The Nash Ensemble celebrates its 50th birthday this month. Formed by Amelia Freedman at the Royal Academy of Music in October 1964, the Nash has become famous for championing pieces by living composers alongside Classical and Romantic chamber music. We talk to Freedman about the secrets behind the Nash Ensemble’s enduring success and what she has planned for the group’s 50th birthday celebrations…
What motivated you to found the Nash Ensemble?
I started the Nash Ensemble while I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I had organised chamber music concerts at the Academy before and a group of students took me down to our local pub, The Rising Sun, and convinced me that there was a need for a new ensemble. When we started we had about 20 players and the idea was to give as much professional experience as possible to the largest number of students that we could.
What were your ambitions for the ensemble when you founded it 50 years ago?
In those days there was a need for a group committed to the commissioning of new works – I was influenced by the Melos Ensemble who played interesting repertoire and occasionally commissioned new music. I was commissioning from the beginning, but also wanted to include works by Haydn and other Classical composers. I was interested in finding rare pieces and composers people hadn’t heard of. So programming was important from the word go.
How has the ensemble evolved over time?
As time went on I was able to present string sextets, string quintets and some string quartets, which I wouldn’t have done at the beginning. Another thing that came later was our exploration of repertoire for voice and ensemble, something no other group has been involved with quite like the Nash. David Matthews has arranged works like Dvořák’s Love Songs, Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and Berlioz’s Nuit d’été, for four voices and ensemble, for us. I am interested in hearing orchestral works played by chamber ensemble.
And how has the musical landscape changed in the 50 years that Nash has been performing?
There is still a very conservative audience out there, but more is being done to encourage people to approach contemporary music. Some people think that all new music is the same and unfortunately you do occasionally hear people say things like, ‘I don’t like new music. I’ve never heard it, but I don’t like it.’ That is changing though: there’s a greater diversity of repertoire in the concert hall and there is a much larger audience for new works. The wonderful thing about my musicians is that they can play Haydn as well as they can play a new work by Harrison Birtwistle.
Which contemporary composers have you worked with?
We work with a huge variety of composers, from David Matthews whose tradition is very much towards Britten, to Harrison Birtwistle, a very different composer. We’ve commissioned works from James MacMillan, Nicholas Moore, Nigel Osborne, Julian Anderson, Elliott Carter, Anthony Payne – I won’t go on here, because it might go on forever!
Apart from your own hard work, what do you think it is that’s contributed to the Nash Ensemble’s enduring success?
We’ve commissioned 193 works and performed over 300 premieres from 225 different composers. I think there’s a sort of spirit in the Nash – even when the players leave we still have that spirit and that principle. The music critic Sir William Glock once said that we ‘lead the way, but always look back to see if the audience is with us.’ And I think that is a very good principle to stand by. I try and broaden people’s musical experiences without alienating them. The Nash’s success lies in having one person at the helm who has been totally committed through thick and thin (and there have been a few thins). The love of the music and of new ideas is key – if the Nash had just been playing a very restricted Classical repertoire, like the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and Schubert Octet, it would have not survived. On the other side of the coin are the wonderful musicians who have been prepared to open their eyes and play the repertoire I present. It’s a team effort – they couldn’t manage without me and I couldn’t manage without them.
Can you name any memorable highlights from the 50 years of performing and programming with Nash?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think if I had to choose one highlight, it would be the Theresienstadt weekend we presented in 2010 at Wigmore Hall. It was a weekend of music by composers who were incarcerated in the concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia, and it included concerts, films and an exhibition. We even had survivors from Theresienstadt there – it was one of the highlights of my career really. Other things that stand out include our first themed series – a Fauré series – in 1979, a wonderful concert with Eartha Kitt presenting music of the 1930s and recording all the Mozart string quintets. And, of course, our relationship with composers has been really important to me over the years.
How did you go about choosing the programmes the 50th birthday celebration concerts?
I wanted to present highlights from the series we’ve presented over the last 50 years. In the 6pm concerts we’re trying to present some of the premieres we have performed over the years and on 14 March we’re performing a brand new work by Huw Watkins. We are also involving some of the wonderful singers who’ve worked with us in the past and conductors like Martyn Brabbins who has worked with us for many years. I hope people find it a very attractive series – it essentially captures 50 years of my life!
Photo: Charles Green