After a few days of packed posts about the Berkeley Ensemble’s whirlwind of musical adventures in 2016, we have a few things to tell you about what’s in store for this year. We’re currently in the midst of planning for the 2017 Little Venice Music Festival, which will take place on 20th-22nd October. The programme will be announced very shortly.
We are also looking forward to our debut at the Presteigne Festival in August, where we will be working with mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and festival director George Vass. Other collaborations coming up include those with pianist James Baillieu, mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley (a star of the 2016 Little Venice Festival), and baritone Benedict Nelson.
New music in our repertoire will include the world première of a work by Helen Roe – a piece we first encountered at our PRS composition workshop in 2015 – and the winner of a composition prize as part of the Musical Cultures Conference at the University of Hull.
In education, look out for the return of Stories in Sound XL, the release of a new video outlining the work we do at GCSE and A Level, and another exciting family concert and schools project at the Little Venice Music Festival. Last but not least, the annual chamber course will return for its fifth consecutive year. It gets bigger and better each time!
Our education programme climbed new heights in 2016 reaching over 2500 children, travelling further afield in the UK, working with a broader age range and delivering a more diverse group of projects: from our fantastic new primary schools project Stories in Sound, to a performance at Grange Park with young singers, to chamber music speed-dating at Hull University!
Our new Stories in Sound project in collaboration with Neil Valentine (BSO Associate Artist) and Wiltshire Music Centre took place in June when we visited 9 primary schools in 3 days. Each school created their own unique story performed with narration and live soundtrack, and the visit culminated in a family concert at the fabulous Neeld Concert Hall in Chippenham. The schools were also given a Stories in Sound resource pack which included lesson plans, recordings by the Berkeley Ensemble and information about the music. Press play below to hear the Berkeley Ensemble’s interpretation of a graphic score based on ‘Space’ from this project. The project was such a success that we took it to the Little Venice Music Festival in October for a repeat performance in schools around Little Venice. Plans are now afoot to expand the project to incorporate a word artist, a theatre group and even bigger and better scores.
Lift Off! by the Berkeley Ensemble:
A new collaboration for 2016 with Primary Robins involved members of the ensemble visiting schools in Winchester to introduce the instruments to the children and to work with the children on their songs. This culminated in a fantastic event at Grange Park Opera on July for the children’s Summer Concert where the schools joined together to sing, accompanied by the Berkeley Ensemble.
In the autumn, our visit to the specialist speech and language school in Surrey, Meath School, was another highlight for the ensemble. Working in such a fantastic and inspiring school was a real treat. It gave us the opportunity to approach the design of our workshops differently, to consider more deeply how music can be a vessel for communication and to incorporate many more fun visual elements. We’re looking forward to returning to Meath School in 2017.
Our residencies at Ibstock Place School and Hutton Grammar School are still going strong and we continue to see fantastic results for GCSE and A Level composition. The ensemble is able to support the curriculum by providing live performance, analysis, workshops and coaching to augment these excellent music departments.
Much more happened in 2016 including our residency at Hull University, the chamber music course in Somerset and a wonderful project at Woodfield SEN School in Surrey. To read about what is coming up next check out our post tomorrow where we talk about everything we have planned for 2017!
Apart from the major projects of the year – the recording and performances of Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater and our first Little Venice Music Festival – we gave performances at venues around the country, including some of our favourite places to visit as well as some new ones. Perhaps most exciting, we fulfilled an long-held ambition to perform at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, and perhaps broke the record for the largest number of occurrences of the name Berkeley in a concert programme. Our friend and Patron Michael Berkeley was present to introduce the concert and we performed his dramatic Clarinet Quintet. We hope to return to this wonderful place very soon.
Other highlights of the year included a second collaboration with the marvellous pianist Tom Poster in Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet at Wiltshire Music Centre – a happy return visit – and a special concert in association with the Hanover Band at the Arundel Festival with guest soloist Pip Eastop for Mozart’s Horn Quintet.
In 2014 our New Cobbett Prize was awarded to Samuel Wesley Lewis for his piece, Sequenza, with part of the prize being a new commission for the ensemble. This we premièred to one of our favourite audiences – that of Luton Music Club – in February.
