In concert – London Chamber Ensemble & Madeleine Mitchell: A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021)

London Chamber Ensemble [Madeleine Mitchell (violin, director), Joseph Spooner (cello), Sophia Rahman (piano), David Aspin (viola), Gordon Mackay (violin), Lynda Houghton (double bass), Peter Cigleris (clarinet, bass clarinet), Nancy Ruffer (flute), Alec Harmon (oboe), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Ian Pace (piano)

Rebecca Clarke Piano Trio (1921)
Judith Weir Atlantic Drift: Sleep Sound ida Mornin’ (1995), Atlantic Drift (2006), Rain and Mist are on the Mountain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes (Movements I-IV, 2005)
Helen Grime Miniatures (2005)
Judith Weir The Bagpiper’s String Trio (1985)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad Invocation for cello & piano (1999)
Thea Musgrave Colloquy (1960)
Ruth Gipps Prelude for bass clarinet (1958)
Errollyn Wallen Sojourner Truth (2021, world premiere)
Grace Williams Suite for Nine Instruments (1934)

St John’s Smith Square, London
Monday 9 March (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Classical music still has an awfully long way to go before female composers are an integral part of its make-up, but the celebration of International Women’s Day is helping the cause considerably, gaining more traction with each passing year.

One of the highlights of the 2021 celebrations was this concert from St John’s Smith Square, masterminded by Madeleine Mitchell, who led the London Chamber Ensemble in a very satisfying hour-and-a-half of music.

In a concert celebrating eight women composers, the common threads of America and the Royal College of Music were also explored. The latter organisation is where Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams and Helen Grime all studied, and where Errollyn Wallen and Mitchell herself are now professors. Wallen wrote a new piece, Sojourner Truth, for the occasion.

The concert began however with a terrific performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio. Completed in 1921, this substantial piece begins with a passionate outpouring, but it also has its elusive, mysterious moments. The trio of Mitchell, cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist Sophia Rahman caught these elements, getting off to a terrific start but pulling back to allow the enchanting slow movement room to breathe. At times Clarke’s music hints at influences from France – particularly Ravel but also Franck – which Spooner caught in his high intonation in the second movement. The spirit of the dance inhabited the finale, a more obviously English statement, but there was still room for more fervent thoughts when the trio united.

There was a sudden transition on the broadcast to the refreshing open air of Judith Weir’s Atlantic Drift, a compilation of three pieces for two violins proving an invigorating contrast to the denser textures of the Clarke. Weir’s incorporation of folk material into her music is enchanting, especially in the four-part last piece, Rain and mist are on the Moutain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes. Using a Gaelic song as its inspiration, Weir’s adaptation worked really well in these open air accounts from Mitchell and Gordon Mackay, the empty St John’s providing the ideal acoustic. Weir appeared later with The Bagpiper’s String Trio, a similarly folk-powered work from 1985. Based on a Scottish pipe tune this too lifted the listener away to the great outdoors, with excellent teamwork from Mitchell, Spooner and viola player David Aspin.

Helen Grime’s trio of Miniatures for oboe and piano were next, studies in compressed expression from the pale harmonics of the first to the jagged edges of the second. The third was an effective summation of Grime’s thoughts, panning out for a wider perspective from the piano. Alec Harmon and Sophia Rahman were fully responsive to the virtuoso demands.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Invocation for cello and piano followed, a late teenage piece offering an immediate chance to appreciate the probing line given to Joseph Spooner’s fulsome cello. As the composer’s response to Edvard Munch’s painting Melanchola reached its apex there were clangorous chords from Rahman, capping a compact but powerful utterance.

Thea Musgrave’s Colloquy was next, another model of economy – four short pieces for violin and piano packed with sharp, expressive statements. There were some challenges to performance here – such as the quick interchange between pizzicato and bowing in the second movement – which Mitchell took in her stride. The third piece was a touch more playful but still assertive, but the fourth was the most effective, a private train of thought gracefully prompted by Ian Pace’s piano.

The most striking piece of the evening – for its sound, its soul and its warmth – was Ruth GippsPrelude for bass clarinet. Gipps’ centenary falls this year, and her slightly baleful writing for the instrument was beautifully captured by Peter Cigleris, a model of control. After watching this I was struck by two questions – why do we not hear the music of Gipps more, and why are there not more pieces for solo bass clarinet?

Errollyn Wallen’s Sojourner Truth followed, written not just for Madeline Mitchell but for International Women’s Day – and taking us back to violin and piano. Based on a spiritual, O’er the crossing, it features intense dialogue between the two instruments, but when the melody is heard unaccompanied on the violin the ear is pulled firmly towards the centre of the music, a striking feature of another piece with more traditional inspirations.

