Monday 30 March 2015

Fifteen hundred new audience members? Lucky us!

The Cambridgeshire Key Stage 1 tour funded by Cambridgeshire Music Hub and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation visited 9 schools between Monday 23 and Friday 27 March 2015. Each school hosted a 1 hour concert as part of Live Music Week, presented by workshop leader Jessie Maryon Davies and featuring five Britten Sinfonia musicians. 


Pianist Dinis Sousa sounds a little worried on the phone. He apologises that he can’t talk for long because he’s in the middle of teaching but he’d like to just run a few things by us.

“So, we’re doing nine concerts in five days?”


“With three concerts in one day on the Wednesday?”


“Fifteen hundred children in total?”

“Mmm hmmm.”

“Oh right.” 

There’s a short pause.

“Are we really playing Adès, Bartok and Debussy?”


A longer pause.

“Cool! See you on Monday!”


It is grins all round on Monday morning when five exceptional musicians come together to rehearse Neoma and the Night Time, the concert they will tour with workshop leader Jessie Maryon Davies through Cambridgeshire’s primary schools. The tour will give over 1500 primary school children in nine schools (including two special schools) the opportunity to experience world class performance and explore great music in the kind of programme for which Britten Sinfonia is renowned. Today’s rehearsal venue may be adorned with a giant banana chart encouraging five to seven year-olds to eat their five-a-day, but the atmosphere is all professionalism with such challenging repertoire on the musical menu.  

Violinist Ruth Ehrlich suggests they begin with Bartók’s Contrasts. The fast, humorous Hungarian folk rhythms (originally commissioned by Jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman) will represent a mischievous rooster in the concert’s story. Clarinet player Kimon Parry laughs remembering “The first time I looked at this piece with friends at Music College in London we got as far as this third movement and decided it was too hard! We ended up in the pub instead.”

When the moment arrives to play the leaping, fast patterns tossed between clarinet, violin and piano during the performance that afternoon, one hundred and seventy pairs of small eyes widen. The excitement is infectious and a new, technical difficulty of playing the piece presents itself: trying to play the clarinet while smiling!

Bartók’s boisterous energy and colour, also evident in two duets performed by Ruth and cellist Caroline Dearnley, sits beautifully in contrast to Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute which also features, representing the day-dreaming of heroine Neoma.

“It’s interesting” notes flautist David Cuthbert, “here you have one of the great cornerstones of the flute repertoire and you’re used to performing it in the hushed, semi-dark of a formal recital. This week I’ll be walking right in among the audience while I play to bring them as close as possible to the music. Their reactions will colour the performance, enhancing the wide range of tones, colours and textures. It really brings it to life.”

The power of the music and the young people’s reactions and engagement with the performances is no more pronounced than at the performances in special schools. At a key moment, children are invited up to conduct the ensemble with a simple series of hand gestures. Carolina is ten and has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Her face lights up as the music swells when she stretches her arms out as wide as she can and then suddenly drops to a whisper as she brings her palms in close. She dances on the spot and her delight is mirrored on the faces of the musicians. “It is extraordinary. These children never have the chance to be in charge of anything in their lives and now, in this moment, they do” explains a teacher. “It’s very emotional.”

As the story ends, the magic of the performance hangs in the air and children file out under the gentle wash of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. They have found their voices in song, been inspired to lead music themselves and their imaginations have taken flight on backs of the great classical composers.  

It is Friday, there is just one more school on the tour schedule and there is a real glow in the Creative Learning office at Britten Sinfonia. We have the good fortune to work not only with some of the best musicians in the UK but we are reminded, not for the first time, that they are also versatile and inspirational torch bearers for a bright future for classical music.  

Jen House, Creative Learning Director

You can find out more about our Creative Learning department and the other work they do on our website.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Sinfonia Student review - At Lunch 4

Britten Sinfonia At Lunch 4 
West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge 10/03/15

Harrison Varied Trio for violin, piano and percussion
Joey Roukens Lost in a surreal trip (world premiere tour)
Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2

Britten Sinfonia’s Lunchtime Concert series came to a flourishing Easter climax* with the ensemble’s performance of varied and fantastic instrumentation. Parallels can be drawn from the contemporary nature of both Lou Harrison and Dmitri Shostakovich, however the success of this
lunchtime concert came in its eclecticism, not its continuity. The two composers, whose works comprised the beginning and end of the recital, were active during a similar time, however their music could not be more dissimilar.

