Wednesday 17 December 2014

Brussels Sprouts and Christmas Carols

Ahead of the looming excitement of Christmas day we asked our Musically Gifted composers what they're most looking forward to and what they really think about Brussels sprouts... 

All of these composers will have new works premiered by Britten Sinfonia this season, find out how you can get involved on the Musically Gifted website. Watch our Christmas video here

Ben Comeau

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
Unashamedly highbrow response!  Any of Bach’s Christmas music, especially O Jesulein süß (O Little One Sweet). Poulenc’s four Christmas motets. Messiaen’s Dieu Parmi Nous for organ.

The one you really can’t stand?
I’m usually very eclectic in my tastes, but Christmas really brings out the very worst in pop music. The tropes and cheap tinsel of Christmas hits are so depressing. I could probably enjoy Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody if it were an obscurity, but the Pavlovian response when it starts playing in a club brings out a rare misanthropic streak in me...

Favourite thing about Christmas?
Obviously (some of) the music. And if it ever snows, going out on a long walk.

Your Christmas pet hate?
The pop music...

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?
YES and then some! I could eat barrels of them.

Tom Coult

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
12 Days of Christmas – hands down the most structurally innovative of all Christmas songs. It’s a cumulative form with an irregular metre and irregular, additive phrase structure – introductory lines and the ‘partridge in a pear tree’ segment in 4/4, then incrementally adding 3/4 bars, excepting the 5th phrase (‘five gold rings’) which is in 4/4, after which point the melody of the following three phrases alters for each subsequent verse. I’ve done a diagram of the phrases in each verse – italics denote the changed melody after ‘five gold rings’:


The one you really can’t stand?
The Holly and the Ivy. The word setting is awful – all the lines seem to have different numbers of syllables that have to fit into the same tune, and accents fall on strange words. 'Of all the trees that are in the wood’ – very odd.

Favourite thing about Christmas?
The Father Ted Christmas special.

Your Christmas pet hate?
People moaning about Christmas decorations going up in October and November.

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?
No. Yes? Dunno. Was Pierre Boulez not available for this Q&A?

Iain Farrington

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
My favourite ‘original’ Christmas work is Britten's Ceremony of Carols: fresh, brilliant, and moving. To think it was composed on board a ship on the Atlantic during World War II makes it even more remarkable. Of the ‘traditional’ carols, I love the original 16th Century Coventry Carol which has such tension to it, unsettling major/minor shifts and uneven bar lengths. Also The First Nowell, especially as arranged by Elgar at the end of his The Starlight Express (nothing to do with Lloyd Webber!)

The one you really can’t stand?
Any of the contemporary pieces that are loaded with saccharine sentimentality, cloying harmony and butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-your-mouth naivety. Like having to eat an extra-large Christmas pudding in one go.

Favourite thing about Christmas?
The positive atmosphere, lights, colour, food and drink; all the best things to get through the darkness of winter.

Christmas pet hate?
Dewy-eyed and cynical TV adverts (Sainsbury’s, this year).

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?
Definitely, and all year round too. However, will we have to change the name if we leave the EU?

Joey Roukens

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
Although I don’t have any real favourites, I prefer the ‘classic’ Christian hymns and carols such as Adeste Fideles, Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, partly because of their sentimental value – I used to sing these as a child at school and with my mother, and partly because they simply have lovely melodies that are both tender and solemn.

The one you really can’t stand?
Most Christmas pop songs I can’t stand, but if I had to pick one, it would be Last Christmas (by Wham!) which I find the most aggravating Christmas song ever penned. All I want for Christmas is you (Mariah Carey) and Simply having a wonderful Xmas time (Paul McCartney) are pretty terrible too. The thing is, even the great Christmas songs become vexatious just by maddening repetition during the Christmas season.

Favourite thing about Christmas?
Christmas dinner with family!

Your Christmas pet hate?
See question #2 – hellish repetition of the same annoying songs, all the crappy programs and movies on TV, massive consumerism.

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?

Nico Muhly

What’s your favourite Christmas song and why?
Well, let’s back up and say that the all-time best is O Come, O Come Emmanuel, because there is nothing more joyful than moving from that minor mode to the expectant major on the word, “Rejoice!"

The one thing you can’t stand?
Everybody losing their mind about Christmas before Advent starts. 