Considering the undertaking of the Stabat Mater and Little Venice projects it seems amazing that we found time to do anything else this year, but it has been one of the busiest and most exciting periods since we began our journey into the world of chamber music.
Our second big success of 2016 was October’s Little Venice Music Festival, based at St. Saviour’s, Warwick Avenue – right next to the tube station. This was the fifteenth in the festival’s history, and we had the pleasure of performing on two occasions in the past. This year saw us take full responsibility for the weekend, from the programme and artists to tea and cake.
Building on the existing format of three weekend evening concerts, we included a family concert on the Saturday morning which was the culmination of a short education project in local primary schools – more about that tomorrow! We also invited the dynamic Ensemble Perpetuo to perform at the YAA centre, a short walk west of St. Saviour’s, and had an extraordinary late-night solo violin recital from Fenella Humphreys at the Waterway Restaurant (below), a very short walk from the church. Fenella brought us the London première of one of the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s last works.
The main evening concerts featured such thrills as a brand new festival opening piece by Toby Young (played by us, the Berkeley Ensemble, alongside Beethoven’s Septet and Ferguson’s Octet, one of our favourite works to perform and available on our debut album), a fascinatingly eclectic programme of songs with Anna Huntley and Nicholas Merryweather accompanied by Libby Burgess, and Adrian Brendel and Christopher Glynn joining the Berkeley Ensemble for Schubert and Mozart respectively, as well as giving the London première of one of Michael Berkeley’s latest compositions.
A huge amount of work went into making this weekend happen and we are hugely grateful to the many people who helped us in different ways. As this was our first time organising anything on this scale, we were unsure of what to expect in the way of audience numbers. We were pleasantly surprised to find the audience more than doubled compared with last year’s festival. The feedback has been extremely encouraging and we look forward to many more music-packed in Little Venice in the years to come.
One of the biggest projects of 2016 was the recording and performances of Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater – a greatly neglected masterpiece by the composer from whom we take our name. We had been intending to explore this hitherto unrecorded piece for some time, but its unusual forces (six singers and twelve players) made it difficult to programme. Eventually conductor and Berkeley devotee David Wordsworth approached us about recording it with the Marian Consort and soon an ambitious project was being planned. With the generous support of several organisations and individuals, not least the Lennox Berkeley Society, we gave performances of the work at the Spitalfields and Cheltenham festivals and the Aldeburgh Easter Weekend, and made the world première recording in the Britten Studio (pictured) at the Snape Maltings, which was released in July 2016 (produced by Paul Baxter on Delphian DCD 34180).
The recording, also including other works by Lennox and another world première – Michael Berkeley’s Touch Light, received considerable attention in the press and was in the Top 10 in the Official Specialist Classical Chart. There have been several enthusiastic reviews, with some special praise for the Berkeley Ensemble’s contribution. The recording was Editor’s Choice in Classical Music Magazine’s August 2016 edition, receiving five stars (more squares, really). Guy Weatherall wrote that the Stabat Mater, “has scarcely been heard since early, Britten-led performances, and probably never been as well done as here”. A review in the Guardian stated that, “the instrumental playing on this recording is spot on – the Berkeley Ensemble under David Wordsworth clinches the balance of chaste, plaintive and urgent”.
MusicWeb International published two highly positive reviews, and Michael Greenhalgh chose the recording as one of his Recordings of the Year. John Quinn, naming it Recording of the Month, commented that, “the score’s cause is helped by the fact that it receives a searing and expert performance. This may be the work’s debut on disc but it’s been worth the wait to hear it in a performance of such quality.” Michael Cookson declared that, “the playing of the Berkeley Ensemble is hard to fault contributing greatly to the success of the performances. This album is a definite contender for my ‘Records of the Year’ list”.
Finally, The Sunday Times included it in its 100 best records of the year, at the top of the Contemporary category.
This project is what the Berkeley Ensemble is all about: taking great neglected music and allowing it to be heard as widely as possible – by confirmed enthusiasts and hopefully by new audiences as well. It was a huge success and we are thrilled to have been a part of it.
Read our violinist Fran’s account of recording Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater in Aldeburgh here.