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Introducing Prophecy, a concert by Scottish Ensemble featuring one of the UK’s leading mezzo-sopranos, Karen Cargill, and featuring a selection of alternately dramatic, poetic and beautiful pieces inspired by tales from Ancient Greece.

The mythology and iconography of Ancient Greece has always provided a rich drawing-board for artistic inspiration. Its legacy really is quite incredible, passed down through paintings, poetry, literature and music across the centuries. As a result, many of us know the stories, but often without even realising it, being so intrinsically entangled in our everyday culture – the concept of having an ‘Achilles’ heel’, for example; ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’, Helen of Troy; or Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection and had a whole concept named after him, to name just three.

Composers were not immune to the lure of these ancient Greek stories about gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, and the origins of the world and their culture. Whilst we had a really difficult time narrowing it down, we feel like we have come up with a little selection of some of our favourite pieces for string orchestra and mezzo-soprano which explore one of the characters. Whether it’s the God of music, Apollo, being visited by three artistic muses in Stravinsky’s minimalist ‘white ballet’, or the tragic tales of Arianna, stuck on her island and abandoned by Theseus, and Dido, tricked by witches and abandoned by Aeneas, the pieces touch on notions of fate, destiny, tragedy, time and prophecy, and it’s fascinating to see how each composer has dealt with and represented this.

Below is an introduction to each of the pieces we’ll be performing – as well as our fantastic soloist, the Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill who we’ve been wanting to collaborate with for a while, now – and our guest leader and friend Matthew Truscott, a superb violinist and expert in Baroque and contemporary music. Calling at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (Tue 20 Feb 2018), Wellington Church, Glasgow (Wed 21 Feb 2018) and Kings Place, London (Fri 23 Feb 2018), we very much hope you can join us to experience what looks to be a dramatic live performance.

Igor Stravinsky – Apollo

The concert starts and ends with Stravinsky’s ‘ballet blanc’, Apollo, which tells the story of the Greek god of music (amongst many other things – he was also the god of prophecy, healing, the sun, light, plague, poetry… quite a busy man, all in all). It’s – perhaps unsurprisingly – referred to as a white ballet because the visual elements, the costumes and any set, were white. But this idea of paleness, of simplicity, of transparency, runs deeper. As well as in the strikingly minimalist set design and simple story (which shows Apollo being visited by three muses, no complicated storylines), it also infuses the music, which is composed in Stravinsky’s ‘neo-classical’ style, inspired by the light, refined, graceful music of 18th-century France. As the composer explained: “the absence of many-coloured hues and of all superfluities produced a wonderful freshness.”

This might not seem that different or unusual – but consider this in comparison to his most famous ballet, if not his most famous work altogether, The Rite of Spring. Premiered in 1913, its choreography – variously described as “violent”, “ugly”, “earthbound” – and violent, ugly, earthbound harmonic approach infamously caused a “near riot”. Warring factions in the audience – the conservative and liberal sides of the audience of course disagreed – resulted in an uproar, with objects thrown at the musicians (if you don’t know the story, read more about its reception here – it’s fascinating to imagine this kind of thing happening in a concert hall. What, if anything, would cause this reaction now?). With its clear, delicate beauty, the score for Apollo almost feels like a tongue-in-cheek mockery of this – between moments and melodies of real elegance and grace come very small, very subtle hints of experimental Stravinsky, but ultimately this is an abundantly melodic, very appealing piece. Here it is as performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.

The clip above shows extracts from the New York City Ballet’s performance in 1993. For the choreographer, a 24-year-old George Balanchine (he of Ballets Russes / New York City Ballet fame), this project was “the turning point in [his] life”, combining classical ballet with jazz movement as well as upping the spotlight time for the male dancer, and now very much celebrated for its innovation. Scenery and costumes were originally designed by André Bauchant – but in 1929 none other than Coco Chanel provided the new beautifully minimalist white costumes.

Haydn – Arianna a Naxos

Originally for mezzo-soprano and keyboard, this was one of Haydn’s ‘big hits’. Popular and versatile, it translated to many different types of event, just as easily performed and well received at palatial gatherings, for example, as it was nestled between other larger works at the busy London concerts.

