by William Norris, Communications Director, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
It’s Valentine’s day (well it was when I wrote this…) It can be a rather grim, over-commercialised affair, but in an attempt to redress the balance, I thought it would be worth taking a look at Hector Berlioz, one of the nineteenth century’s great Romantics. He was a man whose deep-seated love for the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, coloured his adult-life with both ecstasy and tragedy, and this is reflected in some of his finest music, including his ‘symphonie dramatique’, Roméo et Juliette, which The Night Shift brings to the Roundhouse on 24 February.
Shakespeare was a fundamental influence on Berlioz all his life – it was in his plays that Berlioz discovered ‘the meaning of real grandeur, real beauty, and real dramatic truth’. However, it was also through Shakespeare that Miss Smithson was revealed to him. He wrote that he could not compare the effect ‘produced by her….dramatic genius, on my imagination and heart’.
He first saw Smithson perform at the Odéon Theatre, Paris in 1827 as the ‘fair Ophelia’, and some months later he beheld her in Romeo and Juliet. Contrary to Berlioz’s own recollection of seeing her as Juliet, it was reported in the Illustrated London News that on seeing her he exclaimed, ‘I will marry that woman! And I will write my greatest symphony on that play!’
He pursued Smithson for five years. She never met him in this time, and never wrote a line in reply to his voluminous letters. The first time she set eyes on him was in another performance as Juliet when Berlioz, so moved, ‘gave a loud cry and rushed out of the theatre, wildly wringing [his] hands.’ She was undoubtedly somewhat disturbed by this fit, and asked fellow actors to ensure he was kept a distance, as ‘she did not like the look of [his] eyes’. She left for Amsterdam, leaving Berlioz to wallow in dejection, saying that, ‘even Shakespeare has never painted the horrible gnawing at the heart’ that he felt.
Berlioz’s friends long suffered his ravings about Harriet. They complained that on walks through Paris he would ‘fill the unsympathetic boulevards and the adjacent streets with his love laments.’ Girard, a conductor and friend, wrote that ‘if it were anyone else, I would show him the door’. Berlioz’s letters to friends betray his almost delirious state – ‘today it is a year since I saw HER for the last time. Oh! Unhappy woman! How I loved you….trembling I write, HOW I LOVE YOU.’
Finally, in 1832, after hearing Berlioz’s Lélio, whose monologues make it clear the piece was intended for her, she granted him an audience. It took further months to convince her of his love – at one point he obtained a passport, threatening to quit Paris forever and move to Germany. In a rather more extreme gesture, he staged a suicide attempt, the effect of which was to leave him vomiting for two hours owing to the quantity of opium he had ingested. Nevertheless, after overcoming opposition from their families, they were wed in 1833. Berlioz remembered that ‘on the day of our marriage she had nothing in the world but debts, and the fear of never again being able to appear to advantage on the stage. My property consisted of three hundred francs, borrowed from my friend Gounet, and a fresh quarrel with my parents….But she was mine, and I defied the world.’
They had one son, Louis, but by 1840, the couple were separated. In 1854, paralysed, Harriet died in Monmartre. On travelling in his cab to fetch the Protestant pastor for the funeral ceremonies, he passed the Odéon where, he lamented, ‘I saw Juliet for the first and last time.’
There is no doubt that Berlioz’s relationship with Smithson significantly affected his artistic output. At The Night Shift, there will be the chance to hear the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform extracts from Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz’s homage to two of his great sources of inspiration, Shakespeare and Smithson.
written by Matthew Swann, Associate Producer of Reverb Festival 2012
Classical music can seem full of jargon. Most of it is very useful to professional musicians and academics*, but it can be confusing and off-putting to people coming to classical music gigs for the first time. But perhaps the most difficult jargon of all is how we describe the thing itself. Classical Music implies stuffy concert halls and formal etiquette to a lot of people – all things that Reverb and the Roundhouse definitely aren’t, so what words should we use to describe what we’re doing?
