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Iestyn Davies is a British countertenor widely recognised as one of the world’s finest singers, celebrated for the beauty and technical dexterity of his voice as well as for his impeccable musicianship. Simply put, he is one of the best countertenors in the world, performing regularly in lead roles at the world’s most important opera houses (the Metropolitan Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival, and Covent Garden). While widely respected as an opera singer, he is also valued as one of the finest interpreters of early and contemporary song repertoire. This concert highlights his work with English composer Michael Nyman and the songs of Henry Purcell, all accompanied by Fretwork, England’s celebrated viol consort. Expect bold harmonies, wondrous inventions, and melodies that will haunt your dreams – whether from the 17th century or the 21st.
Pre-concert talk with Iestyn Davies and Paolo Pietropaolo at 6:45PM
“His countertenor voice… is clear, effortless and warm. Cleanly executed ornamental figures emerge naturally from longer lyrical lines… The music hurtles through daring emotional shifts, with fiery outbursts one moment and achingly confused expressions the next. Mr. Davies sang it overwhelmingly.” – The New York Times
Presented in collaboration with Music on Main’s Modulus Festival
This concert is generously supported by Tony & Margie Knox and Ron Kruschen & Louise Akuzawa
To view/download this programme, please click here.
No Time in Eternity (2016)
Fantazy No. 7 in C minor (1680)
Fantazy No. 11 in G major (1680)
Music for a while
Music after a While (2018)
The Evening Hymn
Balancing the books (1999)
Fantazy No. 6 in F major (1680)
Fantazy upon one note (1680)
The Self-Laudatory Hymn of Innanna and her Omnipotence (1992)
Michael Nyman at 75
Is there a contemporary composer whose music is more immediately recognisable than Michael Nyman? I can’t think of one: the insistent ostinanti, the bold, yet simply conceived harmony, the driving rhythms, the aggressive instrumentation, the heavy bass-line; all have combined to make his music instantly recognisable. He has been endlessly imitated, particularly by composers for moving images – film, TV, adverts and so on; yet these are pale imitations, not the real thing.
While he might be known now more for the music he wrote for Jane Campion’s award-winning film from 1993, The Piano, he initially shot to fame a decade earlier with the music for Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract, set in 17th century England. This lurid tale was filmed with striking originality, and Nyman mirrored this with his music, most of it derived from one of England’s greatest composers, Henry Purcell. Purcell’s music was well known to Nyman, as he had studied under the great musicologist Thurston Dart at King’s College in London in the 1960s, and had then produced the first modern edition of Purcell’s Catches in 1967.
So it was a natural choice to combine Nyman and Purcell on this disc. Purcell never composed vocal music with an accompaniment of viols, but his magnificent set of Fantazias and In Nomines for viols demonstrated his interest in the instrument; so it was but a short step to realising Purcell’s original bass line and completing the harmonies with parts for four or five viols. While all three in this programme are on ground basses – that is the same bass line repeated over and over again – each song presented different challenges.
O Solitude is a setting of the first and last stanzas (plus half of the third) of the poem La Solitude by Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant, translated by Katherine Philips, who was a remarkable literary figure in 17th century Wales and England. Its ground bass is unvarying, yet Purcell’s implied harmonies are exceptionally inventive.
The Evening Hymn is a setting of the poem by Bishop William Fuller, friend of the diarists Pepys and Evelyn. The arrangement for viols was made by Silas Wolston. The ground bass here moves to accommodate modulations to different keys, as does that of Music for a While, which is from the incidental music to Dryden and Lee’s translation of Sophocles’s play Oedipus, revived in 1692. Alecto is one of the Greek furies, with snakes for hair, whose work is to castigate mortals for their moral crimes.
In 2017, Fretwork commissioned Michael Nyman to write a new instrumental work for them, and he responded with Music After a While, which is based upon Purcell’s song, or more particularly upon its strikingly original bass-line, with its insidious rising chromatics. It was premiered in Milton Court, in London’s Barbican Centre in May 2018.
We had previously commissioned Nyman in 1992 to write a work for James Bowman and us for the Spitalfields Festival. Nyman described the chance encounter that led to the choice of text:
The text of the Self-Laudatory Hymn came to light while I was browsing among the bookshelves of an Armenian acquaintance in February 1992. Opening, for no apparent reason, a fat anthology entitled Ancient Near-Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by James B. Pritchard, I found S N Kramer’s translation of this Hymn. I was immediately taken with its tone of unashamed self-congratulation (very suitable, I thought, for James Bowman’s voice) and its repetitive structure (very suitable for my music).
