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The London Sinfonietta pays tribute to Harrison Birtwistle, who died last year, with a concert on 5 March devoted to his music. The programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London features commissioned works including In Broken Images, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

The death of Harrison Birtwistle last year marked the end of a highly creative collaboration between the composer and the London Sinfonietta which had lasted for over half a century. The ensemble celebrates this special relationship with a tribute concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 5 March, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, a longtime champion of the composer. The programme spans works commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, from Verses for Ensembles [published by Universal Edition] premiered in 1969 to more recent works including In Broken Images premiered in 2011.

> Visit the London Sinfonietta’s website

The pioneering work of the London Sinfonietta with composers, particularly in the period from the late 1960s through to the ‘80s, established the ensemble of single strings, selected solo winds and brass, keyboard and percussion as a classic scoring line-up for composition. This in turn influenced the formation of similar ensembles in other countries, such as the Ensemble Intercontemporain and Ensemble Modern, providing a network of potential ensembles for contemporary composers creating works for these forces. Birtwistle’s contribution was vital for this endeavour, composing classic scores such as Silbury Air and Secret Theatre, which soon became standard repertoire for this grouping internationally.

The tribute concert on 5 March includes the first collaboration between Birtwistle and the London Sinfonietta, Verses for Ensembles, premiered in 1969 under the baton of David Atherton, revealing elements of the ritualistic drama that was to be such a major component of his concert output. The second half of the programme sees the London Sinfonietta joined by student performers of the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble for a rare performance of Birtwistle’s The Fields of Sorrow, with sopranos Abigail Sinclair and Lisa Dafydd and choral voices provided by Londinium.

The concert ends with In Broken Images, a celebration of the virtuosity of the London Sinfonietta players and the special rapport that existed between composer and ensemble. The score references the antiphonal music of Giovanni Gabrieli with its interplay between groups of instruments. Rather than emulating the Venetian composer’s use of echo effects and ritornelli, Birtwistle’s work tracks an independent path in which the music is in a permanent state of exposition. The wind, brass and strings are fiercely independent demonstrating distinct identities, while the percussion underpins each musical family providing the continuum.

The title In Broken Images is taken from poetry by Robert Graves, quoted at the front of the score, which presents two creative states confronting each other, an opposition which particularly appealed to the composer:

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
... He in his new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

The fragmented multiplicity of events in Birtwistle’s work is only fully clarified for a single bar, near the end, when the groups play the same music. Otherwise there is a calculated non-synchronisation of the blocks of material using a hocket technique.

March also brings performances of Birtwistle’s music in Berlin, with Robin Ticciati conducting Panic with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester at the Philharmonie (17 March) and Simon Rattle giving the German premiere of the fanfare written for him, Donum Simoni MMXVIII, to launch concerts by the Staatskapelle Berlin at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden and the Philharmonie (25/27 March).

>  Further information on Work: In Broken Images

Photo: Harrison Birtwistle with Martyn Brabbins (London Sinfonietta)

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