Category Archives: Composer Focus

Charlotte Bray on Bach RE:Imagined

Ahead of the première of her arrangement of Bach’s Piano Partita No. 6 in E minor

How did you go about choosing a work by Bach you wanted to arrange, and how did you settle on the piece you picked?

I considered arranging various works before settling on Bach’s Sarabande from Piano Partita No. 6 in E minor. As a cellist, my first instinct was to look to the cello suites. Knowing the works so intimately already, however, in a sense restricted my freedom, I felt.

The Sarabande – a work that was quite new to me – appears to hold an elaborate and intimate conversation with the listener, which attracted me to the work in view of making an arrangement. Encompassing a whole range of emotions, the darkness is interrupted with glimpses of light and hopeful, joyous twists.

What are the challenges involved in transforming a solo work into a work for ensemble, and how do you incorporate your 21st century voice as a composer with Bach’s 18th century voice?

In making an arrangement of something so immaculately beautiful, I tried to change it as little as possible. Staying true to the original in terms of pitch, I super-imposed my own expression of the piece on to Bach’s composition, as if the ensemble were soloist. The partita is beautiful but relatively unknown. I felt that this gave me more freedom to arrange the work, as the audience is less likely to be familiar with it. Other, more well known works did feel a bit daunting to tackle.

Is this an ‘arrangement’ or something slightly different?

I toyed with writing a ‘composition by Charlotte Bray, based on a work by J.S. Bach’ but the approach didn’t feel genuine somehow. I would consider my piece to be an arrangement of Bach’s and therefore still fundamentally his work.

You can hear the City of London Sinfonia perform Charlotte’s arrangement of Bach’s Sarabande from Piano Partita No. 6 in E minor on 20 April at Southwark Cathedral. Tickets are available from £5.



Bach RE:Imagined is a thread which ties together our new season of concerts. We’re incredibly proud to continue the tradition of re-imagining great works and we have commissioned seven wonderful composers to re-arrange the works of JS Bach. At our CLoSer concert on 22 September we heard our wonderful principal conductor, Michael Collins’ clarinet transcription of Bach’s Cello Suite in D Minor. On 14 October, we present Ugis Praulins’ Bach re-imagining at Southwark Cathedral during Venice: Darkness to Light, and so we’ve put together a little guide to this marvellous Latvian composer…

Ugis Praulins

We’ve put together a short playlist of Praulins’ work to give you an idea of his unique sound:


Join us for an exciting concert of the music of Venice. We bring the atmosphere of this breathtaking city to the banks of the Thames, with music by Vivaldi, Liszt, Stravinsky and more, including a performance of Pergolesi’s dark and mournful Stabat Mater with Elin Manahan Thomas.

We hope to see you soon!

Venice: Darkness to Light
Wednesday 14 October 2015, 7.30pm
Southwark Cathedral, London
Tickets £25, £15, £5* (*restricted view)
£5 tickets available for students and 16-25s (pre-register at Box Office / 020 7377 1362

Ljova on BBC Radio 3 In Tune

The final CLoSer concert of our Émigré series is tonight, and we’re really looking forward to performing with the wonderful Ljova, who was a guest yesterday evening on BBC Radio 3 In Tune with Suzy Klein. Ljova played three of his own works, and talked about his music, experiences of leaving Russia for New York, and of the continual struggles of forming an émigré identity.

Ljova on In Tune
Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin on BBC Radio 3 In Tune, 28 April 2015. Taken from @BBCRadio3 Twitter page.

The episode is still available to listen to on catch up, and you can find Ljova from around 1hour 14mins in.


CLOSER: Émigré – Ljova 
Wednesday 29 April 2015, 7:30pm
Village Underground, Shoreditch
Tickets £15 or £5 for students (pre-register at available from Spitalfields Music Box Office or via phone on 020 7377 1362.


Piazzolla: The Man and His Music – The Journey towards Tango Nuevo

Last week, we began looking at Astor Piazzolla’s life and history in relation to his émigré background in America. In this Part Two of the series, we track his climb to fame after moving back to Argentina back in 1939 and the creation of his beloved and ever-popular Tango Nuevo

The move to Argentina

In 1937, Astor Piazzolla and his family return to Mar de Plata where tango is very much prominent on the cultural scene. Although Piazzolla finds it difficult to let go of the American jazz that dominated his life over in America, he immerses himself in Argentinean tango and forms a quartet for a while before moving to Buenos Aires to try and get a position in one of the orchestras over there.

