Britten Sinfonia at the Brighton Festival

Coming to Brighton
Coming to Brighton

Britten Sinfonia renews its firm bonds of friendship with the Brighton Festival with a happy return this year, performing precisely the kind of programme they like to perform.

Joined by Brighton Festival Chorus, they offer an all-American programme: Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and his Lincoln Portrait followed by John Adams’ Harmonium (Brighton Dome, Sunday, May 28, 7.30pm).

David Butcher, chief executive of Britten Sinfonia since its foundation in 1992, says it’s a programme he has never heard put together before – one worked out with the Brighton Festival: “We have had a really close link with the festival over the years. We have done concerts there at odd times outside the festival as well. We feel we always have a very strong link with Brighton, and the audience response has always been fantastic whether we are doing chamber music in the Corn Exchange or the bigger concerts, like this, in the Dome. Hats off to the Brighton Festival for not doing obvious concerts, and this is an obvious example of not doing an obvious concert. You don’t get many performances of Adams’ Harmonium. It is a great, great piece but it is a difficult piece. It is a big piece and an expensive piece, so hats off to the Brighton Festival for doing it. I feel that when we come to Brighton we always do a very, very adventurous programme which is the kind of programme we like doing.”

Words and music will intertwine in works by America’s greatest classical composers in a programme inspired by great speeches and poetry. In 1942, shortly after the USA entered WWII, Copland was commissioned to write a work to fortify and comfort people during the time of national distress.

The resulting Lincoln Portrait is a stirring setting of extracts from great speeches made by Abraham Lincoln, including the Gettysburg Address. Fanfare for the Common Man was inspired by a speech given in the same year by Vice President Henry A Wallace. John Adam’s Harmonium, harnessing poetry by Donne and Dickinson, is a glittering symphony that, drawing on the full power of a massed chorus, brings the festival to a close.

“The Coplands are iconic pieces,” David says. “They are challenging in terms of technically to play, but they are so beautifully written for the instruments, particularly brass. Technically they are demanding, but from a player’s point of view, they are a dream to play. Sometimes, you hear a pianist talking about a piece that was written for the piano and that it is just perfect for the piano in the way that you can feel it just lying under your fingers, that there is a naturalness there, even if it is technically very difficult. I think that the way Copland writes for string and brass is the same. It is very special.

“And I think the other thing that is key is that there is a sense of America there in the harmonies, that the intervals are very spare. They are not thick and meaty like in Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. There is a lot of air between the notes. Somehow there is something quite magical about these pieces that feels very New World America in the way that a Vaughan Williams or a Britten or a Tippett feels very British. It feels that Copland is the archetypal American composer.

“The John Adams requires a huge orchestra. It is a lovely contrast. And there is a lovely link in that it feels that the mantle is being handed on from Copland to John Adams. He is described in classical circles as being a minimalist composer, lots of repeated notes, but at the same time John Adams’ music still feels deeply American. There is still something that says America going on there.”

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