Thursday 9 December 2010

Britten Sinfonia Chairman Becomes Proud Panda Dad

Britten Sinfonia Chairman Stephen Bourne has been causing a minor sensation: he’s adopted a Giant Panda! Actually, he’s adopted it on behalf of Cambridge University Press, of which he is CEO.

The Press adopted Jian Qiao (loosely translated as ‘Cambridge’ and equally loosely pronounced ‘Jen Chow’) who was born in China’s Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Foundation in August this year. The baby female panda will play a crucial role in building closer working links between Cambridge and China and in raising awareness of this endangered species.

The adoption makes Cambridge the first publisher to be granted access to a giant panda in this way. Stephen Bourne made the trip to the Chengdu Panda Research Centre in Sichuan Province (recently featured in a BBC 2 programme) for the adoption ceremony.

Madame Wu Wei, Deputy Director in the State Council Information Office of China, was a distinguished guest and played a key part in arranging this adoption. In her address, she said: “2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. This adoption by Cambridge University Press not only shows their love for the giant panda, but also their care for nature. They set a good example to people for environmental protection”.

Jian Qiao will also help to raise the profile of the Cambridge Young Learners’ course books published for Chinese school children. Plans are being put in place to build a new website, so children around the world will be able to follow her progress as she grows up.

The adoption highlights CUP’s wider conservation, community and climate change concerns. As Stephen said: “I believe our adoption of Jian Qiao speaks volumes about the kind of organisation that Cambridge University Press is, and the importance that we place on being a responsible member of the communities in which we operate.

For Jian Qiao, it means she can look forward to receiving the best start in life and, as befits a Cambridge panda, a very bright future!”

Giant pandas are native to China and are among the world’s most endangered species. A 2007 report by the Chinese State Forestry Commission found that there were fewer than 2,000 giant pandas living in the wild today, and 239 living in captivity in China.

Jian Qiao was born weighing just 153 grams. She has a twin brother and both were born to mother Qi Zhen. Weighing roughly four kilograms after 3 months, she is doing well and has a healthy appetite. She can expect to grow to around 220 pounds, five feet long and around two feet six inches at the shoulder. She should reach maturity at the age of five, at which point it is hoped that she will breed. Will Stephen then become a panda grandpa?!

Friday 19 November 2010

Meet Richard Watkins

In the first of an occasional series of Q and A's with Britten Sinfonia players, staff and soloists Richard Watkins answers a few questions.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Performing a work written for you has always given me a huge thrill.

Any low points?
Trying to play at less than 100%,for whatever reason and thinking it’s going to work... it doesn’t

When are you happiest?
Playing with friends

What is your greatest fear?
Low notes

What is your earliest musical memory?
Jumping up and down to the Rite of Spring ,aged 5 or 6 with my father,one of his favourite pieces.

What is your most treasured possession?
My family

If you were an animal what would you be?
I do envy, Charlie our cat who seems to live a life of luxury.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Leaving all the radios at home tuned to the cricket channel.

What is your favourite book?
The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Fine French Wine

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Winston Churchill and Benjamin Britten

How do you relax away from the concert platform?
Spending time at home ,cooking

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I think of achievements too much as sporting analogies - I really enjoy playing and hope it gives other people pleasure.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Look forward

In a nutshell, what is your philosophy?
Try to be positive as much as possible.

Richard Watkins will be performing Weber's Concertino for Horn and Orchestra with Britten Sinfonia on Sunday 28 November at Norwich Theatre Royal, Monday 29 November at Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall and on Tuesday 30 November at Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. More Info

Monday 18 October 2010

Creative Learning in Abu Dhabi

In the Creative Learning department, we’re used to early starts. After all, school begins at 8.50 and there’s no changing that, even if a musician has to drive 100 miles to get there. But 4.30am on a Sunday morning was a little painful even to us hardened souls, and as the taxi drew up to take me to Heathrow I did begin to wonder what we’d let ourselves in for.

On the other hand, lovely though it is to visit schools around the country, Abu Dhabi did sound a little more glamorous. After all, if they devoted an entire Sex and the City film to the state, there had to be a bit of glitz. And as we pulled up to the Beach Rotana hotel at the other end of a seven hour flight, the team (workshop leader Fraser Trainer, flautist Sarah O’Flynn, violinist Nickie Goldscheider, viola player Kate Musker, and me) realised we would definitely be in for a comfortable, if brief, stay. It might not have been the Emirates Palace (Abu Dhabi’s best, and reputedly the world’s most expensive hotel to build, which apparently has a vending machine selling gold bars in the lobby) but it looked pretty luxurious to us.