Piazzolla lands his dream job

When in Buenos Aires, Piazzolla lands a job as part of the Anibal Troilo orchestra as their bandoneón player, later becoming their arranger. The band was extremely popular in Argentina and his position was a very prestigious one! For Piazzolla, his time as part of the Troilo orchestra was an important one:

‘I learned the tricks of the tangeros, those intuitive tricks that helped me later on. I couldn’t define them technically; they are forms of playing, forms of feeling; it’s something that comes from the inside, spontaneously.’ 

Piazzolla with the Troila Orchestra c.1945

During this time and shortly after, Piazzolla decides to dedicate his time to composition, studying Bartok, Stravinsky and jazz. During the next few years his music has an odd, yet fantastic fusion of tango and classical.


Nadia Boulanger and the return to Classical Music

Constantly adding fugues, counterpoints and eccentric harmonies into his compositions, 5 years later Piazzolla realised that his music was on a different key and decided to focus on Classical music. Following this idea and after winning a scholarship, he moved to Paris to study music with French composer Nadia Boulanger. When Astor begins to learn with Nadia, he is really embarrassed about his non-classical tango past so he initially hides it from her!

Boulanger and Piazzolla c.1955

The Birth of Nuevo Tango

In 1955, Astor Piazzola returned to Argentina with his family. That year, he formed his orchestra Octeto Buenos Aires. Although the new band did not last for too long, it was very important for the development of Tango Nuevo, challenging the idea of the traditional tango quintet with two bandoneons, two violins, a bass, a cello, a piano and an electric guitar.  This unusual combination of instruments marked the beginning of Tango Nuevo. Fusing together the worlds of classical music, jazz and tango,

Octeto Buenos Aires
Octeto Buenos Aires


Piazzolla’s revolution towards traditional tango sparked some very fierce criticism from many, but he continued to develop the genre with new rhythms, sound efffects, string counterpoint, excellent soloists and an  improvisational electric guitar nonetheless.

 An international star

1958 sees Piazzolla move to America, where his experimentation with Tango Nuevo continues in the form of infusing jazz. Eventually gaining world-wide acclaim across Europe, Japan and America, this new style of tango made Piazzolla a real superstar! This was just the beginning of a very successful, prolific and innovative music career.

Piazzolla c.1995

In 1960, Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires where his career continued to thrive for several years. He played in magnificent venues, orchestras, and recorded a range of discs. Continuing to compose for the next 10 years and now at the pinnacle of his career, he moves frequently between New York and Buenos Aires , performing in prestigious places such as New York’s Carnegie Hall. In 1985 is named an exceptional citizen of Buenos Aires and sadly dies in 1990, leaving behind more than 1000 works.


Join us on Wednesday 25 February as we perform a range of tango music from Piazzolla, Golijov and Bartok with live dancers and a FREE tango taster from 6.45pm. 

CLOSER: To and From Buenos Aires 
Wednesday 25 February 2015, 7:30pm
FREE tango taster from 6:45pm 
Village Underground, Shoreditch
Tickets £15 or £5 for students (pre-register at available from Spitalfields Music Box Office or via phone on 020 7377 1362.

Composer Profile: Valgeir Sigurðsson

Known as the founder of Bedroom Community recording label and for his eclectic, boundless approach to composition, Valgeir Sigurðsson has worked prolifically as a producer, composer, musician, engineer / electronic programmer and mixer. Whilst developing his own particular brand of artistry and ear for sonic experimentation, he has an extensive collaborative history with international artists, including Björk, Brian Eno and Nico Muhly. In advance of the world premiere of his brand new work, No Nights Dark Enough on Tuesday 17 June with the composer himself on electronics, conductor Hugh Brunt and the City of London Sinfonia, we thought we’d take a deeper look into this extraordinary musician, starting from the very year in which he was born!

Valgeir Sigurdsson infographic

No Nights Dark Enough
Tuesday 17 June, 8.00pm – 10.00pm
Village Underground, Shoreditch
Part of the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival 
Tickets: £15 unreserved

Tickets still available. BOOK NOW!


