Saturday 27 June 2015

Virtuosity with a human touch - An encounter with Matthew Sharp (part 1)

Matthew Sharp
Matthew Sharp
Matthew Sharp does not so much have a career, as a portfolio of careers as performing as a cellist and singing as a baritone, often combining the two, as well as including directing and running the arts centre Revelation St Mary's in Ashford, Kent. Matthew has recently become Artist in Association with the English Symphony Orchestra, artistic director Ken Woods, and I met up with Matthew over coffee at the Barbican to chat about his plans.

Matthew Sharp
Matthew Sharp
The role with the English Symphony Orchestra is relatively flexible and open ended, intended to last around two or three years. Essentially Matthew feels that Ken and the orchestra are kindred spirits in a quest to extend the boundaries of what classical music is, and how it is presented, combining virtuosity with a human touch which connects with audiences. Planned events in the residency included a lunchtime concert in Worcester Cathedral as part of the four days Magna Carta celebrations, which included Plain Truths by the American composer Kile Smith, with Matthew singing baritone. Looking ahead they are planning some concerto recordings, which extend from standard repertory to the rather more unusual, including the Hans Gal Concertino, the Prokofiev Concertino, Elgar's Cello Concerto and John Tavener's Protecting Veil.

'I want listeners to realise that life is truly beautiful.' - Shostakovich

Matthew Sharp - poster at Kings Place
Matthew Sharp - poster at Kings Place
Perhaps the biggest project that Matthew Sharp is planning with the English Symphony Orchestra is a staging of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony.
A setting for soprano, bass and string orchestra with percussion, of eleven settings of poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Wilhelm Küchelbecker, mostly dealing with the theme of death, particularly that of unjust or early death, the symphony is dedicated to Benjamin Britten who gave the UK premiere. Matthew will be both singing and directing. For him the work has the feel of both a song cycle and a symphony, as well has having a chamber music feel to it. There is a strong story telling thread throughout the work, and Matthew wants to bring this out with an immersive experience with the performers using both their bodies and their instruments. In talking about the project, Matthew talks of the work's dark heart with its idea that death is terrifying and he quotes Shostakovich himself, 'Death is terrifying. My symphony is an impassioned protest against death. Live honestly, conscientiously, nobly. I want listeners to realise that life is truly beautiful.' This is planned for 2016, and they hope to film it.

One of the reasons for Matthew's enthusiasm at working with the English Symphony Orchestra is that his work will encompass not only larger and smaller scale projects, but also family and outreach work. This latter is something that he is keen on (and the subject crops up more than once in our discussions) and he feels that it is important that major artists not only play the big name concerts, but are involved in the outreach rather than it being simply hived off. He feels that they need to deliver a 360 degree experience, and that he and the English Symphony Orchestra can do this. As a prime example of the best way of undertaking outreach he cites Kneehigh Theatre, which started in village halls but now they perform at the National Theatre, do global and national tours as well as village halls, and the same team do both. He feels it important the children get to see superstars.

Other plans include a disc of devotional music, which will include James MacMillan's Kiss on Wood plus music written for him by the young British composer Emily Hall and by John Tavener, some of which call for Matthew to both sing and play. It was John Tavener who first wrote a piece of Matthew in which he was called upon to sing and play at the same time and I am very curious as to how he manages to balance both the physical needs of playing and practising, and the logistics of a multi-performer career.

Fitting in enough 'finger wiggling'

Matthew Sharp as the Pied Piper at Opera North
Matthew Sharp as the Pied Piper
at Opera North
He did not train in singing and cello at the same time, he effectively finished his cello studies when he was 19 and though was was doing a lot of singing, he did not actually study it until he was 30. He feels that both strands of his performing career enrich each other. He also feels that he has performed long enough that he knows the needs of both, and is wiser about over-stretching himself. When I ask about the difficulties of accommodating practice in two genres, he points out that you cannot sing endlessly and that it is easy enough fitting in enough 'finger wiggling' so that he keeps limber, and he likens it to going to the gym. Also this relates to how a performer does their 10,000 of playing (the minimum needed for a first class performer) and he got his in early. He had played the main cello canon by the time he was in his mid-20's.