The purpose of our trip to Abu Dhabi was to run a Creativity workshop there. The workshop is part of the Cambridge Judge Business School’s LEAD (Leadership Excellence Applied Diploma) programme that it runs in collaboration with ALDAR, a real estate development company. This programme gives UAE nationals the opportunity to learn from some of Cambridge University’s top academics. Having worked with the Cambridge Judge Business School on several occasions, they invited us to take part in the LEAD programme to explore with the participants how musicians work together and communicate.

After a swim in the hotel pool on Monday morning (well, in 40 degree heat, we needed to cool down before we could concentrate on planning a workshop) we were whisked off to the training centre of ALDAR Properties, the company responsible for much of the building work in the city, and for hosting the LEAD programme. We were to work with a group of around 20 participants, and the plan was to get them involved in making their own music, using percussion instruments, so that they could experience what it felt like to perform in an ensemble, before watching the Britten Sinfonia trio do the same. We were curious to see whether the group would get involved in the workshop in the same way as our participants in the UK do, given the cultural differences in a strict Muslim country, but absolutely delighted when they took to the activities with great enthusiasm, and quickly got involved in fascinating conversations about the differences and similarities between the music world and the business one.

The working day concluded, the team rounded off the trip with a delicious meal at a local restaurant, and then a quick paddle in the (still bath-temperature) sea. We left on Tuesday feeling intrigued by our brief glimpse into Abu Dhabi’s business culture, hopeful that our workshop had left the participants with something new to bring to their working lives…and looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

Except, of course, that with a schools workshop bright and early on Wednesday morning, there wasn’t going to be a lie in for a little while…

Sophie Dunn
Creative Learning Director

Wednesday 13 October 2010

MacMillan's Oboe Concerto - A Personal View

On Friday 15th October oboist Nicholas Daniel will give the premiere James MacMillan's new oboe concerto at Birmingham Town Hall before performances at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, Norwich's Theatre Royal, West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge and Chelmsford's Civic Theatre. Here Nicholas Daniel gives a personnel view of the piece and how it was developed.

Sometimes important new pieces emerge after a long 'courtship' with a composer, sometimes they come out of the blue. With the James MacMillan Oboe Concerto it has been born out of a long, happy and fruitful working relationship and friendship between both James and myself and between the Britten Sinfonia and this great man.

It is quite clear from his writing that in this time he has come to understand my playing profoundly both as conductor and composer, and, very importantly for the new piece, he understands the important relationship between me and my colleagues in of the Britten Sinfonia. This, after all, is the orchestra I am a founder member of, who I adore more than any other, and keep a watchful eye on at all times, and for whom, uniquely, my wind ensemble, Haffner Winds, is the wind section.

Luckily for us the Concerto has come at a time when he seems to have found terrific ease and confidence, and even fun in his music. One instruction in the music is 'laughing', for instance, over a cascade of trilled notes!

I was lucky enough to perform 'The World's Ransoming', part of his massive and impressive Easter work- Triune, for Cor Anglais and large orchestra with Jimmy in my favourite Polish city, Wroclaw, 2 years ago. It was in one of the astounding churches on an island in the city centre where there are several of them- a very special calm and serenity descends on one there.

At one moment in the piece where the Cor Anglais enters on a high D# adorned with what sounds like a glitter of starlight in the percussion and I just remember looking up at Jimmy at that point and being so inspired to see the music so visible in his face that the high D# just floated out exactly as I wanted it to. Its a great gift he has to make it so easy to understand his music just by his manner and physical expression, as well as by what he says.

On that visit to Poland we discussed some general points about the Concerto, and I believe I may have made the slight mistake of asking him not to limit in any way what he wanted to write! I say mistake but I don't mean it, of course, but the piece is really quite hard! Its arguably the most technical concerto in an oboistic sense that has been written since Elliot Carter's. In fact I have found it harder to learn than the Carter.

When I got the music a short while ago it looked to me rather like Nielson's Clarinet Concerto in terms of the Oboe writing, by which I mean flowingly virtuosic and needing an effortlessness to the technique. It also has a very exciting soloistic and supportive role for the wind, brass and timps inside the orchestra. There is no operatic aspect of this in terms of peripatitetic requirements, but the calling across the orchestra of various groups of instruments will be a stand out feature of the work, as is palindromic writing.

The slow movement is a total re-write of a solo Oboe piece Jimmy wrote after the 9/11 atrocity in America, In Angustiis ii. The original piece is desolate, lost, post-nuclear, horrifying, but the concerto to me seems to have more companionship in it and more hope, and maybe more beauty. In a way its hard to write about it because I haven't heard it all yet and haven't put it with the audience, and that changes everything.

I'm finishing this little insight for you on the train on the way to the first rehearsal, and I am so excited and nervous, and honoured to have such a fine, confident piece written for me.

