Thursday 23 July 2015

Elena Langer on composition

In April/May 2016 we premiere a new work by Elena Langer, commissioned by Britten Sinfonia with support from the William Alwyn Foundation, and the Musically Gifted campaign. Find out more about Elena in this blog post as she answers questions about herself and her music...

How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?


What’s your earliest musical memory?
My granny’s drunken singing at parties

What do you like most about composing?
As a child I preferred composing to playing piano because it was less repetitive and took less time

What inspires you?
Bad weather

When was the last time you experienced writers’ block, and how did you move on from it?
Last block was last week. Moved on from it like all proper composers – with alcohol!

How do you feel about new music and what we’re trying to do with Musically Gifted?
I personally prefer old music, but Musically Gifted sounds like a good idea

What would you like to be recognised for?
For my delicious beetroot salad

What advice would you give to other young composers?
I should quote Sofia Gubaidullina here who said to an overly prolific colleague of mine – ‘don’t pollute the atmosphere!’

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
Lutoslawki’s Chain 2

If you turned your iPod on now, what would be playing?
I haven’t got an iPod!

The last concert you saw?
Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne

If you hadn’t been a musician, what might have happened?
I would have become a better and more roundly educated person

Which musical instrument do you wish you could play, and why?
Percussion – because there are so many of them and maybe it would develop my sense of rhythm…

Any plans for the summer?
To swim

Is there anything else you want to share with the world?
I wrote an opera ‘Figaro Gets a Divorce’. It will open at the Welsh National Opera in February of 2016 – I would like the world to come and see it!

Elena's new work, Story of an Impossible Love, will be performed during the Benjamin Grosvenor programme performed on Wednesday 27 April 2016 at Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall, Friday 29 April at Norwich's St Andrew's Hall and on Sunday 1 May 2016 at London's Milton Court. Click here for more info and to book tickets.

Friday 10 July 2015

P-bones and Stravinsky

Britten Sinfonia and Norfolk Music Hub’s Wider Opportunities Celebration Day 
Wednesday 8 July 2015

“I didn’t like to ask in front of the children but, what on earth is a ‘P-bone’?”  

It is early on a bright, Norfolk Wednesday morning and St Andrew’s hall, rescued some 550 years ago from the destructive orders of Henry VIII, is decked out from stage to wall in a sea of stack-able chairs in the monarch’s favourite crimson. These are carefully and laboriously divided into sections each of which is identified with colourful laminated signs:

“Reserved for violins x 60”
“Cellos x 10 (plus some violas)”
“Clarinets x 68”
“P-bones x 60”

This is Britten Sinfonia’s Wider Opportunities Music Celebration Day fuelled by the unflagging good cheer and excellent organisation (and funding) of the Norfolk Music Hub. It is the lull before the storm as we are expecting 60 ukuleles, 15 flutes and 30 xylophones and miscellaneous brass in staggering numbers to join those already marked out to make up a total of just over 300 primary school children and their teachers. They will join 11 of Britten Sinfonia’s musicians for a celebration of instrumental learning. Today we’ll play, sing, compose and perform together under the creative guidance of workshop leader and composer Fraser Trainer.

Britten Sinfonia’s leader Jackie Shave is mustering her troops before the children arrive. In addition to playing alongside the young musicians, Britten Sinfonia have prepared a special performance, a little taster of where they might one day be if they continue the hard work they’ve been putting in at their instruments. “Remember”, she reminds fellow strings Miranda Dale, Kate Musker and Billy Cole, wind players David Cuthbert and Joy Farrall, brassers Alex Wide, Tom Rainer and Chris Smith, pianist Simon  Lane and percussionist Jeremy Cornes, “make everything big, do what you are doing but even more so. We’re playing for children remember and this should be the most exciting thing they’ve ever heard or seen.”

She might have been describing the whole day which is big and more so! The children arrive, colour co-ordinated armies, musical weaponry in hand, under arm, or casually slung across a shoulder. Positions are jostled for, a ukulele tumbles to the floor and a violin loses a string. Fraser wields a microphone over the cacophony of noodling and hissing “shushes” from vigilant teachers. He begins to sing, a call and then, a breathless moment of sudden quiet before the sweetness and power of 300 young voices raised in melodic response and the day has begun.

The end of project sharing is indeed celebratory, and one of the highlights for everyone is the chance to put down their instruments and perch at the edges of their seats for Britten Sinfonia’s performance. Anyone familiar with the orchestra’s concerts will know that one of the highlights is the compelling physicality of Jackie and her colleagues’ performances. Today is no different and three hundred young faces light up when the first notes of Stravinsky’s Ragtime ring jauntily out through the hall. The final drum beat is met with spontaneous whoops of appreciation and much bouncing in seats. Even the most seasoned of the professionals on stage cannot help but crack a smile at such genuine enthusiasm.

Afterwards the musicians - older and young - cluster in groups to exclaim over new instruments they’ve not seen before, ask questions “how do you make that sound?” or make suggestions “you should play loud all the time”. The relative merits of one instrument’s tone over another’s and Stravinsky’s compositional technique compared to the day’s other creative ventures are discussed in depth. The gaps in ages and experience melt away simply leaving 311 musicians sharing their art.

