Congratulations to the University String Sinfonia, who on Saturday headed to the Market Town of Kings, to perform at St Mary’s, Faversham, as part of the Coffee Concert series.
Directed by Floriane Peycelon, the players gave a spirited reading of Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky (a theme most often heard in the carol ‘A Crown of Roses’), followed by a performance of John Woolrich’s evocative Ulysses Wakes, featuring postgraduate Music Performance Scholar reading Chemistry, Kira Hilton, as soloist.
Woolrich’s hushed, agile responses to Monteverdi cast a shimmering spell as it lifted into the church’s generous acoustic, and the composer, who was present for the performance, talked before the piece about his music and the spirit behind his reimagining music of the past.
The String Sinfonia is back in action on Friday 31 March in Colyer-Fergusson Hall; more details here.
Colyer-Fergusson Hall will host what promises to be a wonderfully atmospheric event at the end of this month, as pianist Clare Hammond brings a combination of music and film to the concert-hall as part of the Ghosts and Whispers tour.
The project, a combination of live piano pieces haunted by ideas of ‘fragments, last thoughts, elegies and absences’ and specially-commissioned film, embraces music by an eclectic range of composers; before the performance on Friday 27 May, The event beguils with its promise of immersing the listener in a world of illusions and shadows, interweaving works by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and others with piano miniatures by John Woolrich.
Intrigued at the notion, I caught up with Clare and asked her about some of the ideas behind the project…
How did you decide which composers’ repertoire to pull together ? It’s a wonderfully eclectic mix of composers for the theme of the event.
We wanted to explore fragments – short pieces, many of which are unfinished – and create a rapidly changing tapestry of different styles. Listening to the programme (and performing it!) really is a unique experience. You will hear fragments of pieces by Mozart and Schubert for the first time – ideas for sonatas that never saw the light of day. There are works that muse on death by Janacek, Stravinsky and John Woolrich, a touching Sarabande from Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and a philosophical puzzle by Robert Schumann. It provides a radically new perspective on familiar composers while the visual elements transport us to a surreal and unsettling world.
How do John’s Pianobook pieces work to hold the programme together ?
John’s Pianobooks are essentially a series of miniatures that explore a myriad of different themes – Goya’s Caprichos (engravings of witches and monsters that form a grotesque counterpoint to Enlightenment ideals), Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), and ‘micograms’ by visionary Swiss writer Robert Walser, highly admired by Kafka but then incarcerated in an asylum for much of his life. While the miniatures are ‘finished’, they are ephemeral and many just evaporate into thin air. They are the perfect partners to these vanishing fragments by more familiar composers, some of which barely register before they disappear.
How do the live music and the filmed content related to one another ?
We created the musical programme first and the Quay Brothers then put together a sequence of fragments from previous films that had been unused – left on the cutting room floor! Music and film are very tightly bound together and precisely synchronised. On the whole, music in a more familiar or tonal style is paired with abstract images, while John Woolrich’s music coincides with these grotesque puppets. The narrative, again, is fragmentary – it promises continuity and then snatches it away.
How would you like / do you hope audiences will respond to the immersive combination of music and film ?
Ghosts & Whispers is so unusual that it is impossible to predict how people will react. I hope that the audience will very quickly feel submerged in this bizarre universe, and that they think back to the piece for many years to come. I have performed it several times now and whenever I return to the work, I find more layers to unpack. It is certainly very macabre and, at times, unnerving but, in providing such an unorthodox perspective, it also brings depth and a wealth of new ideas.
The performance will fill the concert-hall on Friday 27 May at 8pm; book tickets here for what promises to be a unique experience…
Many thanks to everyone involved in Saturday’s Composer in Focusevent; a great opportunity to hear from John Woolrich, a major figure on the British compositional landscape, about his approach to composition, relationship to music from the past, and ideas behind the pieces performed by the University Symphony Orchestra, String Sinfonia and Music Scholar pianists.
John is currently Associate Artist, and has been in attendance at rehearsals and a recent performance by the String Sinfonia in Folkestone as we prepared for Saturday.
The event was an opportunity to bring University musicians and John together to explore two of his works; Ulysses Awakes and Gesänge der Frühe,pieces with two distinct relationships to music of the past. As part of the event, John also talked about his approach to composing, the context surrounding the music performed, and learning from models of the past – musical ‘echoes’ being a particular, fascinating aspect of John’s music.
Thanks to Flo Peycelon for directing the String Sinfonia, to second-year postgraduate Architecture student and Music Scholar Charlotte Cane for playing the solo viola in John’s Ulysses Wakes; and also to second-year Chemistry postgrad and Music Scholar, Kira Hilton, who played the solo viola in performances of the same piece at Folkestone’s Cafe Eleto and at Studio 3 Gallery on the University campus recently.
Thanks to all the musicians, including Scholar pianists Will Morgan (Economics), Michael Lam (Kent and Medway Medical School) and Hana Faizuramira (Politics and International Relations).
Contemporary music really is the lifeblood of our times; it writes in the urgent language of Now, addressing today’s concerns, and as we heard, is often mindful of its relationship to the past; how fantastic to have brought one of its exponents in to work with the Music department this week. Thank you to John for his support, and for being a wonderfully generous and insightful ‘In Conversation’ guest.
It’s a busy time for the Music department, and for the Symphony Orchestra in particular; not only is the annual Colyer-Fergusson Cathedral concert looming, for which the Orchestra is preparing works by Haydn and Mendelssohn – but the musicians are also performing as part of next month’s Composer in Focus event featuring John Woolrich.
Pictured here at a recent weekend rehearsal are the musicians working on Woolrich’s Gesänge der Frühe, which the Orchestra will perform as part of the event on 2nd April, alongside the String Sinfonia and several Music Scholarship pianists, exploring John Woolrich’s music and approaches to composition.
Images of empty Italian piazzi find echo in music for string orchestra, including John Woolrich’s Ulysses Wakes, as the #EarBox series bringing music and images together returns to Studio 3 Gallery with the University String Sinfonia on Weds 23 March at 1.10pm.
Woolrich’s piece is a transcription of Ulysses’ first aria in Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, first performed in 1640. Washed up on the coast of Ithaca, Ulysses wakes on the shores and asks ‘Am I sleeping or awake? / And what country surrounds me?’ as he fails at first to recognise his home. In Woolrich’s reimagining, Ulysses’ questioning aria is sung not by a voice, but by the darker-hued tones of a solo viola, played here by Music Performance Scholar, Kira Hilton.
The programme will also include Purcell’s Chacony and Vaughan Williams’ reflective Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. as well as Vivaldi’s vivacious ‘Spring’ from The Four Seasons.
The concert is set against the backdrop of the gallery’s current exhibition Le Piazze [In]visibili – Invisible Squares, which was created during the early days of lockdown in Italy in 2020, and reflects the desolate emptiness of town squares which traditionally throng with residents and tourists, but which suddenly became empty like so many social spaces around the entire world.