Complete BBC Music Magazine Blogs for the Around Britten tour 2013
My tour Around Britten has begun and this year I will be performing in or teaching at 100 events up and down our beautiful island celebrating the centenary of one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary composers. Britten’s solo cello suites have always fascinated me, and in particular the third, written towards the end of his life that ends with a beautiful rendition of the Kontakion, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Hymn for the Dead. Building a programme around this I have commissioned pieces from brilliant Japanese composer Dai Fujikura and Norwegian DJ Jan Bang with electronics creating beautiful atmospheric soundworlds, and a fantastic new acoustic piece from James MacMillan. I also commissioned visuals to accompany the Britten suite which show on a big screen behind me that I activate with a footpedal while I play. It’s a complicated recital to give and for this reason I decided I needed a practice concert before the actual premiere which was in Southampton at Turner Sims Hall. It was a good thing I arranged this event because it was so incredibly stressful! There was so much to think about for a first try out of the whole programme, and so many people who had helped create it all that I had to speak to and answer questions – technicians, artists, designers, software programmers, composers etc. I arrived in my dressing room four minutes before the concert began, and that was supposed to be my time to do a bit of practice and relax! But the great thing about that was that it meant by the time I arrived in Southampton I was relaxed and ready to go – the concert was really ready to take on the road. George, my driver, roadie and engineer all rolled in to one, turned up in the van (loaded with speakers that they got from speakerxpert, amplifiers, projector and screen, boxes of programmes and CDs etc) and it was such an exciting moment, finally, after nearly three years of dreaming and planning, to be off to the first concert. I was very happy with how it went – there was such a great atmosphere created in the Britten with the visuals on screen – the audience seemed to love that, and the three world premieres were great. You don’t really know how a new piece will work until you actually perform it, and they all are wonderful works. As the year progresses I will play this recital programme around 60 time in the UK, and also abroad in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Moldova and Brazil. Different promoters have asked for slight variations on the programme, so sometimes there are two Bach suites, sometimes no visuals or electronics: if you’re planning to come to a concert, please always check my website for exact programme details – but I will play the Britten in every one. In January there was only one concert, but in some months there will be up to 15, and then there is the most mouthwatering selection of workshops I have to give throughout the year. This is something that is dear to my heart – I love meeting people and talking about the music I play to find out what people think of it. Some workshops are simply this, a session where I play and talk, but there are many other kinds too, sometimes involving creating music with groups over a period of several days, based around Britten’s themes and ideas. In January, my very first event was with a room full of music students at King Edward VI School in Southampton where we had a great time improvising with the backing from Jan Bang’s piece, and discussing electronics and software. I managed a quick trip up to Salford for an appearance on BBC Breakfast – it was on the day that there was the first big snowfall around the country and this alone meant that several million people who switched on for a weather forecast got a bit of Britten instead!
I spent a very moving day in Naomi House, a hospice for children with terminal illness. The staff there are quite extraordinary – angels – and a group of them brought several children in to listen to me. One of them, a 7-year old boy with a serious heart condition, danced so beautifully all through a few movements of Bach – it filled the room with uplifting joy. That is what music is for.
A very different workshop experience came just a few days later in Low Moss prison in Glasgow. It was a taster day for what we all hope will be a bigger creative project during March and April. I played to a group of around 50 inmates as well as lots of officers and the education team, and then spent a while talking to 14 men who were interested in doing a creative music project. If that comes off I shall have some great stories from making music there – there was such an enthusiasm and love of music.
I shall be writing here once a month as the tour progresses so please join me as Britten goes from Penzance to Shetland via the Channel Islands, the Wigmore Hall, South Forland Lighthouse, Manchester Victoria Baths, Charles Hazlewood’s Orchestra in a Field Festival, Derbyshire’s Peak Cavern, cathedrals, National Trust properties and so many more wonderful venues. For the complete tour map, click here, and the complete list of events, click here.
Welcome back to the Around Britten tour blog! Some lovely experiences to report, although compared to some months this year with up to 15 concerts (and further educational events), it has been relatively quiet on the Britten front. This is because I’ve been rather busy with some other projects – six Peasant Girl concerts with Viktoria Mullova in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland which were most enjoyable and made coming back to Britten and Britain all the sweeter.