For more information on each of performances click here

James MacMillan's Oboe Concerto is co-commissioned by Britten Sinfonia and Birmingham Town Hall.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Celebrating Chopin

2010 is Chopin year – to be precise the 200th anniversary of his birth.With nearly 9 months of 2010 gone, Britten Sinfonia have so far not performed any of Chopin’s music in celebration of this significant event. And in actual fact we had not planned to do so, not as a snub to Chopin and his wonderful music, but just couldn’t be fitted into our schedules or programming.

Then a couple of days ago Peter Maxwell Davies sent us his new work which we had co-commissioned with Wigmore Hall for our award-winning At Lunch series. His new work is entitled Nocturne No. 1 and is his immediate ‘hats off’ reaction to Chopin’s piano works, songs and cello music.

Many of Chopin’s works involve the piano and all demand considerable technical expertise and expressive depth. I’m sure Max’s piece, which is scored for Piano Quartet will be no different and our players Huw Watkins (piano), Jacqueline Shave (violin), Martin Outram (viola) and Caroline Dearnley (cello) are looking forward to discovering the nuances of this new piece.

So in typical Britten Sinfonia style the orchestra will be celebrating Chopin’s anniversary with music inspired by him. You can come and enjoy these concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall on 6 October, Norwich’s Assembly House on 8 October, Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall on Tuesday 12 October and Birmingham’s Town Hall on Friday 15 October.
The programme will also include Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet which is acknowledged as a masterpiece and probably his best known chamber work alongside a set of miniatures from James MacMillan, each dedicated to important figures in his life. You can find out more about this concert here

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Current Funding Situation

by Will Harriss, Development Director

Along with some 880 other arts organisations across England, Britten Sinfonia is an RFO – one of Arts Council England’s Regularly Funded Organisations. The funding, which for Britten Sinfonia is worth some £341,000 for the current financial year, enables the orchestra to plan and present its award-winning concerts and productions. It enables us to present guest artists of world-class calibre to audiences who may otherwise not get the opportunity to hear them live. It also gives us the ability to plan further ahead, a crucial factor when commissioning and engaging artists and composers who are much in demand by orchestras across the world.

The support we receive from Arts Council England is longstanding and important. It means much more than just money too; the Eastern region ACE office (through whom we are funded) provide advice, ideas, and support when we need it, and their core funding is the basis on which much other funding (for instance from trusts, foundations, and individual donors) can be leveraged.

Things are changing however. The spectre of public funding cuts is looming, and on 20 October, when the government’s spending review is announced, we (and every other RFO) will discover just what the future is likely to hold. Current forecasts differ depending on what you read, but cuts of around 25% could be on the cards for Arts Council England-funded organisations.

On the one hand this all sounds quite bleak, with funding cuts having the potential to do real damage to the culture of innovation and quality that has been fostered over the last decade. For Britten Sinfonia, the impact of such a cut would be significant, although we believe there are also many positives to take from the situation.

As an organisation one of our key principles has always been that we should be ‘fleet of foot’ – able to respond quickly, proactively, and innovatively to changes as they occur. The same principles apply to how we treat the new and emerging funding landscape. The reduction in public funding challenges us to do something different and to think creatively about how we respond to what is undoubtedly going to be a tough few months and years.

Despite the funding challenges our artistic vision and standards of world-class excellence remain undiluted. As we approach our 20th birthday in 2012 we’re planning ever more thrilling concert programmes, matched by an increasingly adventurous Creative Learning programme. We’ll be performing more concerts, in more venues than ever before. From chamber recitals to performances at the Royal Opera House, there’s a lot going on.

A compelling artistic programme needs resource to make it happen. We’re actively planning how to increase our financial support from individual givers (watch out for the fundraising campaign in the autumn, or click here to join us right now as a Friend, from just £50), as well as from trusts and foundations, and from corporate donors. We consider ourselves to be an efficient, well-governed organisation with great ideas and an important case for support.

What can you do to help? Well, please do consider joining us as a Friend, from just £50 per year. Whatever £4.16 a month means to you, it certainly means a whole lot to us. Come and establish your own musical legacy by supporting our groundbreaking commissioning programme, or even support the chairs of one of our virtuosic Principal Players.

If there’s ever a time that we need our Friends it’s now. Pledge your support and in return we will give you unforgettable performances, excellent new commissions, and the chance to meet some of the artists who are shaping the musical landscape of today.

It’s a brave new funding world, but we’re looking forward to the future. Come and be part of it and make a difference.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

A Continuing Relationship

by James MacMillan

This October Britten Sinfonia and Nicholas Daniel will premiere James MacMillan's new Oboe Concerto in a series of concerts (which he will also conduct) in Birmingham, London, Norwich and Cambridge. The orchestra will also be performing a number of his tribute pieces during the first concert in our At Lunch series. In this article James describes his ongoing relationship with Britten Sinfonia and how it has grown over the years.

