that I know, he celebrates the act of Being; inexplicable, because the music contains a rapturous beauty and a childlike wonder that can only be compared to Hindu and Persian miniatures, or Coptic ikons." 
(Composer's programme notes: Kaleidoscopes)

On Handel

"Little Reliquary for G. F. H. is a humble tribute to Handel based on a misremembered quote from Solomon and scored for oboe, strings and countertenor. Solomon has always been my favourite work by Handel, and the aria, which I have albeit slightly misremembered, stems from my early years when I played it repeatedly on a 78 recording of Beecham’s orchestration of the music." 
(Composer's programme notes: Little Reliquary for G. F. H.)

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Tour of India - Part Four

In the final installment of our Tour of India blog orchestra manager Annabel describes a special project in Bangalore and the last couple of days in this amazing country;

Writing this back in England with planning in full swing for the first few concerts in our new season, our trip to India already feels like a long time ago.  The last few days of the tour certainly flew by – following our performance in Hyderabad we travelled to Bangalore.  A day of travel and no performance meant that everyone was more refreshed for our final day which was somewhat hectic and, for me, the highlight of the trip.

A couple of days before we flew out to India, we were contacted by the fantastic musical outreach initiative Songbound, who aim to bring music to some of India’s poorest and most marginalised children. They were wondering if, schedule permitting, any of our musicians might consider visiting an Orphanage they work with in Bangalore.  After hearing a little more about the charity and their work we were keen to attend, and I’m incredibly pleased that we managed to fit in a visit.

Arriving at the Samarthanam Centre, which is run by a trust who provide a home and education for underprivileged, visually-impaired and disabled children, we were greeted by a crowd of enthusiastic children, whose smiles were both infectious and humbling. Many of the children have been working with one of Songbound’s choir leaders, who visits them weekly to teach songs from both Indian and Western traditions.  We started by hearing a couple of the songs they had learnt, before introducing them to the different instruments within the group and the sounds that can be made. After playing a few short pieces in different instrumental combinations, we taught them a new song complete with actions and Britten-Sinfonia accompaniment- we hope that it might get added to their choir’s repertoire! 

Our time at the orphanage was all too short, but was thoroughly enjoyed by both children and musician’s alike – it was wonderful to see the happiness that music can bring, irrespective of situation. Please do read about the work that Songbound do, and support them if you can. Visit www.songbound.com

Another taxi-ride of dodging cattle, goats and motorbikes later and we were back at the hotel, and straight into the soundcheck for the evening’s show. The performance itself was fabulous (in a rare programme containing no stage moves, I had the opportunity to sit in and had been waiting until the last performance to do so) and everyone was rather sad to say Goodbye to our colleagues Anubrata, Khan Saheb and his sons at the end of the evening.  Nevertheless, we returned to England with a host of fond memories, and a desire to, one day, return.

Orchestra Manager

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Tour of India - Part Three

The third installment of our India tour blog by orchestra manager, Annabel:

Greetings from Hyderabad, as the musicians are beginning their fifth concert.  The last few days have passed in a blur of early flights, car journeys, soundchecks and performances.  From Coimbatore we travelled to Chennai where our cellist, Eilidh Martin, has previously lived.  While there she helped establish the Sunshine Orchestra for underprivileged children, based at the KMMC Conservatory.  Although our schedule sadly didn’t allow us to visit the children, we were delighted that a number of them were able to attend our concert – and Eilidh had a chance to check that they are all still practising!  It was lovely to meet the children after the concert, and the evening ended with everyone in good spirits – so much so that, in a moment of carelessness in converting currencies, a bottle of wine with a price containing rather too many 0’s was purchased by the ensemble.  You live and learn….

From Chennai we moved to Mumbai where we gained our first experience of monsoon weather, with rain on both arrival and departure and much higher humidity.  Our concert here, at the National Centre for Performing Arts, was a notable highlight of the trip so far – the Mumbai audience were exceptionally welcoming and we were received very enthusiastically.