Perhaps a better phrase than ‘Contemporary Classical’ would be ‘Alternative Classical’ or even ‘Alt-classical’. What we mean by this is that we still have all the amazing, wonderful rich music, but in an environment where there are no pretentions, no set formalities, and anyone can feel comfortable. The Night Shift perhaps have the best phrase: “Classical Music – minus the rules”.
The above all describes what this movement doesn’t do. What this movement does say is that we should put this amazing music in equally amazing venues, that if the best rock shows can have incredible lighting and visuals so should we, we should bring musicians like Imogen Heap and Johnny Greenwood into the fold and explore what they can do with an 80-piece orchestra or an a cappella choir, it says we should explore more of the music being written today and in the last 50 years (much of it a huge influence on electronic, dance and alternative music – just ask any techno DJ about Steve Reich.) and when we do delve into previous centuries, we should present the music in fresh and innovative ways. One more thing this movement doesn’t do though, is mess around with or dumb down the music. The performers are world-class, and the music is incredible.
Hear Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, here.
Describing the indescribable is always difficult. To use the famous phrase (variously attributed to Steve Martin and the 19th century composer Clara Schumann), “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t talk about the music and the experience. One of the things I enjoy about going to alternative classical gigs is the chance to have a drink and conversation about the performance. Don’t take my word for it though – ultimately the best thing to do is come and experience this beautiful, exhilarating (at times shocking), and wonderful music for yourself.
*Perhaps a glossary of some of the terms used in Reverb 2012 might be useful:
To music academics, ‘Classical’ music actually refers to a very specific period in musical history, roughly 1750-1830. The term ‘Western Art Music’ is the phrase used to describe the full span of music from around 1200 to the present. (‘Western Art Music’ always seems to me like describing fine wine as “fermented, barrelled, grape juice”. Accurate, but it kind of kills it…). Beyond academia we tend to use Classical Music as a catch-all for anything written from about 1600 to the present day. The Aurora Orchestra (Sat 25 Feb) explore three different examples of how classical music evolved in the 20th century and how it was influenced by lots of different musical styles including jazz.
Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story:
A solo instrument accompanied by a larger ensemble – usually an orchestra. The word concerto (lots of musical terms are Italian) is thought to come from the words conserere (to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight), and concertos tend to both pit the orchestra against the soloist and weave them together. Again, difficult to explain the real complexity of the relationship between soloist and orchestra, and different composers have different interpretations, but Gabriel Prokofiev explains in music far better than I do in words. His Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra is performed on Sat 3 March. Visit myspace.com/gabrielprokofiev for examples of Gabriel’s music.
This means playing music on the instruments used when the composer was alive. Musical instruments evolve all the time. Until 100 years ago violins and cellos, for example, used gut strings (yes, actual gut from actual animals – usually cats). Nowadays they use metal or plastic strings. This makes them louder and easier to play but hearing music written in the 18th or 19th centuries as the composer would have heard it can be an enlightening experience, and there is something raw and visceral about the sound they make. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are one of the world’s greatest period instrument groups, and are pioneers of the Alternative Classical movement with their Night Shift format (Fri 24 Feb), and will play music written in the aftermath of the French Revolution on the instruments of the time.
View The Night Shift’s trailer or see The Night Shift play music by CPE Bach, son of JS Bach, possibly the greatest ever classical composer:
Unaccompanied voices singing together in a choir. Its literal meaning in Italian is ‘in the manner of the chapel’, and comes from a time where instruments were used sparingly in religious services. Today, it tends to cover a wide variety of musical styles and choirs from beat-boxing and R&B to classical, but what they all have in common is that they can create a huge range of textures and sounds without needing instruments. A great example of this is Imogen Heap’s a cappella sound track to The Seashell and the Clergyman on Sun 26 Feb – Imogen creates the most amazing sound world from spooky, whispering effects to driving rhythms, all produced by the human voice, and you can hear a cappella groups in styles ranging from folk to punk at Voices Now (Sun 4 Mar)
See what happened at Voices Now 2011 and some great examples of a capella singing, here.
