The last music world première I attended was a performance of “Tubular Bells” in 1973 when a desperately nervous Mike Oldfield got through with the considerable help of Henry Cow (you may have to ask someone older at this point). So imagine my excitement at being in attendance for the very first performance of Nigel Osborne’s “Bosnian Voices” in Buxton’s Pavilion Arts Centre.
The concert was the first of a three-part Buxton residency by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The Orchestra is playing a programme of Mozart and Mendelssohn in the Opera House on November 27 and there is a lunchtime violin and cello recital on December 9.
For this event we had the Orchestra’s contemporary music Ensemble 10/10 conducted by Clark Rundell. As you might suppose this was music-making of the highest order with – for the most part – five strings and five woodwind (with percussion as required). The programme was made up some well-known and accessible pieces of ‘contemporary’ music and so it was disappointing that such an important artistic event was not better attended. The audience was hugely enthusiastic and appreciative and the musicians returned that warmth.
The first piece was Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonietta” (Op 1) composed in 1932 when he was just 18. The debt to Vaughan Williams and Bridge (Britten’s teacher) is obvious at times in what is a luscious piece of music – the small chamber forces sounding bright and vivid.
This was followed by what was the darkest and most ‘difficult’ piece of the evening – Hans Werner Henze’s “In Memoriam Die Weisse Rose” written in the mid 1960s as a tribute to a failed anti-Nazi movement whose members were executed in 1943. The piece takes the form of a double fugue and the various strands and themes come together in a strong conclusion which suggests defiance.
The first half ended with another “Sinfonietta” by Estonian violinist Mihkel Kerem who is a member of Ensemble 10/10. Mihkel explained that the piece (written in 2000) was intended to be enjoyable to play as well as to listen to. Mihkel is a prolific composer as well as being much in demand as a musician. The “Sinfonietta” is, he said, as much about structure as musical content. The second, and longest, movement has some similarities with the work of his well-known fellow countryman, Arvo Pärt. It was Pärt’s “Fratres” that opened the second half – it’s processional, plainchant simple beauty is an excellent example of what makes his work so popular with audiences.
This took us to Nigel Osborne’s premiere, “Bosnian Voices”. Nigel is not afraid to use music theatre for social commentary – a recent opera “Sarajevo” was called “journalism” by some critics. His reply was that music allowed us to celebrate and to mourn in ways that journalism could not. “Bosnian Voices” was commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Nigel has visited Bosnia on many occasions working with children and women, creating music and listening to their songs.
He was at pains to point out that he could not, as an outsider, directly represent the feelings and memories of Bosnians, but he could listen to what they had to say and the songs that they sung and share them with others. “Bosnian Voices” is his orchestration and arrangement of seven songs that he heard on his visits. Some are traditional songs – one from the Roma culture – others owe more to rock music. Nigel translated the songs into English and adorned them simply – so that they could be heard for what they are. The songs were gloriously sung by Hanna-Liisa Kirchin – a mezzo soprano graduate from the RNCM.
The songs captured a range of emotions and responses. One was by a group of women who had been raped and who knew that there would be no justice. Another described how young men might be forcibly conscripted for a fight that they opposed. There was also some light, some hope in the song cycle. One song described how a young girl felt free when she could ride her bicycle; another described the love felt for others and for their beautiful town.
So, in a modest way this was a chance to mourn and to celebrate. The appalling events of July 1995 are largely overlooked in western Europe; other tragedies are newer and better reported. This is why “Bosnian Voices” is an important commission; it is a direct and moving piece of musical theatre. Henze’s “In Memoriam” dared us not to forget The White Rose; Nigel Osborne’s work urges us to reach out to people who are doing their best to rebuild communities free of fear, hatred and violence. People who dare to hope.
By Keith Savage