Sir Harrison Birtwistle turns 80 this year. The Barbican and its resident and associate artistic partners are to mark the anniversary with five concerts celebrating the music of one of the most innovative and radical British composers, featuring performances of his operas and of his orchestral and chamber works.
At the heart of the series are two of Birtwistle’s most contrasting operas, Gawain (1991) and Yan Tan Tethera (1984), presented in concert hall stagings directed by John Lloyd Davies, whose portfolio includes productions at the Royal Opera House, English National Opera and Aldeburgh, as well as abroad in Copenhagen, Los Angeles and Vienna.
Rooted in the English tradition, whether chivalric or folk, these operas highlight Birtwistle’s deep interest in ancient myths and rituals. On Friday the 16th May, the Barbican and the BBC Symphony Orchestra present the iconic opera Gawain, based on the late 14th-century English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with a libretto by David Harsent. Martyn Brabbins conducts a star cast including bass Sir John Tomlinson singing the Green Knight, a role that he created for the world premiere at Covent Garden in 1991, and baritone Leigh Melrose in the title role.
On Tuesday May 29th, the Barbican and Britten Sinfonia join forces for a co-production of the chamber opera Yan Tan Tethera. With text provided by Tony Harrison, the piece is based on a supernatural folk tale of two shepherds counting their sheep and encountering the devil. Led by Baldur Brönnimann, the cast includes baritone Roderick Williams in the role of Alan and soprano Claire Booth as Hannah.
“Birtwistle is one of the most viscerally theatrical of composers. All his works embody his obsession for his characters “to have blood in their veins and sex in their loins”. The great Arthurian myth of Gawain and the raw, wind-scoured Wiltshire plains of Yan Tan Tethera share familiar Birtwistle devices of ritual and repetition, yet even in a concert-hall staging what overwhelms the listener is the theatrical power, inventiveness and energy of the composer’s musical imagination.” – Director John Lloyd Davies
The themes of myth, ritual and landscape are also evident in the other events that are part of the Barbican’s celebration. Oliver Knussen conducts the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in Birtwistle’s early breakthrough piece Tragoedia (1965), inspired by Greek theatre and mythology it takes place on Sunday 25th May at Milton Court. The performance is part of a programme showcasing chamber works and songs from across the composer’s career, including Silbury Air (1977 revised 2003), inspired by the prehistoric mound of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, and the recent Fantasia Upon All the Notes (2012). The monumental orchestral work Earth Dances is presented by the London Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Harding on Tuesday May 20th. At the core of the piece, which is based on Birtwistle’s fascination with nature and the shifts and changes affecting landscape, is a geological metaphor: the orchestra is divided into six “strata” with ever-changing relationships reflecting those of the earth’s layers.
Closing the series on Friday the 30th May, Britten Sinfonia and conductor Baldur Brönnimann focus on Birtwistle’s quintessential Britishness and his relation to the pastoral tradition, in the context of an evening of British music inspired by landscape and national identity. The programme features Birtwistle’s The Fields of Sorrow and Melencolia I, and works by Holst and Vaughan Williams.
As a pre-concert event, the Arditti Quartet – who will also be presenting the world premiere of a new Birtwistle work during their 40th birthday celebration at the Barbican on the 26th April pay homage to the composer with a performance of String Quartet:The Tree of Strings. With its title taken from a poem in Gaelic by Sorly MacLean, String Quartet:The Tree of Strings is deeply rooted in a sense of place, powerfully evoking the desolate history of the Scottish island of Raasay where MacLean was born and where the composer himself lived in the 1980s.
Birtwistle at 80: Music’s master of legend and landscape from the 16th to the 30th of May 2014. Barbican Hall and Milton Court.
Barbican Box Office: 0845 120 7550, www.barbican.org.uk