National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai
Another early start meant we were somewhat bleary-eyed when setting off for our flight to Hyderabad.  This didn’t last for long though as the realisation that a suitcase had been missed when loading our luggage at the hotel wakened me up somewhat.  A few phonecalls, a tense wait, and a slight dash through security and I made it onto the plane with the elusive suitcase, just.

At the start of the tour Ayaan Ali Khan told me that all of the cities we would be visiting have a distinctly different character.  On arriving in Hyderabad from Mumbai this was certainly true – it felt almost like an entirely different country! The rain and humidity have been exchanged for dry sunshine, and vibrant flowers line the roads.  Roads are less cluttered, and houses come in a multitude of colours.  So far, Hyderabad takes the place of my favourite city – although this may of course all change when we reach Bangalore, our sixth and final city, tomorrow.

Orchestra Manager

For full details of Britten Sinfonia's tour to India click here

Monday, 18 August 2014

Tour of India - Part Two

The second installment of our India tour blog by orchestra manager, Annabel:

We had a slow start to our general rehearsal on the afternoon of our first performance, with sound and lighting crew working around us, many people passing through the performance space, and the ever-efficient housekeepers still trying to vacuum the stage!  We experiment with three different stage layouts before settling on one that suits everyone best, ensuring sight-lines between all are good.  No sooner had we settled on this and the rehearsal begun properly, the waiting staff brought in cups of tea and biscuits – it was the earliest rehearsal break I’ve known.  Amjad Ali Khan and his sons joined us a little later for a full soundcheck – we are performing with amplification, in order to balance the three sarods and tabla against the Britten Sinfonia line-up satisfactorily.

The evenings performance went smoothly, with Jacqueline Shave and Adam Mackenzie (bassoon) introducing the Western pieces from stage. Our audience were enthusiastic, and were keen to chat to all involved in the performance at a reception following the show.  It was, as always, a relief to have finished the first performance in the run.

A free day followed, and a chance to explore Delhi.  Journeys were made to various temples, Karims (of Rough Guide to India fame) for lunch, and even a flute shop.  It was, however, Indian Independence Day, so many shops and roads were closed.  At the hotel, flowers in the foyer had been arranged in the shape and colours of the Indian flag, and uniformed men manned an Indian flag positioned on the lawn.

Jacqueline Shave and Kathy Shave
The following day we were to travel to Coimbatore during the early afternoon.  Seizing a short window of opportunity in the schedule, the majority of the group set off in the early hours for the 3 hour drive to Agra, to visit the Taj Mahal. A slightly lengthier journey than anticipated meant that it really was a whistle-stop tour before the journey back to Delhi for our plane to the most southerly part of India we shall be visiting.  Despite the early start and much travel, a spontaneous rehearsal was held in the evening as it felt like much had happened since everyone played.

A further free day followed, and another early start for the enthusiastically-exploring players – this time to visit nearby mountains and scenic railway, with a chance to explore a local town and various temples. An early night was then called for, ahead of our second performance today and beginning of intense travel tomorrow.  It has been an unusually-luxurious start to the tour, but from now on we travel and perform almost every day; our next stops on consecutive days are Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad.

Orchestra Manager

For full details of Britten Sinfonia's tour to India click here

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Tour of India - Part One

Britten Sinfonia's orchestra manager, Annabel is currently on tour in India with the ensemble. In the first of a series of posts she talks about the first couple of days of the trip;

Arriving at our hotel in the early hours of Tuesday morning I breathe a sigh of relief – both flight and entry into India are uneventful, other than a short dash around Delhi airport to find somewhat elusive immigration forms.  Nice to know that instruments and visas were both accepted by airline and immigration respectively.  After a sweltering wait at the airport and hectic car-journey the hotel is peaceful, and we are warmly welcomed.

Eight hours later and I’m being briefed about a press conference that is to happen later the same day.  From Britten Sinfonia, Jaqueline Shave (Leader) and David Butcher (Chief Executive) are to take part, along with soloist Amjad Ali Khan and personnel from our promoters. All goes well, and both interesting and unusual questions are posed. We are told later that an unusually large-contingent of press attended – there were certainly many photographers!