Favourite thing about Christmas?
Having the entire city to myself. Everybody peaces out and I can walk up and down the middle of the street.

Christmas pet hate?
I actually have no idea what this could possibly mean. Do you mean is there a thing my dog hates at Christmas?

Brussels sprouts, yes or no?
Firmly yes! You just have to handle them right. Sometimes raw is the way forward, indeed, and other times, the opposite.  

Monday 15 December 2014

Staff highlights from 2014

As 2014 draws to a close the Britten Sinfonia management team look back on some of their highlights of the year;

Nikola White (Artistic Planning Director)

"There are currently no Eurostar trains leaving St Pancras today"
. So, one of the highlights of my Britten Sinfonia year threatens to be spoilt by unexpected but somehow horribly predictable travel disruption on the Continent.....fortunately several hours later I'm listening to Bach's St John Passion in the illustrious Amsterdam Concertgebouw and can detect no signs of tiredness from our incredible musicians, just complete, utter focus and dedication to this miraculous work (the St Matthew just edges it for my Desert Island, but not by much).

When we first broached the idea of performing the St John without a conductor, it was in somewhat hushed, tentative tones; to pull this off would be quite something.  But under the imaginative direction of our Leader, Jacqueline Shave, along with Eamonn Dougan (our Voices Director), choir, soloists and orchestra became one, and it was incredibly moving to see their collective reverence to the piece expressed so clearly; Nick Mulroy's evangelising was worth a ticket in itself - sure, we all know the story but in his hands (or, more accurately, voice) it seemed I was hearing the narrative for the very first time. We had the chance to perform the work on five consecutive nights, including a performance at the Barbican on Good Friday, which was an infinitely more rewarding Easter experience than my usual: deciding which chocolate egg to eat first.....

Read the reviews from our St John Passion tour here

Elizabeth Hunt (Development Assistant)

My favourite performance from 2014 has to be Thomas Ades' Polaris at Sadler's Wells. The trouble is, I found it so amazing that a few words in a blog post really won't do it justice... plus, I feel the pressure of writing a good piece about it because I know so many of the team here were enthralled by it and wanted to mention it as a favourite (sorry, Will!).

As a dancer, I had been looking forward to the gig for ages, and it did not disappoint. I was blown away by the whole evening and had a brilliant time as a member of the audience on the night of the world premiere and as part of the Patron's Night receptions, held for donors at Sadler's Wells and some of our generous Friends and Chair Partners. I really did see the music and hear the dance that night; the dancers and the choreography brought the music to life, for me anyway. Not being an aficionado of contemporary music (I freely admit), I'm not sure the music would have spoken to me in the same way as it did with the accompanying movement on stage. I was totally immersed in the spectacle of Polaris, the final piece of the evening, with c.60 dancers on stage moving as one, all in black; and being surrounded by fantastic music performed by our players around the auditorium was just incredible. I enjoyed the whole evening, but Polaris... I'm not ashamed to admit I welled up a little from being so wowed and in awe. And my hands hurt from clapping. Got to love a good world premiere.

But, aside from Sadler's Wells, I'm also going to mention the Fields of Sorrow concert at Milton Court as part of our Birtwistle celebrations in May. I really enjoyed Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and Flos Campi and following a brilliant evening in the company of lovely colleagues from the office and our musicians, I felt very proud to be fundraising for concerts like that; for amazing musicians and music which need to be seen and heard.

See some photos and read reviews of Thomas Ades: See the music, Hear the Dance here

Emily Moss (Creative Learning Graduate Trainee)

A particular highlight for the Creative Learning team was Britten Sinfonia Academy's public appearance in the pre-concert event for our celebratory John Woolrich at 60 concerts in London and Cambridge. A new year of talented young musicians performed two of Woolrich's pieces, one orchestral and one chamber piece. After an intensive weekend of rehearsals the academy members succeeded in presenting a polished and energetic performance and we are immensely proud of their hard work and enthusiasm. Having only recently joined Britten Sinfonia in September 2014 I have really enjoyed my concert experiences so far, ranging from Britten’s War Requiem at Ely Cathedral to the intimate wind quintet performance at the first At Lunch concert of the season, and I look forward to experiencing many more Britten Sinfonia concerts.

Find out more about Britten Sinfonia Academy here.

