Posted on: 10 May 2016
Since 2001, Ensemble Cymru have been spreading their passion for chamber music across Wales. The month of May sees the Bangor-based company touring a diverse mix of French and Welsh repertoire for string quartet, flute, clarinet, and harp.
The May Tour features a programme of two septets one each by Maurice Ravel and John Metcalf, a charming quintet by Jean Francaix, a Welsh premiere of the 3rd Version of Christopher Painter’s Bagatelle, and a moving sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp by Claude Debussy. The French and Welsh theme highlights two very different musical styles that are valuable to the harp.
“My initial starting point was to set side by side the music of Ravel, Debussy and John Metcalf.” states Peryn Clement-Evans, Artistic Director of Ensemble Cymru. “To me all are great pieces of music which I love because of their richness of colours and sense of fantasy.”
It is unavoidable to create a programme showcasing the harp without including French music; the harp is inextricably linked with the colours of impressionism. And with roots firmly in all things Welsh, it is only natural for Ensemble Cymru to explore the music for one of the country’s national symbols.
Amidst their loyal patriotism, the company continues to work with musicians of different nationalities. Elisa Netzer is one of Switzerland’s leading young harpists, and joins Ensemble Cymru as their first instrumentalist of the International Exchange Programme.
“Having performers from different parts of the world brings fresh ideas and often a different way of rehearsing and preparing. This helps us, as performers, to continue to be open to learning and to develop artistically,” says Peryn.
There’s something heartwarming about using differences in culture to influence great art. Elisa notes it is also the joy of companionship that comes from chamber rehearsals that is quite unlike any other classical music activity.
“I love to work with chamber music ensembles. I love sitting in a room with complete strangers and having the feeling of getting to know them very well through music.” she says. And it is this intimacy between the performers that suits John Metcalf’s work. The Septet uses the same ensemble as Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, combining the flute with the harp, clarinet and a string quartet. Composed around the theme of family, a recurring pattern of chords that becomes the DNA of the music represents family likeness, and Metcalf has encrypted initials of the family members into the Septet. The piece translates intimacy into music, and there’s an obvious tenderness evident from the very beginning.
Metcalf’s work is one of two septets to be performed, and what better way to explore chamber music for the harp than with Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. The piece was commissioned by Erard (inventors of the concert harp), is described by Ensemble Cymru as “one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces ever written”.
Asking Elisa about challenges in the programme, she remarks how each piece has unique obstacles that musicians need to overcome. “The most virtuosic piece in the programme is the Ravel,” she says, “but the real musical challenge is Debussy.”
Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp was completed in 1915, where the composer’s failing health coincided with the continuing onslaught of World War I, and notable political instability.
“Debussy pulls all my strings pun intended!” Elisa jokes, before adding, “but, that music tears you apart. It is one of his final works and one can feel his pain, fear and delusion about his health and the horrors of the society and politics around him in Europe. He allows the harp to express that wonderful powerful, desperate, sometimes hard voice that is usually not associated with the harp and that I really long for.”
Hardship has spurred many a composer towards their masterpieces, and though politics has historically produced some of the greatest classical music, the act of producing music together and spreading joy to audiences seems to transcend cultural and political divides.
“You have to work together to pull off this program, you have to look at each other, understand each other and most of all listen to each other,” Elisa comments. “It is first of all a very nice human experience.”
And human experiences are not just the sum total of emotional turmoil. The depth and magnitude of Debussy’s sonata is contrasted by the altogether less serious Quintet No.1 by Jean Francaix.
“We play a lot of Jean Francaix’s music,” says Peryn. “It appeals to me because it combines great craftsmanship, requiring virtuosity from the performers, while not taking itself entirely seriously!”
Peryn is not alone as a fan of Francaix’s music; Ravel was a known advocate, advising Francaix’s parents to nurture and encourage the composer’s musical talent.
The final work of the programme features a premiere of the 3rd Version of Christopher Painter’s Bagatelle. Painter, who studied under celebrated Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott, composed the piece for a small ensemble of flute, clarinet and harp. The title Bagatelle implies a light hearted and freeform work.
Whether overseas or on home soil, Ensemble Cymru have honed in on the importance of international connections, a commitment that Elisa is wholly supportive of.
“I really like Ensemble Cymru’s mission of building bridges between countries and cultures through music,” she says.
And so, it seems, the real highlight of the May Tour is the drawing together of European influences to produce a truly stunning collection of music.
Ensemble Cymru’s concert in Chapter is on Saturday 14th May at 7pm.
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