Since first performing the John Tavener pieces where he both sang and played, he has developed this particular genre. He admits that there are extra 'kinetic demands' to playing the cello (to ensure you make a nice sound) but he feels that he can make both playing and singing second nature so that the story telling unlocks new elements for the audience. He has done two one-man shows where he sings and performs and the cello became so second nature, that the audience often don't notice it and concentrated on the story. For Matthew the least interesting thing about the cello repertory is the playing, and he aspires to reaching a place where no-one notices the technique. This is something about which he feels strongly and we have a long discussion about other performing arts and the way an actor, for instance, would not like to a review of Hamlet to dwell on their technique, it should be something that is not noticed and is in the service of the art-form itself.

But it isn't just singing and playing that Matthew combines. Last year Matthew sang the role of the maestro in Antonio Salieri's 1786 comedy Prima la music, e poi le parole at West Green House Opera, and as well as singing he also directed. He comments that the opera is a well made piece, with a strong libretto and great fun. And though Salieri's music is only occasionally beautiful, he was a man of the theatre and his music is dramatically very effective, going on to compare it to cinema where you don't notice a lot of the most effective music. Matthew will also be directing a Christmas show with the BBC Singers which is based on Dylan Thomas's A Child's Xmas in Wales, where the story with be threaded with music. This show was born out of work he did with Opera North with chorus and actors, A Ghost Story for Christmas which he wrote and directed.

Trusting of the universe a bit too much

Matthew Sharp
Matthew Sharp
With any project, it is the project itself which draws Matthew rather than the singing or the playing; the sense of knowing the kind of project that he wants to be part of. He admits that sometimes he could do with better planning and he is trusting of the universe a bit too much so that things can get a bit mad sometimes. You have to keep a balance, with a mixture of the epic and the intimate; he has three small children so he brings up an analogy from the children's show, The Night Garden. For Matthew, it is clear also that variety really is the spice of life.

Directing is something he has always done, he directed at University, and he clearly does not have a problem with standing in front of large groups of people telling them what to do. But he points out that there is a big difference between performing and directing. As a director you have clarity of thought and that your work will have fixed parameters, but as a performer much of what he does is more open and 'of the moment' and he comments about some great performers not being great directors.

Adventures in classical music

This multiplicity of overlapping careers can still cause confusion in the classical world. But Matthew points out that on the stage, actors often directed and they are celebrated for their range, with the feeling that this enriches the repertoire. He thinks that is is a shame for the musical art form that we put people in a box, as it cuts the art form off at its root. A greater flexibility is starting to happen in classical music, and he cites groups like The Far Cry working in New York as being more porous. For Matthew, performing should be about 'Adventures in classical music', and we should dare to let classical music engage with the world rather then simply being self-referential. He wants classical music to be re-inventable, giving Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet as a prime example of what can be achieved.

He also feels that with our tendency to pigeon-hole classical musicians, we are losing skills in improvisation and awareness. He plays in a group called ZRI. The name refers to Zum roten Igel (The Red Hedgehog), the tavern where Brahms used to go to hear Hungarian and gypsy music. They wish to take that spirit into Brahms's music and they have re-worked the Brahms clarinet quintet for what Matthew calls a tavern ensemble of violin, cello, clarinet, accordion and santouri (a type of cymbalom). Into the Brahms they weave folk, Hungarian and klezmer tunes which Brahms loved and which inform his music. The performance has a serious purpose, Matthew feels most thing have a folk-flavour somehow and the performer can communicate this to the audience. ZRI's performances are also extraordinary events, great fun (for performers and audiences) and a great night out!

Continued in Part 2 of my interview with Matthew.

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