Last weekend saw the world premiere of Michael Finnissy’s new piece Remembrance Day for baritone solo, choir and orchestra. Students and staff from Southampton were joined by members of the London Sinfonietta and EXAUDI for the concert at Turner Sims. Bassoonist Fiona Butterworth (year 2) tells us about her experience of performing the work: During the summer holidays I was approached by the music department to participate in ‘Remembrance Day’ and as a music student, the chance to perform alongside the composer and members of professional ensembles is not something you turn down. Usually my first step in learning new music is to listen to recordings, but with this being a world premiere there were of course none available, and I had to go about this particular project in a different way.
Rehearsals started along with lectures in October and as second bassoon, mine began with a woodwind sectional. Having read through my part before the first rehearsal, nothing seemed too technically difficult. However, once I had the opportunity to glance over the full score it was apparent that the woodwind had very exposed parts to deal with. Having the score available also meant that I had the chance to pencil in prominent entries – meaning I decreased my chances of getting lost during the rehearsals (and more importantly the concert). I personally found my part fairly easy to play; something that did challenge me, however, was fitting my part in with everyone else’s, being able to work out when to bounce off other instruments and when I potentially needed to completely ignore them. Interestingly, the most difficult parts of the piece for the bassoons were the sections where we played in unison. Our tuning became the most important thing to deal with (a well-known problem for bassoonists), most likely due to the exceptional tuning from our guests. Beckie and I worked on this and eventually perfected the sections, to the point where the whole orchestra applauded us for achieving this.
Michael Finnissy caused much laughter for the bassoons when we discovered the phrase “multiphonic screaming”, a direction where the exact harmonics he wanted audible had been prescribed for us. As a primarily orchestral bassoonist, this was the first time I had come across this instruction. Spending the time working out the fingerings for each multiphonic made the connection between my joint honours (Acoustical Engineering and Music) even more obvious, as the concept behind multiphonics relates the fingerings to the wavelengths of the sound.
After five weeks of rehearsals, concert weekend was upon us. This started early for us students, with an almost full rehearsal on Friday morning, and fortunately everything was making much more sense musically. Saturday began with orchestral rehearsals (taking extra care to be early) accompanied by members of the London Sinfonietta. The prospect of playing alongside professionals was both daunting and exciting but once the baton was down I began to relax into the piece. In the spotlight I expected a stricter approach to the rehearsals but everyone was extremely supportive and the advice was always encouraging. The bassoon section seemed to be gaining more attention, Beckie and I were even commended by the brass section (an achievement in itself). The choir, along with members of EXAUDI, joined us after lunch and the rehearsal continued. The evening was concluded with a public run-through, and it showed promising results from the hours spent rehearsing. Sunday’s rehearsals consisted of tidying up small sections and checking the balance between the orchestra and choir.
The concert ran smoothly and the overall effect was amazing. Ben our conductor was able to hold the silence at the end of the piece for at least 20 seconds – an amazing feat when an audience is keen to show their appreciation.
‘Remembrance Day’ is so different to the music I usually play that it is hard to know how to respond to it. At times the music is so eerie that it has the ability to give you goosebumps. My favourite part of the piece was in part two, where the choir emerges from orchestral chords singing a choral motif. The sound was so sweet that it was easy to switch off and enjoy the music before it descended into the more intense textures. At the start of this project, I found it tough understanding the music as a whole, but now the process has finished I think I am more open to this type of composition. During the first rehearsals I found the music difficult to listen to and wondered if the audience would walk away humming any of the phrases although having now performed ‘Remembrance Day’, I do find myself singing various parts of the piece.
On behalf of the Hartley Sinfonia, I would like to congratulate everyone that took part in ‘Remembrance Day’, with particularly big thanks going to Michael Finnissy and Ben Oliver. It was a fantastic experience to perform a world premiere and the whole process is a massive achievement for the Music department.