Saturday 18 May 2019

Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival

Charlotte Bray (Photo Michael Wickham)
Charlotte Bray (Photo Michael Wickham)
Composer Charlotte Bray has a new piano work being premiered on 10 June 2019 at the Aldeburgh Festival. Written for the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the new piece Bring Me All Your Dreams is in memory of Oliver Knussen, who was co-artistic director of the festival from 1983 to 1998, and with whom Charlotte studied at Aldeburgh. Charlotte and chatted over Skype about her new piece, about Oliver Knussen and about her background as composer.

Oliver Knussen (credit Mark Allan BBC)
Oliver Knussen (credit Mark Allan BBC)
Charlotte describes Oliver Knussen as an incredible person, and he was very much a mentor to her. She first met him through Mark-Anthony Turnage with whom she studied at the Royal College of Music, and she worked with Knussen at Aldeburgh on the Britten-Pears course So she finds it incredibly special to be writing a piece in memory of him.

As a mentor and teacher, Knussen was 'most of the time' incredibly informative and inspiring. He had a knack of finding exactly what it was about any work that you were writing. He could get to the core of a piece and would know what it was that was required to make the piece work. Charlotte describes Knussen as having 'incredible ears'.

And he very much supported the composer writing their own style, if you shared any insecurities about a piece with him he would tell you to put that aside, the music is what it is. He encouraged young composers to write what they wanted to write.

Whilst he pushed young composers in no particular direction, Charlotte found that she and Knussen shared similar tastes in music. Knussen's knowledge was incredibly broad and Charlotte enjoyed discovering the music he suggested.

After the Britten-Pears programme, Charlotte returned to Aldeburgh in 2009/10 for a two-week residency, staying in what was called the dovecot. Now, in fact, a performance space then it was a sparse studio with fabulous views. Charlotte found the two weeks incredibly productive, the sort of space needed to escape distractions, and she wrote her violin concerto for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), Caught in Treetops, there (the work premiered in 2010 with Oliver Knussen conducting BCMG and violinist Alexandra Wood).

She has returned to Aldeburgh a few times since, her work At the Speed of Stillness was premiered in 2012 by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra at the BBC Proms, and she is now back again.

Oliver Knussen points out Harrison Birtwistle after BCMG perform his piece at Aldeburgh Festival 2017
Oliver Knussen points out Harrison Birtwistle after BCMG perform his piece at Aldeburgh Festival 2017
Another chance to hear Charlotte's work is at Kings Place on 25 November 2019, when Here Everything Shines is performed by members of the Fidelio Trio. Originally the work was for violin and guitar, commissioned by the International Guitar Foundation for two of its young artists. Charlotte was asked by the violinist Darragh Morgan (of the Fidelio Trio) for a violin and piano piece, he wanted to perform one of her student works but she persuaded him to consider a new version of Here Everything Shines for violin and piano. The Fidelio Trio has performed it once, and Charlotte is looking forward to them coming back to it.

Later in the year, Charlotte has another premiere at Kings Place when cellist Natalie Clein and the Aurora Orchestra premieres a new work for twelve strings. This is a commission from First 100 Years which celebrates the women pioneers in the legal profession in the occasion of the centenary the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which enabled women to become lawyers. The work celebrates this centenary in a musical way, taking energy from the future.

Charlotte studied cello at Birmingham Conservatoire and during her second year she had to compose a piece of music. She showed it to a flatmate who was on the composition course and they thought it was good. And Charlotte had enjoyed the process of composition.

Charlotte wanted to work in music and the cello was simply a route in. She was not good enough to be a soloist, yet she felt frustrated sitting at the back of an orchestra. So when composition came up in an unexpected way she jumped at it. She moved to the composition course and repeated her first year.

At this point, her knowledge of contemporary music was limited and over the next few years Joe Cutler, with whom she studied in Birmingham, introduced her to contemporary music.

Growing up, she had not really realised that you could be a composer. She and her sisters played instruments as teenagers, and she sang in the church choir. In fact, she was lucky enough to study an instrument at Primary School. Whilst not from a musical family, music became more and more important to her and she know she wanted to do something in music but did not know what.

Charlotte Bray (Photo Nicholas Dawkes)
Charlotte Bray (Photo Nicholas Dawkes)
Her journey in music has been a diverse one. When she started at Birmingham her knowledge of music did not really go beyond RVW, but now she finds Henze and Wolfgang Riehm important to her, as well as Oliver Knussen and George Benjamin. She also loves Icelandic music and Nordic music, and mentions Hans Abrahamson.

  • Monday 10 June - Charlotte Bray: Bring me all your dreams, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Aldeburgh Festival
  • Monday 25 November - Charlotte Bray: Here everything shines, Fidelio Trio, Kings Place
  • Saturday 14 December - Charlotte Bray: New work, Natalie Clein, Aurora Orchestra, Kings Place

Charlotte Bray on disc
  • Charlotte Bray: Chamber and solo works, Mariani Klavierquartett, Philipp Bohnen (Nimbus Alliance) available on Amazon.
  • Charlotte Bray: At the Speed of Stillness, Fire Burning in Snow, Caught in Treetops, Aldeburgh World Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder, Lucy Schauffer, Alexandra Wood, BCMG, Oliver Knussen (NMC recordings) available on Amazon.
Elsewhere on this blog
  • Dresden Music Festival 2019
    • Three continents, three composers, one concerto - festival debuts its 2019 commission (★★★) - concert review
    • Visitors in fine form: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (★★★) - concert review
    • Visions of the original sound: colour, texture & timbre to the fore in the opening concert of the 2019 Dresden Music Festival (★★★) - concert review 
  • Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival - interview
  • An English Vespers: Rachmaninov from the Tallis Scholars (★★★) - concert review 
  • Rough for Opera - Speak Red, A Father is Looking for his Daughter, Dreaming Clouds - opera review
  • A young man's passion: Julian Prégardien & Erik Le Sage in Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe (★★★★) - CD review
  • Far more than choral virtuosity: Handel's Israel in Egypt from the BBC Singers & Academy of Ancient Music (★★★★½) - Concert review
  • French inspiration, spectacular scenery & classical music: I chat to festival director Christoph Müller about this year's Gstaad Menuhin Festival  - interview
  • Brainwaves and modernism: the Ligeti Quartet explores consciousness at Kings Place (★★★) - concert review
  • Telemann from Toulouse: music for strings in stylish modern instrument performances (★★½) - CD review
  • A huge undertaking: Busoni's Piano Concerto recorded live in Boston - Kirill Gerstein, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo - CD review
  • Palpable enthusiasm & engagement: An English Coronation from Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli & Gabrieli Roar (★★★★) - CD review
  • The old ethos and a new professionalism: celebrating Garsington Opera at 30  - interview
  • Youthful Verdi revealed: a lithe and impulsive I Lombardi from Heidenheim (★★½)  - CD review
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