To finish, we heard the 75-year-old Suite for Nine Instruments by Grace Williams. Scored for piano quintet, double bass, flute, clarinet and trumpet, it is a vivacious piece, quite modal and with hints of Stravinsky’s Septet for a similar instrumental combination – and equally driven in the outer movements, bringing the interval of a tritone right to the front. The London Chamber Ensemble played with flair, commitment and virtuosity, bringing a very impressive program to a close.

The concert is available to watch until 8 April on the link below – with some spoken introductions by Mitchell herself. On occasion the gaps between pieces are very short, but there are helpful markers to make viewing easier. Do make sure you watch, as some of the best chamber music from British women composers in the last 100 years is right here.

A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021) on International Women’s Day, directed by Madeleine Mitchell from St John’s Smith Square on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, Madeleine and the London Chamber Ensemble’s album of works by Grace Williams can be heard here:

On Record – Orchestra of the Swan: Timelapse (Signum Classics)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Timelapse is a concept album from the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor Bruce O’Neil and its artistic director David Le Page. Together they have created a sequence of works from as far back as the 17th century or as recently as last year, the concept illustrating how music can transcend time. In Le Page’s summary, Rameau and Vivaldi can be seen as fresh contemporaries of Thomas Adès or Radiohead, while the roots to songs from David Bowie and The Smiths are seen to lie in the music of Mahler and Vaughan Williams.

What’s the music like?

Timelapse hangs together as an hour of music perfectly suited to either end of the day. Its sequence is an imaginative one, and it hangs together in the way Le Page indicates thanks to the quality of his arrangements. There are no syrupy cover versions here; instead a song like Bowie’s Heroes is reduced to its bare elements. In the orchestra’s hands it becomes a contemplation on the original, a free improvisation from the flickering string ensemble complemented by icy droplets of melody from the harp.

The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out has similar qualities, though the substitution of an oboe for Morrissey’s voice, while beautifully played, is arguably less effective. Radiohead’s Pyramid Song fares better.

The ‘older’ music, as Le Page suggests, dovetails beautifully. François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses and a sequence from Rameau’s Les Boreades work really well, while the addition of Trish Clowes’ saxophone to Vivaldi’s music for Sleep 1 is a nice touch, her recitative sensitively done.

The cold, spidery figurations of Schubert’s Sleep Softly – a meditation on his Serenade by Le Page – cut to a robust, bluesy solo, while the Couperin segues rather nicely to Steve Reich’s Duet and Thomas Adès O Albion, a chamber-music alternative to the Enigma Variations’ Nimrod, drawn from his Arcadia string quartet.

At the close of the set, Errollyn Wallen’s Chorale contains both soothing textures and an impassioned, wordless plea, while the last of Górecki’s Three Pieces in Old Style has a moving simplicity harking back over centuries, illustrating Le Page’s point rather nicely.

Does it all work?

Everything fits together nicely, the overall mood one of contemplation in the half light. I found the phrasing on Grieg’s Air a bit rushed at times, but that is personal taste of course – and when you’ve got round the idea of an oboe replacing Morrissey’s voice on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out you’ll agree that it works rather well.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. There is a great need at the moment for music to soothe the fevered brow, and Timelapse is an effective playlist fulfilling that function every time you listen to it.

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You can buy the album from the Signum Records website

Talking Heads: Errollyn Wallen

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Errollyn Wallen is a positive force to be reckoned with in music. One of the primary reasons for this is her refusal to be restricted or compromised on a number of fronts, chief among them musical style and diversity. Both have presented lasting historical problems within classical music, but a chat with Errollyn makes anything seem possible through collaboration, flexibility and inclusivity. All these qualities and more have led to an MBE, awarded in June 2007 for services to music.

One of her passions and major achievements – as well getting her music played in space (of which more later!) is her involvement with Snape Maltings’ Friday Afternoons project, inspired by Benjamin Britten but taking on a new lease of life since the composer’s centenary year in 2013. Wallen is the composer of a dozen new songs for this year’s project, which she has entitled MAP: Songs For Children Everywhere. The collection is inspired by her travels around the world, from her native Belize to Suffolk and from Palestine to Scotland, and received its premiere in May at Hull’s Albermarle Centre. For performances as part of Friday Afternoons, which takes place on Friday 16 November, choirs can download the music directly from the website, where there are guides to difficulty, duration and availability.

When Arcana calls to discuss the new cycle Wallen is jetlagged after a trip to Nebraska, but she proves an engaging and passionate interviewee. She talks enthusiastically about her early meetings with the team performing MAP. “It was really inspiring with the school children, and part of the joy of the experience has been accompanying them myself. I was up there as far back as February, and I also tried some songs with local children in Suffolk which went well. It’s been so inspiring, we enjoyed hearing their response and they enjoyed it early on in the process.”

