Showing posts with label Errollyn Wallen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Errollyn Wallen. Show all posts

Sunday, March 08, 2020

International Women's Day: a celebration!

It's time to celebrate International Women's Day, and alongside a number of fantastic programmes on BBC Radio 3, which is playing works by female composers all day, there's a lot more going on besides. Catch the new film Beyond the Grace Note about conductors who are female, on Sky Arts, directed by Henrietta Foster - 3pm today. Writer Anna Beer and composer Debbie Wiseman are giving a talk later today at Kellogg College, Oxford. Kathryn Stott has just announced a terrific range of music by women that will be heard later in the year at her Australian Festival of Chamber Music (more about that very soon). The list could continue.

For our own celebration here on JDCMB, I've assembled some of my favourite pieces by female composers, for your musical delectation. They are in no particular order and have not been chosen for any representative geographical or temporal spread. I've picked some because they are specially well played, others because they will have wide appeal, one because it shows the composer playing the violin, and all of them because they are fantastic pieces that ought to be performed more widely, as should the other music by their composers. If you are a musician and enjoy these, please use the selection as a jumping-off point for further exploration of their works and consider adding them to your repertoire.

Have a wonderful IWD, everyone!

CLARA SCHUMANN: PIANO TRIO, Op. 17. I personally think this is her best piece, but feel free to pick another if you prefer!

LOUISE FARRENC: SYMPHONY NO. 3. Ought to be 'standard repertoire' the world over.

GRAZYNA BACEWICZ performs her own OBEREK (1952) - chose this one because it is rare film of the composer playing her own music, but there are MANY wonderful pieces by her

BARBARA STROZZI: L'ERACLITO AMOROSO. If you like Monteverdi, you'll adore this. A beautifully made music-video film performed by Heather Newhouse and Le Concert de l'Hostel Dieu.

ROXANNA PANUFNIK: FOUR WORLD SEASONS, smashing violin concerto written for Tasmin Little. Here's the last movement, 'Indian Summer'.

ERROLLYN WALLEN: MIGHTY RIVER. Wonderful piece combining spirituals and contemporary techniques to reflect on slavery and freedom.

NICOLA LEFANU: TOKAIDO ROAD, chamber opera performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A spare, sensitive, magical work inspired by the life of the artist Hiroshige.

VITEZLAVA KAPRALOVA: PARTITA FOR PIANO & ORCHESTRA. Martinu's star pupil (and more), she should have been a leading Czech voice of the 30s, but she died tragically at the age of 25. This is a dazzling and ruggedly challenging piece...

ELIZABETH MACONCHY: STRING QUARTET NO. 1. This is the just the first of a major series of quartets that should by rights be heard as often as certain other 20th-century cycles. Next, hear all her others.

SOFIA GUBAILDULINA: CHACONNE. Performed by the magnificent Sofya Gulyak. Any pianist looking for a contemporary work by a female composer to add to their regular concert repertoire should have a look at this brilliant piece right away.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Proms firsts!

I'm seriously behind here on all the summer activities. I've been to the wonderful Tuscan music festival Incontri in Terra di Siena and Bard Summerscape's 'Korngold and his World' and a few Proms, but have so many stories and experiences to "process" that I've not written any designated blogposts about them yet. You can read my review of Incontri here (though you will probably need a subscription to do so):

Anyway, here's the power-trio of Errollyn Wallen, Elim Chan and Catriona Morison who lit up the Royal Albert Hall at last night's Prom (my report for The Arts Desk):

A clever programme, a vivid premiere, a Proms debut for an exciting young conductor and the first appearance there by Catriona Morison since she won the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World: all this provided grist to the mill for a sold-out Prom that was more than the sum of its impressive parts. 

Elim Chan, who won the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition (the first woman to do so) in 2014, was on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s podium for pieces themed around the sea and pictures. The 33-year-old conductor from Hong Kong is a tiny, pleasingly charismatic figure – offering ideas that were not only sizable but often inspiring, even in repertoire that otherwise could sometimes seem too well worn for its own good. 

