Lights, Camera, Action! Behind the scenes of the RCM’s In Focus series
This term the RCM brought a touch of the cinematic into its autumn events season. In Focus is a series of short films featuring chamber music performances and commentary and premiered on the RCM’s YouTube and Facebook channels.
How does it feel to be under the spotlight of a recording session? What new works does this series uncover? And why should audiences tune into these unique films? Upbeat spoke to some of the participants to find out...
Back to Bach
In this first film harpsichordists Tolga Atalay Ün (Mills Williams Junior Fellow) and Dominika Maszczynska had the chance to perform on the RCM’s new acquisition – a double-manual harpsichord by Michael Mietke. We spoke to Tolga about his experience:
How did it feel performing in front of the camera?
Having the cameramen there, as well as knowing that the sound engineers and the director were listening to me in the control room, made me feel like I was actually playing a concert. The recording team is not there to judge you. But the camera is completely objective to what you are doing and is always judging you infallibly and sometimes even mercilessly! A camera is like the most capricious jury member, who tells you everything you do bluntly. But the camera also gives you so many possibilities of gorgeous shots and angles.
You talk in the film about the special feeling of playing on this harpsichord—is there any specific music you're keen to play on this instrument?
It is an amazing instrument, with a clear singing tone. Such instruments inspire you to play all sorts of repertoire on them, but I will be looking forward to playing more Bach and some French music on this magnificent instrument.
What do you think this film series offers to you as a student at the RCM?
The In Focus film series is an incredible initiative by the RCM. It not only allows us to play on the great instruments we have at College and share our performances worldwide, but also allows us to experience the recording process with high quality, professional recording staff and equipment. I think this is an invaluable part of a student’s education and I will be looking forward to doing more of these recordings this year, as the Mills Williams Junior Fellow at the RCM.
What is your relationship to the Bach preludes and fugues?
JS Bach’s ‘48’, as we call them, is bread-and-butter for all keyboard players. Once you have learnt them all, you simply have complete mastery of legato playing for contrapuntal writing and a delicate sense for each tonality’s individual character. I have played so many of them for years as a pianist, and now it is amazing to explore them again on the harpsichord, which is an instrument that allows you to realise why different tonalities and differences in textures have different meanings in that period and style.
What does it mean to you that the RCM has the original manuscripts?
Having an original manuscript can have different effects on you as a performer. Firstly, you see the most intact, original intentions of the composer and therefore there is less space for ambiguity in reading their notation. The second effect is a spiritual one but has as much effect on me as the first one—you have closer contact with the composer and their times. You suddenly feel like you had received a personal letter from them! We are absolutely privileged to have such an amazing collection of manuscripts in the library at the RCM.
Songs in the spotlight
In a programme of moving vocal works exploring 100 years of composition at the RCM, singers from the College explored the exceptional voices of Rebecca Clarke, Madeleine Dring and Charlotte Bray and their professors Stanford, Howells and Mark-Anthony Turnage. We spoke to soprano Natasha Page.
How did you find the experience of filming?
I found the filming experience both exciting and slightly surreal. There was an amazing array of microphones and cameras covering all angles. In the current climate, I think it’s really important to learn how to perform for cameras and get used to being filmed. So many concerts and operas are now being streamed online, and with the rise of social media people want to engage with artists by watching their videos.
What did it mean to you to perform the Charlotte Bray?
The Charlotte Bray piece was such an exhilarating work to perform. It definitely pushed me, but who doesn’t love a challenge?! I was so pleased to perform a piece by a living female composer, and one who studied here relatively recently. Bray’s music is so vivid and rich, it was a real privilege to bring it to life.
This film is all about RCM composers and their teachers through time. What does it mean to you to be able to study and perform work by those who've been through the RCM?
I often walk around this beautiful building and think about all the incredible musicians who have walked the halls before me. I began studying at the RCM in 2019 so I still feel like a relative newbie in comparison to some of my colleagues. Performing music by RCM composers has really enhanced my experience of studying here and made me feel part of the RCM family.
Amaryllis Fleming’s Piccolo cello comes home
In this film, award-winning Dutch cellist Jobine Siekman plays an early 17th-century instrument once owned and played by Amaryllis Fleming, in the RCM concert hall named after her. We spoke to Jobine:
What did it mean to you to be playing Bach on this instrument in the RCM’S Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall?
When I found out about the history of this instrument and, through its previous owner, the connection with the RCM, all the aspects of it fell into place. It's amazing to realise the journey this instrument has made, in which hands it has been and where it has sounded before. To play on a cello that belonged to such a key figure in the British music scene of the last century, Amaryllis Fleming, is a huge honour. The fact that she has done so much for the RCM specifically made it even more special to play on her cello in this hall, named after her.
As a performer, how significant is it to be playing music on an historical instrument, especially as the composer intended?