Reverb Festival runs from Fri 24 Feb – Sunday 4 Mar at Roundhouse, Camden. For full programme & to book tickets, visit roundhouse.org.uk/reverb
Roundhouse Radio interviewed Margaret Cameron, alto in the BBC Singers who will be performing as part of Voices Now, a day showcasing some of the UK’s best choirs following the huge success of the first Voices Now Festival at the Roundhouse in March 2011, which saw over 2,000 singers perform at the venue.
Read the interview below or listen here
So, tell people what the BBC Singers is about, because it may not be obvious!
MC: The BBC singers is a radio choir. We are a full-time, professional ensemble. We work for the BBC and we produce programmes for Radio 3. We do either a concert or a studio recording every week depending on what the needs of the Radio 3 network are.
Quite interesting to hear that you’re full-time. You basically go to work to sing, which sounds quite fun actually.
MC: Yes it is fun, we do everything, the whole repertoire, from very early to new commissions. A few weeks ago we were up in Scotland with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, doing the first Scottish performance of James Macmillan’s A Gospel According to St. John, which was an amazing performance to be involved in.
Brilliant. Now, explain how things work in a vocal ensemble – obviously, you’re an alto? What other bits do we have that make up the BBC Singers?
MC: We have the sopranos, on the top line, we have the basses on the bottom, and in the middle doing all the lovely harmony stuff, you’ve got the altos (the lower female voices) and the tenors (the higher male voices).
Now I was reading on the BBC Singers website that people can apply. What kind of variety of experience have you got within the BBC Singers? What are people’s backgrounds? Are you all singers by nature, who have worked their way towards this?
MC: They’re all classical singers, and there’s probably many pathways to a full-time job with the BBC singers, but most of us have been to university or to music college and studied our instrument, the voice, to a very very high standard.
It sounds beautiful, some of the stuff you’ve done. You’ve worked with a variety of composers and conductors. We were talking earlier about Gabriel Jackson, who’s your current associate composer. Do you think it’s important to keep changing your conductors and the people that compose for you regularly? I know that some people think its quite important to change things around so that things sound fresh, whereas others say stick with someone that knows your sound. What’s your opionion, and what do you think the BBC Singers prefer?
MC: I think both are true in balance. It’s good to have continuity. It’s good to be in a full-time choir because we get used to singing with each other and we know how we work together. It’s good to have a conductor for a period of time, someone that you get used to and who gets to know you and that you can work with. But it’s also very important to stay fresh. So it’s good as well, after a period of maybe a few years, that we move on and we work with another conductor or another composer starts writing for us. So I think both are true, it’s good to have some continuity and it’s good also to have change. And although we have a chief conductor and an associate composer, we work with a lot of conductors and a lot of composers.
There are some period instruments that feature in some of your pieces. As a BBC Singer, do you have much input into the final sound of the piece or are you very much instruments yourself, with the voice? How does it work when you’re working with a composer or conductor to finish a piece?
MC: Well it’s always interesting to work with a composer because they write things on their music, instructions, that can be interpreted in lots of different ways, so it’s really nice to be able to talk to them and say ‘what do you mean by that?’ and they can show you or explain to you, so that’s very interesting. But yes, we spend a lot of time in rehearsals discussing how the sound should be and how the words should be conveyed.
Is there a particular piece that you’ve really enjoyed performing, or you’ve taken a personal interest in recently?
MC: The piece that I mentioned earlier on, James Macmillan’s Gospel according to St John that we did a few weeks ago up in Scotland; I thought it was a wonderful piece. It was a piece for orchestra, a large choir which was the London Symphony Chorus, and we were doing a smaller chamber choir. There were 16 of us. And we were the narrator choir, so we were telling the story. The big choir were sort of directly involved in the drama of the Passion, and I really thought it was an amazing piece. A piece where you’re on stage thinking I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to sing this piece. And also a piece that I imagine will become part of the repertoire and will be performed many many times. So that was very exciting.