As a composer and conductor it is wonderful to have an ongoing relationship with a particular orchestra like the one I have with Britten Sinfonia. It allows you to really get to the heart of an ensemble; to get to know the players well and what their strengths are, to understand their philosophy and vision, and to see an orchestra develop and grow.

Britten Sinfonia have performed my music since their inception but our relationship really took off when the orchestra performed (and I conducted) the world premiere of my opera, Parthenogenesis in 2000 in Cambridge and at the Edinburgh International Festival that same year. Last year we revived this at the Royal Opera House in a new version directed by Katie Mitchell which was particularly thrilling. There have been a number of other collaborations, notably a tour of the UK and Netherlands featuring the concert premiere of my Second Piano Concerto and I’m delighted to see is featured again in Britten Sinfonia’s 2010/11 season in May 2011.

This season I am closely involved in several exciting projects with Britten Sinfonia. Their award-winning Lunchtime series features a number of my ‘tribute’ pieces – these are a selection of short works that I have dedicated to people I have known or admired. I am incredibly touched that Peter Maxwell Davies is to write a new piece for this series of concerts. His influence has pervaded the UK and international music scene and I have admired his work for a number of years. I can’t wait to hear what he has written!

In October my new work, an Oboe Concerto for Britten Sinfonia and Nicholas Daniel will premiere at Birmingham Town Hall, who have also co-commissioned the work, before touring the UK. The concerto is written specifically for Nick, and is the result of a number of years knowing and working with him. The work will be a little over 20 minutes, and is in three movements. The really hard work on it has been in the last six months, and in the work are some allusions to another solo piece of mine – ‘In Augustiis’ – which is also in Nick’s repertoire. I will also be conducting this concert which includes music by two composers that are particularly close to my heart, Shostakovich and Beethoven.

I am sure these projects will only deepen already fruitful relationship with Britten Sinfonia and we are already planning some exciting collaborations for the future – watch this space!

James MacMillan

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Summer Festivals

With the nights getting longer and the sun shining (between the usual British downpours) summer is here. And as always at this time of year there are a raft of festivals to enjoy. Whether you are a fan of classical, rock and pop, opera, dance or folk music the explosion in the number of festivals in the UK over the past few years means that all tastes are catered for.

Britten Sinfonia performs in a number of festivals each year. Perhaps a highlight of recent years was last summers performance at Latitude. Although not performing at Latitude this year Britten Sinfonia are still hitting the festival circuit with a performance later this week at the Aldeburgh Festival, next month during the City of London Festival and also performances during the worlds famous BBC Proms and Glyndebourne.

The staff here at Britten Sinfonia will also be enjoying a variety of music at various events they’re planning on attending;

Will (Development Director) has just returned from Norway where he saw some events at the Bergen Jazz Festival including Gwilym Simcock who performed with Britten Sinfonia in April.

Hannah (Marketing & Development Assistant) will be going on tour with Leicestershire Chorale to the smallest city in the UK, St David’s. It sounds idyllic and she’s hoping the sun will shine gloriously for a week in July over this little Welsh city. The Chorale will be performing services at St David’s cathedral throughout the week and the tour culminates with a concert at the Fishguard International Festival. The Festival has been going for over 40 years and hosts a variety of events from 22 July to 2 August. Hannah is looking forward to a week of music making and a nice long walk or two along the Pembrokeshire coastline.

Rebecca (Finance Director) is really looking forward to the Cambridge Folk Festival, the lovely mixture of world folk music, sunshine (hopefully) and a cold beer. This year she is particularly looking forward to the showcase of Scottish folk performers, plus a young British band called Coco Lovers who Rebecca recently saw busking in the centre of Cambridge.

Hannah (Concerts Director) is excited about seeing the John Wilson Orchestra during this years BBC Proms. She saw his prom last year and can’t wait to hear his celebration of the music of Rogers and Hammerstein.

I will be attending the Ely Folk Festival and look forward to seeing the Oysterband again as well as discovering some new groups. I’ll also be trying to get along to a few proms and possibly the Secret Garden Party (a dance festival – but shhh - it’s a secret where it is) which I went too last year and danced the weekend away!

As you can see all of us are looking forward to discovering something new and unusual and Festivals are a great way to find that next favourite band or artist.

Claire (Marketing Director)

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Creative Learning & Wordle

We’ve discovered a great new app for generating some lovely visuals regarding feedback we receive from our Creative Learning projects. Called Wordle it is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. And give a great visual representation of what participants thought of our projects.