In conversation with another friend I learned that Inanna was not an obscure goddess known only to me and a few experts on Sumerian civilisation, but a central focus of that civilisation and a figure highly esteemed by feminists. In Kramer’s works: ‘Female deities were worshipped and adored all though Sumerian history…but the goddess who outweighed, overshadowed, and outlasted them all was a deity know to the Sumerians by the name of Inanna, ‘Queen of Heaven’, and to the Semites who lived in Sumer by the name of Ishtar. Inanna played a greater role in myth, epic, and hymn that any other deity, male or female.’
In the Self-Laudatory Hymn I have made no attempt to evoke Sumerian music (or music of any other period). The opportunity to work with the viols of Fretwork recalls my use of early instruments in the first Michael Nyman Band, which uses rebecs rather than viols; and also my studies in the 1960s with Thurston Dart (and his memorable Musica Britannica edition of Jacobean consort music) and the finest book ever written on English music, English Chamber Music by E H Meyer.
Some time during the 2000s, I came across Nyman’s song If, scored for piano and strings and thought it could work for viols – I made an arrangement and sent it to the composer, who approved. The calm simplicity of the harmonic pattern and melody makes for a compelling work, which expresses the child-like naïveté of the text. It was written, together with Why, to texts by Roger Pulvers as part of an animated film by Seiya Araki, The Diary of Anne Frank.
And then, having seen my arrangement, Nyman suggested I look at a work he had written for the Swingle Singers, Balancing the Books, a wordless vocal work in 8 parts. I arranged this then, but we didn’t find an opportunity to perform it until we were invited to take part in the Minimalism Unwrapped festival at Kings Place in London inn 2015.
No Time in Eternity was commissioned by the French counter-tenor Paulin Bündgen with Ensemble Celadon in 2016 and first performed by them in Lyon in March of that year. It is a setting of several poems by the great 17th century poet Robert Herrick: To Music, No Time in Eternity, Fortune, The Definition of Beauty, Things mortal still mutable, The Watch, To Music. All are from his Hesperides, published in 1648. His most famous verse is ‘To the Virgins to make much of time’, espousing the sentiment to seize the day, or carpe diem; and we see similar sentiments in these epigrammatical works that Nyman has chosen to set. He was highly sensitive to music and a close friend of the Lawes brothers, Henry & William.
Michael Nyman was born in Stratford, in the east end of London on 23rd March 1944. In addition to his current work as a composer, he is also a film maker, conductor, pianist, musicologist, writer & photographer. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and, after his Ph.D studies with Thurston Dart, he went to Romania to collect folk music.
While working as music critic for The Spectator, he coined the term ‘minimalism’ in 1968. He also wrote for The New Statesman, The Listener and Studio International. He seminal work on new music – Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond – was published in 1974 and has recently been reprinted.
His preferred musical form is opera, and he has written several notable works in this form: The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Facing Goya and Many and Boy: Dada.
More recently he has focused on composing soundtracks for silent ﬁlms from the late 1920’s: Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice, Sergi Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and new soundtracks for three Dziga Vertov ﬁlms- Man with a Movie Camera, The Eleventh Year and A Sixth Part of the World.
Iestyn Davies, counter-tenor
After graduating from St John’s College, Cambridge, Iestyn Davies studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London.
In 2017 Iestyn received an Olivier Award nomination for singing the role of Farinelli in Farinelli and the King opposite Mark Rylance, a Globe Theatre production that had successful runs on the West End and Broadway.
On the opera stage he has appeared at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, English National Opera, La Scala, Milan, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, the Chicago Lyric Opera and in Munich, Vienna and Zurich. Recent highlights include returns to the Bayerische Staatsoper for Ottone/Agrippina, Terry/Marnie at the Metropolitan Opera and Polinesso/Ariodante at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This season he reprises the role of Ottone/Agrippina at the Royal Opera House and at the Metropolitan Opera.
Celebrated on the concert platform, he has performed at La Scala, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Tonhalle in Zurich, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, at the Barbican in London and Lincoln Centre New York. Recent highlights include concerts with William Christie / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Labadie / Les Violons du Roy and the Handel & Haydn Society, Jonathan Cohen / Arcangelo at the BBC Proms and a tour with the Britten Sinfonia. This season he joins Laurence Cummings / Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Bucharest for Orfeo ed Euridice, Harry Bicket / New York Philharmonic for Messiah and he joins Emmanuel Haim / NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra for a series of concerts of the St. John Passion at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.