Lou Harrison’s Varied Trio for violin, piano and percussion is a wonderful gem of a piece, with influences from Gamelan music palpable and Native American sounds coming to the fore in Elegy, the central movement. Gould’s playing was sensitive and engaging, remaining particularly accessible as was Watkins' piano interjections in Bell Bowls. The real star of this piece was the fantastic Owen Gunnell, whose playing was virtuosic and displayed consummate technical prowess, remaining involved throughout. Even when playing rice bowls with chopsticks, Gunnell displayed musicianship and ability. The sporadic and broken-up nature of the work was not a hindrance to its effectiveness, rather this added to its charm.

Lost in a surreal trip, on its world premiere tour, by Dutch-born composer Joey Roukens was full of interest and style. Characterised by sharp contrasts in atmosphere and mood, the work began in an ethereal-like haze, and shifted through a pulsating club-inspired sections, to pop induced rhythms, finally to return to the shimmering opening material once more. Again, virtuosity aided the successful evocation of the piece. It is interesting that the extremely eclectic styles exhibited in Roukens' work were aptly reflecting in the altering ensemble size throughout the programme, first with the addition of cello and then with the removal of percussion. Again, Gunnell’s playing was especially sensitive, with his vibraphone technique evoking both intensity and subtlety.

Shostakovich’s second piano trio is a work of sublime intensity, and this was well managed by the trio of Huw Watkins, Thomas Gould and Caroline Dearnley. Written in 1944, in the midst of
WWII, Shostakovich’s composition reflects the tumult of the age, with incredible dissonance in the opening movement, unfolding from the fantastic opening cello solo, entirely in harmonics, convincingly played by Dearnley. The trio was gritty and powerful, while real emotional intensity was realised in the slow movement, effectively a funeral march; the opening piano chords evoke total pain and sorrow, while the violin line weeps with searing agony.

This was the first concert in a long while where members of the audience were visibly reduced to tears it was simply that wonderful, and moving. The final movement was equally persuasive, with Watkins’ playing reaching transcendental heights in his rendition of the Jewish-style ‘Dance of Death’ melody that has become so well-known and widely recognised. A fantastic crescendo was reached towards the end of the finale, concluding a resoundingly superb performance that had audience members captivated and exclaiming their delight come the final few notes. The ensemble’s weight, mettle and intensity was admirable, however the overall sound still required a little more grit in the cello.

This was a wildly persuasive performance, and a hugely enjoyable and engaging one too, reflecting in its repertoire and instrumentation the wide-ranging span of twentieth-century and modern chamber music.

Carl Wikeley (Sinfonia Student 2014-15)

This programme will be recorded in Norwich's St Andrew's Hall on Friday 13 March 2015 for later broadcast by BBC Radio 3.

*The final concert in the 2014-15 At Lunch series will take place on 30 June (West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge) and 3 July (St Andrew's Hall, Norwich) and feature the young musicians from Britten Sinfonia Academy. More information.

My Curves are not Mad

Next week Britten Sinfonia premiere a new work by young composer, Tom Coult entitled My Curves are not Mad. Upon notification of the title of the new work and then receiving the programme note for this piece we discovered that Tom had been influenced by Matisse's approach during his 'cut-out' period. Will, Development Director explores this phase in Matisse's output in this article.

Mes courbes ne sont pas folles. My curves are not mad. So wrote Matisse, in his 1947 limited-edition book ‘Jazz’, published at a time of his life when his health was failing. In 1941 he had been diagnosed with cancer, and although it somewhat dampened his spirits, a successful operation unexpectedly gave him a renewed energy although left him requiring a wheelchair.

With his limited mobility Matisse acquired a new assistant, the beautiful Russian Lydia Delectorskaya, and with her help set about creating a new style. Gouaches découpés – cut paper collages with gouache – have come to be seen as some of the defining works of his entire output. Indeed, Matisse would probably agree with this thought; he wrote at the time “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated”.