At the centre of one group, our question is answered: A ‘P-bone’, it is loudly explained, “… is like a trombone, only cooler, way cooler, ‘cos you see, get this right, you can get all different colours! Mine plays the best because it’s blue. The blue ones are the best and I can play really loud! Listen to this …” He waves his instrument enthusiastically, narrowly missing the opportunity to decapitate a classmate. “Nah don’t worry” he says soothingly when we gasp at his willful disregard of the fragility of a musical instrument handled with such enthusiasm, “its plastic, right, so we can’t smash it, see.” He thumps the bell as though greeting an old friend. P-bone – plastic trombone – but clearly here is the next generation of brass player through and through! 

Jen House
Creative Learning Director

Find out more about our Creative Learning team and their work here.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Saffron Walden, 140 primary school children, 25 teenagers and the world premiere of FUNKY PEANUT

Britten Sinfonia has been working with Saffron Walden County High School (SWCHS - home to the exceptional Saffron Hall) and ROH Bridge to develop music-making in schools in Braintree and Saffron Walden. Developing their musicianship and leadership skills, twenty five sixth-form students from SWCHS have been training for a year to become Music Ambassadors and gain their Gold Standard Arts Awards. This June, the Ambassadors lead their own creative music-making workshops in local primary schools, under the guidance of workshop leader John K Miles and Britten Sinfonia musicians. Over these two weeks the Ambassadors and Britten Sinfonia have been working with 140 children from 11 primary schools culminating in two Summer Schools and final performances for friends and family taking place in Alec Hunter Academy and Saffron Hall. To listen to the compositions that children and Music Ambassadors performed in the final performances (including FUNKY PEANUT) please click here.

In this blog we hear from participants Katherine Semar Junior School, and Music Ambassador Phoebe Tealby-Watson as they share their experiences of working together:

Reflections from Katherine Semar Junior School

Katherine Semar Junior School was given the opportunity to participate in the SWCHS Music Ambassador Project organised by SWCHS and Britten Sinfonia. Throughout the Autumn Term, Year 5 children were involved in a variety of composition workshops led by composer, John K Miles, and sixth form music students culminating in a final performance at Saffron Hall.

Copyright ROH/N. Strugnell
This project has had an extremely positive influence on the music development at KSJ, not only on individual children, but also on the way music is taught within the curriculum. The children have gained more confidence to create their own rhythmic and melodic ideas when composing in the classroom and want to explore and experiment with fresh, innovative sounds and textures on composition projects. The opportunity to observe the various composition workshops has also inspired the music specialist at KSJ to be much more adventurous in the way composition is taught within the music curriculum. It has encouraged more of a ‘think out of the box’ approach rather than being too rigid and ordered.

"I enjoyed forming our own little bands and creating our own music around a theme." shares one of the children.

The Summer Music School has also been a positive experience for KSJ musicians. Children from Year 4 and 5 had the opportunity to be part of a 70 piece children’s orchestra performing with members of Britten Sinfonia conducted by composer, John K Miles.

Copyright ROH/N. Strugnell
Over 3 days children were part of a series of vocal and instrumental rehearsals where they learnt various performance techniques focusing on achieving the best sound when singing and playing together as part of a large group. These included good posture and presentation, learning how to rehearse in orchestral sections, and listening out for different musical queues from the conductor to achieve perfect timing and good voice projection. Children were also given opportunities to improvise solos with the orchestra group.

Another element of the Summer Music School consisted of sixth-form Music Ambassadors leading small group workshops with the aim of composing a piece of music based on the ‘carnival’ theme. Children were fully involved in the creative process choosing the lyrics as well as the rhythmic/melodic content. Children also made decisions on the style of the piece and on how to structure the final composition ready for performance.

“The Summer School gave children at KSJ a real sense of achievement in all they had learnt and created in the workshops over the 3 days. The final concert made all the children feel proud to be part of this special community music project” 
(Mrs S. Jorgensen from Katherine Semar Junior School)

Copyright ROH/N. Strugnell

Reflections from Phoebe Tealby-Watson (Music Ambassador)

Phoebe Tealby-Watson (Music Ambassador) (c) Elizabeth Hunt
"I have really enjoyed the projects with Britten Sinfonia this year where we have explored and created music with Year 5 children from a range of schools. I already found it easy to interact with children, but these projects have helped me to develop this so that I can be effective in a creative situation with them. I have become more confident in assuming authority and have become better at engaging a group in something that may be unfamiliar to them. For example, I have learnt to adapt how I speak about music to a group, in order to speak in terms that they can understand. I have also learnt some basic conducting skills such as being able to count in or signal dynamic changes.

As well as developing the ability to work with children to create music, I have developed in my own ability as a player. I have explored new ways to create music with my instrument and have particularly developed in my improvisation. I have also been able to learn by ear more easily; this is something that I could already do as a singer but I am now also capable of on my violin.

But besides developing these skills, the work with Britten Sinfonia has just been really enjoyable. I have loved the enthusiasm and creativity put into the projects from all those involved: the members of Britten Sinfonia, the music teachers, the Music Ambassadors and of course the children themselves. It has been a privilege to be given such a great opportunity and to be able to learn from such amazing professional musicians."

To find out more about our Creative Learning department, who organise and run these type of projects, please visit our website.