Wilton’s Music Hall drips with history – and on 24 & 25 January, it was the setting for our Devil’s Violin concert with Burns Night Ceilidh. We danced with the Devil from the world of Scots fiddling to the Appalachian Mountains of the American South all in one of London’s most intimate venues.
The first half was City of London Sinfonia’s string section’s chance to show their prowess – under the incredible direction of CLS Leader Alexandra Wood.
Excellent Satanic violin mischief tonight by @CityLdnSinfonia at Wilton's. Also lovely Appalachian works by Walsh&Webster. Soul= sold.
Alex also took centre stage to perform solo in Locatelli’s ‘The Harmonic Labyrinth’ – a dastardly difficult suite that combined the power of the Orchestra with awesome feats of fingerwork in the solo violin part.
Then we were joined by Henry Webster on folk fiddle and Dan Walsh on banjo for tunes from the American South, including Bonaparte’s Retreat as heard in Copland’s Hoe Down from Rodeo. After hearing Henry and Dan’s own take on the famous tune, the whole orchestra joined in.
…and of course there was the completely unplanned encore – Charlie Daniel’s Band’s The Devil Went Down to Georgia, featuring baroque guitar (is that a world first for baroque guitar performing bluegrass?)
What is it about Christmas that makes us feel so… nostalgic? ‘Warm and fuzzy’? Simultaneously happy and tearful? Or, at the risk of using a much abused and misused, currently-in-vogue Danish word, ‘hygge’?
It’s difficult to define what that peculiarly Christmassy feeling is (and undoubtedly there have been many learned articles on the subject) but certainly music plays a huge role in it. The music we are used to playing and singing at Christmas invokes all sorts of folk, family and childhood memories and invokes all those difficult to define emotions and feelings.
For the CLS Christmas concert at St John’s Smith Square, ‘An English Folk Christmas by Candlelight’, we are unashamedly exploring these memories, via the incredible heritage of folk music that our classical composers have mined for inspiration.
And here I have an admission to make. While in my younger days, I claimed to loathe Christmas music and all the various trappings that came with it, and spend much of the rest of the year trying to create innovative performances that bring in new audiences… when it comes to Christmas I do like the traditional.
Not big, brash, shiny tinsel Christmas celebrations, but those very English tunes that the likes of Vaughan Williams used to such great effect in his Fantasia on Christmas Carols. There is something uniquely nostalgic and warm about their sound, especially when paired with a stunning venue and candlelight.
Matthew Swann – CLS Chief Executive
Join CLS and the Holst Singers for An English Folk Christmas at St John’s Smith Square on Tuesday 20 December, 7.30pm. Tickets at cls.co.uk.
That music can help people – emotionally, physically, mentally – and alleviate suffering, provide invaluable creative and emotional outlets will seem to some reading this blog as a statement of the obvious. To others it will sound like a rather grand and fluffy statement. Compared to ‘hard science’ clinical practice, our musicians making music with people in healthcare sounds like an expensive ‘nice to have’. Sure, it will benefit people but shouldn’t be the business of strained NHS and government budgets – leave it to generous philanthropists.
We’re very lucky to have many such philanthropists as supporters of CLS, and without entering into a discussion about the relative merits of private versus public funding, they will always be a hugely valued part of how we ensure our music making can reach as many people as possible.
Many people are convinced, as we are at CLS, that music has a far greater impact on individuals in healthcare than it simply being a ‘nice to have’. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that there are a real, tangible, quantifiable benefits to using music to benefit people at all stages of life in healthcare. A lot of the evidence surrounds issues associated with old age, not least dementia (although dementia is not an issue which only affects older people), or singing as a benefit to mental and physical wellbeing.
At CLS we have seen the benefits that music making can have on older people in residential care, those dealing with grief and loss, and particularly with young children suffering from severe and life limiting conditions. Recently we have begun to work with young people in hospital schools with severe psychiatric conditions. Our musicians at CLS are incredibly experienced and skilled at making music in these often emotionally challenging environments, and have any number of anecdotes from first-hand experience of how people benefit.
