Saturday 27 October 2018

New music in Manchester - I chat to Tim Williams, artistic director of Psappha

Tim Williams performing with Psappha (photo Brian Slater)
Tim Williams performing with Psappha (photo Brian Slater)
Psappha is Manchester's own ensemble specialising in music by living composers. Psappha is unique in its artistic offering as the North of England’s only stand-alone, professional contemporary classical music ensemble. Artistic director and percussionist Tim Williams founded ensemble, 27 years ago specifically because there was no outlet for contemporary composers in Manchester, but also because he was fascinated by new music. And there is even more need for such a group now, as there are more composers based in Manchester and the North-West. I recently spoke to Tim, via Skype, to talk about the ensemble, its approach to concert making and development of new music.

The group's 2018/19 season started on 27 September 2018 with New Adventures at the Stoller Hall in Manchester, and runs to Bosnian Voices on 2 May 2019, and it is Tim who is responsible for selecting the repertoire. The first concert, New Adventures programmed four iconic 20th century works by Lutoslawski, Bartok, Kurtag and Ligeti, and people enjoyed it. In fact, the group does not have a typical composer, and it works with a wide range and Tim feels that there is now more variety than there was in the 1960s, something which he enjoys. Two recordings from the concert have already found there way onto Psappha's YouTube channel, Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos, and Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme of Paganini.

In November there is Less is more: The nature of relationships, featuring works by emerging composers, something which the group successfully did last year. The concert include three new pieces by George Stevenson, Patrick John Jones and Samuel Messer, plus a repeat of a work by David John Roche which Psappha premiered at the Whitworth Art Gallery in June 2018, a work written in response to the art in the gallery. The concert is bookended by a pair of works from Psappha's current and former patrons, works by the late Peter Maxwell Davies and by Mark-Anthony Turnage, recently appointed the group's patron.

It is the sort of programme that Tim likes, one which explores not only relationships between the musicians, with a group of pieces for diverse line-ups, but between musicians and composers. In many of the new pieces that Psappha performs, both by emerging and by established composers, the group has a hand in the development processes as they workshop the pieces before performance.

For the November programme, the emerging composers were all selected from the group's Composing for... programme. For this, Psappha puts out a call for scores and runs four Composing for... programmes per year. Each has six composers selected, and these get a number of sessions with the ensemble, some individual and some group, and at the final session the works are filmed and the edited results put on YouTube and Psappha's website. These make a good calling card for the composers, and frequently generate future live performances of the works. Tim adds that filming is important as nowadays visual is just as important as audio.

This means that you can preview composers from the November concert by checking out the videos posted on Psappha's YouTube channel with George Stevenson's Algol, Patrick John Jones' The Vanity of Small Differences and Samuel Messer's Stray.

Psappha in rehearsal
Psappha in rehearsal with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
The group's February concert Winter Reels: Northern Ways presents four pieces whose locations link up in a line from the North West, to Leeds to Northumberland to Bergen. The programme includes a Psappha commission from five or six years ago, John Casken's Winter Reels; Casken is 70 in 2019 so it is nice to have something by him in the programme. Stephen Pratt is a Liverpool based composer, and Psappha has worked with him since the 1990s and his new commission is one he wanted to write. Naomi Pinnock's Music for Europe, which Tim calls a great piece, was written as a result of seeing a Paul Klee painting days after the BREXIT vote. The final piece in the mix is Jug Band Rag by Norwegian composer Knut Vaage.

Before each performance the ensemble has a Demystifying New Music event where they introduce the composers or show a film. At the recent New Adventures concert they showed a BBC film about Ligeti. Tim finds it helpful if audiences see the composer and if composers introduce their music before the performance. He feels that contemporary music can be a bit faceless, and people are better disposed to the music if the composer has a face.

Starry Night in March is full of North-Western links. Steve Martland was born in Liverpool and his Starry Night and Julian Anderson's Van Gogh Blue both have the painter Van Gogh as a theme. Lucy Armstrong took part in Psappha's Composing for Percussion programme last year and as a result of her percussion piece Space Adventure (premiered by Tim, subsequently repeated and available on YouTube) the group gave her a new commission, the Peter Maxwell Davies Commission. Simon Holt trained in Manchester and he is 60 this year, his piece ...era madrugada is a piano concerto on a small scale. The final piece in the mix is by Sarah Kirkland Snider an American composer whom Tim admires and who founded the New Amsterdam, a record label and concert promoter in New York.

The final concert of the season in May 2019 is Bosnian Voices: Reactions to War and Conflict. As everywhere seems troubled by war and conflict, Tim felt it was a good idea to put together a programme which reflected this. The evening includes a 1929 silent film by King Vidor with music by Tim Wright, and a powerful piece by David T Little which is responding to US Army policies to LGBT people with a film by R. Luke DuBois.  Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, for speaker and piano quintet, shows a composer turning to words by Lord Byron, whilst Anthony Burgess' Cello Sonata 'for the dead  1939-1945' shows a writer turning to music, and both are responding to the atrocities in World War 2. The final piece is Nigel Osborne's Bosnian Voices which evokes the Bosnian conflict. Osborne went back to Bosnia 20 years after the war, and used songs written by ordinary Bosnians which talk about now and then.

Tim thinks that this is a strong programme with pieces that fit well together, and he notes how composers have always reacted to things that they don't like.

Psappha's regular venue has become Halle St Peter's (a converted church in Ancoats) but this is closed at the moment for a building work on a new extension. The ensemble also uses Halle at St Michael's (another converted church in Ancoats) which they share for rehearsals, workshops and some performances. The first concert of this season was at the Stoller Hall, the new hall at Chethams and all the remaining Manchester ones are at St Michael's.

Less is More - Psappa in performance (Photo Psappha)
Molly Joyce's Less is More - Psappa in performance (Photo Psappha)
The ensemble's next concert is in fact in London as it is joining with the BBC Singers, conductor Sofi Jeannin, at the Barbican on 11 November 2018 to give performances of two contemporary choral works commemorating that the 1918 Armistice, Bob Chilcott's Move him into the sun and a UK premiere of Roderick Williams' World without end.

Full details of all Psappha's concerts from the diary page of the ensemble's website. You can see and hear more of the ensemble on their YouTube channel, and on SoundCloud and Spotify.

Psappha on disc:
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A walk with Ivor Gurney: Sarah Connolly and Tenebrae at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Colour and movement: orchestral music by Kenneth Hesketh (★★★½) - CD review
  • Abbandonata: Italian cantatas from Carolyn Sampson and Robert King  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Vivid story telling: Schubert's Swansong with Sir John Tomlinson and Christopher Glynn (★★★★) - CD review
  • Music for Windy Instruments: Sounds from the court of King James I (★★★½) - CD review
  • Independent Opera Showcase Recital at Wigmore Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Damn fine music: Stanford's Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) receives its belated premiere  - feature
  • A visit to Italy at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Untold riches - music from Estonia & the Baltic at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy in Grieg, Prokofiev and Beethoven (★★★★)  concert review
  • A Bernstein Celebration - London English Song Festival - concert review
  • Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes (★★★) - theatre review
  •  Something for everyone: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from English National Opera (★★★★)  - opera review
  •  Handel's Radamisto from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - Opera review
  •  Home 

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