So tell us about a day in the life of a BBC Singer. So you turn up for work – is there any sort of warm up exercises that you have to do? How does it pan out?
MC: How it is, is that we do our own warm-up at home, before we turn up to work. Or there’s a small room where we can warm up at the Maida Vale studios, which is where we’re based. We go into our studio, Maida Vale 2, which is in the basement, so we don’t see much sunlight during the day. And at the beginning of a programme, our music arrives on our music stand, we open it up, it’s the first time we’ve seen it, so we’ll read it through with the conductor in front of us, and then we’ll start working on the nitty-gritty of it. We do music in a lot of different languages so we may have language coaches who come in and help us with the pronunciation and the understanding of different langauages. And then if there are other instruments involved, after a couple of days we start to rehearse with the other instruments. And by the end of the week, we’re ready with our performance.
It’s quite a quick turnaround then?
MC: Very quick.
Especially the learning another language as well. Give me examples of other languages. Are we speaking in terms of French, German, Latin?
MC: All those standard European languages plus some more unusual ones. We do the Scandinavian languages, we’ve sung in Finnish, we’ve sung in Hungarian. The piece I’m looking at for a concert in a couple of weeks is in Hebrew. So, yes. And Russian. We sing in many many different languages.
Do you pick up any words through doing that?
MC: You do pick up the odd word yes.
Perhaps not useful in conversation?
MC: Often very romantic language really for everyday conversation!
The BBC Singers work with a nationwide outreach programme, so you go into schools, and you work with youth choirs. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and the work you’ve done with schools and youth choirs?
MC: Yes, we go out to schools a lot. We go into the classroom and work with the school choirs, and the teachers who run the school choirs, and we’ve done projects where we’ve put concerts on together with the choirs that we’ve worked with. At the moment the project that I’m involved in is with setting up community choirs in the borough of Lewisham. And there are 5 community choirs that have been set up in different areas of the borough, so that they’re all quite particular to their locality. And they’re just fledgling choirs at the moment, but we’re working towards them being involved in the Voices Now weekend here at the Roundhouse, where they’ll be taking their first steps and performing on their own as choirs.
For someone like myself, and I’ve been saying this in every interview, who’s sort of starting out in classical music, and choirs, listening to this style of music, is there a particular composer of a piece that you can recommend to me to get stuck in?
MC: I think it’s so much a matter of finding the styles that make you tick, but I would listen to some Bob Chilcot, who works with us and has written some wonderful pieces for choir. When I was first listening to classical music, one of my O-level pieces was by Stravinsky, and I started listening to the Symphony of Psalms choral piece, and I thought that was absolutely wonderful. I would listen to some of the old masters – I would listen to Bach, maybe St Matthew Passion; I would listen to the Mozart Requiem; and I would also have a listen to James Macmillan’s St John’s Gospel.
And for those of us that are looking forward to coming to Reverb 2012, and this is possibly putting you on the spot, but perhaps a little tagline for your event? A reason for us to come and enjoy the instrument of the voice?
MC: Yes, come and listen to the voice because it’s an amazing instrument and you’ll be astonished at how many different colours and sounds can be achieved by the human voice, particularly a group of human voices – the amazing harmonies that can be produced.
We’ll be seeing you in February 2012, next year!
MC: Yes – I’ll be looking forward to it.
Stay tuned for interviews with Reverb artists over the coming week.
Reverb 2012 at the Roundhouse: A festival of cutting-edge contemporary classical music
24, 25, 26 February & 3, 4 March 2012
• Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) present The Night Shift with Sir Mark Elder
• Aurora Orchestra perform Strauss, Bernstein and Michael Gordon’s Gotham with film by Bill Morrison
• Award-winning singer/songwriter Imogen Heap performs her evocative a cappella soundtrack with the Holst Singers
• London Contemporary Orchestra with Nonclassical premieres Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra and performs music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood
• Voices Now choral takeover invites choirs from all backgrounds to sing alongside the BBC Singers
The Roundhouse presents Reverb 2012 which celebrates a new generation of performers who have broken out of ‘traditional’ classical concerts, redefined the rules and shattered boundaries. Artists are creating new music in new venues with inspiring visuals and genre-defying collaborations, all moving new audiences. The Roundhouse – with its unique space, atmosphere and heritage – is at the forefront of this movement.