I think there are always two sides to playing music from this period. Firstly, there is playing an instrument from the Baroque period and really entering that sound world, the techniques, the limitations and benefits of this instrument. For me a lot of things in the music, like articulation and phrasing, start to make sense that way. The other side is how we can transport the composer’s music to this current time with the instruments that we currently have, the modern concert halls and our knowledge of the music that has been written since. I think a balance of these two is good and naturally each performer will tend to a slightly different balance and this makes each interpretation personal.
In the film you discuss collaborating with RCM student composers to create new repertoire for this five-stringed cello. What are the benefits to you as a performer in exploring what this instrument can do with new repertoire?
It was a wonderful journey for me to collaborate with these young composers. It is extraordinary that there hasn't been any music written for this instrument since the Baroque period and the adventurous idea of commissioning new repertoire for it has been very exciting. Bringing this new music to life has stretched my horizon of the available colours, characters and storytelling that I can use as a performer in any of the repertoire.
The moment of performance
This film sheds light on RCM alum Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's little-known but masterful Clarinet Quintet, performed by RCM chamber musicians the Salome Quartet and clarinetist Sarah Jenkins. We spoke to RCM Librarian Peter Linnitt about Coleridge-Taylor and the original manuscripts the College holds in its collections.
How important do you think it is for the work of Coleridge-Taylor to be understood contextually as well as listened to and performed?
Coleridge-Taylor wrote good music but all music lives in the moment of performance. I think all music needs performers who have something to say and to allow the music to flow through them. From my own experience, understanding the historical context of a composer and their work adds depth to my appreciation of a work and I’m sure this is probably true of performers, but not at the expense of having something to say about the music in the first place.
In the film, you mention how celebrated Coleridge-Taylor was while he studied under Stanford. Do you think the RCM has a duty to ensure his work is continued to be performed and appreciated?
I do think we should try to open our students’ eyes to as wide a range of repertoire as possible. It would be great if we had the opportunity to perform every RCM composer but there is only so much time. Stanford was an incredible teacher who taught so many important composers (the list of his pupils also includes Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge, Rebecca Clarke and John Ireland). I particularly enjoy the opportunity to hear works which we own the manuscripts. The collections are increasingly being used in teaching across all courses and it is wonderful to see how they get students thinking.
As well as the historical significance of the RCM holding so many original manuscripts of Coleridge-Taylor's work, what do you think these documents add to the experience of students studying his music?
Looking at an autograph manuscript is always a wonderful experience: it is a tangible link to a composer and gives us a glimpse of the composer’s character and their process of composition. Everyone expects a manuscript will answer questions they have about a work but as often as not they come away with more questions. This is so interesting to see and it often gets our students to think about the works more deeply.
Are there other pieces by him you'd like to see performed more often?
He wrote some lovely songs. We were lucky enough to acquire the manuscript of his Southern Love Songs op 12. The published edition is made up of five songs but the manuscript includes a sixth unpublished song that I would like to hear. I should also like to hear his daughter Avril’s orchestration of his song ‘This is the island of gardens’ from Songs of Sun and Shade. She was a composer in her own right and we have her manuscript of this in the library too.
An impassioned idea
This film explores RCM alumna Elizabeth Maconchy’s String Quartet no 5, often considered her crowning achievement. We talked to Head of Postgraduate Programmes Dr Natasha Loges about Machoncy’s work.
In the film you speak about Maconchy's belief in an 'impassioned idea' at the heart of composition. What do you think understanding the theory and design behind a composer's work adds to our experience of hearing it?
For many listeners, Maconchy’s music will still be unfamiliar. Understanding her approach to theory and design allows us to slot this music into a hopefully more familiar framework that includes people like Bartók, Shostakovich and Britten. I think people can also connect deeply with her tremendous integrity as a musician; this is a different experience from, say, listening to Madeleine Dring, who wrote a lot of (excellent) light music.
Maconchy said she didn't like relying on 'pre-received formats' in her compositions, but you note in the film that there are clear patterns in her work that echo musical traditions. Do you think investigating this tension - between tradition and a desire for newness - is a way into understanding women composers and what they can offer us?
Exploring the tension between tradition and innovation is a driving force of music history, for better or for worse. Personally, I would like to question our fascination with innovation when people clearly derive so much pleasure from familiarity! But certainly, many female composers have been dismissed as ‘derivative’ – for a long time, men believed women to be incapable of substantial creative thought - so identifying their innovations is a really important step towards countering that historic prejudice.
Musical conservation also means keeping composers' work alive through performance. What do you think learning and performing Maconchy's work can continue to offer students in the future?
Maconchy’s music affords students the same things that all thoughtful and expressive music affords: intellectual and emotional stimulus and new ways of understanding their instruments and their own artistry. As her music is still relatively unfamiliar, it also offers a great chance to make their own mark on the profession. Explore and enjoy!