Information on Valgeir Sigurðsson taken from Faber Music.


Composer Profile: Sir John Tavener

Known for his extensive output of religious works, including The Whale, The Lamb and The Protecting Veil, John Tavener is a firm favourite amongst music lovers. In advance of our Tavener Celebration as part of our Natural / Supernatural festival, we thought we’d take a look at the man behind the music…

Tavener info graphic copy

Want to know more? Come and hear Sir John Tavener’s music performed live at our Natural / Supernatural festival!

Natural / Supernatural
27 March – 1 May
Cadogan Hall, Village Underground, Christ Church Spitalfields, Southwark Cathedral

Composer Focus: Mozart

As we approach our annual performance of Mozart’s Requiem with Polyphony, we couldn’t resist doing a post about this beloved composer.  Composing from the age of five, and already engaged as a court musician in Salzburg by the time he was 17, Mozart was the epitome of the child prodigy. His death was famously untimely, and historians, musicologists and conspiracy theorists alike have all enjoyed speculating over its exact cause, with the most salacious (and, therefore, persistent) rumour that Mozart was poisoned by fellow composer, Salieri, popularised by Peter Schaffer’s 1979 play, Amadeus.

Name: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozartmozart photos

Born: 27 January 1756. Died: 5 December 1791 (aged 35)

Nationality: Austrian

Background: The son of Leopold Mozart, a minor composer and an experienced teacher, Wolfgang was the youngest of seven children, five of whom died in infancy. He watched his older sister, Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl) begin clavier lessons when she was seven and he was three. Having watched Wolfgang’s delight at picking out thirds on the keyboard, Leopold started to teach his son a few minuets, only to soon find that he could play them faultlessly. Wolfgang married Constanze Weber in 1782, having been rejected by her older sister, Aloysia. He was also a member of the Masonic order, and scholars such as Katherine Thompson have explored the influences of this association in his work. Examples include the dotted figure, below, which appears in the overture of The Magic Flute and allegedly symbolises the Masonic initiation ceremony, in which the candidate knocks three times at the door to ask for admittance.

masonic mozart

Breakthrough: As children, both Mozart and Nannerl performed with their family as prodigies, travelling extensively throughout Europe. Mozart heard Allegri’s Miserere performed twice in Rome, and wrote it out by ear, thus producing the first unauthorised copy of the piece, which was jealously guarded by the Vatican. After returning with his father from Italy on 13 March 1773, Mozart was employed as a court musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo.  During this time, Mozart acquired a number of admirers and began to compose extensively across genres, including symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, masses, and operas. However, dissatisfied with the lack of opportunity to compose opera, and the low pay of 150 florins a year, Mozart left his position, eventually settling in Vienna.

Requiem: Mozart’s unfinished Requiem was completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr and was commissioned anonymously by Count Franz von Walsegg to commemorate his wife’s death. It is believed that Walsegg intended to pass the work off as his own, as he has been known to do. The flurry of myths about Mozart’s death, and his “instructions” on how to complete his Requiem, arguably stem from the actions of his wife, Constanze, who tried to attach as much Mozart-authenticity to the finished Requiem as possible.

Not enough Mozart for you?

Check out the trailer for Amadeus, the 1984 period drama based on the play by Schaffer. We can’t guarantee historical accuracy, but it’s a great film that was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Visit our November 2012 blog posts for our Mozart Diaries series, and check out our website for a playlist featuring the Requiem, along with other pieces to be performed next Wednesday!

Our Mozart Requiem with Polyphony will be performed at St John Smith’s Square on Wednesday 13 November at 7.30. More information about the concert, and how to book tickets, is available on our website.

Head to Head: Gershwin vs. Bernstein

With Jazz Kings, the grand finale of our Hot Tunes/Cold War series, drawing nigh, we thought it was time to bring out the big guns. Duck and cover ladies and gentlemen, and prepare yourselves for a showdown between two titans of orchestral jazz: George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Although their careers barely overlapped, they were seemingly united by a penchant for staring moodily into the camera. Keep reading to find out which one almost forgot to write their most famous work, and who earned the respect of New York’s notoriously hard-to-please construction workers. 

Gershwin moodyName: George Gershwin (born Jacob Gershvin)

Age: Born 1898 and died 1937, aged 38.