Reverb 2012 is a five-day festival that celebrates this new wave of artists and in an Olympic year explores themes of love and truce. The line-up includes the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s ever-popular Night Shift and the award-winning Aurora Orchestra who both explore the story of Romeo and Juliet; Imogen Heap’s evocative a cappella film soundtrack to the silent classic The Seashell and the Clergyman is performed alongside Ana Silvera’s exploration of love, war and mystery; the London Contemporary Orchestra join forces with Nonclassical and their rebellious classical club night and Voices Now’s choral takeover celebrates a coming-together of choirs from across the nation as part of the BBC’s Music Nation, a countdown event for the London 2012 festival, the finale of the Cultural Olympiad.
The festival begins on Friday 24 February 2012 with The Night Shift, which returns after a sell-out performance at Reverb 2010 with one of their most ambitious projects to date. The 90-piece Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, will recreate the sounds of 19th-century Paris in Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet. The Night Shift is London’s unique classical night, bringing audiences great music in a relaxed and contemporary setting. The evening begins and ends with live sets by the Roundhouse Music Collective who bring their unique blend of alternative classical, jazz and electronica to The Night Shift, plus DJs throughout the Roundhouse foyers. In the lead-up to their Roundhouse performance, players from the Orchestra will be touring pubs in North, South, East and West London, taking their unique Night Shift atmosphere right across the capital. More information at http://www.oae.co.uk/thenightshift
On Saturday 25 February, Aurora Orchestra and its conductor Nicholas Collon present Love Song for the City, a characteristically eclectic programme charting a course from violence and destruction to rebirth and the vibrancy of urban life. The desolate post-war German cities of Strauss’ Metamorphosen give way to the dizzying growth of modern New York as imagined by Michael Gordon in Gotham, Bill Morrison’s breathtaking black-and-white film enriching a visceral contemporary classic. The programme is completed by the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story in a virtuosic new chamber arrangement evoking the flavour of the original West End pit-band instrumentation. Founded in 2005, Aurora Orchestra has been hailed as ‘Britain’s brightest young ensemble’ (The Times) and is going from strength to strength, winning the RPS Ensemble Award earlier this year.
Sunday 26 February sees award-winning singer-songwriter Imogen Heap perform her a cappella soundtrack for the 1928 French surrealist silent film The Seashell and the Clergyman (originally commissioned by Birds Eye View Film Festival and the Southbank Centre) with the acclaimed UK choir the Holst Singers. Imogen Heap is a Grammy nominated multi-instrumentalist, and an innovative singer-songwriter with a reputation for pioneering a new type of artist/audience relationship through her use of the internet and social media. Alongside this, composer and vocalist Ana Silvera brings her own uniquely heartfelt songs, exploring themes of love, war, death and mystery to the Roundhouse, accompanied by the Baltic sounds of the Estonian Television Girls’ Choir in arrangements by electronic artist Max De Wardener and Estonian composer Elo Masing. Founded by Eve Viilup and Aarne Saluveer in 1990, the ETVGC is made up of 30 singers aged between 15 and 25. The choir has won numerous awards and travelled around the world, working with composers including Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis.
On 3 and 4 March, Reverb 2012 is part of the BBC’s Music Nation, a Countdown Event for the London 2012 Festival, the finale of the Cultural Olympiad.
