My tour Around Britten
Cellist Matthew Barley writes the first in a series of blogs as he travels round the country performing the music of Britten
My tour Around Britten has begun and this year I will be performing in or teaching at 100 events up and down our beautiful island celebrating the centenary of one of the 20th century's most extraordinary composers.
Britten's solo cello suites have always fascinated me, and in particular the Third, written towards the end of his life that ends with a beautiful rendition of the Kontakion, the Russian Orthodox Church's hymn for the dead. Building a programme around this I have commissioned pieces from brilliant Japanese composer Dai Fujikura and Norwegian DJ Jan Bang with electronics creating atmospheric soundworlds, and a new acoustic piece from James MacMillan. I also commissioned visuals to accompany the Britten suite which show on a big screen behind me that I activate with a footpedal while I play.
It's a complicated recital to give and for this reason I decided I needed a practice concert before the actual premiere – and it was a good thing I did! There was so much to think about for a first try out of the whole programme, and so many people who had helped create it all that I had to speak to and answer questions from – technicians, artists, designers, software programmers, composers. I eventuall arrived in my dressing room just four minutes before the concert began!
But the great thing about that was that it meant by the time I arrived at Southampton's Turner Sims Hall for the official opening concert I was relaxed and ready to go. George, my driver, roadie and engineer all rolled in to one, turned up in the van loaded with equipment, and it was such an exciting moment. Finally, after nearly three years of dreaming and planning, I was off to the first concert.
Different promoters have asked for slight variations on the programme, so sometimes there are two Bach suites, sometimes no visuals or electronics: if you're planning to come to a concert, please check my website for exact programme details – but I will play the Britten in every one.
There’s also a selection of workshops throughout the year. This is something that is dear to my heart – I love meeting people and talking about the music I play to find out what people think of it.
In January, my very first event was with a room full of music students at King Edward VI School in Southampton where we had a great time improvising with the backing from Jan Bang's piece, and discussing electronics and software. I managed a quick trip up to Salford for an appearance on BBC Breakfast – it was on the day that there was the first big snowfall around the country and this alone meant that several million people who switched on for a weather forecast got a bit of Britten instead!
I spent a very moving day in Naomi House, a hospice for children with terminal illness. The staff there are quite extraordinary and a group of them brought several children in to listen to me. One of them, a 7-year old boy with a serious heart condition, danced so beautifully all through a few movements of Bach – it filled the room with uplifting joy. That is what music is for.
A very different workshop experience came just a few days later in Low Moss prison in Glasgow. It was a taster day for what we all hope will be a bigger creative project during March and April. I played to a group of around 50 inmates and then spent a while talking to 14 men who were interested in doing a creative music project – there was such an enthusiasm and love of music.
I shall be writing here once a month as the tour progresses so please join me as Britten goes from Penzance to Shetland via the Channel Islands, Wigmore Hall, South Foreland Lighthouse, Manchester Victoria Baths, Charles Hazlewood's Orchestra in a Field Festival, Derbyshire's Peak Cavern, cathedrals, National Trust properties and many more wonderful venues. For a complete list of events and a tour map, visit my website.
Listen to Matthew Barley's 'Around Britten' album on Spotify here
For more details about the Around Britten tour visit Matthew Barley's website.