To complement Britten Sinfonia's award-winning At Lunch series, the Creative Learning department has put on a number of workshops and projects designed to introduce young audiences to the repertoire. In association with the Wigmore Hall's Chamber Zone programme, we have held pre-concert workshops exploring Copland's Sextet and Ravel's Piano Trio, and visited Marlborough Primary School in Harrow to explore a new piece of music by Christian Mason. After they came to the concert, we asked the children at Marlborough to tell us what they thought of it and whether the workshop beforehand had helped them to understand the music better: Here is what the wordle cloud looks like from their feedback;

Wordle: Britten Sinfonia at Lunch 1 2009-10

Workshop leader Rachel Leach and musicians from Britten Sinfonia also spent time with pupils at Witchford Village College near Ely and Handsworth Grammar School in Birmingham exploring the Copland Sextet. Here’s what the pupils from Witchford said;

Wordle: Britten Sinfonia concert

You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.

Give it a go - its great fun!

Thursday 20 May 2010

Cancellations, Calamities and Forgotton Suitcases

It happens very rarely but sometimes a soloist or conductor has to pull out of a concert at the last minute. This is usually due to illness and this is exactly what happened to Britten Sinfonia last week.

We had a wonderful concert planned as part of the Brighton Festival with the exuberant and talented violinist Pekka Kuusisto. As usual with our concerts meticulous planning goes into each programme and for this performance Pekka and our artistic team had created an evening of music focussed upon the juxtaposition between Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. Pekka was at the centre of this programme, as he would be not only the soloist but would also lead and direct the orchestra in the rest of the concert which was to feature music by Sibelius, Rautauvaara and a selection of duos for two violins by Bartok. After working with Pekka on our Britten in America tour with Mark Padmore the musicians were all very much looking forward to working with him again.

Then, a few days before the performance, our concerts director received a phone-call to say Pekka had strained his hand and may have to pull out of the concert. He really didn’t want to cancel and said he would make a final decision by the end of the following day. At this point heads were scratched and brains whirled into action as to what our Plan B might be. With Pekka being at the heart of this programme it wasn’t the case of just finding another soloist who could step in for one concerto but thinking more creatively of how we could retain the essence and style of Pekka’s performance and programming. Our concerts director spoke with Pekka as to whether he had any ideas and she also spoke to the leader of the orchestra, the inspirational Jackie Shave. A Plan B was formed, but with fingers-crossed that it wouldn’t be needed.

Then, on Tuesday our fears were confirmed. Pekka had seen a specialist who had recommended complete rest for his hand which meant no violin playing. Our Plan B swung into action. Back in October 2009 we had performed Eight Seasons at Norwich Theatre Royal as an opening to our regular series of concerts in Norwich. On that occasion four violinists from the orchestra played a season each from the Piazzolla and Vivaldi works. The concert was a huge success with the audience and as some of the same violinists were in the orchestra for the Brighton concert we thought we’d do the same again. However as Pekka would have led the rest of the programme our regular leader Jackie had not been booked for this concert and we really wanted her to be in charge. A few phone-calls, emails and texts later Jacqui had managed to change her diary around so that she could direct Britten Sinfonia for this project. This was incredible at such short notice and she even agreed to perform the 1st violin part of the Bartok duos having never played them before.

We then had to ask whether the violinists of the orchestra would take on the solo roles in the Vivaldi and Piazzolla. Jackie agreed to do one movement and Miranda Dale, Principal 2nd violin agreed to perform three pieces, some of which they had performed in Norwich back in October. Magnus Johnston, one of our principal players agreed to take on another movement and finally Warren Zelinski stepped up and said he would do the final three movements.

For the Bartok duos, Miranda, Magnus, Warren and another of our players Nicola Goldschieder agreed to be paired with Jackie. Another change was also made to the programme and instead of Sibelius the orchestra would perform Erik Sven Turr’s Passion-Action-Illusion which they previously had performed at the City of London Festival.

And then the concert day was with us. The musicians and staff travelled down to Brighton separately and arrived at St George’s Church, Kemptown for an afternoon rehearsal before the concert that evening. Upon arrival Jackie realised that she had left her suitcase containing her concert dress, music and other important apparel on the pavement in London as she was loading up her car (luckily it wasn’t her violin though…!). Once again, the orchestra pulled together – one of our first violinists offered Jackie a concert dress and our concerts director ran into Brighton centre to pick up some accessories for her.

The audience had all been informed of the change in soloist before arriving for the concert but as they entered the church you could tell there was a sense of anticipation and frisson in the air. The orchestra took to the stage and Jackie introduced the programme, explaining the circumstances for the changes and even told the audience about her forgotten suitcase. The concert was superb, the soloists each performed wonderfully and Jackie was her usual inspirational self. The audience were transfixed whilst the musicians performed but after the end of each work they burst into rapturous applause.

One member of the audience later commented;
“The ensemble dealt superbly with the loss of the soloist; one or two looked a little nervous before stepping forward but all performed wonderfully, the integrity of the programme (as Jackie put it) was maintained, and the variety of approaches in the Vivaldi made me listen more attentively than I sometimes do… in particular, the blend of superb musicianship with a informality and obvious enjoyment from the musicians was a refreshing change.. It helped to bring alive a programme that was – mostly – for me and my companion uncharted territory.”

