Tag Archives: Orchestra

Retrospect: Hero Worship at the QEH

On 8 May, we headed to Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall for the first time since the Hall’s refurbishment and grand reopening in April. This was the first of many collaborations to come at the QEH and our debut working with Australian composer and violist Brett Dean.

CLS_Brett Dean_Hero Worship rehearsal
Brett Dean directs City of London Sinfonia in rehearsals.

As with many of our ‘seriously informal’ concerts, Hero Worship departed from the regular orchestral concert format, offering a narrative and images (not too dissimilar to that of a TED talk) to help us better understand Beethoven’s life and music. Cue entertaining Cambridge historian.

Sir Christopher Clark, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, gave our audience insight into the historical, political and social contexts that influenced Beethoven and his compositions. Intertwined with musical canapes from his early symphonies and septets, the narrative spanned from his early years to the uncovering of the Heiligenstadt Testament following Beethoven’s death (listen to Brett Dean’s explanation in our podcast).

Brett Dean was welcomed to the podium to conduct the centrepiece of the evening: his “fantastic” and “pretty tricky” (as described by Creative Director and Leader Alexandra Wood) contemporary take on Beethoven’s famous document, Testament.

Violins relaxing before Eroica
CLS violins relax before performing the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, standing up.

We’d had a taste of who Beethoven was before his Heiligenstadt trip and Napoleon’s betrayal, and now it was time to discover his reformed style in the ‘Eroica’: the Symphony that altered the course of music. With Brett Dean directing the Symphony from the viola and the majority of our musicians standing (thank goodness the violins relaxed in their break – pictured), ‘strong inner voices sprang to life, unfurling the symphony as a gigantic piece of chamber music’ (The Observer).

Despite having known each other for decades, Brett Dean and Sir Christopher Clark had never been on a stage together before. Their bows at the end of the performance showed what a joy it had been, and the simultaneous rapturous applause confirmed that it was a joy for everyone involved.

Tweets from the night

#CLSattheQEH

For more information about the performance and to learn about our next concert, Bach Remixed, coming up in October, be sure to search #CLSattheQEH on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram or sign up to our mailing list for email updates.

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Retrospect: The Protecting Veil

St John’s Smith Square was lit up with Christmas decorations and filled with festive cheer on Saturday 2 December, all ready for an exploration of Sir John Tavener’s musical vision of Mary, the Mother of God – a work of ‘such overt mysticism’ (Bachtrack). What an end to our Modern Mystics trilogy!

Our series finale saw world-renowned cellist Matthew Barley present fun, thought-provoking and educational living programme notes in the first half, and bring ‘to life the depths and contrasts of this deceptively simple piece’ (Bachtrack) – Sir John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil – in an entrancing second-half performance.

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Matthew Barley: living programme notes (image © James Berry)

In Barley’s living programme notes, our musicians were directed to get into groups – spread among our audience and onstage – to play parts of the music in different styles and forms, to show how Tavener used musical devices and techniques to ‘create intensely moving music’ (Bachtrack). Barley also demonstrated how Tavener was influenced by Indian music, performing a solo excerpt of the music over a recording of Indian soundscapes. In the spirit of Christmas, the Orchestra applied compositional techniques such as retrograde, inversion, augmentation and canon to well-known Christmas tunes – and you could hear the cheerful humming and recognition from our audience throughout.

‘[Living programme notes are] a great way to help more casual listeners appreciate the hidden depths of the music.’ – Bachtrack

In the second half, the talking had come to an end, but the education continued as our audience were able to hear those techniques in action in a full performance of The Protecting Veil. Matthew Barley’s solo cello represented the Mother of God, which ‘never stops singing throughout’ (Sir John Tavener), with our magnificent strings responding in ‘sensitive ways in which they complemented the solo instrument’ (Bachtrack).

‘City of London Sinfonia seemed alive to the composer’s sense of the spiritual significance of each of the work’s sections.’ – Bachtrack

The music moved seamlessly between movements, and between moments of emotional power and meditative calm – a calm that prolonged in a consensus of zen throughout the Hall, before Barley’s dropping of the bow cued a rapturous applause.