So, what are these gouaches découpés, Matisse’s cut-out style? Well, Matisse himself referred to it as ‘painting with scissors’. He would cut the shapes out freehand, on prepared paper that had been painted with gouache, and with the help of his assistants would arrange and rearrange their composition until he was satisfied. These cut-outs would then be attached to the wall of his studio, whereupon Matisse would then continue developing their form: adding new cut-outs, moving them around, modifying them. When he was entirely satisfied, they would be transferred to a board or canvas. The walls of his studio would be covered by these cut-outs, and at a time when his mobility was deeply limited, they gave Matisse a way to change and improve his environment. I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk…” he said. “There are leaves, fruits, a bird...”

The finished works were vividly colourful and striking. In ‘Jazz’ Matisse displayed twenty figurative prints, which took inspiration from the improvisatory nature of jazz music. As he began work Matisse used a brush to write little thoughts to himself – ‘My curves are not mad’, for instance – and he was so taken by their simple visual appearance he suggested to his publisher that they be used in the finished book, juxtaposed against each print.

The resulting publication represents a defining part of Matisse’s ‘cut-out’ style, and some of the individual prints, such as ‘The Fall of Icarus’ are recognised the world over. However, the book is but a small part of the overall output of this period. Many other works were created in this style, including the famous ‘Snail’ which now hangs proudly in the Tate Modern, London, and of course the Blue Nudes of the early 1950s. What the book ‘Jazz’ also doesn’t convey is the sheer scale of some of the cut-out works. The ‘Snail’ is a not-inconsiderable nine square metres of riotous form and colour. ‘La Perruche et la Sirène’ (the parakeet and the mermaid) is a spectacular and triumphant 25 square metres. However, for sheer impact, nothing beats the stained-glass windows of the Chapelle de le Rosaire, which Matisse took on as a tribute to one of his nurses during his 1941 illness, who later became a Dominican nun.

As he thought his life was coming to an end in 1941, Matisse found a new sense of purpose, determination and creativity that over the following fourteen years was to ensure his place as one of the 20th century’s most revered artists. His works hang on walls the world over: bold and inescapably colourful. “I have the mastery of it”, Matisse wrote in a letter to his friend André Rouveyre. “I am sure of it”.

Will Harriss
Development Director

You can hear the world premiere of Tom Coult’s new work My Curves are not Mad, inspired by the structure of Matisse’s works, in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden, from 20-22 March 2015. For more information click here.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

A Workshop to Remember - A Sinfonia Student's experience

Cambridge University Composers Workshop - Saturday 7 March 2015

Britten Sinfonia Musicians: Thomas Gould - Violin 1, Bridget Carey - Viola, James Kenny - Double Bass, Peter Francomb - Horn, Huw Watkins - Piano

Univeristy of Cambridge Students Musicians: Nicholas Bleisch - Violin 2, Ben Michaels - Cello, Simone Maurer - Flute, Chloe Allison - Clarinet, Carl Wikeley - Percussion

Conductor: Hugh Brunt
Guest composer: Judith Weir

Having moved to Cambridge from Australia five months ago, I was eager to hear the music currently being written by young composers during the Composers Workshop. It also provided an opportunity to explore the music, and record it under tight time pressures, in an ensemble of Cambridge music students and professionals from Britten Sinfonia.

The workshop began with an address from composition lecturer Richard Causton who spoke, from what was undoubtedly a personal experience, about the journey of a composer’s work: from an imaginary representation inside their head, to the first time they actually hear it played by a real ensemble in real time. He warned the students the experience could be shocking, but it would allow them a unique opportunity to fine tune their composing. Eminent composer, Judith Weir, attended the workshop to give advice to the students.

I played flute and piccolo in 4 of the 6 compositions, all of which had a distinctly different style and story. Bertie Baigent’s Mr Hetherington’s Hat for eight players which, in his words, was “inspired by the story of John Hetherington, the haberdasher once supposed to have been the inventor of the top hat… This work captures the atmosphere at the first sight of the hat: the astonishment of the crowd, and the jovial insouciance of Mr Hetherington.” Bertie used very little material for the composition and combined the instruments in groups of unison which were framed with short and punchy silences. As the players and conductor, Hugh Brunt, became more familiar with the score, we began to capture the humourous, light character of the piece. Judith praised Bertie’s exhaustive use of sparse material to create a texturally and rhythmically interesting composition.

