Wednesday 26 March 2014

Jacqueline Shave on Bach's St John Passion

This April, Britten Sinfonia's leader Jacqueline Shave directs unconducted performances of Bach's St John Passion. In this blog post she describes how she has immersed herself in the work and how she is preparing for the performances.


Having spent a great deal of time over the past year immersed in this great work, I am wondering if it should perhaps be presented with an X certificate rating, so extreme are the range of human emotions and behaviour found within it.

I first experienced the St John Passion as a mature student at the Britten Pears School in Snape, where Nicholas Daniel and I worked intensively on many of the arias with Peter Pears and a group of young singers and instrumentalists from around the world. It made a deep and everlasting impression on me, and it is particularly moving to be here thirty years on, again with Nick, shaping this work together.

It is of course a great privilege and responsibility to be at the helm, making decisions, as performances of Bach can vary enormously. I have spent many hours listening and feeling and I have come to the conclusion that there is no definitive way of performing Bach's music. Bach himself was always experimenting and making changes. He offers us a palette of many colours.

I have decided to use a harpsichord with the voice of the Evangelist throughout, as it seems to bring a human and expressive dimension for the listener, in contrast to the halo of the organ sound surrounding the voice of Christus. Britten does the same in his 1971 recording, but these days it is often performed with organ and no harpsichord. We are also using a lute, which brings an exquisite ancient timbre, and of course the plaintive gamba for "Es ist Vollbracht", one of the most unconventional and original arias that Bach ever wrote.

As soon as the music begins there is the pulsing human heartbeat of the bass line, the painfully beautiful dissonance of oboes and flutes, and the turmoil of the string semi quavers. Bach leaves us in no doubt that this is serious, strong and passionate. There is no gentle ' warm up'. He throws us directly into the emotion. Imagine hearing this at the first performance nearly three hundred years ago! I find it hard to listen to this opening without feeling greatly disturbed, almost angry, at this vision of a vast stirring soup of mankind. It is as if everything is revealed; the tragedy and beauty of the entire Passion.

It is masterful how Bach frames the work with the two great Choruses; the harrowing first, and the moving, loving "Ruht Wohl" at the end. We are also given the communal ‘commenting’ element of the exquisitely beautiful chorales and the vivid depiction of Christ's trial with the chorus almost shouting with hysterical intensity.

Amongst all this Bach gives us the ' freeze frame' emotions of the arias, when all action stops, and we have time to explore and reflect on what is happening. Time seems to stand still in "Betrachte Meine Seel", the intensely moving soul searching Bass aria where one hardly dares breathe for disturbing this precious place that Bach has created for us. In the next aria "Erwage", we have time to ponder on the battered, bruised and blood-stained back of Jesus. It is truly miraculous how, in the midst of the piece, Bach is able to evoke such introspection in the listener by this change of pace.

Ultimately we want to create a powerful shared experience by performing this work unconducted, and to show the directness, the unbridled immediacy, and the raw power contained in Bach's music.

Jacqueline Shave
Britten Sinfonia, Leader

Britten Sinfonia perform Bach's St John Passion on Wednesday 16 April at Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall, Thursday 17 April at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Friday 18 April at London's Barbican, Saturday 19 April at Saffron Walden's Saffron Hall and Sunday 20 April at Norwich's Theatre Royal. For more info click here

You can also hear Jacqueline Shave and Stephen Williams (Principal Double Bass) talk abuot the St John Passion in a previous podcast, SinfoniaCast 21

Monday 3 March 2014

A perspective on the Composer's Workshop

In February we held our annual University of Cambridge Composer's Workshop. Six composers were selected to work alongside composer Luke Bedford and conductor, Gerry Cornelius in a day-long event which was also open to Britten Sinfonia's audiences to attend. Sinfonia Student, Giverny McAndry went along to discover what the day involved and find out more about the compositional process;

Luke Bedford said at the conclusion of the day that ‘composing is really hard’. As a largely non-composing musician who is often made to conjure new music as part of my studies, I can testify to this fact; to those who compose for pleasure or for a living though, this statement has other ramifications. In a musical world where anything goes, no dominant style rules and compositional custom are not present in the same way they were centuries ago, it is increasingly difficult for young composers and their work to stand out. The Composers’ Workshop, though, showed how despite this, six young composers from the University of Cambridge were not deterred by, but excited by these arguably dim prospects.

The workshop ran as part of a competition for University of Cambridge students, which required them to submit compositions for a mixed ensemble of a maximum of ten players. The coveted prize is a Britten Sinfonia Commission, which would be performed at Wigmore Hall, across Eastern England as part of Britten Sinfonia’s award-winning At Lunch series 2014-15, and recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  For the workshop itself, an ensemble made up of Britten Sinfonia musicians and top university instrumentalists was conducted by Gerry Cornelius; the six works shortlisted for workshop were to be rehearsed in the presence of the composers, who were at liberty to discuss and change aspects of their work, with a view of formally submitting a proposal outlining their vision for a commission following the workshop day.

With notation technology becoming ever more popular, the opportunity to hear what compositions sound like in real-time is increasingly valuable. Gerry Cornelius’ description of the day as more of a ‘forum’ than a day of rigorous rehearsal fit the day’s course, as topics of interest ranged from terms of expression, clef preferences, instrument customs, and the most reliable way to tear a newspaper (an often neglected tool of the percussion section). It was evident from the day of workshops that interaction with such experienced musicians was of even greater worth: the questions batted back and forth between observers, composer, conductor and performer alike proved to be mutually fruitful, often resulting in changes being made to the work at hand. The works were dissected eagerly at all tiers of detail – nuances in the score, practical limitations of instruments and broader issues of concept were discussed with equal fervour – with the recorded performance made at the end of the day showcasing the progress made in each piece from their short time in spotlight.

The shortlisted composers (Robert Busiakiewicz, David John Roche, Benjamin L A Picard, Alex Woolf, Ben Comeau and Gregor Forbes) ranged from first year undergraduate students to postgraduates, and each showed impressive individuality and vision to which the ensemble adapted to wonderfully. The success of the workshop was to the credit of all the shortlisted composers and musicians involved in the day – I speak for everyone who attended when I say the variation contained within each session was highly stimulating and inspiring for all involved. Britten Sinfonia’s collaboration with the University of Cambridge is at its peak here; if the prize of a Britten Sinfonia commission was not incentive enough to enter the competition, the workshop stage is surely a fascinating and invaluably useful stage worthy of the application of any budding composer.

Giverny McAndry

Photos (c) Alice Boagey

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