The issue we have, highlighted by the Arts Council of Wales, is convincing all the stakeholders involved – government, clinicians, funders – of the clear and tangible benefits that these projects have. To do that we need robust, empirical evidence, not only that music is an essential part of healthcare, but that the benefits are magnified when delivered through the unique skills, experience and outstanding artistry that professional musicians bring.
One of our priorities over the next few years is developing initial conversations with leading research institutions into far reaching research programmes developing the proof that music making is vital to healthcare. I am convinced that it is not a ‘nice to have’ to be funded only by enlightened philanthropists – as a society we should recognise the incredible benefits that music brings to people, alongside more traditional, clinical practices.
There are risks associated with this approach: it’s likely that not everything we do will deliver the benefits that simple observational evaluation suggests. But I, and our musicians, are convinced that music can make a vital difference to the lives of people in all areas of healthcare – let’s provide the proof.
Iain Farrington, the unsung star of CLS’s CLoSer concert with Sam Lee, made quite an appearance without actually stepping foot on stage. Perhaps when I tell you he’s a composer and arranger, that might actually make a lot more sense. He’s also got a phenomenal performing career as a pianist (check him out playing at the London Olympics with the LSO).
On Thursday 17 November, Folk song collector Sam Lee sang songs from his Mercury Prize nominated album Grounds Of Its Own, and The Fade In Time, but in a way he’s never sung them before—with an orchestra—thanks to the genius of Iain Farrington, whose busy and diverse career has led him to arrange for a wide range of styles like traditional African songs, Berlin cabaret, folk, klezmer, jazz and pop, to name just a few.
For this concert, Iain arranged 8 songs of Sam Lee’s, turning folk music for a relatively small ensemble of 6 musicians into a large scale orchestral work for 36. If you’re doing the maths, you’d think an arranger could just give sextuples of six different parts and call it a day.
But Iain didn’t.
He wants to bring live music to as wide an audience possible (CLS does too!), and whether you love classical music and don’t know much about folk, or visa versa, Iain’s arrangements of Sam’s songs take you to the ‘other side’.
How do you even start to go about arranging Sam’s folk songs with 5-6 players and then making that work for an orchestra of 36 musicians?
It’s not just the fact that Sam Lee’s band is a folk collective, but the instruments they use are not necessarily orchestral instruments (e.g. banjo, ukulele, koto, hang drums, violin, cello, trumpet, percussion, double bass). When you listen to how they play, it’s relatively free and semi-improvised. They’ve worked out a sound specific to that group.
I’ve kept the original harmony and structure and some harmonic phrases, but because of the bigger orchestra, I’ve redesigned the songs to work orchestrally whilst still retaining the sound of Sam Lee’s musicians. Some songs lend themselves to orchestra, others are lighter, and one had to be rewritten (Lovely Molly) which is choral. New harmonies and solos from several instruments will be bringing out the text. The hammer dulcimer will feature and improvise, bringing out the element of complete freedom, which is important to have when you’re crossing these worlds.
The biggest challenge for these songs is down to the fact that Sam’s is a song collector. He’s collected songs from different places and people, who often sing unaccompanied, wonderfully free, with tempos that are flexible and highly expressive and not wedded to any regular rhythmic accompaniment in quite a number of his songs. Small bands find this easier because you follow the lead singer, but in an orchestra this is more difficult. I wanted to retain the freedom that allows Sam to be flexible.
How important is the text to the songs when you’re putting an arrangement together?
I’ve taken the text as the be all and end all. The words are illustrative of nature, landscapes, birdsong, ideas of town and country, love and marriage. Sam’s versions are cutting edge, not saccharine, with an immediacy and appealing grit to the sound. It’s not lush or romantic, and likewise I wanted to avoid that sentimentality.Folk songs for larger ensembles run the risk of sounding too fattened up, too rich, leaving none of the grit left. I wanted to retain that element of raw clarity.
Why did you choose to arrange 8 of Sam’s songs?
