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Easter Voices with Britten Sinfonia: from Mozart to Stravinsky featuring Salonen

Britten Sinfonia/Eamonn Dougan and Ben Goldscheider, 28 March 2018, Milton Court

A unique and intimate concert by Britten Sinfonia that felt almost like a private choral service took place in Milton Court Concert Hall on 28 March 2018. It happened during the final days preceding Easter weekend, and the conductor Eamonn Dougan devised a hand-crafted evening of choral works called ‘Easter voices’ for the purpose of celebrating this time. He did it through comparing two masses: Mozart’s ‘Missa Brevis in F’ (1774), composed when Mozart was just 18, and Stravinsky’s ‘Mass for chorus and wind instruments’ (1948). Dougan went further in a clever programming of the evening, continuously interspersing music of 16-18th centuries (Gabrieli, Gasualdo, Mozart) with that of 20-21st century (Bruckner, Stravinsky, Salonen), as though the evening was a specially crafted aural meal where we had to compare dishes from different world cuisines. With Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices consisting of no more than 25-30 musicians in total, it felt indeed like a choral service for the chosen few, with bonds between musicians on stage creating a unique, tender sound. It is interesting that family parallel was not only a metaphor – on that evening a young soloist Ben Goldscheider joined Britten Sinfonia to play a solo piece for horn by Esa-Pekka Salonen, while his mother Nicola Goldscheider was on stage as part of the instrumental ensemble in the first half of the evening. A small interview with the soloist made after the concert makes part of this review and gives some insights into this young and aspiring musician’s projects and plans for future.

Eamonn Dugann carefully built up the architecture of the programme through parallel structures in its first and the second half. Starting the evening ‘service’ (as this is how he preferred to call this concert, and that what indeed it was) with an Introit - Gabrieli’s Maria stabat ad monumentum (1587), proceeding with Stravinsky’s ‘Fanfare for a new theatre’ (1964), and then interspersing parts of Mozart’s ‘Missa Brevis’ (firstly Kyrie and Gloria, then Credo, and then Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei) with Stravinsky’s ‘Pater Noster’ (1926, revised 1949) and ‘Ave Maria’ (1934, revised 1949). While seemingly counterposing these pieces, Dugann in fact chose them for their simplicity and clarity, while the reasons for them sounding so are diametrically opposed. With Mozart it is his age and youthfulness that play a role in the mass being the ionic, that is the simplest and the primary of possible architectural orders. It was, on the contrary, the return to simplicity and Orthodox chants of his youth for Stravinsky after his experiments and explorations with other types of musical harmonies. This first part of the evening indeed was like a musical fasting, purification and refinement of our senses through hearing Britten Sinfonia and its soloists Emma Tring, Ciara Hendrick, Daniel Auchincloss and Tim Dickinson who quietly stepped ahead to lead during Mozart’s ‘Missa Brevis’. ‘Credo’ was particularly impressive here, with its text spreading itself through Mozart’s notes over Milton Hall that was darkened to create the right atmospere.

Britten Sinfonia. Credits: Harry Rankin

The second part was quite different and took our prepared minds to some new paths and places, while keeping the intimacy and delicacy of the atmosphere created in the first half of the concert. It started with a solo performace from young musician Ben Goldscheider who performed Esa-Pekka Salonen’s ‘Concert étude for solo horn’ (2000). For Dougann, putting this piece in the beginning of the second half was a reflection of Stravinsky’s fanfare in its first half. But if it was one, it was a rather complicated one, combining celebration of virtuosity (to show off a performer playing it) and a musical memorial, as the piece was written in memory of Salonen’s first French horn teacher Holger Fransman. Ben Goldscheider stood quietly in front of empty chairs (the woodwind players will come on stage afterwards), lit by the lights, and played the étude that had several pauses in it. He articulated each phrase between these silences so patiently and carefully that it made the experience sound like a thoughtful recital of a poem. Then three players placed in the Milton Court gallery played Bruckner’s ‘Aequale’ (quite a rare genre) for three trombones, and then, after Gesualdo’s quite dark madrigals ‘Omnes amici mei’ and ‘Vinea mea electa’, came the final work of the evening – Stravinsky’s ‘Mass for chorus and wind instruments’. Interestingly, playing the oboe for Britten Sinfonia was Nicholas Daniel, who earlier on also played a virtuosic piece ‘Mimo II’ by Salonen, that time with BBC Symphony Orchestra. With the evening indeed full of reflections and reminiscences, the final work, sung in semi-darkness, fell on our fully prepared minds and ears. The mass has something unusual and fresh in it, while at the same time, similarly to Mozart’s one, being uncluttered and ample with space for thought and reflection. It is during that time that it seemed perfect to close one’s eyes and to spiritually fly away somewhere to unknown lands, where the voices of the soloists joined now by Tom Chapman were our spiritual leaders in this intimate mass communion. A very unusual, carefully plotted evening where the conductor Eamonn Dugann was knowingly leading us through this private, refreshing meditation, making us feel the differences and similarities between musical pieces ranging from 16th to 21st century.

