From prisons to caves, concerts fit for a maestro
The cellist Matthew Barley is marking Britten's centenary with an unusual tour
Tuesday 01 January 2013
In 2010 when I began to dream up Around Britten, there seemed to be so much time. I could afford to ruminate at leisure on the 100 events that would make up my celebration of Britten's centenary, the heart of which is taking the wonderful, emotional music of Britten to as many places and people in the UK as possible.
Suddenly it was September 2012, the tour was a matter of months away, and I had only confirmed a fraction of what I was aiming for, and half the money needed to pull it all off. I went into overdrive, working 16-hour days – I was touring at the time but the many undisturbed hours in hotel rooms were a blessing. Thinking of places to perform off the usual concert circuit – places where I thought live music would be truly memorable, and where I might find a different audience from the classical music-listening public in the concert halls – was one of my favourite aspects.
The Peak Cavern in Derbyshire is a spectacular cleft in the hillside. I was thrilled to find a kind of natural underground amphitheatre in solid stone, a fantastic spot for performance. Not only will this make a profoundly atmospheric concert; it's fun telling people I'm playing in the "Devil's Arse" (to use its more memorable nickname). The National Trust venues are equally exciting. They're not set up for concerts so it has taken persistence to make them work, but it will be worth it: they are some of the country's most outstanding buildings – the impossibly romantic ruined castle at Bodiam, and South Foreland Lighthouse on the white cliffs near Dover to name just two. Many ideas fell by the wayside – I was fired up about performing in Battersea Power Station; my excitement waned when I realised it would cost £15k to hire.
The Scottish leg will be an adventure – Mull, Skye (hopefully in a whisky distillery), Cromarty, Shetland and Orkney, a Glasgow prison and the superb Queen's Hall in Edinburgh. I'm looking forward to long beautiful journeys relaxing, listening to music and just thinking.
The final concert is on the day Britten died, 4 December, when I'll perform in the great composer's home in Aldeburgh, The Red House. It will be an emotional occasion, after nearly a year of taking Britten's music all around the country, to be playing on that day, just yards from the room where he passed away.
And then for the music. I wanted to create something around Britten's profoundly beautiful Third Suite for solo cello that was unique and really challenged me. So I'm incorporating visuals from Yeast Culture, which utilise ground-breaking technology in the way my playing will sync with animated film via footpedal control. I've commissioned new works by Dai Fujikura – electronics order the piece differently each night, and I only find out when I press play, onstage – DJ Jan Bang, and James MacMillan, one of today's foremost composers. I impetuously asked James for a virtuoso showpiece. He obliged, so now I'm paying the price with practice hours. In fact, impetuous might be a good word for that initial idea back in 2010…
My head spins overseeing the detail: finding the right kinds of screen and PA for multiple stages, proof-reading materials for programmes and CD booklets, figuring out what kind of vehicle we need, seeing if it's possible to travel from the Outer Hebrides to Zurich on a Sunday in June.
Thousands of people, thousands of miles, 100 performances, 100 years since Britten was born. I can't think of a better way to spend 2013.
Matthew Barley's 'Around Britten' tour begins in Southampton on 15 January. His recording of Britten's Third Cello Suite is out this month on Signum (matthewbarley.com)
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