I wanted to make sure there was enough variety. It’s easy to do one type of arrangement, but I wanted enough contrast. Orchestral arrangements can be dull when adapting pop music, for example, which uses loud guitars and drums, where a string section might only play chords, with a jab from the brass, a trill from the winds. I think if you’re going to be working with an orchestra, you have to write for the musicians properly. Be exploratory. Try and make things interesting for both the audience and the musicians themselves. The orchestra isn’t the background but in the foreground.
About Iain Farrington
Iain Farrington has an exceptionally busy and diverse career as a pianist, organist, composer and arranger. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at Cambridge University. He has made numerous recordings, and has broadcast on BBC Television, Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. Through his multi-faceted work as a musician, he aims to bring live music to as wide an audience as possible. Iain’s concert programmes often mix popular and jazz elements into the traditional Classical repertoire. His many chamber orchestral arrangements allow large-scale works to be presented on an affordable smaller scale. His biography can be found here.
We always say we promise to surprise and move you – but last night, Thursday 17 November, was really special.
Our friend Sam Lee has toured the country finding ancient melodies and embellishing them with his own contemporary twist. We were honoroud to perform his songs in full orchestral arrangements for the first time thanks to the pheonomenal talent of arranger Iain Farrington.
Mingled with Sam’s songs were works by Britten, Delius and Butterworth that hark back to forgotten worlds and connect us to the tunes that have been hummed by countless generations.
With candles flickering, the Orchestra in the centre of the room surrounded by a sweep of chairs, and a cosy pool of cushions, it was the perfect way to be transported away by music that has travelled across centuries.
Died for Love with Sam lee is the first of four concerts exploring Folk Tunes and Tall Tales – we would be delighted if you joined us for the rest of the journey. Find full details on our website.
Relive the experience
Checkout the beautiful photos from the concert by Jo Russell along with your reactions from Twitter. Just tweet us at @CityLdnSinfonia to let us know what you thought!
On 17 November, traditional English folk singer Sam Lee joins the City of London Sinfonia for an evening featuring songs of lost love at St John at Hackney Church. Badged as a Mercury Music Prize nominated artist, Sam is also the pioneer of an ambitious movement to promote song collecting across the UK. He leads a collective of musicians, The Nest Collective, who support the sounds and voices of the Gypsy and Traveller community, the UK’s own repositories of oral history.
“Spending time with the singers is a great privilege. When I’m old, it’ll be the thing I cherish most. To be in the presence of someone who’s from another world and generation and in touch with a way of life that is so far gone. Such a slow process of change over so many hundreds and thousands of years.” – Sam Lee
One hundred years before Sam’s own adventures, the composer Frederick Delius was delving into Albion’s countryside to collect songs and stories, using them to create his own evocative, English sound world. Now, Sam Lee has accepted this important responsibility, to ensure the tradition lives on.
“Tradition is tending the flame, it’s not worshipping the ashes.” – Gustav Mahler
Sam speaks passionately about the Traveller community, gesturing—with his expressive hands and huge silver ring—their long, nomadic routes since the 10th century, originating in India, and venturing through Egypt and Africa and up to England. They are a genetically distinct ethnic community, broken into three groups in the British Isles: Scottish Travellers, Irish Travellers and English gypsies, many of whom now live in segregated areas with very poor provision.
However, their music is rich in history. Their songs capture the stories, myths, and major events of generations of people before them, and their legacy is at great risk of disappearing. Sam sings a bit of Brigg Fair, after recounting the story of Joseph Taylor, a peasant farmer in Lincolnshire who Percy Grainger discovered in his folk singing competition. Joseph, in his mid-late 70s, had an incredibly gymnastic voice with excellent technique. Grainger’s recording of him inspired Delius to arrange it for orchestra, and at the premiere of this piece at Royal Albert Hall, Taylor was in attendance, and the minute that Brigg Fair started, he stood up in his seat and started singing along.
Many of these songs live in the minds of the eldest people of the Gypsy and Traveller community, the very people whom Sam has befriended and recorded. His greatest task is to ensure that these songs which have been sung for over 1,000 years are heard, remembered, and passed on, by providing a platform that sustains this rapidly disappearing tradition.