One of the Around Britten events that will stay in my memory for a very long time was the Britten weekend organised by La Folia. If you don’t know this amazing organisation, you should! The artistic director is multi-talented keyboard player Howard Moody, who put together an inspirational weekend in Salisbury. On the Friday we spent a day with hundreds of local school children who had created some magical songs in workshops, inspired by the Russian folk songs at the end of Britten’s third cello suite; and they even learnt the originals in Russian – amazing! Then I played the suite for them, and, having been so close to the source material, they appreciated it so much more deeply than if they had been listening ‘cold’. The icing on the cake, however, was the presence of Sally Schweitzer, Britten’s niece and very close friend. Sally told us so many moving and often hilarious stories about her uncle – it brought him to life in the warmest, most personal way.
The following day I was in the cathedral before lunchtime, billed as an installation (!) which was fun, and I sat in the East end of that ancient building and improvised for 45’ on themes from the third suite. I followed its 10-movement structure in the improvisation which I had never tried before and it was an interesting way to play. Effectively I was freed from having to think of material and form, and so was able to really expand outward, musically, and that coupled with the acoustic made it a memorable adventure. In the evening there was a concert in the Medieval Hall where I played the 3rd suite, the La Folia quartet played the magnificent 3rd string quartet, and the incomparable Mark Padmore sang the Holy Sonnets. Mark is one the of the greatest singers around, and there are just no words to describe the impact he created in this intimate venue with this astonishing, raw music that grabbed us all by the throat. It was music-making as good as it gets.
Going down to Sussex I had the first of a series of workshops in schools for children with autism. I’ve become really interested in autism; the way that autistic minds can be so organised, intensely musical with phenomenal memories. John Lubbock (of Orchestra of St John’s fame) runs a series of events in autistic schools and I went with him and we played and made music the whole day at LVS Hassocks School. I loved the responses from the kids which are never anything other than totally honest – often you can read the effect the music is having on their faces. What made the day incredible was that John has recently invested in a Soundbeam; a piece of technology that enables you to make sounds by interacting with a beam of light. You can rhythmically break the beam, for instance, and it will convert that rhythm into musical sounds according to the programme you use, so we had quite sophisticated grooves and sounds from kids with no experience of playing instruments. I used themes from the Britten to improvise with while jamming with them and we enjoyed ourselves immensely – the widest smiles, especially from one lad who kept looking at me mischievously and telling me to “Mind the Gap”!
Next stop was Cambridge where my Britten concert tied in with a fundraising push for Great St Mary’s – the fine church opposite Kings College. The concert itself was in the Guildhall, which has a rich resonance that worked well for solo cello, although had it been with piano it would have been too much. This concert was without the electronics and visuals, so a more classical slant, and I had a very appreciative, attentive audience who were just a pleasure to play for.
Last but not least in this patch was a visit to Lancaster, performing for the first time at the Institute for Contemporary Art in the University. This time I did the full programme with electronics pieces and the visuals. It’s fascinating for me as a performer to feel the different atmosphere that is created when the animation is shown while I play the Britten – I can’t put it into words, but you can feel the audience are on a very different kind of journey with the images that draw you in very deeply to the soundworld of the Britten. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but according to the feedback it makes for a powerful experience.
I’m now off to Argentina for a week, and then back for the next instalment of Around Britten.
Around Britten in March kicked off in Nottingham with a whistle-stop tour of four schools in one day. First thing in the morning I was faced with a room full of delightfully smiley 8 year-olds who listened so carefully to bits of Britten I played to them, and couldn’t stop the questions afterwards – we then had great fun as they all got their instruments out and practised playing simple chords together, in perfect rhythm. One young lad called Tomos came up and continued the conversation at the end and was so enthusiastic I invited him to come along to the concert a couple of days later – normally 8 years old would be too young, but he was bright as a button and I was sure he could manage it. Another school had a room full of no less than 50 young string players for me, all scraping away on their instruments with great gusto. It’s part of the government’s scheme to have every child in the country play an instrument and it’s really wonderful, although I wish there was a little more funding for more lessons – sometimes they only have 30’ for the whole class with a teacher each week. Then I dashed back to London to play at the Houses of Parliament, working with a DJ and improvising and managing to insert the odd Britten quote! The following day was the concert in Nottingham at the Djanogly Hall which is always a favourite place to play as it just makes a cello sound so good! Tomos came along and was still wide awake at the end having enjoyed every minute of it – I love having young people at concerts – their enthusiasm is a tonic.
The diary got a little frantic after that because the British Council wanted me in Argentina for something exciting (another story I’m afraid – not quite the space here!), and the only time I could fit it in this year was in March, but it meant that my next Britten date, at the Wiltshire Music Centre, would be the same day that I landed from Buenos Aires. I’ve never performed within hours of getting off a long-haul flight and wasn’t sure how it would go, but I tried to eat as little as possible which always seems to give me more energy, and drink lots of Argentine Maté tea which is very energy-giving. I managed to get through the day – the hard bit was driving out there in the pouring rain and practising, and actually loved the concert. I had a super audience and again, the acoustic there is just fabulous for the cello…but the next day I was exhausted.
