Wednesday 16 April 2014

Birtwistle's interaction with landscape

In May, we celebrate composer Harrison Birtwistle's 80th birthday with performances in Cambridge and as part of the Barbican's Birtwistle at 80 season. In this article composer and programmer, John Woolrich explores Birtwistle's preoccupation with the English landscape in his compositions.

Harrison Birtwistle once described the Lancashire countryside in which he grew up as a kind of Arcady. His continuing interest in the natural world retains the influence of that rural upbringing: one of his most recent pieces, The Moth Requiem, is a setting of the names of extinct English moths.

As a student Birtwistle took his music to show Vaughan Williams, ‘I had a sort of Vaughan Williams forgery under my arm, (which was my music…). Vaughan Williams was modern music to me when I was a student’.  He was ‘very much part of my formative years and my awareness of what creativity was’. Birtwistle has described Melancolia 1, his lament for clarinet and strings, as his ‘Tallis Fantasia’.

Like Birtwistle, Gustav Holst’s approach to landscape, even in a miniature like his canon The Fields of Sorrow, is the impression it gives of traveling, and of time and space changing the perspective as the journey unfolds. For both Holst and Birtwistle the interaction of landscape and time has been a compositional preoccupation.

Birtwistle, like Vaughan Williams and Holst, uses landscape as a metaphor in his music. It may be a real one, like the mysterious prehistoric hill in Wiltshire that lies behind Silbury Air, or imaginary ones (rather like Holst’s Egdon Heath, another piece that has had a place in Birtwistle’s imagination). Birtwistle has a (Paul Klee-inspired) orchestral piece called An Imaginary Landscape. Another Wiltshire landscape has its own music in Yan Tan Tethera. The mythical story of Yan Tan Tethera is an explanation of the groaning sound made by the wind whistling round some sarsen stones in Wiltshire.

John Woolrich

Britten Sinfonia perform a semi-staged concert performance of Yan Tan Tethera on Thursday 29 May at the Barbican as part of Birtwistle at 80. More info

On Friday 23rd May in Cambridge and Friday 30 May at the Barbican the orchestra perform Fields of Sorrow, a programme tracing three English composers (including Birtwistle) response to landscape and national identity. More Info

John Woolrich is a distinguished composer and programmer, and a close friend and collaborator of Britten Sinfonia. In November 2014 Britten Sinfonia celebrate his 60th birthday with a special concert featuring the London premiere of his Violin Concerto. More Info

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Conquering notes and practising sections

Britten Sinfonia Academy have been hard at work over the last couple of months, focusing on performing chamber music and also the new work by Philip Cashian written specifically for the Academy.  Claire (Britten Sinfonia Academy flautist) tells us all about what the Academy have been up to;

Britten Sinfonia Academy met for three days in February to focus on some chamber music works chosen for us; these included Spohr's Nonet in F, Dvořák's op.77 String Quintet, Schubert's Trout Quintet, works for two violins and piano and works for cello quartet. As the flautist, I played in the nonet, and also Bachianas Brasilieras by Villa-Lobos, a piece for eight cellos and soprano- I played the soprano part. Most of the three days were spent in our chamber groups working on our pieces, with input from a Britten Sinfonia tutor in each group who coached us through the pieces. It was fantastic to be able to explore some new chamber music and experience working in a small ensemble, as a few of us hadn't had many opportunities like this before. Everybody contributed ideas to how we wanted the piece to sound, and everybody's instruments and playing styles were taken into account. At the end of the weekend, each group presented the piece they'd worked on and the rest of us gave them feedback. During the course we also worked on some of the orchestral pieces: Beethoven, Stravinsky and Bartok. It was my favourite course of the year so far!

In March we also met for three days. This course was orientated around working on the repertoire for the summer concerts. The woodwinds were given a new piece: Milhaud's wind quintet La Cheminée du Roi Réné. We spent most of two of the days working on this as well as a wind quartet by Françaix, while the strings practised the Bartok Romanian Dances and some Christian Woolf exercises. The Trout Quintet and Villa-Lobos groups also got some time to practise their pieces.

On the final day of the course, Philip Cashian came to work with us on his new commission Strix. We spent the day conquering the notes and then practising sections in more detail. Phil gave us pointers on how we should play the particularly difficult passages and how we should apply our musicality to the music. By the end of the day, the piece we all had a hand in creating back in October had come to life. It was a fantastic weekend, and we're all really looking forward to performing our repertoire in the summer concerts!

Flute, Britten Sinfonia Academy

Find out more about Britten Sinfonia Academy here.

The Academy will be performing in Cambridge (1st July) and Norwich (5th July) for our At Lunch 5 concerts. For more info click here. The programme will include the premiere of Philip Cashian's new work, Strix. You can help support Philip's Academy commission through Musically Gifted.

Find out more about Philip Cashian's new work in this short film

Thursday 3 April 2014

Brett Dean on composition

Australian composer and violist, Brett Dean joins Britten Sinfonia in May for the world premiere tour of his new work, String Quartet No. 2 (And once I played Ophelia). Here he talks about what he loves most about composing and his thoughts on the Musically Gifted scheme.

How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?

Paul Hindemith jamming manically on a MIDI viola in Tom Waits' band.

What do you like most about music and composing?
What I love most about composing is not really knowing exactly how a piece is going to unfold, so that there’s a certain mystery about the adventure.

What inspires you?
All manner of things, from all sorts of directions; stories, other works of art, human relationships…

How do you feel about new music and what we’re trying to do with Musically Gifted?

New music is what I myself am living for, and I think that the Musically Gifted programme is a terrific way of finding new people who are prepared to take ownership of music, to give them a completely different appreciation of the act of creating something new.

What was your reaction when Britten Sinfonia commissioned you?
I was very excited, also to use it as an opportunity to delve into the Ophelia character, a character that’s inspired me for a long time.

What would you like to be recognised for?

Reconnecting performance and composition – the way a lot of music-making used to be.

Musical guilty pleasure?
"Dreamer" by Supertramp (ooh, that sexy electric piano!)

At the end of a long day, how do you relax?

A G&T and something good on the telly.

If you hadn’t been a musician, what might have happened?
I’d always hoped to open the batting for Australia, but they never called me.

You can support Brett Dean's new commission via the Musically Gifted scheme. The closing date for donations is Friday 11 April 2014.

Brett's new work will be featured in our At Lunch 4 tour to Cambridge, Norwich and London. For more details click here.