Unfortunately, as the years pass fewer people are continuing this oral tradition, and Sam Lee can’t do it on his own. So on 26th November this year, he will be releasing an expansive online training programme to teach people how to become song collectors and do their own interviews, because in about 7 years’ time, the tradition could be completely wiped out.
Sam has recorded a huge variety of singers and documented them, but he has created much more than a sound archive. He’s also created platforms for these singers to be able to perform on stage through the Nest Collective, which features ethnically specific artists at around 70 events per year.
Cellist Becky Knight writes about what it’s like to tour some of the country’s finest cathedrals performing works by Bach, Handel and MacMillan.
I’m a cellist working with CLS for part of their Great British Choral Anthems tour of cathedrals around the country this Autumn, and I performed in the concerts at Lichfield, Southwell and York.
I don’t drive, which can make getting about the country on a big tour like this difficult but it does also have some advantages – the main one being that it provides some quality reading time! And as I am currently halfway through the 3rd of Proust’s 6 volumes of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ I need more of this. You can barely get through one of his ridiculous page-long sentences between Edgware Rd and Kings Cross.
Let’s see if I can write a Proustian blog…
… Once at the site of the tall spire that has worked its power to direct my path towards it, the building, especially if unfamiliar, can feel like a bastion, a sort of impenetrable castle that I surely don’t have the right, let alone the means to enter. Surely a person without title or rank, especially carrying such an imposing instrument, cannot simply wander into its realm.
On finding an entry point, lifting the latch of a dauntingly tall, ancient wooden door gives me the notion of being a character in a Lewis Carroll fantasy. Inside, stepping onto the hallowed stones, I am disorientated by contrasts of light, refracted through monumental patterns of stained glass, echoing footsteps and shards of violin notes hanging in the air…
Ok – enough!
But in all seriousness (and without trying to parrot any famous French writers!) – what I love about playing Bach and Handel in such beautiful architecture is that the music and the stones echo each other. In acoustic and in form – phrases like graceful arches punctuated by beautiful vaulting pillars.
At the concert in Lichfield Cathedral, I also had the treat of being able to play the cello duet featured in the delicious first movement of Handel’s op. 7 Organ Concerto (HWV 309) with the very marvellous Joely Koos. It’s full of the sort of perfectly crafted dissonances only Mr George Frideric can conjure – where the notes disagree somehow poetically. Yummy!
And we finish with the Zadok the Priest which has to be the most splendidly regal music I can think of. On a lighter note – if you want a giggle – try this ‘shred’ of Zadok as re-performed by the Trans-Siberian March Band which seeks to make it – how can we say? – slightly less regal… (with apologies forever to the very fine Academy of Ancient Music!)
It was kind of satisfying to read Harriet Moss’s comments in the Independent earlier this week about the (not so) unusual situation that faced Nils Frahm’s Barbican concert in the summer. The event sold out, and had lots of support from eclectically minded DJs like Gilles Peterson and Mary Ann Hobbs, but not one classical reviewer came.
No problem, you might think. In a sense, you would be right. The concert sold out. Broadsheet classical reviewers not showing up is just another sign of the changing media landscape.
I should also say that the lack of reviews surrounding the world of contemporary crossover classical is not the fault of the reviewers. They are fighting for column inches, print and online just as orchestras and venues are. As readerships fall, arts editors are increasingly pushed for space, and if something doesn’t have an immediate genre fit it doesn’t go in.
Again, perhaps no problem. There are so many other channels to market available that not having broadsheet coverage isn’t the issue that it was maybe 20 years ago.
The article does highlight a wider issue though: many people in classical music are increasingly looking to break out of perceived genre shackles, and there are plenty of artists from other genres who are keen to help them to do this.
But classical music in the main remains risk averse. I remember that when we invited Ljova to work with CLS a couple of years back. Audiences loved him, our musicians were inspired. Success. Except that no reviewers turned up to see him either, and one promoter friend, who is a fan of Ljova, congratulated me on being so ‘brave’ in promoting him. It was meant as a supportive but I remember feeling terrified when they said it!