Soon after, I am hunting for straight-backed chairs (for our string players) and music stands. A breakdown in communication means that music stands don’t arrive until half way through our rehearsal, so we fashion make-shift stands from chairs, folders and i-pads.  This first rehearsal is intense, with time being taken to discover the best way of rehearsing Sarod Concerto Samaaga, which features the Britten Sinfonia line-up of string quartet, flute and bassoon, together with a tabla player and three sarod players including composer and soloist Amjad Ali Khan. Helpfully, arranger David Murphy is on hand to assist.  The work was originally conceived and premiered with Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but David has made this new chamber arrangement for us and we’re delighted to be giving the world premiere in Delhi.

A film of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performing Samaaga

Within the programme we are also to perform a solo-set of Western works – including Purcell, Mozart, Philippe Hersant, and Machair to Myrrh, a composition from our very own Jaqueline Shave, for string trio and tabla which takes the listener on a journey from Machair (on the Isle of Harris), to Morocco!  We soon discover that the tabla tuned to A, which is required for the work, is going to be impossible to source in Southern India, as tablas tend to be more common in the North of the country.  Thankfully, Anubrata Chatterjee, our tabla player, makes a few adaptions and he and Jackie are soon finding their way around the piece, with Anubrata learning the work by ear.

A lengthy rehearsal calls for a well-deserved evening of relaxation, and the orchestra are therefore delighted to be invited to dinner with Khan Saheb and his family.  A fabulous evening was had by all, with wonderful food and warm company.

Orchestra Manager

For full details of Britten Sinfonia's tour to India click here

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Britten Sinfonia Academy Aldeburgh Residency

Britten Sinfonia Academy have just returned from Snape Maltings where they joined Aldeburgh Young Musicians for an intensive week-long chamber orchestra course themed 'Britten Inspired'.

The young musicians explored existing repertoire and also developed new material created by young AYM composers for full ensembles and smaller chamber groups. The course was led by Britten Sinfonia's violinist Clara Bliss and composer Dobrinka Tabakova, and the musicians were joined by Bridget Carey (viola), Sarah O'Flynn (flute), Lucy Railton (cello) and Matt Yardley (trumpet).

Here are some photos showing what the Academy got up to during their week in Aldeburgh:

Early morning yoga on the Hepworth Lawn (c) Otis Luxton/AYM

Every morning began with a warm-up with everyone

warming up
An informal sharing of work by AYM composers

Small ensemble rehearsals
(c) Otis Luxton/AYM

(c) Otis Luxton / AYM

A rehearsal with an AYM composer
Of course there were breaks from the music including lunchtime football matches
and walks in the beautiful surroundings of Snape
Dobrinka Tabakova rehearsing her new piece with the ensemble

Full ensemble rehearsal
Of course the management and professional musicians managed to find time for fish and chips on the beach

Dobrinka Tabakova (composer) and Mateja Kaluza (Britten Sinfonia Creative Learning Assistant) admire Maggi Hambling's famous sculpture inspired by Benjamin Britten

To find out more about Britten Sinfonia Academy click here

Monday, 14 July 2014

Music, concerts and composing according to Ben Comeau

Ben is a young Cambridge-based composer who won the 2014 Cambridge University Composers’ Workshop. As a result Ben is writing a piece for our 2014-15 At Lunch series which you can support through the Musically Gifted campaign. Ben is in his final year studying music at Girton College, Cambridge, where he divides his time between composition, piano, organ and jazz. He has written and performed two piano concertos, performing the second in venues including Birmingham Symphony Hall and St. Martin's in the Fields.  On organ, he won the inaugural Northern Ireland International Organ Competition, playing part of his own transcription of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. In this blog post Ben discusses his inspirations, what he's listening to currently and what advice he'd offer other young composers;

How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?
I'm not sure it's my place to answer this, but I think it's safe to say I'm curious, scatter-brained, obsessed with a huge variety of different kinds of music, and always seeking to learn new things.