The standing ovation that followed prompted an encore from Matthew Barley, who demonstrated even more charisma and astonishing technique in Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio.

Relive some of the concert in photos from the night, taken by James Berry.

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All images © James Berry Photography.

Tell us about your Modern Mystics experience

If you’ve been to any or all of our Modern Mystics concerts, we would love to hear about how much you enjoyed them! You can write a review on our Facebook page or on Google, tweet us @CityLDNsinfonia, or send us an audio recording to info@cls.co.uk which we can feature in one of our podcasts.

#ModernMystics

 

Retrospect: The Book of Hours

The Book of Hours (on 22 November) brought something slightly different to our Modern Mystics trilogy, showcasing our outstanding musicians in music evoking both medieval and modern sound worlds. Our audience could shift between the Orchestra onstage and Jack James’ imaginative visual interpretations of the music on the red-bricked wall of Village Underground.

In her first outing with our musicians, Jessica Cottis led a programme of contemporary classical repertoire with a vast variety of textures and effects, and with instrumentation ranging from solo viola (Fiona Bonds starring in Skempton’s Only the Sound Remains) to synthesizer and sampler. We even fitted in some Thai Tuned Gongs, and experimented with aluminium foil on our string instruments!

We were also honoured to be joined by the three living composers, Howard Skempton, Richard Causton and Julian Anderson, who spoke about their pieces with Jessica Cottis and Alexandra Wood in between performances.

Take a look at some of James Berry’s brilliant photos below.

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Join us for the finale our Modern Mystics trilogy on Saturday 2 December at St John’s Smith Square. We’ll be joined by cellist Matthew Barley who performs John Tavener’s ecstatic vision of devotion for cello and orchestra, The Protecting Veil, and presents an interactive exploration of the music as part of Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief festival.

All images © James Berry Photography.

Tell us about you Modern Mystics experience

If you’ve been to any or all of our Modern Mystics concerts, we would love to hear about how much you enjoyed them! You can write a review on our Facebook page or on Google tweet us @CityLDNsinfonia, or send us an audio recording to info@cls.co.uk which we can feature in one of our podcasts.

#ModernMystics

 

Retrospect: The Fruit of Silence

Our audience members created their own spiritual and spatial journeys through music, architecture and visuals in the first concert of our Modern Mystics series on 9 November. As someone on Twitter put it, we treated them to ‘a sonic full body massage’.

There were people exploring Southwark Cathedral as our musicians and Epiphoni Consort took up different positions to perform; meditating to the tranquil music on cushions, pews and chairs, and leaning against the architecture while admiring Jack James’ stunning projections.

Take a look at some of the fantastic photos from the night, taken by Kaupo Kikkas.

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Join us for more immersive experiences in The Book of Hours at Village Underground on 22 November, and The Protecting Veil at St John’s Smith Square on 2 December.

All images © Kaupo Kikkas.

Tell us about you Modern Mystics experience

If you’ve been to any or all of our Modern Mystics concerts, we would love to hear about how much you enjoyed them! You can write a review on our Facebook page or on Google tweet us @CityLDNsinfonia, or send us an audio recording to info@cls.co.uk which we can feature in one of our podcasts.

#ModernMystics

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.

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

 

Becky Knight – On Tour with CLS

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!)

 

The final concert of the Great British Choral Anthems tour is on Friday 21 October at Chester Cathedral

 

“They don’t know where to put it…”

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!

 

CLoSer: Sketches of Miles. 6 April 2016. Village Underground.
Gwilym Simcock performing with CLS in April 2016 Credit: James Berry

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.

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Sam Lee joins CLS on 17 November. Image credit Frederic Aranda

 

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….

Matthew Swann, CLS Chief Executive

Sam Lee joins City of London Sinfonia for CLoSer: Died for Love on 17 November at St John at Hackney. 

Let’s keep creativity close-by

By Matthew Swann, CLS Chief Executive

MatthewheadshotThere 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 Swan: Great British Choral Anthems

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.

City of London Sinfonia.
The finale of the CLS RE:Imagine season at Southwark Catherdral. 20 April 2016.

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.

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Hereford Cathedral, where we will perform on 1 October

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.

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