When the Jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock joins us, it’s perhaps less of a problem as jazz audiences are keen to hear the expanded tonal palette an orchestra gives someone like Gwilym (although the world of jazz can be as reactionary as some corners of classical music). Gwilym is happy to explore the flexible hinterland between two genres, and has created some memorable concerts with us.
When Sam Lee joins us in November, I imagine that we will face the same problem. Sam is a folk artist, we are an orchestra. Never the twain, etc. Except that classical music has borrowed from folk music for centuries (L’Homme arme anyone?). I think part of what makes CLS what it is is that we can find artists who are prepared to give this tradition of cross genre collaboration some contemporary relevance. It would be too easy with both folk and jazz, and Ljova’s hybrid mix of classical and klezmer to look backwards – we want to create something new in those experimental hinterlands.
Sam’s music is every bit as contemporary as Nils Frahm’s in its own way. Sam borrows ancient Travellers’ songs, but the surrounds he gives them, while definitely folk could not be from any time other than our own. It will be incredible to hear them on an even bigger scale than his albums and usual live shows allow.
We’ll get good audiences – Sam has a great following – but will we get any reviewers? Perhaps if their editors work out where to put it….
There has been a lot of talk in recent years and months about musicians and artists of all hues finding it more and more difficult to survive in London. This has prompted the Deputy Mayor for Culture to announce dedicated “Artist Zones”, where artists and organisations would be given help to purchase unused spaces. A great idea, but I think we can go further…
Some context. Music venues are closing across the country, but especially in the capital, where a conservative estimate suggests that a third of London’s gig venues have closed in the last 10 years. The low earnings that afflict many artists and musicians, especially those starting out, are incompatible with London rents, let alone mortgages. Conversely, part of what has made London a magnet for so many people and so much investment is the incredibly diverse cultural offerings available. We see this in microcosm as bold, risk-taking artists establish themselves somewhere cheap and forgotten like Shoreditch was 20 years ago, only to be priced out as those who want a slice of vicarious ‘cool’ follow them. The artists get chased north up the Kingsland Road into Dalston, then east into Hackney, now south into Peckham. Even in Peckham, young artists and local populations are being squeezed out as more vicarious cool is sought. Decades ago the same happened to Soho and Notting Hill – once down at heel but culturally vibrant, now beyond the means of artists beyond a handful of outlier megastars.
Classical music is by no means immune. The CLS office is in Brixton, having moved from (a very grotty and cheap) office in the City five years ago because Central London was beyond our reach. Now Brixton is becoming too expensive – in Autumn 2018 we will likely have to look further afield for office space. Our landlords have seen what is happening in the centre of London, have invested in the building’s infrastructure and are attracting bigger companies who can pay higher rents.
Just as bands and visual artists are losing performance spaces, so is classical music. Already, one of our favourite venues has had to hike its hire fees in a bid to keep up with rents. One church we would love to perform in more, close to one of the ‘cool’ areas above, has seen its commercial potential and priced itself beyond what we think is reasonable. Affordable venues are all oversubscribed. Rehearsal venues are a particular issue, in that London simply does not have enough of them of a big enough size, and they are very expensive. It is even becoming an issue for our Meet the Music programme. Our education team have spent the last few days desperately trying to find a suitable, and importantly, available and affordable, East London venue for a schools project later in the Autumn. At a time when so many London orchestras, including our own CLoSer series, are attracting new, young and cross cultural audiences, we are in danger of becoming victims of our own success as the venues we champion fall to encroaching speculative development.
If all this sounds like a moan, it’s not meant to be. One of London’s joys is its ever shifting cultural tectonic plates. When I first moved to Camberwell in South East London a dozen years or so ago, telling people I lived there usually elicited a sharp intake of breath. Neighbouring Peckham was a no go zone after dark. Brixton a generation ago was a by-word for inner-city violence. Now, I can drink cocktails on top of the multi-story car park in Peckham, and take my kids to the cinema on its ground floor. Brixton is a by-word for outstanding food (and home to CLS towers!). Camberwell is the epicentre of scruffy artistic chic. Problems and poverty still remain in those areas and in many ways are more entrenched, but there are opportunities which did not exist 10 years ago.