Romanticism was the musical land that historical performance forgot, at least until recently. Designated researchers have been delving into real 19th-century styles of late, and if you think it has nothing to do with rigid rhythm, you’re right. What’s emerging instead is the sort of flexible and intense characterisation that Chan brought to Mendelssohn’s Overture ‘The Hebrides’. This was long-lined musical thinking, the softest moments replete with a hushed glow, sometimes slowing to a rapt stillness, and the vigorous episodes ratcheted up the tempo, balancing them out...

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Concerto rising: Errollyn Wallen's new piece for Kosmos

Today violinist Harriet Mackenzie takes the floor to tell us about the new concerto for violin, viola and accordion [yes, really] that the fabulous Errollyn Wallen has composed for her Kosmos Ensemble. It's about to have its UK premiere at the Festival of Chichester.

If you can't get there, you can still hear the concerto: here's a video of its world premiere performance at the Jersey Liberation Festival in May, with Harriet on violin, Meg Hamilton on viola and Milos Milojevic on accordion. The Jersey Chamber Orchestra is conducted by Eamonn Dougan.

Kosmos performing in Brunel's Thames Tunnel Shaft in London

NEW WORLDS: A guest post by Harriet Mackenzie

It’s not every day you get a concerto written for violin, viola and accordion - in fact, this may well be the first ever - and when you throw in the fact that we asked Errollyn to include spaces for improvisation and to include vastly different styles, both hallmarks of Kosmos, it probably is an adventure worth writing about!

Not every new concerto starts with a Zen Buddhist saying, and I can’t grandly say that this one did. Not exactly. But there is a Zen Buddhist phrase that I have been trying to get to grips with lately - “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”. A superficial understanding of this seems to be: "If you believe you are on the road to enlightenment and you meet the Buddha then you must kill him, as once you think you have reached or understood enlightenment, you are no longer in the path of attaining it".

Somehow, I am also reminded of one of my dear violin teachers saying: "Once you are satisfied, then you are dead."  The nirvana is in the process, not necessarily a final destination. The urge to strive, to try, to improve, to be in the moment (the ubiquitous 'mindfulness' which has infiltrated newspapers and dinner-party conversations of late), to constantly be moving the goalposts,  seems to be a necessary aspect of being an artist, or even perhaps, a human.

Harriet Mackenzie in Jersey
Certainly, I feel as if I am constantly shifting the comfortable ground beneath my feet and Kosmos has been part of that. It was created as a madcap, personal moving of goalposts for myself and my fellow members - Meg Hamilton (viola player extraordinaire, winner of the prestigious Millennium Award and a renowned specialist in Jewish music) and Milos Milivojevic (one of the finest accordionists working today, winner of the Derek Butler prize contested by all the Music Academies in London, who couples his classical training with the Balkan music that flows in his veins). We all had our areas of expertise - for me, of course, that is classical - and we all wanted to stretch our creative muscles, to bring our ‘own’ areas together and see what would emerge from the collision. Personally, as a classical musician I had never improvised. Suddenly I found myself on stage, without any sheet music, regularly playing our own works, arrangements and improvisations where classical meets composition meets roots music meets world music. I was deliriously happy and terrified in equal measure. When the lights dim and the audience is waiting expectantly, there is nothing quite like the frisson of composing in real time in front of a discerning crowd. And the more we performed together, the more music we discovered and explored, the more a rich landscape opened before my eyes and ears.

When we came up with the idea of a 'Kosmos concerto', the first composer that sprang to mind was Errollyn Wallen. I have admired many of Errollyn's works - her cello concerto (written for Matt Sharpe), the percussion concerto (written for Colin Currie), her song cycle. Errollyn has a diverse musical palette. She has written acclaimed operas, concertos, chamber music and is fascinated by world music styles and jazz. She is also a great singer herself and in lots of ways she breaks boundaries (not least as the first black woman to be commissioned by the BBC Proms). So we approached her, asking - as if the job of writing a concerto for these particular forces was not unusual enough! - that she include the ethos of the group, so some form of world music influence and some form of improvisation.