Interview with Ben Goldscheider after the concert

Ben Goldscheider. Credits: Natalia Kolosova

To make the evening even more enjoyable and comprehensive, Ben Goldscheider, while sitting comfortably in his dressing room and surrounded by his family who celebrated a very important evening – on that day Ben’s father Chris won a milestone court case against the Royal Opera House – spoke about the solo piece he had performed and earlier recorded for his solo CD called ‘Debut’.

Yulia Savikovskaya: Could you tell us how you chose this piece for your disc and for the concert?

Ben Goldscheider: I played this piece as part of BBC Young Musician brass final in 2016 which I won. I subsequently played it to David Butcher who is the Chief Executive of the Britten Sinfonia, and he invited me to play this piece as part of this concert because Esa-Pekka Salonen is the resident composer and artist at the Barbican Centre this season.

YS: What is specific about this piece that suits you as a horn player? Why did you choose it for your repertoire?

BG: I think what is very special about this piece is that Salonen started out as a horn player himself. So writing contemporary music, he really knew exactly what was possible on the instrument, and he wrote the piece in such a way that everything is possible and everything is idiomatic for the instrument. So number one it is very manageable within its technical craziness, and while a lot of contemporary music uses special techniques as a gimmic or for comedy, this is a quite profound piece of music. He wrote it in memory of his late horn teacher, and I think it is a really fantastic piece of music that uses special effects for a more profound purpose.

YS: I remember now that Salonen said during the Total Immersion day in December that as a composer he was always pushing the envelope in terms of his pieces’ difficulty, and that he was pleased and surprised that young players today could easily play them. Do you think that players of the previous generations would have found it too hard? Is it manageable for you now?

BG: It is a very difficult piece, an incredibly difficult piece, arguably there is no piece more difficult in the horn repertoire. At the same time, as I said, he wrote it idiomatically for the instrument, which means that all of the stuff that is difficult is not impossible, and it just takes a lot of work. I think that of course with any instrument players are now much more advanced technically just because we are exposed to new things and have different requirements. If we go back to Richard Strauss, he wrote his first horn concerto for his father who was considered the greatest horn player of his time, and he found it too difficult to play. However, it is now amongst the repertoire of everyone, even the 10-11 year olds. So, of course, times change with regards to how well players can play.

YS: Did you make pauses by your own decision or were the intermissions written in the score?

BG: They are written in the score. The intermissions were more to give space to different sections and to allow the listener to digest what they hear before playing something else.

YS: Can you briefly speak about your CD ‘Debut’ and the pieces you’ve chosen for it. Is it programmatic horn repertoire or is it something unique?

BG: I chose the works that take the instrument in the full circle. So, we start in the 21st century with the piece that was written in 2005, by Jörg Widmann, and then we go back to the classical period, then through the Romantic period to the 20th century and the 21st century. So the idea was to create a disc where when you listen to it from the beginning to the end you realize all the capabilities of the horn and see how the music developed and got more virtuosic as time went on.

YS: In future, would you like to have a career as a solo horn player or do you envision joining an orchestra?

BG: My dream is to promote the horn as a solo instrument and have a career as a soloist. Many people tell me that we don’t have the repertoire, but arguably after piano, violin and cello, the horn is the next one on the list with four concertos by Mozart, two by Strauss and two by Haydn. It is actually enough to have a base repertoire, and, like with this Salonen piece, I am very much interested in contemporary music and I want to have lots of new music for the horn.

YS: Are there some composer friends or colleagues whom you could actually ask to write a new piece for yourself as a soloist?

BG: Yes, hopefully, there are some things that I am planning in the next few years. We will see.

Ben Goldscheider during the interview. Credits: Natalia Kolosova

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