After a couple of days rest I was on the train down to Cornwall for my Western-most concert of the Britten year: Penzance. There’s something almost magical about travelling down to Cornwall by train from London as the landscape steadily gets more and more rugged and arresting, until the final moment when you emerge from behind an embankment and see the bay with St Michael’s Mount on your left, and the town of Penzance clinging to the hill. I think this week will be hard to beat this year (although it is early days) as I had an education project to deliver at Humpry Davy (yes, he of the mining lamp) School in the four days running up to the concert. I had a class of music scholars who had been picked for their aptitude and received free lessons at the school, and with 20 of them we studied the way Britten had used fragments of Russian folksong for the solo suite I played to them and then created our own piece of nearly 15 minutes, based on three Cornish folksongs. It was a treat to see the students come out of their shells during the week as they got used to this way of making music, and they came up with so many wonderful ideas that I then structured to make the final composition. They played and sung all from memory in a faultless performance and it was moving to see the pride on their faces at their achievement. I used to do more of this kind of work in schools in this country, but it is so hard to get kids out of lessons these days – but I’ve never seen children’s faces shine like that after academic lessons. It makes me realise again and again what an amazing effect making music has on young people. A high-powered study in the US recently found that top businesses needed their employees to be: collaborative, innovative, flexible and imaginative. I couldn’t sum up better the qualities that are brought out in people who have learned to create music together. Much of the week was spent in groups, unsupervised, where they had to work together to compose and it is challenging, but I can’t think of a better and quicker way to develop the most important characteristics needed in the 21st century to make yourself employable – and, it’s incredibly good fun! Win-win. The concert was a thrill as the young students all stayed and it was great to see them enjoying contemporary music along with the Britten and its wonderful animation – and it was the first completely sold-out show of the tour. Afterwards I broke a personal record and managed to get from stage to train carriage in 16 minutes! It was the night-train back to London which I had decided to get so I could not waste any precious family time for a weekend at home.
The last event of the month was in a BBC studio where I pre-recorded the presentation of an episode of Saturday Classics that will air on April 13th on BBC Radio 3. The theme was music and travel, so amongst lots of stunning recordings of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, John Adams, Berlioz and others I put the last, Russian influenced, movements of my beloved Britten third suite.
April was a quiet month for Around Britten: firstly, a day with 12 young cellists in Southwell working on their ensemble repertoire and doing a bit of creative work with improvisation – always a splendid sight and sound. Then at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich I played a short lunchtime concert and then spent a few hours listening to talented young cellists playing Britten that reminded me of just how hard these pieces are, especially at the start.
MB at Trinity masterclass
Finally I had two days in schools for autistic children in London – very challenging, and illuminating. And humbling to spend time with these young people for whom music is so clearly a very potent and positive force, watching their faces as they are touched by the sound of the cello.
Actually there was a bit more Britten in April though it was not in Britain – I spent a week in Bonn for the BeethovenFest that included a Britten recital at the BeethovenHaus – one of my favourite chamber halls.
May’s activities started with an afternoon in St Bart’s Hospital playing to patients, and then proceeding to a small club in Soho, London under the umbrella of Classical Revolution, a fantastic club night for classical music started by Simon Hewitt-Jones. Along with other musicians we played various bits of repertoire (me Britten, of course), and then all gathered on stage for an impromptu improvisation which went remarkably well, and then read through various bits of chamber music: huge fun. It’s fascinating to me to see how ‘portable’ Britten is – like Bach I have been able to play it in a huge variety of venues with great success – it is music that communicates powerfully.
The next two concerts in Southwell Minster and Gloucester were memorable because it is such a joy to play unaccompanied music in those acoustics – especially in Bach you can hear the harmonies so clearly with the aid of the resonance – and it is very special to gaze at the architecture as you play. Architecture has been described as frozen music and certainly the cathedrals feel so musical to play in.
MB at Gloucester Cathedral for rehearsal
I also had another one of my young cellists workshops in Gloucester, which was just wonderful. I love these occasions as there is such enthusiasm in the room, and we had the most enjoyable session, which included learning a complex Indian rhythmic tihai from memory.
