Thursday 31 October 2013

A Museum, A Composer and Britten Sinfonia Academy

On the 12thand 13th October 2013, the Britten Sinfonia Academy took part in a weekend’s residency at the Fitzwilliam Museum,Cambridge. Working for the first time amongst the museum’s artefacts, we embarked on the very first stages of our creative collaboration with composer Philip Cashian, who will be writing a piece for the Academy to perform in the coming year. Working upstairs in the museum’s twentieth century gallery, amidst works by artists including Picasso, Nicholson, Sutherland, Moore and Hepworth, we spent the weekend composing and improvising musical responses to the artworks around us, with the museum visitors invited to observe our work in progress. 

Philip began by showing us three of the artefacts that had initially inspired him: a Graham Sutherland painting, a Ben Nicholson relief, and an ornate astronomical clock from another of the galleries. Dividing into small ensembles, we each chose one of the three, and began to develop short pieces inspired by the work. Aside from some small visual ‘doodles’ created earlier by Philip, we had a virtually blank canvas, and it was fascinating to see how each ensemble approached the task, with some starting with a chord or texture, and others working from a particular motif or melody. Beginning in this way really helped to broaden our minds to the different ways of linking art to music, and the proof was in the sheer variety of responses that emerged. It was especially interesting comparing the ideas of ensembles that had worked on the same artefact, but had come up with utterly different interpretations: in the case of the clock, for example, there was a definite duality between the florid, feminine aesthetics of the exterior echoed in the melodies of one group, and the more abstract concept of time and machinery that dominated the work of other groups. Using these first pieces of composition, Philip then selected individuals to walk around the gallery and conduct an improvised ‘piece’, bringing groups in as they wished. The conductor had total power over the shape of the piece, experimenting with different layers and combinations, and dictating the dynamics and atmosphere of the piece. At the same time, however, the elements of chance and spontaneity led both to moments of cacophony and glimpses of unexpected magic, as whole new ideas were uncovered with the merging of different compositions. This was great fuel for another day of composition - this time taking inspiration from any painting, sculpture or object in the gallery. It was amazing to see the change that had taken place since the previous day. For some, the combination of art and music had felt more natural, whilst for others it had clearly been a stretch outside of their comfort zone, but by the end of the weekend it felt as though everyone was putting forward their own personal responses to the works and the resulting pieces were a giant step up from the previous day.

Working in the environment of so many incredible artworks was such a wonderful and rare experience, and we all left feeling buoyant and inspired. It was lovely to get to know Philip, and we all look forward to hearing his first ideas in the spring.

Eliza Spindel (violin)
Britten Sinfonia Academy Member

Find out more about Britten Sinfonia Academy here
Deatils of the concerts featuring Britten Sinfonia Academy and Philip Cahsian's new work can be found here

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Pekka Kuusisto explains...

Have you see the programme for our Serenade concerts in November?  With no less than 12 works by nine different composers, there's a high chance that you'll be hearing some pieces of music for the first time.

The programme was jointly devised by Pekka Kuusisto and Britten Sinfonia and we thought it would be a good idea to ask Pekka about why and how the programme has taken shape.

In Pekka’s words the programme is a ‘voyage’ with Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings at the journey’s end. For Pekka, the programme should unfold as one interconnected string:

‘Since I am completely addicted to the Serenade and Les Illuminations, not to mention the Nocturne, I wanted to build a programme that would feel like an extended version of the voyage those pieces take the listener on, and have the whole concert be like a preparation, an approach, to the Serenade. Like Britten himself wanting to have the Fantasia Upon One Note by Purcell performed at the premiere of his String Quartet No. 2… I wanted to have pieces that would, in a concert situation, feel like they are connected, or that our way of performing them has to feel like we are stretching ropes from one musical bell-tower to another, or chains between stars... and then we will dance. Yes! That's what this concert must be.’

The programme journeys through works by Nico Muhly, Bartok, Erkki Sven-Tuur, Nordheim, Berg, Arvo Part, George Crumb and a new piece by Judith Weir. Pekka has requested that the audience refrain from clapping until the interval and end of the concert, as the works are designed to segue from one to the next.

