Last Sunday the London Sinfonietta performed side-by-side with music students from Southampton University, in the world premiere of Michael Finnissy’s Remembrance Day. This was his major new work for baritone soloist, choir and orchestra setting wartime texts by soldier Henry Lamont Simpson, who died in 1918 aged just 21.
Guest violinist for the London Sinfonietta David Alberman tells us about the tour.
Saturday 15 November
Off before dawn down to Turner Sims concert hall on the lovely campus of Southampton University. The mists and mellow fruitfulness of Autumn are well represented here, but the real season is that of remembrance of the First World War, a century ago. Four of us from the London Sinfonietta are playing with wonderful students from the music department for a weekend of rehearsal and performance of Professor Michael Finnissy’s new work Remembrance Day, which is his commemoration of WWI.
I arrive in good time and it soon becomes clear that Head of Strings Paul Cox has done a great job in preparing the players with leg work and sectionals. For those of us who happily live in the new music world, questions like “how do I divide eight quavers into three even minims?” are our daily bread; the students here have now found an answer (which has to do with having a voice in your head counting triplets while you hear straight beats in your ear – a sort of benign, self-induced personality disorder).
Saturday passes in very detailed preparation led by conductor Ben Oliver, who originally came to the London Sinfonietta’s attention as a composer in their Blue Touch Paper scheme. And so to pubgrub, rain and bed.
Impressionistic iPad photo of my desk partner Hannah, with composer Michael Finnissy (also featured in this piece as a brilliant pianist) in the background, at the piano.
Sunday 16 November
Back in London by midnight (Britain’s motorways are at their best when unspoiled by fellow motorists, apart from musicians, of course) with no Audi, just my mostly trustworthy VW camper in which I had a great pre-concert kip, and which then wafted me home afterwards. It was a great performance of Michael Finnissy’s Remembrance Day in Turner Sims Southampton, given by the university music department and friends; including members of the wonderful Exaudi vocal group and 4 representatives from the London Sinfonietta, me among them.
The students rose magnificently to the challenges of the new piece – quiet high notes, playing tricky music while allowing other voices through, and generally sustaining concentration for 90 odd minutes with no break. All did well, but the the bassoon section in particular clearly relished the showy-offy bits which the composer gave them, and always with exemplary tone and intonation.
I hope that the students have had their appetite for new music and new challenges re-whetted by meeting someone like me who, though otherwise crusty, curmudgeonly, and twisted (albeit not bitter) still loves doing this sort of thing after decades and decades.
Encountering pieces like Michael Finnissy’s Remembrance Day helps – it unflinchingly and yet very movingly considers both the loss of young life in WWI, but also the less comfortable loss of innocence and illusion as we realise that Homo Sapiens is frequently not very sapiens, and that we have fought many wars since WWI, and will probably continue to do so.
And so to a late bed, with no pubgrub.
I spare a thought for Byron Fulcher, London Sinfonietta trombonist extraordinaire, off to Moscow today with the group at crack of wotsit.