We would like to thank each of the musicians particularly Jackie, Miranda, Magnus, Warren and Nicola for stepping in at the last moment and performing so wonderfully. And also wish Pekka a speedy recovery.

Monday 12 April 2010

A View from a SinfoniaStudent on Work Experience

I was lucky enough to spend the first week of April away from my dissertation on a week of work experience with the Britten Sinfonia team. We had both brilliant sunshine and heavy rain in the same week, and the tasks I’ve helped with this week have been equally wide-ranging! The team here are all exceptionally helpful and friendly and told me about their different roles in the organisation in detail, Will Harris (Development Director) explained where the money comes from and who supports Britten Sinfonia; and Hannah Donat (Concerts Director) showed me where the money goes in her meticulous concert and recording budgets.

The internet is an incredibly important tool for all arts organisations these days, especially for an organisation like the Britten Sinfonia, which has regular concert series in three different cities and frequently tours the UK and abroad. The website is full of information about the orchestra and its concerts, as well as some interesting things like videos and, of course, this blog (which I’ve read several times on Facebook). On Tuesday I created web-friendly versions of the brilliant new publicity photos mentioned in the last blog entry. I then used these when updating the concerts page for the 2010/11 season.

Wednesday involved a lot of photocopying, as I helped Pippa (Concerts Administrator) with the library. We checked that there were no missing parts in the sets of hired music from this season’s concerts, and also took a record of the bowings in the front desk of the strings in case the same music was hired again. I then updated the OPAS database with all of this past season’s music. In the afternoon I sat in on the weekly Marketing meeting where Claire (Marketing Director) explained about the designs for the new season’s publicity material.

Thursday was the big day of the Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony concert in Trinity College Chapel with Carolyn Sampson. It was certainly a challenge loading the van with all of the music stands, lighting, staging, programmes, CDs and, of course, tea and biscuits for the performers’ rehearsal break. Hannah Perks (Marketing and Development Assistant) and I had to pack, unpack and repack a couple of times to make everything fit! Trinity Chapel was built in the sixteenth century and, as a soprano in Trinity Chapel Choir, I know how beautiful the building and its acoustic are. However, I’d never appreciated the effort it takes to set up all of those chairs! Brute strength is a definite requirement of this job, although Hannah Tucker (Orchestra Management) tells me that most of the venues already have seating in place…

The concert itself was fantastic and the audience clearly enjoyed the new works by Latvian composer Erik Essenvalds, who also gave an entertaining pre-performance interview. Carolyn Sampson was amazingly clear and forceful in Esenvalds Passion and Resurrection, and the percussion in Arvo Pärt was so atmospheric that we didn’t know if the concert had started or if it was chapel bells, but I have to say that my favourite item was Miranda Dale, Tom Gould and the Britten Sinfonia’s beautiful performance of the Bach double violin concerto. I joined the team of volunteer stewards to sell programmes, help people to their seats, and sell Britten Sinfonia CDs in the interval, and then helped put all of those chairs away again once the audience had left.

Because the new season will soon be on sale in Norwich, on Friday I wrote a letter to our regular subscribers there to let them know about the coming season’s concerts and the 20% discount and other offers that subscribers get. I helped to mail a letter to the Cambridge subscribers, inviting them to an interval drinks reception at the forthcoming Imogen Cooper concert at West Road, Cambridge. Finally, I helped Sophie (Creative Learning Director) come up with some Halloween names for all the events at the Family Music Day. Make sure you you ‘Come and Cackle’ with your ‘Little Spooks’ in October.

For the meantime it’s back to exams for me – but I’m looking forward to the At Lunch concert on 27th April where the Ravel Piano Trio will be perfect revision for my paper on Ravel!

Joanna Harries

All of us at Britten Sinfonia are extremely grateful to Joanna for all her hardwork during her work experience. Joanna is part of Britten Sinfonia's Sinfonia Student scheme - find out more about the scheme here.

Wednesday 7 April 2010


We’ve just uploaded the orchestra’s new publicity photos on to flickr! Take a look and let us know what you think.

Photographing an orchestra in an interesting way is always a challenge – trying to capture a live and dynamic ensemble is quite difficult with a static photo. You come up with an idea and then realise another orchestra has already done it or it dawns on you that it just won’t work.

For this set of images we worked with photographer Sussie Ahlburg. She’s photographed a number of soloists and ensembles in an engaging style. Firstly, we had a meeting with her to discuss what we wanted the new set of photos to convey and how we would be using them. At our meeting we realised the location for the photos was going to be key and set Sussie the challenge of finding somewhere that would be suitable. Sussie came back to us with some ideas and we settled on the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. This is a fascinating industrial building tucked away in a corner of London. It is now used as an exhibition space and café/restaurant (they serve excellent coffee!) but still houses a lot of the machinery used when it was a power station.