What's your earliest musical memory?
Getting Hanon piano exercises stuck in my head after listening to my dad teaching the piano at home from my bedroom all day.

What do you like most about composing?
To be completely honest: the ego boost after teasing a new sound into the world. And the knowledge that I might be able to affect peoples' thoughts and emotions; my own thoughts and emotions as much as other peoples'.

What inspires you?
Just sound itself – I almost never get inspired to compose by anything extra-musical. I often get inspired after listening to someone else's music though.

When was the last time you experienced writers' block, and how did you move on from it?

I can't exactly remember when the last time was, but I often find simply taking a break or listening to some contrasting music can help. Sometimes I just need a good sleep. I've been fortunate to only ever have short-term writers' block.

What advice would you give to other young composers?

Compose as much as possible; analyse other musical works in lots of depth; analyse your own work – it's easy to feel polarised about your work, either falling in love with it or thinking it's worthless (sometimes changing overnight about the same piece) but it's perhaps better to analyse which elements in the piece make you fall in love with it, and what weaker elements might cause you to temporarily hate it. You can then work on improving the weaker elements.

Which musical instrument do you wish you could play, and why?

I've recently become interested in the saxophone, because of its astonishing variety of timbre. I've been inspired by John Zorn's extended repertoire of weird and wacky squeaking sounds from the instrument; I don't know anything about how to actually produce such sounds. I also wish I were a good singer – I think there's something fundamentally spiritual about the human voice, going to a deeper level than any other form of music making. A central feature of most, if not all, 'primitive' societies was communal chanting, often with a religious purpose. Unfortunately I'm not blessed with a fine voice.

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

New music is obviously inherently experimental, in the very literal sense that it is generally an experiment to see if something will work or not. Some new musical experiments will be failures and will not move anyone, will not stir emotions or have any other use. Other musical experiments will open up vast realms of human emotional experience, move us to tears or open our eyes to an entirely new way of looking at the world.

If “music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”, then it's interesting how often we are finding new things which have not been expressed or said before, which could not be expressed except through music. I don't believe that most of us have tapped through a tiny fraction of the range of experiences the human brain is capable of, and music almost certainly has far more to say to us than has yet been said. Of course, this all requires a positive attitude towards the idea of experimentation. We must dedicate time and resources to opening up new musical avenues, and there is lots of potential reward for this.

Musically Gifted is a brilliant endeavour which is investing in the search for new forms of human expression and communication.

What's your musical guilty pleasure?
That's a strange concept really. Any kind of music that brings you pleasure pretty much justifies itself, without one needing to feel 'guilty' – I think? I can get really into Queen or Abba, albeit in small doses…

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

I’m currently starting to explore indie rock – I’m fairly unknowledgeable, but the last thing I listened to was some Grizzly Bear which I enjoyed (mainly for the harmonies/structures; I can't enjoy the vocal style so much). I've also been listening to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite; I've made an organ transcription of the work, and I’m performing it for my final recital-exam at Cambridge University.

The last concert you saw?
I play in far more concerts than I go to see (for better or worse)! The last I played in was Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, in Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. The last I saw was a student piano recital by Sasha Valeri Millwood, in Girton College, Cambridge. He improvised links between the pieces; apparently a common practice in the 18th century. I wonder if this could be revived in the 21st century – I'm a big fan of improvisation.

If you hadn't been a musician, what might have happened?
I can't remember imagining myself to ever be anything other than a musician – but I also have a big interest in philosophy, politics and ethics, with an activist streak. I might have been an environmental campaigner, or gone into academic study of philosophy.

Any plans for the summer?
Travel (not sure where), practice, read!

Ben's new work will be premiered during the At Lunch 3 performances in London, Cambridge and Norwich in February 2015. Find out more here

Support Ben's new work through the Musically Gifted scheme - your chance to buy a gift and create new music. More info here