Hi I’m Matthew Swann; I am the Associate Producer for Classical Music at the Roundhouse. And my role in Reverb is producing programming, putting together the whole thing. Sort of quite a far reaching role but it’s basically making sure that everything happens, everybody’s talking to everybody else, everyone knows what going on the stage, so yeah, quite an exciting but busy role.
Reverb as a whole started in 2010 and basically we are trying to capture an exciting movement in contemporary music at the moment, not just classical but right across the board. A lot of people have started using this title, ‘alternative classical’ which I’m not sure whether I like or not but it’s as good as any. It’s really a lot of people in classical music that are trying to break out of traditional concert format, trying to break out of sort of traditional repertoire and programming ideas and really bring to an audience that we feel were part of anyway, there’s a whole generation of people in a time where, sort of alternative music and rock and roll and electronica were very much part of contemporary culture and we were part of that culture as well and we go to club nights and gigs and all the rest of it, see loads of people there and we couldn’t work out why those people and our friends that we went to those sort of gigs with weren’t coming to classical music.
We decided all independently actually, not so much with each other, to do something about it. We felt there were two issues with classical music, one is the perception of it and one is the experience of it. I think perception wise, people often feel that it’s not something for them, it’s stuffy, it’s for an older generation. And the experience unfortunately brought that out but we all thought, there’s nothing wrong with the music, the music’s amazing so we just need to put it in different venues, we need to do something completely different with it, we need to give people a route in, so if you like Radiohead for example, there’s absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t like Steve Reich and Stockhausen, Hugh Brunt of the LCO is going to try and prove that theory in his concert.
So the festival as a whole, five nights, five of the best performing and producing groups in classical around at the moment. There are some times when you do want people to be quiet and you do want people to sit here and really concentrate on it. But I’d rather do that through an amazing performance and really good lighting and really sort of creating an atmosphere and in which people would want to respect that and explain what the music was about. It’s just a much nicer way of doing it and having that whole sort of club night is brilliant.
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