MB and young cellists at the Gloucester Academy of Music
After a late-night concert at Bury St Edmunds Festival we drove off to Lincoln where I played in the very extraordinary Chapter House with its arching ceiling and fabulous acoustic.
George, my trusty technician does all the driving and we had a bit of an adventure on the way back from Lincoln, hitting a drunken American student at about 40 miles an hour on the A1/M! It was very frightening – he was crossing the road, and, having nearly complete his crossing ahead of us (causing us to slow considerably as we wondered what on earth he was doing), very suddenly turned around and came into our path – we swerved to avoid him (only just avoiding a lamppost at the same time), and slowed down, but still hit him with the side of the van with a sickening bang. Of course the police and ambulance came – we were completely exonerated – and the miracle was that he didn’t even have a broken bone! The policeman emailed us from the hospital after the doctors confirmed the news. The alcohol nearly killed him, but then probably saved him by rendering him so floppy. So there’s a touring story – but it was not pleasant – I can still feel the sound of the impact.
A few days later I was due in Newbury Festival but in the preceding days had a major backache brewing. It started when I had to drive 6 hours to a concert in Kaiserslautern, Germany without a break – running late due to the SatNav having decided to take us on backroads (no pun intended). The day of the Newbury concert I awoke and knew this was going to be really tricky – I could hardly walk, and during the morning it got steadily worse, so that by the time I had an appointment with an osteopath I actually could not walk without the help of an umbrella to lean on. It was unbelievably painful – so may people have experienced this so I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about. To cut a long story short, the osteopath was brilliant, and I was just able to play, being driven to the concert and back by my manager, propped up in the car with hot-water bottles. The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for later broadcast just to add to the pressure – I almost didn’t manage to stand after I’d finished playing. The following two nights I was in Cardiff and Exeter, just about hobbling around, and despite the travel it was actually improving slowly. And that was with a very difficult travel schedule driving home from Exeter through the night, arriving home at 2am, unpacking, repacking, and getting up at 7 to go to Heathrow and flying to Zurich for a concert in Luzern. We bumped into Steven Isserlis there and had a loud lunch – cellists always get on well.
The very last day of May was the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh but I’ll save that for June as it was the first day of the Scotland tour, which I shall write about soon. Watch this space.
June has been my favourite Around Britten month so far and it’s going to be a hard one to top, including, as it did, the tour of Scotland and two of the most interesting venues of the year: a cave and a lighthouse.
The northernmost leg of Around Britten began in Edinburgh’s wonderful Queen’s Hall, and the following day we drove north-west to Mull for my first visit to Tobermory; a real picture-postcard village.
Just above and to the left of this picture is an old Victorian school that has been turned into the most wonderful arts centre, complete with café and gift shop full of local craftsmanship and trinkets. The 60 seats were packed full for the concert and we all repaired to the café for drinks and chat afterwards – this is fast becoming a feature of Around Britten; the hugely enjoyable ‘see you all in the bar’ aspect. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at several repeat visits by audience members during the tour who have come to a concert, enjoyed themselves and come to a second performance bringing friends along – it’s starting to feel like a club!
One of the hardest things in planning a tour like this is to make the dates work in a geographical sense – sometimes it all slots in perfectly, and sometimes not. On this occasion it was not perfect so we found ourselves driving all the way back to the east coast the following day to Cromarty and another lovely arts centre, this time in the old stable block of a stately home. It must have taken a good three hours to make the set-up work with our enormous screen and all the electronic gear – it’s a part of the logistics that George (drive/engineer) takes care of and can be tricky in unusual shaped buildings. The screen and the Britten animation has been one of the talking points of the tour and after this concert one chap approached me very apologetically and confessed that he hadn’t liked the visuals at all – he had found it very distracting and needed to close his eyes. As he walked off, a lady came straight up to me, ruffled, and said that he was completely wrong. She was an artist and all of the animation – colours, textures, themes and suggestions – had been spot on and very moving! I enjoy the debate. Cromarty was an afternoon concert, and it was off-stage and into the van as we drove a couple of hours back southwards to Pluscarden Abbey, an 800 year old Benedictine monastery near Elgin. This is a place I had known about for many years (in fact a very, very distant ancestor of mine was the Abbott here around 500 years ago) and always wanted to visit, so had written to the current Abbott suggesting I visited and played for the monks. I had never stepped in a monastery before and was a little nervous that I might make some kind of mistake in what I said or did – but the welcome could not have been warmer. I checked into my little guest room early, having decided to get up at 4.00am the following day to attend Vigils and Lauds. So I found myself in the church at 4.30am, listening to the Gregorian Chant of the monks during the 90’ service – the first of 8 services for them in a day. It is hard to imagine what it might be like to lead that kind of life, but as I listened and watched the faces of these passionate and happy men it struck me what a relief it must be in one way. Of course they miss out on an awful lot by taking their vows, but on the other hand, all the decisions that we struggle with in our daily lives to do with career, money, family, relationships, time-management, travel etc are completely taken away from them. Incredible!