He hopes the performance will take audiences to new and unfamiliar places: ‘I think we could afford to have some more concerts that don't follow the most common patterns. At the moment it doesn't take more than a violinist performing without shoes to create a stir, and that says a lot. I don't want to outlaw average programming, that's not it, but there's just so much we should try as well.’

The concerts take place at Norwich Theatre Royal on Sunday 17 November, Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall  on Friday 22 November (part of Cambridge Music Festival) and London's Milton Court Concert Hall on Sunday 24 November (part of Barbican Britten).
You can find full details here.

Monday 14 October 2013

A 'Wacky' Piece - A Review from a SinfoniaStudent

Last week one of our Cambridge SinfoniaStudents, Rosie Ward, came along to our opening 2013-14 season concert in Cambridge and kindly wrote the following review;

‘What a wacky piece!’ I heard one audience member exclaim after Britten Sinfonia’s concert in Cambridge on Wednesday. The work we had just heard was not an avant-garde new commission; in fact, Haydn’s Symphony no. 60, ‘Il Distratto’, dates from 1774, making it the oldest piece in a programme that also included works by Stravinsky, Anna Clyne, Mozart and Nicholas Maw. This was a diverse selection not only in terms of chronology and style, but also because each work called for a different ensemble, from string quartet to full orchestra. The common thread running through the evening was the musicians’ chameleon-like flexibility, which made both the ensemble and the concert more than the sum of their parts.

Stravinsky’s Three pieces for string quartet (1914), which opened the programme, are just as worthy of the word ‘wacky’ as is the Haydn symphony. These brief, terse little pieces do not correspond in the slightest to the string quartet genre’s connotations of civilised Viennese classicism: as Paul Griffiths puts it, they are ‘determinedly not a “string quartet” but a set of pieces to be played by four strings.’ Rather than working either together or in opposition to one another, in the first two pieces the instruments seem to operate on completely separate rhythmic or harmonic planes.

In terms of tempo and texture, if not in terms of emotional atmosphere, the third and final piece in Stravinsky’s set provided something of a bridge to the next piece on the programme. Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms (2008/9) is an elegy for fifteen stringed instruments written following the death of her mother. The wide spectrum of subtly changing sound qualities that Clyne creates, particularly enhanced by the centrally positioned double basses, was what made both the composition and this performance special. The instruments’ lines interweave and combine in a hypnotic rise and fall, so that the piece hovers in a fragile balance between an atmosphere of still contemplation and fluid movement.

The ensemble on stage grew again for the final piece of the first half, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 in A major, K414, with soloist Paul Lewis. The subtle phrasing and timing (there were some perfectly judged, or instinctively allowed, moments of silence), and the balanced interaction both between orchestra and soloist and within the orchestra, combined to make this a beautifully integrated, smooth, but nevertheless dramatic performance. As if the strength of this collaboration was not clear enough from the music itself, it was highlighted during the applause by a light-hearted disagreement between Paul Lewis and leader Jacqueline Shave, each of whom seemed to think the other more deserving of the audience’s enthusiastic response.

The second half began with oboist Nicholas Daniel taking centre stage in Nicholas Maw’s Little Concert (1988), accompanied by the string section and two horns. According to the composer, a defining characteristic of the work is its ‘concentration on line – the presentation and development of melody, the acceptance of the primacy of song,’ and Nicholas Daniel certainly did sing. This was captivating playing from the slow bloom of his first note to the elegantly light, virtuosic ending.

The musicians visibly delighted in performing their final party piece – the ‘wacky’ Haydn symphony. Whilst they relished the work’s quirks and surprises of form, this did not come at the expense of beautiful balance and texture: in the presto fourth movement, for example, although much of it is marked forte, the whole orchestra played with the lightness and tightness of a small chamber group, and the finale was no less joyous, whether for the orchestra or the audience: a high-spirited send-off to an exciting and diverse but always excellent concert.

Rosie Ward

There is still a chance to hear this programme in the opening concert of our Norwich 2013-14 season (with pianist soloist Dejan Lazic) - further details.

If you're interested in becoming a SinfoniaStudent check out our website for details.