But like the Mayor’s office I do think that we need to guard against London gaining investment but losing its creative soul. The Deputy Mayor’s “Artist Zones” are a great idea, but require capital investment and a long term leveraged commitment which doesn’t suit everyone. I think we can go further, and help both artists and businesses at the same time.
It’s been mooted before, but why don’t we create an English Heritage style Grade system for cultural venues, preventing them from change of use and unsustainable rent hikes. The business of development and investment could continue around them, still benefitting from having creativity nearby that would otherwise up sticks for the next cheap and forgotten area of London. But let’s extend this to rehearsal rooms, artists workshops, independent theatres, the lot. Any venue that has been in continuous use for creating music, art, etc for five years is protected. That way artists and musicians are not constantly pushed around, and eventually out, of London.
Second, any new office development in much widened “artist zones” has to provide at least 5% of its space to non-profit creative organisations either free of charge or well under market rates. Then the music, performing arts and visual arts organisations (and Orchestras!) that fuel London’s creative infrastructure, and in turn fuel investment, can concentrate on empowering artists, rather than spending exponentially increasing portions of their budgets on rent
I think that businesses and investors stand to benefit as much from these ideas as artists and the organisations that support them. Some businesses already understand the benefits of keeping creative organisations in their developments, but unilateral altruism isn’t going to solve the problem.
“Artist Zones” are a great idea, but let’s go further and benefit everyone by keeping creativity close.
Matthew Swann, CLS Chief Executive, looks ahead to our National Cathedrals Tour – from Truro on 30 September to Chester on 21 October via Hereford, Lichfield, Southwell and York.
City of London Sinfonia’s most recent Cathedrals Tour in 2013 was a reminder to us, and our Artistic Director Stephen Layton, of the incredible music making that our cathedrals produce, day after day, across the length and breadth of the country. You might argue (and I would agree with you!) that an orchestra that regularly performs at services and concerts in St Paul’s and Southwark Cathedrals in London should need no reminder of this astonishing music-making. Nonetheless it was a delight to perform all around the country with organists and choirs who were producing world-class music, often on scant resources. As soon as this first tour was finished, our thoughts turned to something bigger and better for next time.
This autumn’s tour – Great British Choral Anthems – will journey from Truro all the way up to York. We will visit some friends from last time, as well as making new ones who were inspired to get involved with the tour after hearing about the success of 2013. All of them are relishing the opportunity for their boys and girls to have the life-shaping experience of performing with a world-class professional orchestra, under the baton of one of our outstanding choral conductors. The Directors of Music, those inspirational stalwarts of cathedral music making, will get the chance to conduct CLS, and each cathedral’s organist will perform one of Handel’s concertos with us too.
I’m pleased to say that as well as the invaluable partnership we have with Friends of Cathedral Music, who support so much church and cathedral music making up and down the country, we have the financial support and encouragement of Arts Council England to make the tour possible (and keep ticket prices down). For all the political and economic turmoil we face (not least ever-decreasing funding for the arts), it is pleasing that Arts Council England still consider music-making in our cathedrals to be relevant and vibrant, as well as valuing the contribution they make to the nation’s musical heritage.
This is all good and worthy, but we should not forget that cathedral music-making should lift the spirit, and when it comes to concerts, entertain! Our Great British Choral Anthems programme is sure to do both. In each cathedral we have the resounding pomp of Handel’s Coronation Anthems, and a thrilling new anthem by James MacMillan (I have seen a sneak preview of the score, and it promises to be a tour de force for choir and organist alike). Each cathedral will also present its own choice of music, with Byrd and Tallis, Elgar and Walton, and the present day equally represented.
I, for one, am thrilled to be travelling around the country to experience fine singing and playing this September and October, and hope that as many of you as possible will join us on our journey.