Annabel Leakey (Orchestra Manager)

It's impossible to choose a single project from 2014 as my favourite, so hopefully I can get away with picking two.... In which case, my first choice would be our mini tour of Bach's St John Passion, performed in the run up to and over Easter weekend. Even for a non-Bach-lover (an admission that's probably going to come back and haunt me in the future) the chance to spend a week absorbing the work in the distinct way you do when you follow a project through from initial rehearsal to final performance was wonderful. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is being able to watch how a project evolves. With a masterpiece such as the St John Passion, which members of the orchestra have played many times before with different conductors, directors and soloists, this means seeing how the ensemble, with its collective experience of assorted previous interpretations, gel together to create a fresh perspective on a work they already know well. My first visit to Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw (complete with significantly delayed Eurostar), a midnight supermarket trip for vital Easter eggs, and a 5am flight also ensured this was a project I won’t forget in a hurry…

My joint-favourite Britten Sinfonia project of 2014 has to be our tour to India. Too many experiences to mention within only a few lines, but memorable moments (for both delight and horror!) include meeting and getting to know the gracious Ali-Khan family, finding myself momentarily lost in Old Delhi on Indian Independence day – one of the busiest of the year, the realisation that anything cooked in South India is significantly hotter than anything else I’ve ever tasted, watching the amalgamation of Indian and Western musical styles come to life in Amjad Ali Khan’s Sarod Concerto, discovering that Tablas come in a variety of keys (it seems an obvious oversight, with hindsight), watching a huge bunch of enthusiastic and energetic children at Bangalore’s Samarthanam Centre join in with songs taught to them by Britten Sinfonia musicians, learning about the intricacies of the Indian visa process in a slightly-too-short space of time, and, finally, truly understanding the saying that Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.

Read Annabel’s tour blog – Part I , Part II, Part III, Part IV

Will Harriss (Development Director)

One of my favourite commissions of the year was right at the start of 2014 - a pair of works by the brilliant baritone (and composer!) Roderick Williams. That he both wrote the works and sang in their premieres was enthralling. Stepping back three hundred years or so, I was also mesmerised by our Eastertide performances of Bach's St John Passion. It was so complete a performance - excellent soloists, complemented by our musicians looking as if they were playing for their lives. Finally, our collaboration with Sadler's Wells and Thomas Adès was an absolute highlight of not only this year but, for me, the last few years. Exhilarating doesn't even begin to describe it.

Listen to Roderick Williams discuss his new work in a pre-concert talk podcast

Karys Orman (Marketing Assistant)

My highlight of the year would obviously have to be joining the Britten Sinfonia team in July! I'm very excited to be here and looking forward to what 2015 will bring... A 2014 concert highlight for me was hearing Britten Sinfonia in the Turner Sims 40th anniversary Gala concert, where it was announced that the orchestra will begin a three-year residency there starting next season. Being originally from Southampton myself, it was a real treat to hear the orchestra on home turf, the audience was clearly enjoying the performance a huge amount and this energy really rubbed off on the musicians, creating a brilliant atmosphere and some brilliant music-making!

Check out the Turner Sims Concert Hall website here

David Butcher (Chief Executive)

One of the benefits of Britten Sinfonia’s new partnership with the Barbican, is that we can propose ambitious artistic ideas, and collaborate to make them happen.  The semi-staged production of Harrison Birtwistle’s seminal opera last May, Yan Tan Tethera, is one such example.  Written in 1986 this was its first airing since the premiere and part of Harry’s 80th celebrations.  It’s a haunting and unsettling piece and akin to all great art, works on many levels.
Ostensibly a folk tale about a good and bad shepherd, it explores political and social themes, raising issues of prejudice and exclusion, as relevant now as they were in 1986.  Intriguingly described by the composer as a “mechanical pastoral”, it’s constructed with mathematical precision, musically and dramatically.  The two shepherds (brilliantly sung by Roderick Williams and Omar Ebrahim) emerge automaton-like as figures on an elaborate clock. They are underpinned by Birtwistle’s glistening, mysterious score, with its constantly vacillating "music of the hill" themes which, alongside Tony Harrison’s magically earthbound libretto, brings the story to life.

Yan Tan Tethera should be placed alongside the ground-breaking Punch and Judy, as a key work prior to his later larger scale achievements such as Gawain or Minotaur.  Moreover, in Yan Tan Tethera you experience the detailed musical textures and lyricism of Birtwistle’s instrumental craft, (sometimes obscured within the blocks of sound in his larger-scale works) and we can experience the visceral sensations of the wind sharking around the sarsen stones unveiling the mysteries which lie beneath. 