In complete contrast was Alex Tay’s The Bleak Winter which “is a reference to the famous carol and poem. The piece draws inspiration from the first verse, where Christina Rosetti describes the earth, winds, snow, and water, and imagines the four separate elements freezing and crystallising.” The score was complexly layered in regards to rhythmic and melodic elements. Tonal and chordal colours were explored through an emphasis on extended techniques across the instruments. The very dense nature of the composition was aided by the structure which featured a recurring section of semiquavers in the flute part. For many of the instrumentalists, this was the most technically challenging piece of the day, although we also appreciated how hard Alex must have worked to conceptualise and notate the music.

Rhiannon Randle’s Nachtgedanken meaning ‘Night Thoughts’, “depicts lying awake at night plagued with insomnia, and tracks a progression of thoughts on life, death and fate.” I had already played this piece prior to the workshop and found it intriguing to see what a different group of musicians could bring in terms of interpretation. Originally conceived as an orchestral work, Nachtgedanken also worked well for chamber ensemble. Judith noted the piece utilised effects more than harmonic or melodic material, which I thought successfully underpinned the dream-like shifts of the piece..

Joy Lisney’s movement I of Sinfonia Piccola is to become a multi-movement small symphony for chamber orchestra which, coincidentally, starts with a lone piccolo note. Much conversation was given to the way in which the piece had been notated. Joy had given a lot of thought as to how she would represent the rhythms across the entire piece. A number of players felt the score looked more difficult than needed and raised some good alternatives to how the notation might be simplified. Initially, I too was troubled by the complex notation, however I realised this was a good opportunity to extend my reading abilities; and that perhaps sometimes notation should challenge the musician. Once I took on this mindset and worked out the subdivisions, I felt I had a better understanding of the piece.

In the last hour of the workshop, we gave a concert of all the pieces which were also recorded. This was a demanding process as there was little time to prepare between each piece. Hugh must be commended for not only his preparation of the scores before the workshop, but for his ability to change from the character and style of one piece so quickly to the next. This gave me the opportunity to hear the other two compositions that didn’t require flute. Robert Laidlow’s Traveller of the Inferno incorporated extended string techniques which had me craning my neck to see where the sounds were coming from. Daniel-Lewis Fardon’s Break juxtaposed material for solo cello against the rest of the ensemble, and was perhaps my favourite composition of the day. Credit must go to Ben Michaels for his virtuosic cello playing.

Overall, the workshop was a huge success for the composers, ensemble, and audience. It is satisfying to hear such contrasting music being written by young composers in Cambridge. 

Simone Maurer (Sinfonia Student 2014-15)

The winner of the 2015 Composers Workshop will be announced on our website in mid-April. 

Tuesday 3 March 2015

A Development Director in Amsterdam

It’s not often that the Development team gets to travel with the orchestra for a concert overseas, so when the chance came to hear Britten Sinfonia in the world-famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, our Development Director, Will Harriss, jumped at the chance.

Midday, Friday 27 February 2015: Off to Kings Cross to catch the Eurostar with the rest of the orchestra. Everyone’s on time, our Orchestra Manager is busy handing out boarding passes for the train. The group is a mixture of chatting musicians, guarding their instruments carefully – afterall, a musician without an instrument won’t get very far on stage. Of course, some instruments can also be hugely valuable. It can all make touring with an entire orchestra reasonably tricky for orchestra managers – does an instrument need a separate seat? Can any instruments be hired at the destination, and how will that affect the performance? What instruments are required for which works in which concert programmes?

This is all a new side of the orchestra to me. My role is to raise the funds for the orchestra, to allow it to reach the highest of world-class standards in concert halls across the world. But even complicated funding applications seem to have nothing on the touring logistics of a chamber orchestra. I’m busy pondering all this when we are allowed to check-in and find some much-needed lunch and coffee.

