Tuesday 30 July 2013

Antony and the Johnsons - A Review

Last Thursday I was thrilled to have the chance to watch Britten Sinfonia perform Swanlights at the Royal Opera House with Antony and the Johnsons. The orchestra have a long running relationship with the Royal Opera House, having previously performed with Rufus Wainwright and most recently a fully staged performance of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the Linbury Studio.

Antony Hegarty, who originally hails from England, but moved to New York City in 1990 has released four albums and was awarded the Mercury prize in 2005 for I am a Bird Now which featured guest appearances from artists Boy George, Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright and Devendra Banhart.

But Antony is as much of a visual artist as he is a musician. Originally commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and first performed in January 2012, Swanlights is a performance piece with dazzling light installations, featuring Antony’s poignant songs which talk about his views on gender, relationships and spirituality.

Swanlights begins with a brief dance piece. A feminine but strong figure emerges, dressed as a swan and stands just in front of the footlights, flapping her wings frantically. The first number is then accompanied by a green light, delving into the layers of mist and curtains, whilst Antony’s quivering yet serene voice dominates the auditorium.

By the third or fourth number, the layers have gradually been peeled back to reveal the angelic Antony, swaddled in white cloth. As we move through each song in the performance, we are immersed in a new lighting design, all the while the vulnerable looking singer drifting across the stage under an enormous, metallic, cloud-like structure.

Particularly memorable were songs The Cripple and the Starfish and the title song Swanlights. Also included was a very interesting cover of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, much more insular and mournful than the original, but true to Antony’s style.

The final reveal moment occurs when a thick screen is lifted mid-song and Britten Sinfonia, with almost fifty musicians in total (which is a large ensemble for us) is on full view, conducted by Rob Moose, a long-term collaborator of Antony’s.

After a standing ovation, Antony finally addresses the audience. “It was really a dream to bring this to London”, he announces. His encore finishes with Salt Silver Oxygen, a slightly more up-tempo and jovial song which he tells us he worked on with Nico Muhly. In Friday night’s show he was also joined in the encore by Boy George.

Once I settled into the somewhat bizarre landscape on stage and my ears acclimatised to Antony’s peculiar and distinctive voice, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Swanlights is a completely otherworldly performance, full of emotion and expression and something I would gladly see again.

Antony and the Johnsons’ website www.antonyandthejohnsons.com
Read the reviews of this performance in the national press here.

Lisa Buckby
Marketing Assistant

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Wymondham Serenade

On the 26th June, 150 primary schools children from the area around Wymondham, Norfolk came together to perform a concert. It wasn’t a normal school concert however; the children were performing their own compositions, accompanied by a professional orchestra - string players from Britten Sinfonia alongside amazing professional soloists Robin Tritschler (tenor) and Stephen Bell (horn).

The concert was called Serenade, and was a celebration of the music of Benjamin Britten who came from the east of England, and who’s centenary year we’re currently celebrating. The professional musicians performed Benjamin Britten’s famous Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, but in between the movements of Britten’s songs, the children performed their compositions. Both Britten and the children were inspired by the theme of night time.

Students from  Barnham Broom, Barford, Spooner Row, Tacolneston, Wreningham and Mattishall schools certainly did themselves proud. Benjamin Britten used poems by famous poets such as Blake, Keats and Tennyson, but the children wrote their own lyrics as well as the music! One carried you away to a far away Dreamland, where "a dim light hypnotyses me". The Sky at Night talked about the stars and galaxies explode like "an eyeball staring into the darkness!" There was also a scary bone rattling song about nightmares, where "boneless hands reach into my mind!"  and featuring the catchy chorus lines "I was zombified!" The concert also featured an interlude, composed by A-level music students from Wymondham College and High School based on the poem Tiger, Tiger by William Blake, performed by the orchestra and Robin Tritschler.

The concert was performed at Wymondham Abbey, which is a beautiful old building, and was part of Wymondham Arts Festival. To fit all the children in, and so everyone could see properly we had to build a massive stage that was over 3 meters tall! The concerts were so popular that we had to perform it twice, at 6pm and 8pm. Both shows sold out, and although it was a long evening for the younger children, it was great fun, and very well received.  Back in the office, we’re now doing the most satisfying bit – reading the children’s feedback sheets, and writing the project evaluation. A big thank you to our fabulous music leaders and composers, John Barber and James Redwood. To our wonderful soloists, orchestra and workshop team – but the biggest thank you is to the teachers, for all their hard work, and to South Norfolk Council and Orchestras Live for funding the project.

You can hear the children’s songs here and see some photos of the event here.

There is another opportunity to hear the children's songs in a pre-concert event at Norwich Theatre Royal on Sunday 17 November 2013 - more details here

Thursday 11 July 2013

Bedfordshire Soundtracks Project

Over two days, 34 gifted and talented students from nine Bedfordshire secondary schools worked with Britten Sinfonia musicians and workshop leader Letty Stott to create a brand-new soundtrack for an old government information film from 1948 called ‘New Town’.  The project was commissioned by Bedfordshire Music Hub Inspiring Music and was kindly hosted by Redborne Upper School in Ampthill. The project is a collaboration between Redborne Upper School, Music for Bedford Borough and Inspiring Music, and is made possible by funding from the Friends of Bedfordshire Youth Music, a charity that supports young people's music development across Bedfordshire.