I hope this opera, alongside other works we performed last May (most notably Melancholia 1), demonstrates Birtwistle as a profoundly English composer, as much as Vaughan Williams or Elgar.  It’s just that Birtwistle’s vision is not one of green bucolic pastoral, but, as Andrew Clements so vividly described, “of something bloodied and cruel, rooted in pagan Albion.”

Read the reviews of Yan Tan Tethera here

Claire Bowdler (Marketing Director)

When I suggested this blog post to everyone and asked for their highlights of 2014 I hadn’t thought what I would pick myself – I’ve realised it’s actually quite hard to pick just one highlight – working with such a talented bunch of musicians and great programming team means that each individual project has something special about it. However if I had to pick one (as I expected everyone else too) it would have to be our project with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja (or the much easily pronounceable Pat Kop). I’d never seen Pat Kop perform before but had heard great things from colleagues and musicians. In marketing terms it was a great project to work on as Patricia is a fascinating character and amazing performer – we had a wealth of materials to use  and worked in partnership with Wash Media to create a short film trailer which has been our most popular to date.

Pat Kop’s performances were energetic, fierce, impulsive, expressive and more. A highlight of the programme was Bartok’s Romanian Dances of which I had never heard such a frenzied, raw and exhilarating performance. I look forward to the next time we collaborate with this distinctive, virtuosic musician again.

Watch the trailer for our Patricia Kopatchinskaja tour here.

To find out what we have planned for 2015 take a look at the concerts section of the website.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Sinfonia Students review - At Lunch 1

Sinfonia Students Carl and Simone share their perspectives on our At Lunch 1 programme (in rehearsal and in concert), performed in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Tuesday 2 December 2014.

Britten Sinfonia Wind Quintet At Lunch: A behind the scenes experience

I enjoy the concert experience - sitting down and watching one or more musicians perform with polish and flair. It is well known that performers spend enormous amounts of time in the practice room, yet the audience will never know any of that build up; a concept conveyed perfectly by this picture of an iceberg. As a performer myself, I have always been intrigued with knowing what went on before the concert. How do professional musicians prepare their performances?

I recently had a rare opportunity to listen in on a pre-concert rehearsal by the Britten Sinfonia wind quintet. Sitting very quietly in the top seats of the West Road Concert Hall, I listened for an hour.

The first thing to strike me was the different seating formation of the quintet. Compared to a string quartet, wind quintets allow more flexibility in regards to where the players sit. In my own experience, the following arrangement was common: (from left to right) flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, clarinet. The Britten Sinfonia players sat: bassoon, clarinet, flute, oboe, horn. Never experiencing such a formation, I was unsure how effective the overall sound would be. I was quickly won over. The bassoon and horn created a ‘surround sound’ bass line coming from left and right, of which the block of three treble instruments projected over the top. By the time the sound reached the audience, it was a perfect blend.

The quintet members did not rehearse every single piece from beginning to end - which I assume was simply not necessary, and they wanted to preserve energy for the concert. Their playing was interspersed with lively, humorous chatter and old stories of concert disasters. The group was clearly more than just five musicians performing a quintet recital; they seemed genuine friends. The issue of leadership in chamber music can often be a challenge, however the members all took turns at directing the flow of the rehearsal.

The four recurring focuses of their repertoire during the rehearsal were: communication (particularly who was showing the beat and leading in the other players), tuning chords, keeping a consistent tempo, and negotiating more effective places to breathe. As a student, it is reassuring to know that professional musicians also have to continue developing these challenging areas of chamber music.

My ‘behind the scenes’ experience ended as I quietly exited the rehearsal while the quintet had a break between pieces. I began to wonder how hearing the rehearsal would affect my experience of the concert. Though, as soon as the quintet sat down to perform, the events of the rehearsal moved to the back of my mind and I was overtaken by the wonderful blend of timbres. 

Simone Maurer (Sinfonia Student 2014-15)

Spectacular Jones, Graceful Nielsen

The wind quintet comprised from leading members of the Britten Sinfonia dazzled Cambridge with its virtuosity and musicianship, in bringing to life three contemporary works, and one more staple piece of repertoire.