3pm: Our concerts team are calm and organised, despite newly-bought coffee being dispatched over the floor. It also turns out that lunch needn’t have been bought – an unexpected upgrade for the entire orchestra and soloists means that lunch – and some half-decent wine – is served at 150mph on the way to Brussels. I’m told that this isn’t standard on orchestral tours (!) but I think everyone’s in agreement that this is a pleasant way to travel across the continent…

6pm: We arrive in Brussels, and tickets for the final stage of the journey are given out. I go for a coffee with one of the soloists and begin pondering again the sheer scale of touring an orchestra. For this one concert date we are taking roughly 30 musicians on tour, with four soloists, 28 singers from the excellent Polyphony, and their conductor Stephen Layton. That’s over sixty people, and we are joined by our Orchestra Manager – the unflappable Annabel – and Concert Director, the equally unflappable James. Polyphony have a tour manager too – hello Fran – and Britten Sinfonia’s CEO David Butcher and Artistic Planning Director, Nikola White are already in the Netherlands for meetings, as they plan the orchestra’s future seasons through to 2018 and beyond. The choir, too, are already on tour for a prior concert. If you totalled up the annual ‘musician mileage’ by the UK’s professional choirs and orchestras, it must be into the many millions.

It’s quite astonishing by any standards, but it also reinforces the need for our environmental planning; for shorter European tours we aim to minimise our impact through catching the train (as we did today) rather than flying, for instance.

10.30pm: We’re all checked into our hotel. The final leg of the journey was uneventful, and the hotel is a short walk from the Concertgebouw, which will make tomorrow morning a bit easier to manage for the players. Off for some food and a beer, in the excellent company of composer Joey Roukens, for whom Amsterdam is his home. We talk about his forthcoming commission for our ‘At Lunch’ series, and it’s fascinating to hear about his recent and future works. Afterwards it’s back to the hotel, and reassuringly the choir have all booked in, fresh from their concert that evening.

Morning, Saturday 28 February 2015: It’s confession time for me – from looking at the management schedule for the tour, I knew that about 58 musicians and singers would all be trying to get breakfast at the same time, and I also knew that the breakfast room in the hotel didn’t have 58 seats. So I decided to have a bit of a lie-in, a late breakfast, and aimed to get to the Concertgebouw just after the start of the rehearsal. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to walk down Amsterdam’s leafy streets to get to the hall, which rises majestically in front of you.

What’s that? Britten Sinfonia’s name is in lights on the front of the building? And on the posters outside? It’s a real thrill to see, and also knowing that we’re playing in the hall’s ‘Saturday Matinee’ series – one of Europe’s most prestigious concert series.

Inside the hall, I strolled down the corridors, and before I knew it I was listening to Haydn’s gorgeous Nelson Mass. The hall itself is unique and beautiful, and rightly has a place as one of the world’s finest acoustics. Built in the late 1880s, it is richly decorated, with the names of composers dotted around the hall in celebration. Some 900 concerts a year take place in the main hall and its associated recital hall, to an audience of over 700,000 people. It’s hugely exciting for Britten Sinfonia – which 20-odd years ago was just starting out – to be on stage.

A bit later the players are getting to grips with Shostakovitch’s tricky Chamber Symphony, which is being directed by Jacqueline Shave, the orchestra’s Leader. It has a vitality about it – an urgency and directness that is completely mesmerising. It’s just as well, given that it’s also going out live on Dutch national radio, but I’m reminded again just how special this band is.

2.15pm: Before we know it, it’s time for the concert to begin. The hall is packed; matinee concerts here are apparently always really well attended, and the audience is both young and old, of all backgrounds. It’s lovely to see such a mix of enthusiastic people, who simply want to come and hear interesting repertoire, played really well. Polyphony are on triumphant form, too – they give an encore (an unaccompanied work by Arvo Pärt, since you ask) at the close of the concert, after which everyone is on their feet applauding.

4.15pm: Backstage after the concert, there’s a palpable buzz about the concert. Everyone knows it went well, and there’s a chance for the concerts team to catch up with some of the players afterwards.

5.15pm: No rest for our indefatigable Orchestra Manager. She’s still got to ship an entire orchestra, instruments and choir back to the UK. So it’s into buses for the journey to the airport. The concert was utterly thrilling – I’m biased but also confident any of the other thousand or so people present would say the same – but for the players there’s no hanging around. It’s back to Blighty to start learning the repertoire for the next concerts. In fact, on the final leg of the journey I asked one if the violinists what the following day had in store.

“Well…” she said. “It’s fairly relaxing. Leisurely breakfast, then a few hours of practice, then I’m doing a recording session in the evening in London…”