Our next challenge was finding a date that the musicians could attend. We wanted a selection of players who represented the different sections of the orchestra. Britten Sinfonia is made up of a core group of freelance musicians and as with all freelancers it’s always difficult to get them in one place at the same time!

Eventually it all came together and late last year we congregated at Wapping Power Station. Once all the lights had been set, furniture moved and the make-up artists had done their work it was time to start the shoot. Sussie started with the smaller group photos and then on to the whole group. Sussie’s experience paid off as she worked fast to capture the smaller and whole group shots; standing around for even a short amount of time can lead to people looking bored in still shots. After these photos we then moved on to individual portraits of some members of the orchestra which will be great to use in programmes or online when they feature in a specific concert.

We’re all really pleased with the results of the photos and will be using them online, in print and for press purposes for the coming season. Hope you like them too!

Claire (Marketing Director)

Wednesday 31 March 2010

Cambridge College Chapels

It’s been a while since we’ve blogged. Life at Britten Sinfonia has been pretty busy with lots of concerts and a massive amount of planning going on regarding our 2010/11 season – more news on that will follow in the next couple of months.

In the meantime we have a concert this weekend at King’s College Chapel as part of the Easter at King’s Festival and then next week a concert of Latvian choral music at Trinity College Chapel. As I was driving into work this morning it led me to thinking about the number of Cambridge college chapels we’ve performed in this season and what makes them such special performance spaces. I think it has something to do with their intimacy, as an audience member you feel very close to the performers on stage (if there is a stage). It’s not to say being an audience member is always the most comfortable experience – more than likely you have to sit on uncomfortable wooden chairs or pews (bring your own cushion if you don’t want a numb bum!) and sight-lines are often terrible leading to a bad neck. However the acoustics are generally superb and the vast array of music on offer in Cambridge College Chapels, either in the regular services or special concerts is amazing.

Perhaps the most iconic chapel in Cambridge is King’s College Chapel. With its famous gothic splendour the view from the backs is used on postcards, as a backdrop to many TV news interviews, and is also the venue for the Christmas Eve service, A Festival of Nine Lessons which is broadcast worldwide. The interior is indeed splendid with the largest fan vault ceiling in the world and some of the finest medieval stained glass. Britten Sinfonia has performed in the chapel many times and this Easter Saturday is joined by soprano Lucy Crowe for a concert of music by Arvo Pärt, Bach, Haydn and Mozart. There are still some tickets available.

Then on Thursday 8th April we move a down the road to Trinity College Chapel for a concert conducted by Stephen Layton and featuring the music of Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds. The orchestra will be joined by choral group Polyphony for this performance. As these two concerts show, vocal music particularly flourishes in these spaces and all of the college chapels have associated choirs. In December we performed with Jesus College Choir in a Christmas concert of music by Benjamin Britten, and visitors to Cambridge are often welcome to attend evensong at the college chapels – a great way to experience these buildings in all their glory!

Claire (Marketing Director)

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Creative Learning Bus(es)

Here in the Creative Learning Department it feels a little like we’ve been waiting for a bus. December and January were relatively calm – a few days at schools down in London, our annual Composers’ Workshop [with Nico Muhly] and our regular work at Cambridgeshire Pupil Referral Units, but by and large we’ve been in the office planning and preparing and watching February sail into view like the proverbial three buses that all come at once when you’ve been waiting for ages.

So on Monday 1 February, we were split three ways – quite a feat when you consider that there are only two of us in the department. Creative Learning Intern Nick Jukes spent the day in Witchford Village College, near Ely, for the conclusion of a project based on Aaron Copland’s Sextet. The aim of the project was for pupils in years 8 and 9 to discover more about minimalist techniques used by Copland, and to compose their own pieces in a similar style. In early January, Rachel Leach (workshop leader) worked alongside Joy Farrall and Miranda Dale (principal clarinet and principal 2nd violin respectively), using music, games and group activities to explain the theory behind Copland’s music. Between then and 1 February, students worked on their own pieces, and attended a concert at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, to see Joy and Miranda playing the Copland sextet and (amongst others) a new piece by Nico Muhly. On our 2nd and final trip to the school, Rachel listened to the students’ pieces and spent the day developing and extending ideas through group discussion and performance.

Meanwhile I, along with oboist Emma Feilding and project leader Hannah Conway, journeyed to Norfolk to visit the lovely Browick Road Infant School in Wymondham (one of those wonderful English place names that is pronounced nothing like how it’s spelled – more like “Windam”, but why use one letter when three will do?).