Students from Bedford Modern, one of the schools involved, wrote some of their impressions of the project afterwards:

Report 1
Three students from BMS were chosen to attend two workshops, one on Friday the 28th June and the other on Friday 5th of July to compose with members of the Britten Sinfonia and pupils form Upper schools from all over Bedfordshire.

Our target by the end of the two sessions was to have composed a soundtrack to a short piece of silent film, which was an excerpt from a government information cartoon about the worrying expansion and growth of industrialisation, causing environmental damage and over-population of Great Britain.  We were inspired to write the score as a ‘tribute’ to Benjamin Britten, as this year is the centennial anniversary of his death.  During his life as a composer, he wrote a musical accompaniment to a short documentary called ‘Night Mail’ which was based on how post was moved about the country by steam train.

Since there were so many musicians there (all playing different instruments and therefore all reading different music) we had to find an innovative way of writing down what we had composed. We did this by using a method few, if any of us, had come across before - drawing!  We literally had to draw what the music would physically look like if we could see the sounds. Since most of the composition was based upon free improvisation it varied on both days but was improvised around 3 or 4 staple melodies and grooves. From what we could hear whilst we played it, the piece sounded like it had a very dense texture and will be very interesting to listen to from a non-players perspective.

Overall, the two days were not only brilliant fun, but also superbly beneficial in building our confidence when writing our own compositions.  We also learnt not to over think things and ‘go with the flow’ when it came down to getting started!  It was an incredibly worthwhile learning experience if a similar opportunity arose again, I’m sure we would all jump at the chance to take part again!

We cannot wait to hear the finished result which will be available to watch (and listen to!) through both the school website and The Britten Sinfonia website.

Report 2
On Friday 28th June and Friday 5th July, students from around Bedfordshire considered 'gifted and talented' in music attended a creative composition workshop. The event was expertly led by members of the Britten Sinfonia and Inspiring Music.

On the first day we dived straight in with a discussion about the nature of music after a brief     introduction. We thought about what makes a successful film score, and how composers represent different aspects of a film in music. We then decided to watch the film we would be  scoring for - a 1948 central office of information cartoon explaining town planning and counter-urbanisation. We considered all of the textures and colours in the film and discussed how we would show these in our score. After this we split into groups - two classical groups and one rhythm group - and began to compose.

One group of classical musicians set off composing a happy and calm texture to provide a background to the scenes in the countryside, and the other was tasked with creating a dark, gloomytexture for the city scenes. The rhythm group were asked to create two 'industrial basslines' for the city scenes and a calm texture for the country scenes.

We created our textures through improvisation and modification of existing ideas until we were satisfied. We regrouped and combined our ideas, teaching other groups how to fit in. For the rest of the first day, we thought about specific scenes through a similar process, such as the building of a new town and a 'light bulb' idea moment, expertly portrayed by the strings. At the end of the day we synchronised our current score with the film to create a base for our score.

At the start of the second day we did an exercise in improvisation. Some instruments provided a constant drone while other instruments improvised solos. This was a warm up for the day's activities. We then watched an excerpt from the film 'Night Mail' - scored by Benjamin Britten. We talked about its effectiveness as a score and thought about how we could incorporate someof his ideas into our own score. Afterwards, we split into groups to come up with a collection of melody lines, and we did this through a technique of improvisation over a drone or, in our case, a percussion and rhythm line.

Towards the end of the course we grouped together to discuss how to use our melody lines over our textures, and how to link each section of the score together. At the very end of the course we recorded our score with the film to create a soundtrack, which we then adjusted the timing of to create a final version.

This workshop was a great opportunity for all of the musicians who attended, and we are all thankful to the Britten Sinfonia for their support and encouragement during the course, and for hosting such a wonderful opportunity course.

Report 3
For the past two weeks Britten Sinfonia ran a workshop for several different schools, which were to submit at least 3 musicians to take part in the workshop. The main goal of the workshop was to compose a soundtrack to a short film, titled: New Town, which demonstrated the industrialisation of a small country town. We started by watching the film and choosing different themes to base our composition on and what ideas we thought we could incorporate. We then decided on a key and what chords or rhythms we could use. We were split into 3 different groups, the Rhythm section; which consisted of guitar, bass drums and percussion; a string section for the happy part of the film and another string and brass section for the industrial, negative side of the film, we came up with some very complex ideas and the three groups then integrated to share ideas and learn each other’s rhythms and melodies, it was a challenge working with other different groups of musicians. We did several smaller workshops focusing on specific ideas about melodies, noise, drones and rhythms which we then incorporated into the overall composition.  It was great working with confident musicians who were all able to compose and play at a high level and we were able to write without exam board restrictions. I am looking forward to hearing the final recording on the Britten Sinfonia website.

The film and soundtrack is available to view and download here.

Thursday 4 July 2013

2013-14 season trailer

This week we were over the moon to launch our first ever season trailer, thanks to Guy and Steve from Wash Media, who have produced some wonderful films for us over the years – view those here. Colleagues gathered around Marketing Director, Claire’s computer to view the first draft, and we were very excited as we were reminded of the number and scope of project’s we’re undertaking next year.  The feedback has been great and hopefully it will lead more people to take a closer look at our thrilling 2013-14 season.

Britten Sinfonia 13/14 Trailer from washmedia on Vimeo.