Errollyn Wallen
This of course is a concerto, so we have the additional element of an orchestra. Adding those elements with all the orchestral players alongside, who necessarily have to know what they are doing at all times and be in perfect synchronisation, is complex and not a little daunting. But in a good way.

Errollyn took this all upon herself and has written us a truly unique work. There are jazz influences, a Venezuelan 'Joropo' rubs shoulders with a Byzantine Chant. There is not only improvisation, but at some point the orchestra, soloists and conductor all have to sing. That is something I have certainly never had to do in any of the other concertos I have performed!

So, and in no small part thanks to Errollyn, the Buddha yet lives! We are still on a path, with horizons uncertain. This piece had its world premiere in Jersey in May, but every performance of this concerto will be different and we hope that the UK premiere at Chichester Cathedral goes well. More than ‘goes well’, in fact - there are times when everything seems to hum and sing with the energy of the world, and when all the elements of Kosmos come together and we have great material such as that Errollyn has written for us it can be a kind of musical nirvana. And you feel - I believe athletes call it ‘in the zone’.

As well as my own journey in search of that elusive musical Buddha whom I must hope never to find (and kill), I hope that audiences are also on their own journeys, opening their hearts and ears to new sounds and experiences without prejudice. And should any of us find that Buddha, let’s not kill him. Let’s embrace him, and then change direction and carry on travelling, striving, looking, exploring, searching for new experiences, as I will too.  

Kosmos perform Errollyn Wallen's Triple Concerto at the Festival of Chichester, Chichester Cathedral, 5th July, 7.30pm, with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra and John Gibbons conducting.

Harriet Mackenzie’s most recent recording was “21st Century Violin Concertos” (five world premiere recordings), with the English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods (Avie).

By way of encore, here's The Lark Ascending as you've never heard it before...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Great news for two wonderful composers, who happen to be women

As of this morning, Judith Weir is officially Master of the Queen's Music. She is off to Buckingham Palace today for an audience with HM.

She is also launching a blog, which you can follow from her website.

Here's Tom Service's interview with her about what she plans to do with the post. 

Meanwhile, here is my interview from today's Independent with another marvellous British composer: the one and only Errollyn Wallen. Her new opera Anon is a very contemporary adaptation of Manon...and was partly inspired by her own experience of nearly getting murdered when travelling around Europe in her teens.

Apropos of women in classical music, I am delighted to have been invited to join the board of the Ambache Charitable Trust, which awards grants to organisations and individuals for projects that involve the performance of music by women. The aim is "to raise the profile of women composers by funding people who promote their music to the widest possible circle". As it was recently revealed (via the PRS for Music Foundation) that only 7.8 per cent of its income for composers goes to those who happen to be female, I hope you can see how necessary such initiatives remain even today. More information about it on the website, here.

UPDATE: Here is a vital piece (via by Susanna Eastburn regarding the shortage of women composers and what we can do about it. Includes some pretty shocking statistics.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Seven - no, EIGHT - things to do on International Women's Day

1. Go to the eclectic Women of the World Festival at the Southbank. Among musically-oriented treats today are Jessye Norman (yes), speaking at 4.30pm this afternoon; and tonight, the OAE with Marin Alsop and soprano Emma Bell in a delicious programme of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Schumann, part of the Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers series.

2. Go to the UK premiere of Written on Skin by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, at the Royal Opera House. It is a contemporary masterpiece and, although it's by two men, the story is very much about the sexual emancipation of a woman in the 13th century. I talked to its director, Katie Mitchell, about that, and the article should hopefully be out tomorrow. (Not going to see it until 18th, but I've heard the recording from Aix and found it absolutely amazing. My chat with George about the music for the ROH website is here.)

3. Spend a little time celebrating the music of women composers over the centuries whose work was discouraged, disguised or suppressed, unless it happened to be cute salon music for the home. And remember the ones who went right on ahead and did their own thing. 

4. Spend a little time remembering the great female performers of the past who knuckled down to work instead of knuckling under.

5. Listen to some music by the increasing raft of gifted, dedicated and proud women composers of today, whether on stage, screen, concert hall or multimedia. A reasonably random example, but one I've much enjoyed, is this mingling of space mission, dance, special effects and music by Errollyn Wallen in Falling.

