Matthew Barley's Around Britten Blog

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From Nottingham to Penzance via Argentina

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St Michael's MountAround Britten in March kicked off in Nottingham with a whistle-stop tour of four schools in one day.

First thing in the morning I was faced with a room full of delightfully smiley 8 year-olds who listened so carefully to bits of Britten I played to them, and couldn’t stop the questions afterwards – we then had great fun as they all got their instruments out and practised playing simple chords together, in perfect rhythm.

One young lad called Tomos came up and continued the conversation at the end and was so enthusiastic I invited him to come along to the concert a couple of days later – normally 8 years old would be too young, but he was bright as a button and I was sure he could manage it.

Another school had a room full of no less than 50 young string players for me, all scraping away on their instruments with great gusto. It’s part of the government’s scheme to have every child in the country play an instrument and it’s really wonderful, although I wish there was a little more funding for more lessons – sometimes they only have 30 minutes for the whole class with a teacher each week.

Then I dashed back to London to play at the Houses of Parliament, working with a DJ and improvising and managing to insert the odd Britten quote! The following day was the concert in Nottingham at the Djanogly Hall, which is always a favourite place to play as it just makes a cello sound so good! Tomos came along and was still wide awake at the end having enjoyed every minute of it – I love having young people at concerts – their enthusiasm is a tonic.

The diary got a little frantic after that because the British Council wanted me in Argentina for something exciting (another story I’m afraid – not quite the space here!), and the only time I could fit it in this year was in March, but it meant that my next Britten date, at the Wiltshire Music Centre, would be the same day that I landed from Buenos Aires. I’ve never performed within hours of getting off a long-haul flight and wasn’t sure how it would go, but I tried to eat as little as possible which always seems to give me more energy, and drink lots of Argentine Maté tea which is very energy-giving. I managed to get through the day – the hard bit was driving out there in the pouring rain and practising, and actually loved the concert. I had a super audience and again, the acoustic there is just fabulous for the cello…but the next day I was exhausted.

After a couple of days rest I was on the train down to Cornwall for my Western-most concert of the Britten year: Penzance. There’s something almost magical about travelling down to Cornwall by train from London as the landscape steadily gets more and more rugged and arresting, until the final moment when you emerge from behind an embankment and see the bay with St Michael’s Mount (pictured above) on your left, and the town of Penzance clinging to the hill. I think this week will be hard to beat this year (although it is early days) as I had an education project to deliver at Humpry Davy (yes, he of the mining lamp) School in the four days running up to the concert.

I had a class of music scholars who had been picked for their aptitude and received free lessons at the school, and with 20 of them we studied the way Britten had used fragments of Russian folksong for the solo suite I played to them and then created our own piece of nearly 15 minutes, based on three Cornish folksongs. It was a treat to see the students come out of their shells during the week as they got used to this way of making music, and they came up with so many wonderful ideas that I then structured to make the final composition. They played and sung all from memory in a faultless performance and it was moving to see the pride on their faces at their achievement.

Much of the week was spent in groups, unsupervised, where they had to work together to compose and it is challenging, but I can’t think of a better and quicker way to develop the most important characteristics needed in the 21st century to make yourself employable – and, it’s incredibly good fun! Win-win.

The concert was a thrill as the young students all stayed and it was great to see them enjoying contemporary music along with the Britten and its wonderful animation – and it was the first completely sold-out show of the tour. Afterwards I broke a personal record and managed to get from stage to train carriage in 16 minutes!

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