Nationality: American

Background: Born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Gershwin studied piano under Charles Hambitzer. Hambitzer was so impressed by his new pupil that he refused to take payment, saying, “He will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.”  Gershwin dropped out of school and began playing piano professionally at age 15 and swiftly became one of the most sought-after musicians in America, writing Broadway theatre works with his brother, Ira. Unfortunately, Gershwin was diagnosed as having a malignant brain tumour in 1937, and died whilst undergoing surgery to remove it.

Big break: In 1919 Gershwin hit the big time with his song, “Swanee”. Al Jolson, a famous Broadway singer, heard Gershwin perform “Swanee” at a party and decided to sing it in one of his shows, catapulting George into stardom.Gershwin blog

Repertoire: Gershwin’s best-loved piece, Rhapsody in Blue, was composed when he was working for bandleader Paul Whiteman, who asked him to create a jazz number that would enhance the genre’s reputation. Gershwin allegedly forgot all about the request, and completed the work in a panic in order to meet the deadline. Some of his other well-known works include An American in Paris and Porgy and Bess.

Hot Tunes Cold War Performances: The original arrangement for Paul Whiteman’s band of Gershwin’s masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue, will be performed in our Jazz Kings concert on October 31st, featuring Gwilym Simcock on piano.

Bernstein blogName: Leonard Bernstein (born Louis Bernstein)

Age: Born 1918 and died 1990, aged 72.

Nationality: American

Background: Born in Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents. Bernstein attended Harvard, where he studied music, and then enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. His career as a composer and a conductor truly flourished following the Second World War, during which he produced some of his best-loved work:  was his collaboration with Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim to create West Side Story. He is also known for his outspoken leftist political views and his strong desire to further social change. He announced his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990 and died of a heart attack five days later. During his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and yelled, “Goodbye, Lenny.” He was buried with a copy of Mahler’s Fifth lying across his heart.

Big Break: On November 14, 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein made his major conducting debut at sudden notice—and without any rehearsal—after Bruno Walter, the principal conductor, came down with the flu. He became instantly famous because the concert was nationally broadcast, and afterwards started to appear as a guest conductor with many U.S. orchestras.Bernstein1

Repertoire: Along with West Side Story, Bernstein composed three operas, seven other musicals and innumerable pieces of orchestral, chamber and vocal music, including a song, Big Stuff, for Billie Holiday.

Hot Tunes/Cold War Performances: Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs will also be performed in our Jazz Kings concert on the 31st October.

Jazz Kings takes place on Thursday 31st October, at 19.30 in Cadogan Hall. Tickets for this climactic end to our Hot Tunes/Cold War series can be purchased here.

Composer Focus: Fauré

Gabriel Fauré, composer, organist and teacher, was one of the foremost French composers of his generation; his musical style was a monumental influence on many other twentieth-century composers. The headline act of our Fauré Requiem Tour, Fauré’s is the most frequently performed musical setting of the Requiem, and this masterpiece marked the pinnacle of a prolific career. As we approach the second leg of the tour, we take a closer look at the man behind the music.


“More profound than Saint-Saëns, more varied than Lalo, more spontaneous than d’Indy, more classic than Debussy, Gabriel Fauré is the master par excellence of French music, the perfect mirror of our musical genius.”    – Jean Roger-Ducasse

Name: Gabriel Urbain Fauré

Born: 12 May 1845 Died: 4 November 1924 (aged 79)

Nationality: French

Background: Fauré was born into a cultured, but not especially musical family. When his musical talent became clear, he was sent to Ecole Niedermeye, a music college in Paris, aged only nine. Here he met Camille Saint-Saëns, one of his teachers, who became a lifelong friend. After graduating from the college in 1865, Fauré earned a modest living as a teacher and as an organist, taking over from Saint-Saëns at the Eglise de la Madeleine.

Based in Paris, he integrated into the salon culture, where he was involved in the formation of the Société Nationale de Musique, a movement conceived in reaction to the tendency of French music to favour vocal and operatic music over orchestral music hosting concerts to allow young composers to present their music publicly.