6. Remember that today's greatest women performers simply cannot be bettered.

7. Reflect that it should not be necessary, in an ideal world, to add extra celebration to the achievements of women - in the classical music world as much as anywhere, and more than some - but with sexism so desperately ingrained in our culture, it is.

8. Remember that International Women's Day is all very well, but next we have to sort out the other 364 days of the year.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Fanfare for uncommon women

As promised, for International Women's Day #2: ten women composers of now. A small selection and a personal one - kicking off with Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. Enjoy.











Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Yes? Maybe

An intriguing evening at the world premiere of Errollyn Wallen and Bonnie Greer's Yes. 'Intriguing' because in some ways it succeeds, in others it doesn't, and some of its strengths also handspring its weaknesses. It seemed a work in progress, needing some nips, tucks and the addressing of some continuity issues.

But at its heart it strikes a deep, true chord: when Wallen is let off the leash of very short scenes and has the leisure to unfurl her best music, moments of great beauty emerge from the distillation of uncomfortable contemporary truths. How and why do we create in a world that is "baking in its own shit"? Thus the artist character, trying to work out what lies behind the "dark, malevolent" quality of what he's just painted, faces the existential question of any creative here and now, and it's a knock-em-dead performance by that brilliant, all-giving, stage-creature baritone that is Omar Ebrahim. 

A reflective ensemble number accompanied by purling strings and pizzicato almost a la Bach or Mozart proved another highlight, evoking the classical underpinning of Wallen's eclectic contemporary idioms; and the recurring, developing chorus, ratcheting the tension, helps to bind together a tricky multi-protagonist structure. Wallen's music has - as it often does - empathy, riff-edged sophistication, high intelligence and, best of all, a big, strong heart. And much of the singing was spectacular.

The problems are that mosaic structure and the staging. The latter first: the Linbury is opened up and the black and white stage is in the centre with seats on both sides. The singers must address one side, then the other and whichever you're on, you tend to miss the words when performers' backs are turned. The brevity of the scenes and the inevitable awkwardness of moving quickly from one to the next means that the flow of drama and music is constantly interrupted, and punctuation by supposed news announcements - delivered in a tone that is unfortunately more Open University than Newsnight - do little to help. Just when you think it's getting off the ground, it stops again.

There's one format in which Yes would work brilliantlyIt is TV. On film you could project writing instead of the spoken announcements, create an unbroken musical web that slides easily from scene to scene without interruption and develop each character that much more; at the moment we can only see a tantalising glimmer of them. 

Greer's libretto may at times feel difficult - the words of John Stuart Mill don't lend themselves especially well to singing, and using terms like "relevance" and "diversity" risks missing the mark in the context of operatic drama rather than commentary from outside. But the threads and connections build: the phone call from Greer's mother, talking about stargazing, finds an echo in the final words from the white grandson of an East Ender. Greer's mother says, "Nobody does that but us", yet this child from another place, another culture and a family of another mindset proves that in fact...we're all the same. We are all the same: we are all human beings. Why is that always the hardest lesson for us to learn?

So, in short: Yes is maybe a success in the making, it has some wonderful moments, it is brilliantly sung, it could use a bit of rethinking and - perhaps appropriately for an opera based around a forthcoming TV show - it ought to be a film. Stand by for snide remarks from white males.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Saying YES

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race... of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth." (John Stuart Mill)
 Yes, the new opera by composer Errollyn Wallen and playwright Bonnie Greer (pictured: Errollyn, left, and Bonnie, in rehearsals), opens tonight at the ROH Linbury Studio. It's the story of the run-up to Bonnie's appearance on the BBC's Question Time alongside...That Politician. What emerged from her experience is a picture of the state of the nation: how we see ourselves, our country, our fellow human beings and freedom of speech. My article about it is in today's Independent. As we point out in the feature, it's not every day you hear the words of John Stuart Mill being sung at Covent Garden.

