Matthew Barley’s Around Britten blog

In his second blog the cellist travels to Salisbury and plays for an audience of autistic children

Matthew Barley

Welcome back to the Around Britten tour blog!

There are some lovely experiences to report, although compared to some months this year it has been relatively quiet on the Britten front. I’ve been rather busy with some other projects – six Peasant Girl concerts with Viktoria Mullova in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland, which were most enjoyable and made coming back to Britten and Britain all the sweeter.

One of the Around Britten events that will stay in my memory for a very long time was the Britten weekend organised by La Folia. If you don’t know this amazing organisation, you should! The artistic director is multi-talented keyboard player Howard Moody, who put together an inspirational weekend in Salisbury.

Salisbury CathedralOn the Friday we spent a day with hundreds of local school children who had created some magical songs in workshops, inspired by the Russian folk songs at the end of Britten’s third cello suite; and they even learned the originals in Russian.

Then I played the suite for them, and, having been so close to the source material, they appreciated it so much more deeply than if they had been listening ‘cold’. The icing on the cake, however, was the presence of Sally Schweitzer, Britten’s niece and very close friend. Sally told us so many moving and often hilarious stories about her uncle – it brought him to life in the warmest, most personal way.

The following day I was in Salisbury cathedral (above left) before lunchtime, billed as an installation (!). I sat in the east end of that ancient building and improvised for 45 minutes on themes from the Third Suite. I followed its ten-movement structure in the improvisation which I had never tried before and it was an interesting way to play. Effectively I was freed from having to think of material and form, and so was able to really expand outward, musically. That coupled with the acoustic made it a memorable adventure.

Mark PadmoreIn the evening there was a concert in Salisbury’s Medieval Hall where I played the Third suite, the La Folia quartet played the magnificent Third string quartet, and the incomparable tenor Mark Padmore sang the Holy Sonnets. Mark is one the of the greatest singers around, and there are just no words to describe the impact he created in this intimate venue with this astonishing, raw music that grabbed us all by the throat. It was music-making as good as it gets.

Going down to Sussex I had the first of a series of workshops in schools for children with autism. I’ve become really interested in autism; the way that autistic minds can be so organised, intensely musical with phenomenal memories. John Lubbock (of Orchestra of St John’s fame) runs a series of events in autistic schools and I went with him and we played and made music the whole day at LVS Hassocks School. I loved the responses from the kids which are never anything other than totally honest – often you can read the effect the music is having on their faces. What made the day incredible was that John has recently invested in a Soundbeam; a piece of technology that enables you to make sounds by interacting with a beam of light.

You can rhythmically break the beam, for instance, and it will convert that rhythm into musical sounds according to the programme you use, so we had quite sophisticated grooves and sounds from kids with no experience of playing instruments. I used themes from the Britten to improvise with while jamming with them and we enjoyed ourselves immensely – the widest smiles, especially from one lad who kept looking at me mischievously and telling me to ‘Mind the Gap’!

Last but not least in this patch was a visit to Lancaster, performing for the first time at the Institute for Contemporary Art in the University. This time I did the full programme with electronics pieces and the visuals. It’s fascinating for me as a performer to feel the different atmosphere that is created when the animation is shown while I play the Britten – I can’t put it into words, but you can feel the audience are on a very different kind of journey with the images that draw you in very deeply to the soundworld of the Britten. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but according to the feedback it makes for a powerful experience.