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Japan tour day 3!

Konichiwa! Day 3 in Japan and we are very much in the spirit of all things Japanese.

First order of business was a goodwill visit to our partners on this tour, Min On. They are a company who know how to provide a welcome, on arrival, the entire staff were gathered in their reception area to applaud us into the premises (see picture). Even for a group of people who are used to receiving applause, this was a novel experience!

While a few of our number were whipped up to their formal reception room for formalities and photos, the majority of our group were treated to a tour of their keyboard instrument museum. This is one of those quirky collections that might not be as famous as a big museum, but is in many ways more fascinating. There are keyboard instruments from the 1500s to the present day, but perhaps most interesting are the eccentric curios from the 19th century, including pianos with bells and tambourine pedals, and house organs and that wheeze and squeeze their way through pre-programmed popular tunes of the day.

From there, onto our second concert, this time in Hachioji. Quirkiness continued as the orchestra were sent to the stage in a goods lift (see picture).

Hachioji, admittedly not the most well known of Japanese cities (in practice it’s a Tokyo suburb – think Croydon), has one of the warmest audiences we have ever encountered. There was a worry in the afternoon about the hall’s acoustics: we had been told that they were excellent, but without an audience in, our musicians felt that the sound wasn’t projecting from the stage. Come the evening and another full house (see picture), the sound was transformed, and we got a full, rich noise.

The audience themselves were again mouthing along to the words of the songs, and there were tears in Hana Wa Saku again, but we now realised that the audience the previous night, in Tokyo proper, were somewhat reserved in comparison.

This is was an audience who not only mouthed along, but also did actions to some songs (the chop-chopping in the Barber Shop song for example), and at the end of the concert, cheered well before the end of pieces, and at the end of concert, clapped together in time, until we gave three encores!

Tomorrow we travel to Osaka by Shinkansen (bullet train, which this little boy is VERY excited about!), and in the evening, an Izakaya (a pub / bistro / social club hybrid very popular in Japan) dinner hosted by our friends at Min On – kampai!!!

Japan tour day 2

Day 2 and our first experience of Japanese concert halls and audiences. Both amazing.

First the behind the scenes stuff. Our performances manager Patrick arrived at the hall 8 minutes before his allotted time and was not allowed on to the stage. Patrick feared the worst: a late starting rehearsal (being even a minute late for a rehearsal is very much verboten in the orchestral world), but all was well.

On the dot of his allotted time, Patrick was invited to instruct 8 stage crew exactly what he needed and 10 minutes later the entire stage was built. This was not a matter of placing a few music stands. Risers were constructed, and the walls of the stage themselves (about 50ft square) were brought in to transform the Bunkamara Orchard Hall from a full on ballet stage to a small chamber orchestra platform. Japanese efficiency may be a cliche, but in this case it was definitely true.

And the front of house experience… the like of which I have never seen before.

An hour before the concert was due to start, an orderly queue was forming outside. The doors themselves were kept shut until 30 minutes before the concert though, by which point most of the 2,000 audience members were patiently waiting.

When the doors were opened, no-one rushed in, complained about being in the cold, or barged through. Instead, two uniformed ushers addressed the queue in unison, bowed, and only then did people come in. Calmly.

We Brits like to think of ourselves as gold medal queuers, but we are definitely amateurs compared to the Japanese. I have seen enough queues for concerts and events on the UK turn into shouty frustration and barging to know that our queuing skills have their limits.

Once in the hall, the audience was one of the most simultaneously respectful and emotional I have witnessed. The Orchestra noticed that many people were mouthing the words of the Japanese songs we were performing, and most of the audience were in tears during Hana Wa Saku (flowers will bloom), a song written to commemorate the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.

After the concert, a reception with Princess Takamado, a member of the Japanese Imperial Family, and before she married, an employee of CLS director Teruko Iwanaga.

We then retired to our hotel for an early night – we have a busy few days ahead!

(Picture of the day spotted in the backstage loos. Something often in short supply on tours!)

City of London Sinfonia’s commitment to 50% female artistic leaderships

 

 

Classical and orchestral music has long had a problem with diversity. The cliché is that it’s male, white, middle class, and often dead. And it’s a cliché because it’s often true.

City of London Sinfonia want to be part of a movement that changes that. We believe that classical music can transform people across all areas of society and in order to do that we need, and want, to present an Orchestra that better represents that society. There are many issues to tackle here, but on International Women’s Day we want to highlight the issue of gender, and make sure that any young woman who sees the Orchestra – whether in a concert hall or in schools  – to look at any role in the Orchestra and think, “I can do that”.

Even today, positions of artistic leadership in many orchestras are overwhelmingly held by men, even while the majority of musicians on a concert platform are often female. This is not the message we want to send young women learning musical instruments, that you can be a professional musician, but not a leader.

We are very proud that over 60% of our principal seats are already held by female musicians. Our next challenge is to make sure that we champion female conductors and directors, alongside the hugely talented and enlightened male conductors and directors we perform with.

That is why, from this Autumn, City of London Sinfonia’s artistic leadership will be 50% female – Creative Director and violinist Alexandra Wood and Principal Conductor Michael Collins. We are also committed to ensuring that at least one female conductor or director perform at every one of our major artistic series.