Playing in a space where prayer had taken place daily for 800 years was unforgettable – the atmosphere was so clear, so deep and so still that I hardly had to do anything to make the music come out. And seeing the monks’ faces afterwards was also a joy – they have such a deep love of music.
I do not practice any religion, but music is a spiritual force in my life – it has all the qualities that religious writings speak of in god; of ecstasy, oneness, beauty, mystery and eternity – it was very moving to make music in this setting.
James MacMillan (who has also been to Pluscarden Abbey) told me that he had based his piece for me on ‘half-remembered Easter psalms’ from his childhood. After the concert Brother Giles came to me with excitement and told me he recognised the material: it was the first Hallelujah after Lent – a joyful moment in their calendar, and he showed me the plainchant notation of that moment on the penultimate line of this page.
After all these magical moments we came down to earth with a secular bump as we drove off to Aberdeen for the night-ferry to Shetland.
It was a 12 hour crossing, but, thankfully, the sea was as still as the Serpentine in summer. We heard tales of a 44 hour crossing one winter as they couldn’t enter port for so long, and counted ourselves lucky.
Shetland gave us a wonderful welcome – everyone I met there was so friendly and I spent a fascinating hour or so in the museum that chronicles the lives of Shetlanders from Viking times up to the life-changing discovery of oil a few decades ago. It brought great wealth to Shetland: someone very clever negotiated a deal of a penny for every barrel that passes through the island, which is still topping up their gigantic endowment fund that has paid for many leisure centres, old peoples’ homes and, very recently, a new arts centre. The Mareel Arts Centre only opened a few months ago and is a glorious building of wood and glass. The dry acoustic is very faithful and clear, not favouring or losing any frequency, so playing here was enjoyable once I had adjusted slightly – I find the trick is not to try and play louder, which is what instinct dictates in the face of no reverberation – and to trust that what the audience hears is of quality.
The following day a late ferry took us to Orkney for a concert in St Magnus Cathedral, one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve visited, made of crumbly pink stone nearly 1000 years old. One of the problems of touring can be that you never stretch your legs as you get driven everywhere, so finally, here on Orkney, I found time for a good 6-mile walk in the wonderful nature and fresh air. I’m sure it improved the concert.
The life of a musician can be strange: only 49 hours after this last concert I found myself in Switzerland, rehearsing Brazilian music with dear friends for a recording in Rio in August – I’m sure it’s the constant change that keeps us young!
Back in the UK, my next Around Britten date was the first of ten concerts in National Trust properties. Gibside is a magnificent estate near Newcastle where they have occasional concerts in their beautiful chapel. The following day it was southwards again for a performance in the Great Castle at Oakham, a venue I had never heard of until it was one of the winners in the BBC Music Magazine competition.
Then in quick succession at the end of the month came Peak Cavern in Derbyshire (The Devil’s Arse), Coughton Court and South Foreland Lighthouse, the latter pair National Trust properties.
The cave was quite an experience. Here is George beginning the stage set up:
And how it looked when it was finished:
This was the view from inside the cave:
The sound was really magnificent in the cave, but the only problem was that it was the same temperature and humidity as the outside. When I planned this concert I thought that even in England it couldn’t be that bad in late June. Silly me. It was in fact 95% humidity and 13°. My fingers were stiff with cold, and I could see the fingerboard glistening with condensation. Shifting was fearsomely difficult, sliding and sticking all over the place! But the atmosphere was wonderful and people who had travelled quite considerable distances to be there seemed to be very happy with the chilly and wet evening – there’s a part of the English character that seems to thrive in adversity and a good time was had by all. Except my cello. I was so worried about the humidity that I filled the cello and case with rice for the journey home so as to soak up the moisture , rather than let it soak further into the ancient wood. It was a funny sight.
