Monday 24 February 2014

William Cole on composition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you inspired by anything else than music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Meet Nicholas Mulroy

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

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

When are you happiest?
Hanging around with my family.

What is your greatest fear?

That something awful might happen to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I’m hoping it hasn’t happened yet…

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

In a nutshell, what is your philosophy?

Be kind, constructive, or quiet.

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

Monday 10 February 2014

Musically Gifted - An Update

This time last year, we were busy setting up our newest fundraising campaign: Musically Gifted. In case you’ve missed it (and we hope you haven’t!) the aim of the game is to enable people from all walks of life to be a part of something special and timeless - the opportunity to help us commission a new piece of music and be credited in the score forever.

With composers ranging from Sally Beamish, James MacMillan and Nico Muhly (plus many more), we’re delighted to offer such a wide range of musical worlds and we know that there is something to please every ear.

We’re also extremely pleased to be able to include lesser known composers in the roster, which gives them a real chance of gaining exposure and creating an emotional link with listeners right from the very start of their careers.

The varying benefits received by donors depending on the size of their gift is also something we are thrilled with. All donors are credited in the score forever, although you can opt out if you wish to remain anonymous (and many do). There is then a wide range of gifts going from a signed front page of the score to the possibility of having Afternoon Tea with the composer and musicians (which we hear through the grapevine is quite a lot of fun!).

Our first commission received the support of 24 donors, our second had 35. We’re liking this trend and hoping that each commission will get increasingly popular.

Let’s not forget that Arts Council England will match-fund pound for pound each gift that we receive until 31 March 2014, which is an incredible fundraising opportunity for us. Of course, we believe it is vital for our orchestra to perform new music, and all money we raise through this campaign will permit us to commission yet more emerging and well-known composers.

I am the person who sends you the thank you card, wraps your scores in purple ribbon and makes sure that the adventure is worth it, and I must say it’s been a real pleasure this far. I love having a close connection with the composer as well as with the donors, and I really hope that we’ll be able to develop this campaign into a staple of what Britten Sinfonia offers to their followers.

Right, I think it’s time for you to discover it yourself. Get stuck in at and get inspired.

Gabrielle Deschamps
Development Assistant

Monday 3 February 2014

Schubert and Schumann

Our At Lunch 2 concerts featuring Roderick Williams and Britten Sinfonia Voices focus on the part songs of Schubert and Schumann. SinfoniaStudent, Anna Kaye explores both composers in this fascinating article;

Schubert and Schumann are composers that I first encountered quite late in my musical education. I was sixteen before I played the cello line of the Unfinished Symphony, and I still have only listened to much of Schumann’s lieder where I have sung many of the other major composers of the mid-Romantic period. As I reflected on this, I was initially frustrated by the fact that such wonderful music was absent from my repertoire for so long. But it is in reflection that I understand that this was perhaps a good thing.

Schubert was the epitome of the tortured artist. It is estimated that in his lifetime that only 10% of his works were actually performed. Despite this, Schubert lent respectability to song as a form that would not have been seen before. He changed the public’s perception of song as a genre, and this change was no less momentous for being posthumous. Lieder was the field of the amateur composer, of the homespun musician, and of the inexpert singer. Part songs were equally trivial, being composed to suit the requests of whichever choir performed them. Schubert took these genres and transformed them into something that required skill, and more importantly, taste, on the part of the performers. One need only listen to a substandard performance of Du Bist die Ruh to see that it highlights, rather than masks, the weaknesses of the singer - and, to a lesser extent, the accompanist. The part songs are no less forgiving for the singers. The favour of high tenor lines seems to have been founded in Schubert’s early life working with the boys’ choir of the Imperial Chapel, and the combinations of soloist and chorus, accompanied and unaccompanied, are certainly reminiscent of the demands and abilities of a group which fluctuated between boys’ and men’s voices.

Schubert tended to follow an instinct that allowed music to flow from his pen, and wrote very little literature for such a prolific composer of music. Robert Schumann was, first and foremost, a writer. His On Music and Musicians continues to provide some of the definitive reviews of music that we musicians value today. There is a particularly well-thumbed edition from my college library that has made the near-permanent move to my room as I continue to review it, much to the chagrin of the four other music students at my college. But it is not necessarily musical interest that drives me to return to Schumann again and again. It is the simple joy of reading such eloquent and expressive writing. Certainly, one cannot deny that Schumann is a skilled composer. Mondnacht, which Roderick will be singing in At Lunch 2, is a fantastic piece of music and one of the best examples of Schumann’s strophic song. But, in my opinion, it is the poetry that flowed from Schumann that is what elevates him above Schubert in the composition of song. In the words of the composer himself:

“People who are unfamiliar with the most significant manifestations of recent literature are considered uncultured. The same should apply to music.”

Schumann believed that the piano had a voice independent and equal to the singer. He was not entirely trusting of the singer and their ability, but his faith in the abilities of the piano is all too clear, not only in his song but in his solo piano compositions such as Traumerei, one of the greatest and most popular piano pieces ever written, so much so that it features heavily in one of my favourite novels - Jilly Cooper’s Appasionata. Make of that what you will.

Schumann and Schubert were complex people and both their lives ended in tragedy - Schumann’s in an asylum, and Schubert’s taken by syphilis. However, their vocal music transcends these unhappy circumstances to lift up the listener to a calmer, higher place. Schubert, particularly, was adamant that the purpose of music was to raise the listener “closer to God”. It is indeed complex music but it is also music that is returned to again and again - much like my borrowed copy of On Music and Musicians.

The reason I am glad that I didn’t attempt to perform the work of these composers until later in my life, and the reason I am glad I have yet to perform the majority of them, is because the performance of their works requires great tenacity in one’s technique and a superior judgment that leads the performer away from self-indulgence. I possessed neither of these when I was younger, and it will be a while yet before I will feel secure in performing a song cycle like Winterreise. It is a excellent thing then, that those attending At Lunch 2, will have the pleasure of hearing performers like Roderick Williams and Britten Sinfonia Voices, whose judgment and taste I trust implicitly.

Anna Kaye
Britten Sinfonia, SinfoniaStudent

At Lunch 2 performances take place on Wednesday 5 February 2014 at London's Wigmore Hall, Sunday 9 February 2014 at Saffron Walden's Saffron Hall and on Tuesday 11 February at Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall. Click here for more details.

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