Saturday 7 May 2022

A gift to a composer, to be involved in the festival in a more integral way: Helen Grime talks about being Sheffield Chamber Music Festival's first guest festival curator

Helen Grime
Helen Grime

This year's Sheffield Chamber Music Festival (13-21 May 2022), has composer Helen Grime as the festival's first ever guest festival curator. The festival is presented at the Crucible Theatre by Music in the Round with Ensemble 360, the venue's resident ensemble. I recently chatted to Helen by Zoom to find out about what we can expect.

Not only is it the festival's first time using a guest festival curator, but it is the first time Helen has fulfilled such a role and she admits to initially feeling apprehensive. But it has been an exciting opportunity, both to work with Ensemble 360 and to programme music that she loves, both music from the past and more recent music that she feels close to. Also, when the festival takes place she has the chance to be at all the live events, as well as participating in workshops and working with students. She sees this aspect of her role as a gift to a composer, to be involved in the festival in a more integral way, to work with the musicians and get to know them more and to help break down that wariness that can exist between composer and performers.

Crucible Studio (Photo Andy Brown)
Crucible Studio (Photo Andy Brown)

One of the most striking features of this year's programme is a pair of concerts at dawn and dusk. The Sunrise concert had originally been planned for the 2020 festival which was cancelled, whilst the 2021 festival took place online. So, the idea of a Sunrise concert pre-dated Helen becoming this year's guest festival curator. They already had a really good programme, with music by Casals, Bach, Akira Nishimura, and Haydn, including some alphorn transcriptions, and Helen added Tansey Davies' Yoik, which is inspired by Sami music, because she thought it fitted well. The idea developed to book-end the day with a pair of concerts, Sunrise and Sunset (with nothing in the middle).

So, the day ends with a Sunset concert, which features Ensemble 360 alongside Sheffield Chamber Choir and young string players from Sheffield Music Hub. Helen loves older music and it felt right having madrigals alongside contemporary music by Judith Bingham (who has Sheffield roots), plus Cheryl Frances-Hoad (who is a contemporary of Helen's) and a beautiful early piece by Tarik O'Regan. Mahler's arrangement of Beethoven's String Quartet No.11 'Serioso' reflects the Beethoven thread which is running through the festival. The original 2020 Sunrise concert was in fact booking very well, so though the pair of concerts is something of an experiment, everyone is hopeful. Though Helen adds that she hopes that it is not raining!

When I ask for her highlights from the rest of the concerts, she comments that the festival is full of pieces that she loves. She is excited by the Art and Music Day (Saturday, 14 May) when there will be a round table in the afternoon and an evening concert which features both music which is inspired by art, and music that has inspired art. And Helen hopes that audiences will be tempted to come to the round table as well as the concert.

Ensemble 360 (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Ensemble 360 (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)

A string quartet concert (16 May) will feature Purcell and Britten's String Quartet No.2, alongside Sky Macklay's Many Many Cadences and Helen's String Quartet No. 1. Continuing the Scottish connection (Helen was raised in Aberdeenshire), guitarist Sean Shibe will be giving a recital (Wednesday 18 May) including music by Julia Wolfe, Julius Eastman and Steve Reich alongside Bach and music from early Scottish lute manuscripts. Helen admits to being a former oboist, and as such is excited by the concert on Tuesday 17 May when the focus will be on the oboe with Grażyna Bacewiecz's Trio for Oboe, Violin & Cello, a terrific piece, paired with Martinu's Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello & Piano. And Helen is looking forward to Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart's collaboration with composer/pianist Dave Milligan the same evening.

Soprano Ruby Hughes and pianist Joseph Middleton will be performing Helen's song cycle, Bright Travellers (19 May 2022) in a programme that includes music by Ives, Britten, Respighi, and Ravel. Setting poems by Fiona Benson, about the joys and pains of motherhood, from the first scan to registering the child's birth, Bright Travellers was written for Hughes in 2018, and in fact Helen has another song cycle in the works for her.

The concert on Friday 20 May will be pairing Copland's Duo for Flute & Piano with Judith Weir's Airs from Another Planet. Weir describes her 1988 piece as "music of the Scottish colonisers, several generations later, marooned on a lonely and distant planet; the ancient forms of their national music almost completely lost in translation, with only the smallest vestiges of the national style remaining." It is a work that Helen loves and one of the first things she thought of for the festival. Helen is also a big fan of Ravel's music and has intriguingly programmed duos and trios by Ravel, Debussy, Lili Boulanger and Nadia Boulanger alongside Arlene Sierra's Butterflies Remember a Mountain, a work which she comments feels very French.

The process has been something of a learning curve for Helen, at first she tried to include everything but found that the process is complex. For instance, some pieces and programmes could not be done because work has already been done recently in the ensemble's main season, or was planned for future concerts. Having a theme for a concert is nice, but there are good pieces that fulfil other needs. There was also the balance between new works and pieces that the audiences know and love. Helen admits that she learned a lot, working with the ensemble on the programmes and having lots of useful conversations. She also learned to be flexible, and found working as a team exciting.

At first she did not want to do too much of her own music at the festival, but the ensemble asked her to bring herself as a composer, and the programme includes works that she feels close to or which are close to the programmes being performed. Her Three Whistler Miniatures and Aviary Sketches (after Joseph Cornell) are in the Art and Music programme, whilst her String Quartet No. 1 is in Monday's quartet programme. And on Tuesday 17 May, her violin and viola duo, To see the summer sky, is programmed alongside music by Schumann, Rebecca Clarke and Kurtag. The Focus on the Oboe includes her oboe and piano piece, Five Northeastern Scenes, and of course Ruby Hughes is performing Bright Travellers, whilst Seven Pierrot Miniatures is in the final concert. Not only do these pieces say something about her as a composer, but they help the audience to understand why she chose other works in the programmes.

There is a piece by a woman composer in every programme of the festival, and each of these pieces fits the programme/theme of that concert. Helen felt it important to have women composers as just an aspect of the programme rather than the main focus. Including these didn't feel difficult at all, in fact they seemed to have so many pieces to choose from. She would have liked more new music but was aware of the need to balance with older works. 

She has found that getting back to concert life and working with orchestras has taken some adjustment. Lockdown in 2020 was made somewhat easier as she had a baby in August 2020, but that does mean that now she has to make adjustments for the baby, being a mother juggling things yet not wanting to dwell on the issues with  performers.

Helen Grime
Helen Grime

Looking ahead, she is trying to start work on a new piece for chamber orchestra. Whilst she has written concertos before, this will be the first time she has written for chamber orchestra alone. And she admits that it takes her ages to get into a new piece. Then she will be going to the Tanglewood Festival for the premiere of her Trumpet Concerto, night-sky-blue with soloist Håkan Hardenberger and Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Performances of her Violin Concerto (written in 2016) were due in 2020 but were  cancelled. She is grateful that violinist Leila Josefowicz has picked up the work and will be giving the American premiere late this year, with conductor John Storgårds and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. Indeed, after the 2020 cancellations Helen wondered whether the work would ever be played again. And recently Colin Currie performed her Percussion Concerto with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conductor Clemens Schuldt, at concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

The Sheffield Chamber Music Festival runs from 13 to 21 May 2022 at the Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield. Full details from the Music in the Round website.

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