Coughton Court is a marvel of National Trust preservation – a stunning old residence where I played in the elegant drawing room and enjoyed drinks and chat afterwards, but the following night, South Foreland Lighthouse perched on the White Cliffs of Dover, might be my favourite night on the tour so far. With 14 people inside, it was packed to capacity, and an excited audience had just been treated to dinner and champagne. It was windy and foggy by the coast (though warm and clear inland) and the view of cloud from the top of the lighthouse reminded me why it was such an important building, steering hapless sailors off the Goodwin Sands. But that fog and a howling wind made it so atmospheric. The last notes of the Britten suite are already chilling, painting the picture of death written by a dying man, but to then hear the wind racing around the vents high above us was extraordinary. And there is something about playing for a small number of people, sitting close, that is special.
And that brought a magical month to a close.
July – September
July’s Britten activity started in Sweden at Lycka festival in Karlskrona – always interesting to play Britten out of the UK where the cello suites, and Britten in general, are so much less well known – but as always seem to happen the work is greeted with delighted surprise: ‘How did we ever miss such a wonderful piece?’ I enjoy the feeling of presenting such high quality music where it is not so well known.
Back in the UK, I find myself in Coggeshall Barn, a magnificent 800 year-old structure with many original beams still remaining fully intact – how does that work when window frames these days seem to rot after 30 years? The acoustic is dry as a bone, but it’s a beautiful place to play and the first of two barns on this most varied of tours. A couple of days later one of the educational highlights of the year arrives in the form of a day’s workshop in Lincoln with 73 young cellists – heaven! We spend a day working on ensemble pieces and improvising before a wonderful celebratory concert. The day is made all the more satisfying for discovering an exceptionally talented 10 year-old who I was able to steer towards the best cello teacher in the midlands, someone able to take her to the next level.
Next up is Kingley Vale – the yew forest that is home to the oldest living things in the country – trees that started growing there around 500BC!
The following week I was a guest of the St Alban’s Organ Festival, playing the programme for a late-night concert in a wonderful old church I had never seen before.
After this I had another one of these tricky travel patches: concerts in France, the UK, and Switzerland on 3 consecutive days. It just about worked out, even though I missed my alarm call on the third day and only made the flight be the tiniest whisker. The UK concert was in Lodge Park, a spectacular old National Trust property in the Cotswolds where the upstairs grand room was just perfect for cello music – a wonderfully rich acoustic and, only seating around 60, very intimate.
In August other projects took me to the Grafenegg estate in Austria and then recording in Rio de Janeiro before flying off to Finland for a week in residence at the Helsinki Festival, one of the best festivals in Europe. I played the Britten programme in the wonderfully named Cello Hall to an enthusiastic audience.
Back home in September and busier touring times start for Around Britten with a couple of National Trust venues: firstly The Vyne where I played in the lovely Stone Memorial Chapel where Britten and Pears had performed in the 50s – the sumptious acoustic must have been wonderful for Pears’ voice. And the following day Bodiam Castle, the most picture-book ruined castle imaginable where the atmosphere was fabulous – they should have more concerts there. Before the concert was a lovely educational event with a handful of local young musicians – we had great fun discussing fugues using the sentence “I like fruit because…” as the main fugue subject.
The CBSO have a great rehearsal space in central Birmingham that they also use for concerts and it’s a joy to play there – it’s quite cavernous and feels like a cathedral playing there but with great flexibility for lighting so we were able to make it look great too. Then we drove north to the second barn of the tour in the middle of the Lakeland countryside. A musical couple had bought a property some years ago and converted the barn to use as a performance space and it brought a fantastic local crowd along. This was also the event that the BBC Music Magazine hosted, featuring a Q & A beforehand with their editor, Oliver Condy. Afterwards with wine and nibbles there were so many questions about the programme, the music, visuals etc that it reminded me of how audiences love to engage with artists and discuss all sorts of details.
The next day was a short drive back to Manchester for an eagerly awaited concert of the tour in Victoria Baths, now disused, of course!
This turned out to be a magical atmosphere – I love concerts where just by entering the space an audience feel themselves to be on something of an adventure – you can feel a difference when you come on stage and see people’s faces. I gave a pre-concert talk in the old Turkish steam room.
The next week we drove nearly to Scotland to play at the Hexham Abbey Festival. I’d never seen the abbey before and it is quite stunning – I’m not really sure what the difference is between an abbey and a cathedral, but this was certainly cathedral-like. From where I played I could see a huge flight of steps up which the medieval monks used to climb at night to their sleeping quarters. In venues like this, the final part of the Britten 3rd suite, based around the Russian Orthodox Hymn for the Dead, always feels special to play, as though the music has come home somehow. An early start the following day and I caught the train down to Bristol, firstly to play at St Monica’s Trust, a care home for older people, and then to spend some time with talented youngsters at the Bristol Pre-Conservatoire group. This kind of event can seem a little tokenistic on occasion, with only 90’ of contact time, but these students were so exceptionally bright that it felt very worthwhile. As I was talking to them and playing, their eyes were just so shiny and attentive that I felt very inspired by them and enjoyed talking to them hugely. Lovely to feel appreciated!