A committed recitalist, with repertoire ranges from Dowland to Clapton, he is a regular guest at Carnegie Hall, New York and enjoys a successful relationship with both the Wigmore Hall and Saffron Hall where he has curated residencies. At the start of the season, Iestyn celebrated his 40th birthday with a special concert at the Wigmore Hall, where he was presented their prestigious Gold Medal.
Iestyn has twice been awarded the Gramophone Recital Award, and in 2017 won the Gramophone Baroque Vocal Award for his Bach Cantatas disc with Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen. In 2017 Iestyn was awarded an MBE for his services to music.
In 2016, Fretwork celebrated its 30th anniversary. In these last three decades, they have explored the core repertory of great English consort music, from Taverner to Purcell, and made classic recordings against which others are judged.
In addition to this, Fretwork have become known as pioneers of contemporary music for viols, having commissioned over 40 new works. The list of composers is like the role call of the most prominent writers of our time: George Benjamin, Michael Nyman, Sir John Tavener, Gavin Bryars, Elvis Costello, Alexander Goehr, John Woolrich, Orlando Gough, Fabrice Fitch, Peter Sculthorpe, Sally Beamish, Tan Dun, Barry Guy, Andrew Keeling, Thea Musgrave, Simon Bainbridge, Poul Ruders, John Joubert, Duncan Druce & Nico Muhly.
The group now frequently presents programmes consisting entirely of contemporary music.
They made their Carnegie Hall debut in February of 2010, and now tour the United States most years.
In that year, they also curated a week-long concert series of concerts at Kings Place. The culmination of this week was the world premier of ‘The World Encompassed’ by Orlando Gough, a 70-minute piece describing in musical terms Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-80.
In 2011, The National Centre for Early Music, in collaboration with the BBC, hosted a competition for young composers to create a four-minute piece for Fretwork. They workshopped the shortlisted pieces at the NCEM in York in October, and then the winning entries were premiered in Kings Place in December 2011.
The following year, they premiered ‘My Days’ for The Hilliard Ensemble & Fretwork by one of today’s most exciting young composers – Nico Muhly – in Wigmore Hall; while 2013 was their busiest year for a decade: they played no fewer than ten concerts in London’s major chamber music halls: Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, Cadogan Hall & the Royal College of Music.
In 2014 they concentrated on the music of John Dowland with a major tour of the UK with one of todays greatest tenors: Ian Bostridge. They also spent a week in the Britten Studio in Aldeburgh re-working Orlando Gough’s ‘The World Encompassed’, to incorporate a spoken narrative drawn from contemporary accounts.
‘Slow: an In Nomine” by Nico Muhly was premiered in 2015 at Kings Place in London, and they collaborated with celebrated actor Simon Callow in the revised version of The World Encompassed and recorded it for Signum Classics.
They celebrated their 30th anniversary with a star-studded concert at Kings Place in June of 2016; and recorded four new albums, including The World Encompassed, and later that year they made their longest tour of America, taking in the USA, Canada & Colombia.
In 2018 they performed and recorded a programme celebrating the music of Michael Nyman – who was 75 in 2019 – with the exceptional counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies; and in 2019 they tour North America with this programme.
Also in 2019, they begin a series of concerts at Wigmore Hall presenting the greatest English consort music from the Golden Age – six concerts ranging from Cornyshe to Purcell.
Their recordings with Signum Classics has resulted in several notable releases: The World Encompassed, John Jenkins Four Part Fantasies, If (with Iestyn Davies) & In Chains of Gold: Orlando Gibbons’ consort anthems. In 2019 a further two discs will be released: The Silken Tent, with Clare Wilkinson, including the music of Debussy, Grieg, Byrd, Purcell, Nyman, Goehr, Wolf, Britten, Shostakovich and Stephen Wilkinson; and then In Nomine II, concluding a survey of English In Nomines started with their first released disc in 1987, including Nico Muhly’s ‘Slow’ and music by Ferrabosco, Bull, Tye, Baldwin, Parsons and Purcell.
2020 will see further releases on Signum, Schütz’s Auferstehungshistoria with Charles Daniels at Wigmore Hall, two further visits to Wigmore Hall in its ‘Musick’s Recreation’ series, an extended European tour, Dartington International Summer School again, and the world premier of a new work written for them by John Paul Jones, bassist/keyboardist with Led Zeppelin.