City of London Sinfonia can’t change the orchestral world overnight, but we can make sure that talented young female musicians watching CLS can see a realistic, aspirational vision of what they might themselves become.

Japan tour day 1!

Day 1 of the CLS japan tour is actually a bit of misnomer. The “day” cruelly started at 5am on Tuesday morning (UK time) when alarms went off and the orchestra began its journey by collecting at Heathrow Terminal 5 for check-in. It’s now gone 10pm on , half round the world. I’ve had more British Airways g&ts in that time than I’ve had hours sleep.

No thoughts of moaning about our lot: the general feeling at Heathrow in the Orchestra was one of excitement and anticipation as three years of planning came to fruition for CLS’s first ever tour to Japan.

An incredibly stress free flight to Japan (many thanks to the ever fantastic BA cabin crew who were their usual helpful, patient and generous-with-the-gin-miniatures selves) which arrived on time, and importantly with Ben Russel’s double bass intact, saw us arrive to be greeted by our wonderful friends at Min On, our hosts for this tour.

For a number of our group, it was either the first time in Japan, or the first time in decades, soit was great to spend much of our first day on a coach and boat tour of Tokyo, organised by the excellent Teruko Iwanaga, one of our directors.

Bringing CLS is the fulfilment of a long held ambition for Teruko, and it was a great pleasure for her to show us all her City, even to an orchestra of half-asleep people who had survived a long haul flight on next to no sleep, gin (are you sensing a theme here?) and adrenaline.

The work definitely begins tomorrow: full rehearsal, a sold-out concert at one of Tokyo’s premier concert halls, with the British Ambassador and Princess Takamado (Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado to be exact) in the audience, and a post concert reception with all the formalities. Then a further concert in Tokyo (Hachioji), then Osaka, then Nagoya, then back to Tokyo for Meet the Music projects and forums at the British Council, then Yokohama… but today was a chance to get to know Tokyo, rest, relax and EAT.

Despite lack of sleep and time difference body clock confusion, there was no way that a bit of tiredness was going to get in the way of many of us indulging in a food culture which is undoubtedly one of the best in the world.

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For or those readers who know Japan, the intense pleasure of meals remembered is no doubt flooding back. For those that don’t, food is beyond culture or pride in Japan. It is woven into the fabric of the country’s identity, with thousands of tiny restaurants, chefs who have spend decades agonising over nigh-on imperceptible improvements in something seemingly simple like the exact thickness of noodles or stickiness of their rice, never mind the meat and fish that go with it. Read a tome like Rice Noodle Fish (google it), and you will perhaps understand 1% of what makes food here so amazing. (And do read it, but make sure you’re not hungry when you do.)

So tonight, various parties went to hunt different specialities in Roppingi, Steve Stirling (horn) took Karen Jones (flute), Fran Barritt (violin) and CLS management off for an eight course tuna feast (different cuts, cut in different ways, cooked, or not, differently, and so on).

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I will admit to hitting the jackpot though: an exquisite sushi dinner in Ginza (a cross breed Mayfair / soho / regent street area) with Chairman John Singer and Teruko by our great friend (and special adviser on Japan) Mr Munetsugu Miyawaki (see pictures). Seaweed marinaded sea bream, devil fish pate (think foie grois minus the ethical dilemma, and with added seaside salinity) and squid that was super tender and crunchy *at the same time*, we’re just a few of the highlights. Mr Miyawaki has been our advocate and catalyst behind the scenes in japan for this tour, and it was a joy to have a meal ‘conducted’ by a great sushi aficionado.

Tomorow, the inevitable post flight early wake up will see some of us head to Tsukiji fish market for tuna auctions and sushi breakfast, and then the work begins.

So far though (and Elaine Baines, our operational supremo, will curse me for tempting fate like this), great food, great company,  good times and no hiccups. Orchestral touring is such a burden…!

Retrospective on CLoSer: The Devil’s Violin & Burns Night Ceilidh

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.

City of London Sinfonia

 

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.

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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.

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…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?)

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A swift changeover (involving clearing over 200 chairs and 100 cushions away in less than half an hour!), Licence to Ceilidh took to the stage to lead a Burns Night Ceilidh.

 

At the end of the night all that was left was to sing Auld Land Syne – we hope you enjoyed the concert and that you will be able to join us on 5 April for the next CLoSer concert, The Soldier’s Tale.

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All photographs (not tweets) credit James Berry.

 

Matthew Swann: What makes Christmas Christmas?

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.

Matthew Swann: Music at the Heart of Health

News that the Arts Council of Wales is part of a growing recognition that the arts can play a significant role in healthcare and general wellbeing is welcome.

At CLS we’ve known this for a long time, and music-making in hospitals, hospices and care homes is something that we feel is central to how we benefit society and transform the lives of individuals.

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.

Matthew Swann Chief Executive

 

Iain Farrington: Song Arranger

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).

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Iain Farrington

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’.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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Sam Lee Credit Jo Russell
  1. 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.

By Zak Hulstrom

Retrospective on Died for Love with Sam Lee

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!

Photos by Jo Russell:

From Twitter:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sam Lee, Song Collector

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.

Join us on 17 November for a concert that will feature Sam Lee performing orchestral arrangements of tunes from his albums The Fade in Time and Ground of Its Own, alongside his own rendition of Delius’s Brigg Fair.