Then the last concert of the month was at St George’s in Bristol, the old church that, along with the Wigmore, is my favourite concert hall in the land. It’s one of those places where you really have to do so little work to create a good sound and it all just seems to flow – that, coupled with a wonderful crowd made for one of the best concerts so far on this odyssey. Next month has three of my top venues: Canterbury Cathedral, Wigmore Hall, and The Great Hall Dartington. Exciting!
In October I had a little break from Britten in the first week for a string of concerts at the Oxford Chamber Music Festival – it was such fun to be on stage with other people again! And then I was straight back into it with the mysterious East Riddlesden Hall in Yorkshire, a National Trust property set in breathtaking grounds where I played in an old barn – the third of the tour. The next day after a short drive, we found ourselves in Lancashire’s unsung Forest of Bowland, an area of remarkable beauty very much off the beaten track. The concert was in a church at Tatham Fells that was crammed to the rafters with a lovely warm audience with whom I celebrated after the concert with a reception in the lovely church hall. Earlier that day I had done a workshop in the delightful local primary school where the 5 – 7 year olds had obviously been primed for my visit. “Are you Matthew Barley?” enquired one wide-eyed boy. “Yes”. “You’re really famous aren’t you”, he said, still breathless with excitement. I replied, “Well, it’s all relative really, I’m nowhere near as famous as Madonna.” And he answered, “Who’s Madonna.” I have now officially made it.
We took the long drive home at night after the concert as the next day I was playing at the Ealing Autumn Festival in West London. This was community music at its best in a wonderful Victorian church and local singers joining a Russian choir who sang the original versions of the Russian folk songs that Britten used to base the 3rd Cello Suite on.
Next on the agenda was the Subscription Rooms in Stroud, which is a rather elegant old building that has all sorts of events under its roof. I wanted to try something a little different this evening, so I stood at the entrance of the hall and welcomed the audience asking them to take a chair from a huge pile at the side and sit anywhere they wanted, chatting to them as they entered. It was interesting to note how it changed the atmosphere, even though they naturally set up a fairly conventional formation of rows. By the time they were all settled they were feeling very talkative and I encouraged them to ask questions between pieces if they wished. They obliged and we actually had some interesting discussions – it’s fun to change the format sometimes.
A few days later I found myself in Corsham, Wiltshire, in one of the prettiest towns I’ve ever seen – so many unspoilt old stone houses it could easily be used for a period film. The old Town Hall had a splendid acoustic, and the concert was preceded by a talk, which got very animated with a questioning audience!
The following day I spent an afternoon in a Saturday music school in West London – it never ceases to amaze me how much music goes on up and down the country; this was something that parents had set up, dissatisfied with the paucity of local music provision – brilliant initiative, but sad they had to do it. Then I was off down to Southampton for a talk on Britten with film-maker Tony Palmer and Philip Reed who edited all of Britten’s letters. These events are clearly popular, with today’s thirst for information.
Canterbury Cathedral was next, where I had recorded the Around Britten CD over a year earlier in the middle of the night in the North Transept. The concert was over the other side of the Choir in the South Transept under the stunning Bosanyi stained glass windows, but the sound was just as good. In the centre of the cathedral the reverberation is just too long for the music I was playing, but the transepts couldn’t be better; such a rich, warm and faithful resonance – pure joy to play there. After an appearance on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune, I was then in another acoustic wonder – London’s Wigmore Hall. There are a small number of venues where you really feel as if the hall itself adds something beyond that which you are playing, and the Wigmore is one of those – I was delighted at the big audience and it was probably my favourite concert of the tour just in sonic terms.
The last day of the month was in Dartington Great Hall – yet another gorgeous place to play. I have spent so many happy summers at Dartington over the years so it is steeped in memories. Sadly they seem to be dismantling the classical concert series there, so locals were upset about this – such a tragedy that a resource as fine as that, in a place visited by Britten, as well as Stravinsky, Copland and dozens of other great composers, should be losing that tradition. Let’s hope it’s only temporary.
The Dartington concert was the 80th event of the tour: just one month and 20 events to go, and, unbelievably, I will have finished Around Britten. It is already the most wonderful odyssey I’ve undertaken, and to finish the tour in Britten’s residence, the Red House, on the day that he died (playing the 3rd Suite, all based on the Hymn for the Dead), is going to be incredible.