In 1883, Fauré married Marie Frement  and the couple had two sons. His compositions earned him a negligible amount, earning an average of 60 francs a song with no royalties and he struggled to support his family (and mistress, whom he kept in a Paris apartment!). This hardship made him prone to bouts of depression.

Requiem: It was during this period, however, that he embarked on the iconic Requiem. Begun in 1887, it was one of the few works that he did not destroy, but revised and expanded, until it was finalised in 1901. After its first performance in 1888, at the Eglise de la Madeleine, the Priest reportedly told Fauré: “We don’t need these novelties: the Madeleine’s repertoire is quite rich enough.” However, critical reception improved, Saint-Saëns remarking: “Just as Mozart’s is the only Ave verum corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu.”

Breakthrough Moment: Finally, the 1890’s began to bring a change of fortune for Fauré. After initial opposition for being deemed dangerously modern, Fauré was at last offered the position of professor of composition at the Conservatoire de Paris, where his students included Maurice Ravel. By his last years, Fauré was recognised in France as the leading French composer of his day and was eventually made Director at the Conservatoire de Paris. Although he continued to compose, his works of the late years were affected by his hearing loss, which inevitably caused his retirement. In 1922, the President honoured him with an unprecedented public tribute; a national homage.

Fauré died from pneumonia on November 4, 1924, and was laid to rest in the Cemetiere de Passy in Paris.

Tickets for Fauré Requiem Tour: October 2013

The October leg of our Fauré Requiem tour sees us visiting Coventry, Guildford, Exeter, Chester, Southwell and Liverpool.

Head to Head: Shostakovich vs. Britten

With both Shostakovich and Britten featuring in our Hot Tunes, Cold War series, it makes sense to make these two giants of twentieth century composition the focus of this edition of Head-to-Head. Eventually dying within a year of one another, the socio-political backdrop to their lives and their work differed significantly, but it did not stop them from forming a lifelong friendship.

Name: Dmitri ShostakovichShostakovich at Piano

Age: Born 1906 and died 1975, aged 68.

Nationality: Russian

Background: A child piano prodigy who entered the Petrograd Conservatoire at the age of 13, Shostakovich’s professional life was marked by his turbulent relationship with the government. He was denounced twice, the first time in Pravda, the Russian Communist newspaper in 1936 and the second along with a number of other “formalist” composers in 1948 for his non-Russian influences. Eventually, however, he served in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the USSR until his death.

Big Break: He won an “honourable mention” at the First International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1927. After the competition, he met conductor Bruno Walter, who was so impressed by the composer’s First Symphony (written when he was just nineteen) that he conducted it in Berlin later that year. The following year, it was also premiered in the U.S. by Leopold Stokowski.

Repertoire: With influences ranging from Stravinsky to Mahler, Shostakovich’s orchestral works include fifteen symphonies and six concerti, a set of twenty four preludes and fugues, three operas, and a significant amount of film music.

Hot Tunes Cold War Performances: We will be performing music by Shostakovich in every instalment of our Hot Tunes, Cold War series. His Symphony No. 14 will be included in Music from across the Iron Curtain, our next CloSer event will feature his score for the film The New Babylon and his Jazz Suite No. 1 will be included in our Jazz Kings concert.

Name: Benjamin BrittenBritten in 1946

Age: Born 1913, died 1976 aged 63.

Background: His father was a dentist, and his mother a talented amateur musician. His mother’s fears that their middle class status would be derailed by her own family background (her father was illegitimate and her mother was an alcoholic) led her to employ music as the principal means of maintaining their social standing, hosting musical parties in their house in Suffolk. In 1930 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. Britten lived in the USA from 1939-42, before returning to England with his partner, tenor Peter Pears.

Big Break: Britten first came to public attention with his 1934 work A Boy was Born, written for the BBC Singers. In the 1930s he composed prolifically and met the poet W. H. Auden, with whom he collaborated on works such as Our Hunting Fathers and Hymn to St. Cecilia.

Repertoire: Britten’s compositions range from orchestral to choral works, film music and chamber music. In 1942 Britten encountered the work of poet George Crabbe, which rekindled his homesickness for Britain and inspired him to write Peter Grimes, in which Pears played the leading role.

Hot Tunes, Cold War Performances: Our Music from across the Iron Curtain concert features Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the second movement from his Movements for a Clarinet Concerto, completed by Colin Matthews.