Along with five other primary schools in the area, Browick Road is working with us on a project inspired by a children’s book about a character called Mr Big – a scary-looking gorilla who, despite his gentle persona, frightens off any potential friends. Finding his voice through music, his beautiful piano playing eventually charms his neighbours, until one day he receives a letter asking him to join a band, bringing fame and, more importantly, friends. The story is a gift to music making – from thumping gorilla footsteps to the sad and tender sound of lonely Mr Big’s tears as he watches other people enjoying themselves.

Hannah Conway has already led a training session for the teachers at the six schools, giving them plenty of ideas and resources to create music based on the story with their classes. The visit on Monday enabled us to see how they were all getting on, and help the children to develop their ideas further. With many primary schools lacking a music specialist on the staff – and music often a much-feared subject amongst teachers – projects like this one can be hugely helpful in demystifying the process of composition and showing that, as long as children are being creative and listening to each other and the sounds they are making, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way of doing it. Oh, and to continue with the bus theme, we also discovered that, when asked to mime being on a bus, most children did the traditional steam train action (arms shunting round, knees bobbing). Maybe with all the rail replacement services going around at the moment, it’s all getting a bit too confusing for young minds.

Finally workshop leader Simon Gunton and Britten Sinfonia flautist Sarah O’Flynn spent Monday afternoon at Romsey Mill in Cambridge, working with a small group of pupils from Ascham Road Pupil Referral Unit on writing and recording music. As that’s the bus that Nick and I both missed (so to speak) we will have to wait until we hear the results to find out what went on, but I’m sure that the pupils will have gained enormously from the opportunity to work so closely with such experienced musicians.

Looking ahead, there are plenty more Creative Learning projects to hop on to. We’ll be starting major new projects with two more providers of non-mainstream education in Cambridgeshire: Fenland Learning Centre and Hartford Student Support Centre, which both take pupils who are excluded from mainstream schools for medical, behavioural or other reasons. We’ve also got another visit to Handsworth Grammar School in Birmingham; the culmination of our Mr Big project in Norfolk; coaching / mentoring work with Orchestra Europa in London; and a masterclass at Krakow Academy of Music. So whether by bus, train, plane or (more usually, because - try as we might to be a green orchestra - carrying 30 percussion instruments on public transport attracts a bad back as well as some pretty strange looks) the Britten Sinfonia van, there will be a Creative Learning project coming to somewhere near you soon.

Sophie Dunn, Creative Learning Director

Monday 18 January 2010

Iconic Musical Buildings

The concert hall is the natural home of the orchestra and although Britten Sinfonia regularly perform in alternative spaces (Latitude, Colchester Heritage Weekend etc) the concert hall is where we are more than likely to be found. During January the orchestra will be performing in many concert halls throughout the UK (Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall, Wigmore Hall, Birmingham Town Hall) and also the Netherlands. However, perhaps the two most iconic music buildings we’ll be playing in this month are London’s Roundhouse followed by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. What makes these buildings so special though?

The Roundhouse started life as a Victorian steam engine repair shed before becoming the legendary cultural venue it is today. It was first used as an arts venue in 1964 when playwright Arnold Wesker established Centre 42. In 2006 following extensive refurbishment the Grade II listed building was opened as one of the major venues in London and since then has hosted the BBC Electric Proms, James Brown, Paul McCartney and Jarvis Cocker amongst others. Although not a traditional concert hall, this month the Roundhouse hosts Reverb, a series that explores the many sides classical music. Reverb is about introducing new audiences to classical music and breaking down the barriers that exist for audiences.

The final date of Britten Sinfonia’s tour to the Netherlands is the orchestra’s debut performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Literally meaning concert hall, the Concertgebouw is considered one of the finest concert halls in the world. Bernard Haitnik once described Concertgebouw as the best instrument in the orchestra it houses. This must have been what the great and the good of Amsterdam had in mind in 1881, when they decided that the Dutch capital should have a proper concert hall worthy of the name. Seven years later, in the marshy fields just outside the city limits, there stood a wonder of neoclassical architecture, the Concertgebouw. Acoustics were something of a black art (some may say they still are) so when the Concertgebouw was built designers drew upon what had worked in the past without entirely understanding the underlying science. When the building was completed, the acoustics were not perfect, and a lot of effort went into fine-tuning the aural ambience. During later restorations, particular care has been taken not to alter the materials used for interior decoration with this in mind. The building now enjoys a worldwide reputation.

We’re very much looking forward to performing at both of these venues. At the Roundhouse on the 23rd January we’ll be joined by pianist Joanna MacGregor - find out more here. Then on the 24th January (also at the Roundhouse) young American composer, Nico Muhly will direct and perform Britten Sinfonia in a programme of his own compositions alongside works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass - find out more here. On 31st January Britten Sinfonia perform a programme of music from both sides of the Atlantic at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw including music by Purcell, Tippett, Britten, Steve Reich, Nico Muhly and John Adams - find out more here.