With the Britten year long gone, it’s very pleasurable to look back and reflect on an extraordinary year – but first, let me describe the final month of concerts and workshops.
November began with a lightning trip north for 3 events in one day for SOUND SCOTLAND, Aberdeen’s highly innovative new music festival. All events took place in the city’s art gallery, and in the first one I was a sound installation (a little like Salisbury in January), sitting up on a high balcony above the punters, improvising to my heart’s content – it was a great way to warm up for the afternoon’s recitals and I had a favourite moment when a toddler came and stared directly in my eyes for a good 2/3 minutes as I played – the young are so fearless. Then a pair of recitals, featuring a Britten suite in each – I particularly enjoyed getting questions from members of the audience between the pieces, creating a relaxed atmosphere for the music to sit in.
The next leg of the tour took me to North Wales, a place I know well from holidays, but somewhere my cello has never taken me. On the remote and beautiful Llyn Peninsula, at the Galeri (near Pwllheli) I played for a small but appreciative audience and wondered, as I often do, what sort of people come along to these events. One very great musician once told me that it was important that you give everything for every single concert, not just the big ones, as you never know who will be there. I bore that in mind that night and afterwards a rather distinguished looking gentleman approached me introducing himself as Osian Ellis, the legendary harpist for whom Britten had written much – I was so happy to meet him, having known of him since my student days. The next day I travelled on to Caernarfon to play in their wonderful new venue, also a Galeri – I also managed to fit in a workshop with 8 local cellists – I must have met over 200 young cellists on this tour!
The next trip was another unusual one – the Isle of Man. In a short 24 hours I tried to learn as much about the place as I could – a turbulent history full of inevitable invasions, the consequence of being equidistant between Ireland, Wales and England – and a concert in a charming multi-purpose hall where they are keeping the arts alive thanks to some very energetic locals. Dark, grey, wintry weather.
The following week was my week in Sheffield, the city where I did most of my growing up. I played in someone’s front room on the Tuesday night that turned into one of my favourite events of the tour. Maybe 25 people crammed into a space with often poor sight-lines and no natural acoustic to speak of, but this event just served to remind me of how important the audience is in any concert equation. They were so enthusiastic, and so completely wanted to be there that it seemed to me that they created an atmosphere all on their own – Wigmore-type acoustics are wonderful, but the exchange of music between performer and listener can happen so vividly without that. A special memory.
I then lead a series of workshops during the week for different groups of young musicians, including visits to my old primary and secondary schools – very emotional – and on the Friday played at the wonderful Upper Chapel. This concert was to be recorded for an iTunes release the following week but I actually had a horrible bout of bronchitis and while I think the concert was a success – everything in the room felt good – it didn’t seem to me to be good enough for a release. I fretted about this for a few days (taking in a workshop at the fantastic London Dunraven School for marvellous GCSE students and a concert in Keele University) and then decided to record my final full-length concert at Oxford’s Holywell Music Room and hope it came out better. I was fully recovered by this time and the concert went really well – I love this venue (England’s oldest purpose-built concert hall: Handel played there) and it brought back great memories – and a good audience – from the Oxford Chamber Music Festival. So as well as the CD of Britten for the tour there is now a live recording that includes premiere recordings of the MacMillan, Jan Bang and Fujikura as well as the encore (Appalachia Waltz by Mark O’Connor) that was a favourite with many, and my first available recording of a Bach suite.
I had one more workshop at Full of Life, a day-care centre in London for children with autism (as always, I was mesmerised by their response to live music – as I was improvising with Britten themes), and then an afternoon at The Red House in Aldeburgh with young cellists.
That, amazingly was event number 99 and suddenly the end of the tour was upon me. It was three and a half years since I had first dreamt up the idea for the tour and it had gone through so many incarnations since then, but this really was the final day, at the house where Britten lived for so long, writing many of his masterpieces including most of the works for cello. As I sat on Britten’s piano stool and warmed up, his niece remarked that the last cellist she had heard in that room was Rostropovich. It was that kind of day, really, sitting and making music next to the original William Blake painting.
I was quite overcome by the wonder of the occasion, event number 100, and also at actually ending this momentous tour – playing there is hard to describe, but after having played the 3rd suite over 60 times in the year I felt so completely at one with the work. I’ve never felt like that before with any repertoire and have learnt so much this year – my teacher in Moscow used to say that whatever level you attain with a piece it is then easier to reach the same level with other pieces, so it’s really worth sometimes concentrating on one thing for a long time. I think I managed that.