Matthew Barley's Around Britten Blog: a cavern, a lighthouse and a monastery
Cellist Matthew Barley reports on performing in some of the more unusual venues of his tour of the UK
June has been my favourite Around Britten month so far and it’s going to be a hard one to top, including, as it did, the tour of Scotland and two of the most interesting venues of the year: a cave and a lighthouse.
The northernmost leg of Around Britten began in Edinburgh’s wonderful Queen’s Hall, and the following day we drove north-west to Mull for my first visit to Tobermory; a real picture-postcard village.
Just above and to the left of this picture is an old Victorian school that has been turned into the most wonderful arts centre, complete with café and gift shop full of local craftsmanship and trinkets. The 60 seats were packed full for the concert and we all repaired to the café for drinks and chat afterwards – this is fast becoming a feature of Around Britten; the hugely enjoyable ‘see you all in the bar’ aspect. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at several repeat visits by audience members during the tour who have come to a concert, enjoyed themselves and come to a second performance bringing friends along – it’s starting to feel like a club!
The following day we found ourselves driving all the way back to the east coast to Cromarty and another lovely arts centre, this time in the old stable block of a stately home.
It must have taken a good three hours to make the set-up work with our enormous screen and all the electronic gear – it’s a part of the logistics that George (driver/engineer) takes care of and can be tricky in unusual shaped buildings. The screen and the Britten animation has been one of the talking points of the tour and after this concert one chap approached me very apologetically and confessed that he hadn’t liked the visuals at all – he had found it very distracting and needed to close his eyes. As he walked off, a lady came straight up to me, ruffled, and said that he was completely wrong. She was an artist and all of the animation – colours, textures, themes and suggestions – had been spot on and very moving!
Cromarty was an afternoon concert, and it was off-stage and into the van as we drove a couple of hours back southwards to Pluscarden Abbey, an 800 year old Benedictine monastery near Elgin. This is a place I had known about for many years (in fact a very, very distant ancestor of mine was the Abbott here around 500 years ago) and always wanted to visit, so had written to the current Abbott suggesting I visited and played for the monks.
I had never stepped in a monastery before and was a little nervous that I might make some kind of mistake in what I said or did - but the welcome could not have been warmer. I checked into my little guest room early, having decided to get up at 4am the following day to attend Vigils and Lauds. So I found myself in the church at 4.30am, listening to the Gregorian Chant of the monks during the 90min service – the first of 8 services for them in a day. It is hard to imagine what it might be like to lead that kind of life, but as I listened and watched the faces of these passionate and happy men it struck me what a relief it must be in one way. Of course they miss out on an awful lot by taking their vows, but on the other hand, all the decisions that we struggle with in our daily lives to do with career, money, family, relationships, time-management, travel etc are completely taken away from them. Incredible!
Playing in a space where prayer had taken place daily for 800 years was unforgettable – the atmosphere was so clear, so deep and so still that I hardly had to do anything to make the music come out. And seeing the monks’ faces afterwards was also a joy – they have such a deep love of music.
I do not practice any religion, but music is a spiritual force in my life – it has all the qualities that religious writings speak of in god; of ecstasy, oneness, beauty, mystery and eternity – it was very moving to make music in this setting.
James MacMillan (who has also been to Pluscarden Abbey) told me that he had based his piece for me on ‘half-remembered Easter psalms’ from his childhood. After the concert Brother Giles came to me with excitement and told me he recognised the material: it was the first Hallelujah after Lent – a joyful moment in their calendar, and he showed me the plainchant notation of that moment on the penultimate line of this page.
After all these magical moments we came down to earth with a secular bump as we drove off to Aberdeen for the night-ferry to Shetland.
It was a 12-hour crossing, but, thankfully, the sea was as still as the Serpentine in summer. We heard tales of a 44-hour crossing one winter as they couldn’t enter port for so long, and counted ourselves lucky.
Shetland gave us a wonderful welcome – everyone I met there was so friendly and I spent a fascinating hour or so in the museum that chronicles the lives of Shetlanders from Viking times up to the life-changing discovery of oil a few decades ago. It brought great wealth to Shetland. The Mareel Arts Centre only opened a few months ago and is a glorious building of wood and glass. The dry acoustic is very faithful and clear, not favouring or losing any frequency, so playing here was enjoyable once I had adjusted slightly – I find the trick is not to try and play louder, which is what instinct dictates in the face of no reverberation – and to trust that what the audience hears is of quality.
The following day a late ferry took us to Orkney for a concert in St Magnus Cathedral, one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve visited, made of crumbly pink stone nearly 1000 years old. One of the problems of touring can be that you never stretch your legs as you get driven everywhere, so finally, here on Orkney, I found time for a good 6-mile walk in the wonderful nature and fresh air. I’m sure it improved the concert.
My next Around Britten date was the first of ten concerts in National Trust properties. Gibside is a magnificent estate near Newcastle where they have occasional concerts in their beautiful chapel. The following day it was southwards again for a performance in the Great Castle at Oakham, a venue I had never heard of until it was one of the winners in the BBC Music Magazine competition.
Then in quick succession at the end of the month came Peak Cavern in Derbyshire (The Devil’s Arse), Coughton Court and South Foreland Lighthouse, the latter pair National Trust properties.
The cave was quite an experience. Here is George beginning the stage set up:
And how it looked when it was finished:
This was the view from inside the cave:
The sound was really magnificent in the cave, but the only problem was that it was the same temperature and humidity as the outside. When I planned this concert I thought that even in England it couldn’t be that bad in late June. Silly me. It was in fact 95per cent humidity and 13 degrees. My fingers were stiff with cold, and I could see the fingerboard glistening with condensation. Shifting was fearsomely difficult, sliding and sticking all over the place! But the atmosphere was wonderful and people who had travelled quite considerable distances to be there seemed to be very happy with the chilly and wet evening – there’s a part of the English character that seems to thrive in adversity and a good time was had by all. Except my cello. I was so worried about the humidity that I filled the cello and case with rice for the journey home so as to soak up the moisture , rather than let it soak further into the ancient wood. It was a funny sight.
Coughton Court is a marvel of National Trust preservation – a stunning old residence where I played in the elegant drawing room and enjoyed drinks and chat afterwards, but the following night, South Foreland Lighthouse perched on the White Cliffs of Dover, might be my favourite night on the tour so far. With 14 people inside, it was packed to capacity, and an excited audience had just been treated to dinner and champagne. It was windy and foggy by the coast (though warm and clear inland) and the view of cloud from the top of the lighthouse reminded me why it was such an important building, steering hapless sailors off the Goodwin Sands. But that fog and a howling wind made it so atmospheric. The last notes of the Britten suite are already chilling, painting the picture of death written by a dying man, but to then hear the wind racing around the vents high above us was extraordinary. And there is something about playing for a small number of people, sitting close, that is special.
And that brought a magical month to a close.