Berkeley’s Re-Inventions and Seeger’s Suite for wind quintet were both lively, with the former offering a contemplative approach to the well known Bach repertoire, and Seeger’s exciting work showing the full breadth of wind quintet capabilities.

However, the lunchtime concert really came to life with the OPUS2014 winner, Patrick John Jones’s Uncanny Vale, a new work for wind quintet, which explored harmonic and timbral possibilities in a pioneering way. Creating a strange, eerie atmosphere, the work was altogether more expressive than Berkeley or Seeger, and really captured the audience’s imagination, exploring ideas of fantasy and the mind.

Nielsen’s famed wind quintet is a more familiar work in this size of ensemble, and offered the composer’s unique sonority and handling of tonality. The players from Britten Sinfonia worked well to produce a clean sound, resulting in a poised, elegant but nonetheless vivacious account of the Danish composer’s great work.

Carl Wikeley (Sinfonia Student 2014-15)

Monday 8 December 2014

2014-15 Britten Sinfonia Academy so far...

Our 2014-15 Britten Sinfonia Academy members have been meeting since September for workshops, courses and performances. Clarinetist, Morgan tells us what he's been up to during his first three months as a Britten Sinfonia Academy member;

I was very excited (but admittedly a little nervous) to be accepted as a member of the Britten Sinfonia Academy as I had never been in a regional orchestra before and I really had no idea what to expect. However, from the moment I first met Natalie, Mateja and (later) Emily, I knew I would have no problems at all!

I really enjoyed our induction day in September, when  I got the chance to meet the other members of the Academy, as well as some of the members of Britten Sinfonia itself. As I play clarinet, I particularly got to know Joy, one of the clarinettists in the main orchestra, who offered me help and encouragement which has improved my playing.  I especially enjoyed the improvisational exercises, including a Japanese compositional technique called shōgi. We sat in a circle and each of us came up with a musical idea and then began playing it. Up to five musicians were playing at a time - as one came in, one dropped out, and as the music continued round the circle, a very interesting and very strange piece of music builds up! Versions of The Rite of Spring and different technical exercises were interspersed with London Bridge and my quickly-made-up attempt at a prepared piano. People also used a variety of small percussion and their own bodies to create some interesting patterns - it was imaginative, to say the least. A particular highlight was Joy and her more-than-persistent spoken contribution ("Hey, you guys...") in a variety of styles.

Our first weekend course comprised a heady mix of new and old - Now, that we all knew each other - we concentrated on learning to play together as an ensemble. We covered Mozart's Idomeneo, Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Kabalevsky's The Comedians and Finnissey's Plain Harmony, with the afternoons dedicated to chamber music including Ravel's Mother Goose suite. All of these pieces allowed each of the sections of the ensemble their own moments to shine and presented each of us with a few meatier bits to sweat over a bit! But that is a good thing!

As the courses progressed, we in the Academy continued to get to know one another more through the lunchtime football  and some particularly fascinating conversation during the breaks - made more enjoyable by the seemingly endless supply of mini brownies and rocky road bites courtesy of the very important snack rota!

In November, the course weekend focused on preparing for two pre-concert events where the Academy was playing as a "warm-up" act to Britten Sinfonia.  We were all very excited - a gig! These two concerts were retrospectives of John Woolrich (a good friend of Britten Sinfonia) and some of his influences. The Academy as a whole played Woolrich's Stealing a March (dedicated to Frank Zappa) and a quintet played In the Mirrors of Asleep. Woolrich's style is wildly eclectic and very interesting (that much we all agreed) - what we couldn't agree on was whose part was the most difficult (I still think I win).

The next time we met as an orchestra was on November 20th at Milton Court Concert Hall (next door to the Barbican) for the first of the two pre-concert events - the following day, we were back in Cambridge for the second. Nerves were high and we were brimming with excitement. The quintet went first and was received brilliantly. Then the full Academy (with one or two loan instrumentalists from various sources) took to the stage. We triumphantly stormed through Stealing a March, and the applause was rapturous. It was in all honesty, one of the best experiences of my life!

I am sure, if the first 3 months are anything to go by, more fantastic experiences await! I am so grateful for the chance to be a part of the Academy. I hope I can continue for many years!

Clarinet, Britten Sinfonia Academy

For more information about Britten Sinfonia Academy click here