Her approach was one of freedom. “I tried not to write too much down, and I tried to put myself into my child’s self, which is why I included the song It’s Quarter To Nine:

Children find everything interesting. For instance Lonely Dog was about how there was a dog just mooching around at a bus stop:

… while A Sweet Shop in Jenin was about a shop full of amazing sweets in Palestine:

The Baby came about through working with Mahogany Opera, asked a boy if there’s a baby in the house. In some ways I knew children would get the idea and feel of the songs and use them to make vivid pictures, and that they would love the sound of words. All the texts are my own except for this one, it was a lovely, bouncy rhythm:

She considers the musical advantages of working with children. “They don’t have the barriers that adults might do, and also the voices I was writing for were untamed so I had to think about that too. I don’t go too much below middle ‘C’ in the songs, but I was still trying out the ranges of things. Some would be stretching difficulty but I also included an unaccompanied song, so that it gets across the freshness of children’s voices. In Rice and Beans – and Plantain too! I was using a song I admire called Old Abraham Brown. The song was modelled on it, using the words “I like rice and beans”, and using canons to create counterpoints. He’s a person that’s always been on my mind, and it was thinking back to the singing we did at school.”

Wallen is a passionate advocate of choirs in schools. “It’s a way in for children. You’ve got the words, stories and atmospheres, and you have security of singing in a larger group. A good example is that at one of the schools we went to there was a girl who couldn’t sit still, but by the end the kids were focussed on learning and she joined in with all the singing.”

It was important to her that Hull, last year’s City of Culture, should be part of the project. “I particularly asked to go back”, she says. “I was involved in the PRS Foundation biennial, and I also worked with a residency with refugees and primary school children. I was made aware of just how much singing they didn’t do. Together we made a piece about water and Hull, a companion piece to The Mighty River. I said let’s go back to Hull to continue that legacy. There will be lots of schools performing at the Albemarle Centre, we had a workshop with works for solo cello. The youngest was three and the eldest was 70.”

The composer continues to be a frequent traveller. “You store up impressions,” she says. For MAP I thought I’ve been to so many different places that I wanted to share some of those moments. One of the songs, Star, came from a memorable drive in the highlands of Scotland where I saw nobody for a long time but then came across a group of 20 or so deer. I was thinking about how would I remember the moment, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed composing it and am so pleased to have written it!”

While her travelling has so far remained Earth-bound, Wallen’s music has gone ahead of her into space – including her self-titled solo album ERROLLYN. “This happened because I met an astronaut in Houston called Steve MacLean”, she recalls. “He gave a talk to two of us which was great fun. He said he had always wanted to learn piano, but his children laughed at him. I taught him the bass line of my song Guru, so that he could improvise over it. He was about to go on to the Space Shuttle STS-115. We became very good friends, and later I made a short film with him called Falling. He took all three of my CDs to space with him, and NASA framed one of them for me. It was wonderful hearing his stories.”

FALLING by Errollyn Wallen and Dan Farberoff. Music performed live by Errollyn Wallen at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London from Errollyn Wallen on Vimeo.

Errollyn’s Ensemble X has a stirring motto: ‘We don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any’. Does she feel we are starting to get there in music across the board, or is there still much work to be done? “I think we’ve still got a long way to go”, she says with a hint of weariness, “but it can only be economics. It doesn’t make sense because I’ll go somewhere like Venezuela that has so much poverty and rich diversity in its music. We’ve got a perception problem with the wider public. The musicians know that’s not true. The funding cuts in schools do not help. We need to avoid losing generations of children who are talented and missing out. I do worry a lot, but when I see what Chineke! are doing the response is fabulous. Yet some people have been uncomfortable with them and that’s not the way to do it.

The positives are very clear, however. “It’s a joyfulness too”, she says. “I love playing with Chineke!, and Chi-chi Nwanoku, their founder, creates an atmosphere of true collaboration. It hasn’t been that easy with a lot of people, because when I started I was told what not to do. Everybody’s got to do what they want to do, and it’s wrong to hold them back.”

Chineke! and the emerging cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason are of course closely linked, and while Wallen welcomes his prominence there is a guarded warning too. “The world is ready for Sheku and it’s brilliant that he is there, but there have been Shekus before him. I think it’s a good time that people are waking up to the importance of diversity. What I have learned is that you cannot expect things to change unless you are taking part in them yourself. If you have grown up without seeing a person of colour you might have prejudices that are wrong. It’s not your fault but it’s important to recognise it.”

As regards writing for those of a much younger age, the importance of this task is not lost on her. “I still think composers and institutions think writing for children isn’t important, but it’s the future and sets what they remember. I wanted to be close to the action and see if I’d judged this right.”

For more information on Errollyn Wallen, you can visit her website