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Britten Sinfonia on Freya Waley-Cohen

Described as ‘at once intimate and visionary’ by BBC Music Magazine, Freya Waley-Cohen’s music has been performed all over the country in a plethora of prestigious venues. Freya has recently finished writing a new piece, Spell Book, for Britten Sinfonia, as well as arranging a chamber version of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and it will receive its world premiere at Cambridge’s West Road concert Hall on Tuesday 21 January 2020.


Freya told Britten Sinfonia that she began music lessons when she was very young; her earliest musical memory is “sitting on one of those tiny chairs made for children, aged two and a half, watching my sister Tamsin practice the violin and asking why I wasn’t allowed to start learning until I was three. A story I don’t remember but have been told, is that when I finally got to that first violin lesson, I spent half the time hiding under the teacher’s chair, behind her long flowing skirt.” As a child she was also interested in poetry, penning her own poems and short stories, a discipline she considers to be similar to composition – although she “never really considered anything other than music”. It is unsurprising that she has written several songs cycles setting poetry, most recently Happiness for the Melos Sinfonia (premiered in 2018 at LSO St Luke’s).


Her studies took her first to Cambridge and then to the Royal Academy of Music for a Masters degree. By 2013 she was Composer in Residence at Northern Chords Festival at the Sage Gateshead and Apprentice Composer with Orchestra of the Swan. Fast forward to 2020 and she is an Associate Composer of NonClassica, NightMusic at St David’s Hall and Reverie Choir, as well as Associate Composer at the Wigmore Hall (where Spell Book will get its second performance on 22 January). One of her career highlights was in November 2019 when the Wigmore Hall held a day focusing on her music, including the premiere of a new string trio, Conjure. She told Britten Sinfonia that “it’s extra special because my sister Tamsin is playing the morning concert, which is solo violin works, and her quartet (the Albion Quartet) is playing the one in the afternoon! I grew up in London and because I was always passionate about music, my parents would sometimes take me to the Wigmore Hall. Even as a child, I had a sense of the prestige of Wigmore Hall. I would never have dared dream that a day like the 2nd of November could happen!”


Her Wigmore Hall concert in November was the culmination of a great year for Waley-Cohen: “in the summer, the Knussen Chamber Orchestra and Ryan Wigglesworth premiered my first BBC Proms commission at the Cadogan Hall Proms”; the commission was Naiad, which Classical Source said was “beautifully crafted and exquisitely played”. Like many young composers, Waley-Cohen was mentored for some time by the late Oliver Knussen. She remarked to Britten Sinfonia that the Cadogen Hall was “particularly meaningful to me because the concert was dedicated to Oliver Knussen who was my teacher and friend.”


In her discussion with Britten Sinfonia, Waley-Cohen also shared some precious advice for aspiring composers:


“To be a composer, you need to be resilient and persistent. The path to becoming a composer can seem shrouded in mystery. This is because there is no one path to follow – you have to make your own.


“Write as much music as possible, listen to as much music as possible, go to as many concerts as possible. Try to find like-minded musicians and artists. Finding peers who you trust and respect will help you in so many ways – create projects with these people, show them the things you feel vulnerable about and listen to their advice… and do the same for them!"


“One piece of advice I was given was that any success you have is down to so many factors that there is an element of luck, so you need to believe that what you’re writing is worth writing, even if no one else seems to care."


“For me, a guiding principle is to write the music that I want to hear and make the art that I want to experience. I try to imagine what I’d be excited to go to that doesn’t yet exist, and then make that. At least I know that someone will like it, even if that someone is me!”


Spell Book is in three movements, based on spell-poems (spell for Lilith, spell for sex and spell for logic) by the poet Rebecca Tamás, from WITCH, her collection of raw, sometimes unsettling, poems exploring feminism. While writing the work, Waley-Cohen noted that she has been “fascinated by ideas around magic, language and sound. Tamás is also the co-editor of a brilliant book of poems called Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry. The idea of incantation and using language and utterance to reach into the world and create change is something I find very powerful. In Tamás’ book, it ties in with alternative ideas of feminine power and its representation in history.” She also noted that a spell asks to be ‘performed’ in a ritualistic way – she draws strong parallels with the performance of a song cycle, and the ritual of concert-going.


As the world premiere of Spell Book takes place during a Britten Sinfonia concert, the programme for the rest of the concert is typically diverse – works by Leclair and Lutosławski are interspersed with Spell Book and Waley-Cohen’s arrangement of Mahler’s song cycle Rückert-Lieder for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, piano and string quartet. Britten Sinfonia, which was founded just over 25 years ago prides itself on its ethos of collapsing the boundaries between old and new music, creating involving, intelligent music events that both audiences and performer experience with an unusual intensity. The orchestra believes in illuminating programming that finds intelligent pairings between composers from seemingly disparate genres and times; it is focussed both on commissioning a diverse array of new music, while firmly believing that new music should be heard within the context of the hundreds of years of musical history available to classical music programmers. The orchestra’s At Lunch series, which has been running in Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall since 2005 presents hour-long chamber concerts with brand new commissions from a diverse range of composers (from big names and up-and-coming young composers alike) alongside traditional works from the chamber repertoire.


At Lunch with Freya Waley-Cohen takes place at West Road Concert Hall on Tuesday 21 June at 1pm. Tickets are £10 (£3 for students, under 18s and jobseekers and £8 for CAMCard holders) and can be bought from the Cambridge Live Box Office here.


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