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Secret Theatres: The Music of Harrison Birtwistle

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Last November, the University mounted Secret Theatres, “a soaring three-day celebration of the composer Harrison Birtwistle” (The Daily Telegraph) and the most ambitious festival of contemporary music seen in Cambridge for a generation.

As well as showcasing Birtwistle, who is arguably the country’s foremost classical composer and who celebrated his eightieth birthday in 2014, the festival also offered the chance to hear music by Cambridge students performed by world-leading artists such as the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Oliver Knussen, the Arditti String Quartet and the duo of cellist Anssi Karttunen and pianist Nicolas Hodges, as well as celebrating some of Cambridge’s own finest performers in the form of the University New Music Ensemble, The King’s Men and the Choir of King’s College conducted by Stephen Cleobury.

The festival, which received extremely positive reviews in several of the national newspapers, was organised by the University Lecturer in Composition, Richard Causton. Causton said: “the juxtaposition of the very old and the very new was a recurring theme  of Secret Theatres, in a way which seemed to emphasise the particular strengths of Cambridge music-making: so Birtwistle’s recompositions of music by Machaut (1300-1377) and Ockeghem (1425-1497) were featured alongside vocal renditions of the originals by The King’s Men, whilst the Evensong in King’s College Chapel juxtaposed Birtwistle’s motet Pange Lingua with the Magnificat Regale composed especially for the Chapel by Robert Fayrfax, a celebrated Cambridge alumnus. In the year 1504, Fayrfax was the recipient of an unprecedented DMus for composition; and now, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the completion of King’s College Chapel, doctorates for composers have made their reappearance in the form of Cambridge’s new PhD in Composition programme. So it was fitting for the Fayrfax to be followed by Polly Roe (“a vivacious instrumental whirlwind” – The Times), composed for the occasion by Patrick Brennan, one of our first PhD candidates; and that elsewhere in the festival, works by two others - Jae-Moon Lee’s Tangram (“exhilaratingly executed by Hodges” – The Observer) and David Roche’s evocation of bleakness and isolation Chapters – also received their world premières”.

Secret Theatres amply reaffirmed the continuing richness of Cambridge’s longstanding tradition of composition through pieces by composers at all stages in their creative careers. Programmed alongside works by Alex Tay (a third year undergraduate) and Joy Lisney (who is on the MPhil Composition programme) was music by some of the composers who teach and have taught at the University - John Hopkins’ Se la face ay pale and two Chamber Symphonies, one by Causton (“plangent brass fanfares, fierce percussion and a wonderfully tranquil end to the first movement” – The Times) and the other by Alexander Goehr (“an allusiveness obliquely refracted through a glowing lyricism” – The Independent), Emeritus Professor at the Cambridge Faculty of Music and a friend and associate of Birtwistle’s for over sixty years.

Watch the Orr Lecture: Harrison Birtwistle >>