On 3 March, two of the UK’s most adventurous groups – the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) and Nonclassical – present a unique evening at the Roundhouse. The LCO perform works by some of the 20th century’s most iconic composers including Xenakis’s Metastasis and Stockhausen’s Studie I. This is set alongside Doghouse by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, a 20-minute orchestral work forming part of the composer’s film score to Norwegian Wood, described by The New York Times as ‘consistently involving…with intuitive use of dissonance and resolution’; and the European premiere of Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra , with soloist Joby Burgess, who recently released Import/Export on Prokofiev’s record label Nonclassical. Fresh from his acclaimed BBC Proms debut, Gabriel’s background in dance music combined with his classical roots gives his writing a unique edge. Throughout the evening, Nonclassical presents DJ sets from Richard Lannoy and Gabriel Prokofiev, featuring the latest from the label and live sets by soloists from the LCO and Roundhouse Music Collective, bringing the unique atmosphere of their classical club nights to the Roundhouse.
The festival closes on Sunday 4 March with Voices Now, which will see Making Music and the BBC Singers showcase some of the UK’s best choirs. Following the huge success of the first Voices Now Festival at the Roundhouse in March 2011, when over 2,000 singers performed at the venue, this event sees groups from every corner of London and the UK, with styles ranging from folk, world and beat-boxing to classical, perform throughout the day, following performances given in their local areas the day before. The event culminates in a mass performance of Orlando Gough’s Making Music Overture – a new work commissioned by Making Music as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Voices Now and Making Music are inviting choirs from all backgrounds to take part. To get involved and for more details visit http://www.voicesnow.org.uk
All performances will be streamed live on the Roundhouse website and on Roundhouse Radio
Listings and Booking Information
Roundhouse Members Priority Booking: Thursday 13 October
Become a Roundhouse Member today for as little as £40 to receive priority booking to Reverb 2012 plus other great benefits – visit roundhouse.org.uk/memberships
General Booking: Friday 14 October
Buy Tickets: roundhouse.org.uk/reverb
Ticket Offer: Receive 20% off when you purchase a ticket for more than one Reverb event – first 100 tickets only for each event. Offer available by booking via 0844 482 8008 (offer not available online).
Terms & conditions: Offer not available retrospectively or in conjunction with any other discounts. Offer subject to allocation availability.
The Night Shift/OAE/Elder
Roundhouse Music Collective
Friday 24 February 2012
Doors and foyer performances from 7pm, Main Space performance 9pm
Berlioz – Romeo & Juliet (extracts)
Tickets: £5 (standing),£15, £20 and £25
Aurora Orchestra/Collon – Love Song for the City
Saturday 25 February 2012, 7.30pm
Richard Strauss – Metamorphosen
Michael Gordon – Gotham (with film by Bill Morrison)
Leonard Bernstein arr. Iain Farrington – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Tickets: £10 (standing), £15, 20 and £25
Imogen Heap/Holst Singers/Brunt
Ana Silvera/Estonian Television Girls Choir/Saluveer
Sunday 26 February 2012, 7pm
Imogen Heap – The Seashell and the Clergyman
(Original commission by Birds Eye View Film Festival and the Southbank Centre.)
Ana Silvera – Oracles (plus new works)
Tickets: £10 (standing), £15, 20 and £30
Performance repeated on Monday 27 February 2012 at the Sage Gateshead
London Contemporary Orchestra/Brunt/Burgess/Pioro/Ames/Coates
Nonclassical DJ sets
Saturday 3 March 2012
Doors and live music from 7pm, LCO from 8pm
Xenakis – Metastasis
Gabriel Prokofiev – Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra (European Premiere)
Stockhausen – Studie I (Elektronische Musik)
Jonny Greenwood – Doghouse
Vivier – Orion
Tickets: £15 (standing), £20(balcony seating)
Sunday 4 March 2012, Foyer and Main Space performances from 12pm
Repertoire to include Orlando Gough – Making Music Overture ‘Traditional Values’
Tickets free – programme details available from November 2011 at voicesnow.org.uk
For fans of contemporary classical, stay tuned for a big announcement from the Roundhouse on Thursday 13 October!