Matthew Barley's Around Britten blog: from St Bart's to Gloucester

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, Updated 12th June 2013

The cellist reports back from the latest instalment of his tour. This month he's been performing for autistic children and at a night club in Soho…

Matthew BarleyApril was a quiet month for Around Britten: firstly, a day with 12 young cellists in Southwell working on their ensemble repertoire and doing a bit of creative work with improvisation – always a splendid sight and sound. Then at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich I played a short lunchtime concert and then spent a few hours listening to talented young cellists playing Britten that reminded me just how hard these pieces are – especially at the start.

Finally I had two days in schools for autistic children in London – very challenging, and illuminating. And humbling to spend time with these young people for whom music is so clearly a very potent and positive force, watching their faces as they are touched by the sound of the cello.

And there was a bit more Britten in April too, though it was not in Britain – I spent a week in Bonn for the BeethovenFest that included a Britten recital at the Beethoven-Haus - one of my favourite chamber halls.

May’s activities started with an afternoon in St Bart’s Hospital playing to patients, before heading to a small club in Soho, London under the umbrella of Classical Revolution, a fantastic club night for classical music started by Simon Hewitt-Jones. We we played music by a variety of composers – including Britten of course – and then we all gathered on stage for an impromptu improvisation (which went remarkably well!) before reading through various bits of chamber music: it was all huge fun. It’s fascinating to me to see how ‘portable’ Britten is – like Bach I have been able to play it in a huge variety of venues with great success – it is music that communicates powerfully.

The next two concerts in Southwell Minster and Gloucester (pictured below) were memorable because it is such a joy to play unaccompanied music in those acoustics – especially in Bach you can hear the harmonies so clearly with the aid of the resonance – and it is very special to gaze at the architecture as you play. Architecture has been described as frozen music and certainly the cathedrals feel so musical to play in.

Matthew Barley in Gloucester

I also had another one of my young cellists workshops in Gloucester, which was just wonderful. I love these occasions as there is such enthusiasm in the room, and we had the most enjoyable session, which included learning a complex Indian rhythmic tihai from memory.

After a late-night concert at Bury St Edmunds Festival we drove off to Lincoln where I played in the very extraordinary Chapter House with its arching ceiling and fabulous acoustic.

A few days later I was due in Newbury Festival but in the preceding days had a major backache brewing. I could hardly walk, and during the morning it got steadily worse, so that by the time I had an appointment with an osteopath I actually could not walk without the help of an umbrella to lean on. It was unbelievably painful – so many people have experienced this so I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about.

To cut a long story short, the osteopath was brilliant, and I was just able to play, being driven to the concert and back by my manager, propped up in the car with hot-water bottles. The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for later broadcast just to add to the pressure – I almost didn’t manage to stand after I’d finished playing. The following two nights I was in Cardiff and Exeter, before driving home from Exeter through the night, arriving home at 2am, unpacking, repacking, and getting up at 7 to go to Heathrow and flying to Zurich for a concert in Lucerne! We bumped into Steven Isserlis there and had a loud lunch – cellists always get on well.

The very last day of May was the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh but I’ll save that for June as it was the first day of the Scotland tour, which I shall write about soon. Watch this space.

Join Matthew Barley and members of the BBC Music Magazine team at one of his concerts as part of his Around Britten tour on 11 September! Find out all about it here…

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