Britten Sinfonia: Britten in America

"Nico Muhly, through the window of Kaffibarinn" by Roo Reynolds
"Nico Muhly, through the window of Kaffibarinn" by Roo Reynolds on flickr

During my violin lesson on Friday my teacher Gabrielle mentioned that she was off to see Pekka Kuusisto play with the Britten Sinfonia at West Road. Gabrielle’s great at discovering interesting players with vibrant technique, and remembering what she’d said about the last time she’d seen Pekka play with the Britten Sinfonia I was keen to go along, but pretty doubtful there’d be any tickets left. So I checked the the box office and the website, but it was too late – the few remaining tickets had been handed over to the venue. Given that Kate’s not a Britten fan I wasn’t hopeful, but the programme looked so amazing I was keen to try:

Purcell Fantasia VII in C minor
Purcell arr. Muhly Let the Night Perish (Job’s Curse)
Purcell Fantasia XIII in F ‘Upon one Note’
Tippett A Lament, from Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’
Britten Les Illuminations, Op. 18
Steve Reich Duet
Nico Muhly New work (World première tour)
John Adams Shaker Loops

To add to the excitement Pekka and Nico were down to do a pre-concert talk at 19:00. I knew that Nico’s pre-concert talks were liable to be entertaining from a blog post (or should I say blog rant) he wrote about naff questions at pre-concert talks:

It worked out well. We dropped tochter and her friends at Bella Italia and then wandered over to West Road and brought one of the few pairs of tickets left 🙂

The pre-concert talk was suitably amazing, Nico talked extensively about his responses to Britten and Reich and tried to get Pekka to reflect on the differences (and similarities) in his playing as he approaches the romantic repertoire he’s famed for and modern / contemporary pieces. I spent a (wonderful) week in Finland once, in Tampere, and one lasting memory is that the Finns aren’t big fans of small-talk. As a Quaker you’d think I’d be up for long silences but even I was challenged! Pekka’s impish wit was perfect for entertaining and informing us the audience, but a full answer to Nico’s interesting question would have been intriguing.

Andrew Bird's pedalsPekka and Nico were planning to do the pre-concert talk over a musical backing and were playing some violin loops through a Line 6 DL4, but a mixture of strange electrical interference and us oldies inability to distinguish talking from background noise. Shame though, it may have been a fun happening!

The concert itself was amazing – I’ve been spoilt by some great concerts over the last year but this was a cracker. The Purcell was beautiful, Pekka’s technique is flamboyant but the resulting sound is very delicate.

One aspect of Pekka’s playing that did make me smile was his bow hold – he olds the bow some way up the stick, not adjacent to the frog. Earlier in the day Gabrielle had been correcting my hold as it kept slipping up the stick, towards Pekka’s 😉

The Tippett was a revelation, not the architectural eclectic Tippett I’ve heard before. A touching little piece inspired by Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. I’m going to keep an eye out for performances of the whole of his Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’.

Next up was Britten’s Les Illuminations. I’ve heard several recordings of this (Spotify has a Pears/Britten one, along with other recordings) but I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it sounded live. Pekka and the Britten Sinfonia brought a haunting fragility to the playing that perfectly complimented Mark Padmore‘s expressive narrative tenor singing.

The second half started with an exciting performance of Reich’s Duet. How Pekka and Jacqueline Shave kept their line as what they were playing wove in and out of each other is a mystery. Beautiful and high energy stuff.

Nico Muhly‘s piece was great. It’s always exciting to hear the premier of a piece and this was so expertly written for Pekka, the Britten Sinfonia, and Mark Padmore that even Kate – not a fan of contemporary classical stuff – loved it. The programme really showed it off too, bringing out the Britten like evocative qualities and the Reichian energy. The end of the piece reminded me of Andrew Bird (the Line 6 box had put me in mind of him earlier) as it called for Pekka to play and to whistle.

If I had to criticise anything it would be the programming of Adams’ Shaker Loops. It’s a wonderful piece, and the string orchestra version gave us another opportunity to hear Pekka’s wonderful playing. But. After the Reich and the Muhly it would have been nice to have a greater change of scene – perhaps moving the Tippett to the end of the concert.

West Road was the first UK date for this concert (after performances across The Netherlands), but if you are near Dartington tonight, London’s Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday, Christ Church in Cockermouth on Tuesday, Southampton on Thursday, or Norwich on Friday, then do check it out.

"Pekka Kuusisto" by brittensinfonia
"Pekka Kuusisto" by brittensinfonia on flickr

One Response to “Britten Sinfonia: Britten in America”

  1. Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at English National Opera « Tim’s Zen Blog of Sparseness Says:

    […] new (and first) opera Two Boys at English National Opera. Kate’s not much of an opera fan but we’d both seen and loved another Muhly premiere, Impossible Things with the Britten Sinfonia, and so it wasn’t hard to persuade her […]

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