Here's a taster, from Bonnie:
"Any organisations or groups of people that prevent others from expressing a legitimate opinion, whether in print or in person, are absolute enemies of democracy...That's the reason I said yes. I'm the daughter of a man who grew up under racial segregation and couldn't speak out, so there's no way I'm going to be part of anything that won't allow a person to speak his or her mind. I think some of the great and the good were upset that I did this [appearing on Question Time]– and they were even more upset that it turned out to be OK. This is about freedom of speech and expression; about saying yes to the tumultuous nature of democracy."

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


All this week here on JDCMB, some of the stars of British musical life share their firm conviction that musical education should be available to all children, regardless of wealth. They offer their personal memories and gratitude for the opportunities that were open to them, without which they might not be where they are today. And, just as the Big Noise of Sistema Scotland releases some truly astonishing statistics about the impact and beneficial effects of its programme at Raploch - eg, 100 per cent of parents reported their children's confidence increased by music-making - they remind us that music does more for the soul than can ever meet the eye...

Today we hear from James Rhodes, Errollyn Wallen and Nick van Bloss. Over to you, guys...

"Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Mozart, et al, are and always will be the musical equivalent of Shakespeare, Byron and Chaucer. To make cuts in our education system that will make music-making and even music-listening the preserve of the wealthy is an appalling indictment of our society. As a child I found it was these great composers that offered a rare glimpse of something bigger and brighter than the rest of my educational world. Being able to torture my teacher with my dire piano playing, listening to Peter and the Wolf, watching a talented ex-pupil play Chopin on stage - all of these things were vital and extraordinary experiences that in some way moulded and shaped my desire to immerse myself in music and, perhaps more importantly, gave me the feeling that there was something infinitely more exciting than my rather one-dimensional and painful schooldays. 

"To cut or remove classical music from the curriculum would be tantamount to substituting Shakespeare with Grisham - a cheapening and eroding of our cultural heritage that will have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. Accessibility is a vital part of education. In the land that gave us Britten, Elgar, the Proms and Cheryl Cole, surely music education is a right and not a privilege. The success of El Sistema in Venezuela and the global inspiration it has produced should provide a clear message - the life-changing power of music is something to be treasured and supported. Music will always survive; far better it does so because of our government rather than despite it. "

"I was nine years old when, walking along my street in Tottenham, North London, holding my uncle’s hand, I confided that I heard music all the time in my head which I didn’t know what to do with. It was my Uncle Arthur who suggested that I might be a composer.

"It has been a long and winding road towards acquiring all the education and skills I needed but without the good start I had – a wonderful music teacher, Miss Beale, at our state primary school in Tottenham who taught everyone in the class to read and write music at the age of nine and who encouraged me to write my first ensemble composition for the class – Frogs and Toads – it would have been an even harder journey.

"I’ve just finished a day’s work on what is my eleventh opera. I still hear music all the time in my head and am full of plans for the future. I am never without a commission.  My music has been, on a NASA mission, to outer space.

"Every single day I give thanks for the musical education which made my career as a professional composer possible.  I believe that everyone who wants to, regardless of their background, should have access to the tools of this most remarkable trade."

"The days of considering music to be a mere hobby for the rich, a luxury, something of no intrinsic value, are surely over? Or are they...? Children of all ages are fascinated and stimulated by sound. They are 'wowed over' when they watch a virtuoso, thrilled when they experience a symphony orchestra. Given the chance, they're eager to pick up an instrument and ‘have a go’ - to engage, to 'create'.

"Budgetary cuts affect music education disproportionately.  Students are still being taught the full school curriculum but instrumental teaching is being slashed. It is obviously the funding structure which should be amended, so that when cuts have to be made, the basic building blocks of music education are not annihilated overnight.

"The Longfellow quotation, 'Music is the universal language of mankind', may sound like a cliche, but, can we, as a society, deprive children the chance of experiencing this 'language'? The benefits of music education are numerous. It has a multitude of applications physical, artistic, cognitive, creative, social, therapeutic, intellectual...  No matter who we are, it is a major force in our lives. 

"It would be a sad indictment of our society if we not only ignore the benefits of music education, but if we deny a generation the chance of experiencing even a few of the wonders music has to offer. Music itself is a great survivor, but the route of passing it on to others has rarely been more fragile."