It’s inspired by the Ancient Greek myth of Arianna – most well known by her Latin name of Ariadne, daughter of Minos, deserted on the island of Naxos by Theseus. The myth tends to have various endings, depending on the source – but the anonymous text which Haydn used implies that the grief-stricken, abandoned princess kills herself. With this dramatic climax in mind, Haydn whisks us through a variety of emotions before she meets her tragic end – with the result being, luckily for us, if not for Ariadne, this entertaining, appealing piece.

Listening along, the opening movement starts with a sense of slow awakening – relaxed and reflective, there’s a sense of it taking its time. But this soon turns to a gently restless frustration and impatience, as she waits for Theseus to return. The next aria, whilst sensuous, has this growing restlessness at its heart, which in turn flits from desperation, to anger, to the all-out wailing grief of the closing bars. The final line – which Haydn specified in one letter to a friend should be particularly clearly articulated – translates as ‘my beloved has fled, cruel and disloyal’. Whether the ultimate crescendo of grief is due to the moment of true realisation that she has been abandoned, or the notion that she will kill herself, we’re not sure – but either way, the mezzo-soprano line certainly makes sure it’s dramatic.

Scenes by Dido from Berlioz’ Les Troyens

Inspired by Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, Les Troyens (The Trojans) is a five-act opera of colossal proportions – so colossal, in fact, that Berlioz experienced major frustration trying to stage a satisfactory performance of the work in his lifetime. What with the obstacles in finding a venue of suitable size, performers of a suitable ability, and directors of suitable means (whether in financial or, ahem, intellectual terms, according to him), it’s unlikely that he would have ever witnessed the full thing performed. Considering it’s now accepted as one of the greatest operas of the 19th century – epic in its range, musically inventive and imaginative, and utterly entertaining in its spectacle – it feels a particular shame that the composer never saw it fully realised.

The monologue and aria we’ll be performing belong to the final act, which contains that famous story from Book IV of The Aeneid – that of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, Prince of Troy. After being shipwrecked on his way to Italy with the Trojans, Aeneas meets Dido, and the two fall in love. Of course, it being Greek mythology, it is not to be happy-ever-after for the couple: a coven of witches who are plotting Dido’s demise manage to convince Aeneas to choose duty over passion and set sail again, abandoning his new love.

This highly charged song (starting ‘Ah, ah, je vais mourir’ – ‘I am going to die’) is sung by Dido in her chamber as she deals with the news that Aeneas has gone. Following a bitter rage in which she curses the Trojans, this monologue marks the start of her subsequent heartbreak and grief as she accepts that death is her only option.

If you’ve not seen it, you can get a sense of the opera with Dido’s death scene, as performed by Tatiana Troyanos at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1983.

Henry Purcell – Fantasia No.7

And now, for something a little bit different… For those of you racking your brains for the connection, this one’s not inspired by Ancient Greece – it’s just a great bit of music by one of the evening’s composers, a strings-only palate cleanser before the next song. Written by the versatile and prolific English Renaissance composer, Purcell, it is one in a collection of 15 fantasias written by the composer when he was around 20 or 21 for ‘viol consort’ – a group of stringed instruments of various sizes, back before what we know today as the violin or cello, for example, was invented. The violin was on the rise, though, and this kind of music was quickly falling out of fashion, so they were very likely never, or only rarely performed.

Whilst they are technically impressive – they successfully and unshowily pack in various difficult compositional achievements – it’s not at the sacrifice of any listening pleasure. The Australian-born composer and pianist Percy Grainger was particularly enamoured by the fantasias, calling them: “the most sublimely beautiful many-voiced democratic music known to me, & should become to all string players what Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier is to pianists”. Here’s the complete collection – see if you agree…

Dido’s Lament (and more) from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

We’ll end the sung part of our concert with what is now one of the most famous operatic arias, and deservedly so. Dido’s Lament is from one of the earliest-known English operas, Dido and Aeneas, which focuses solely on Virgil’s story of the fated lovers. It occurs at the same point of the story as Berlioz’s ‘Je vais mourir’, above, with Dido contemplating her death, and is surely one of the most simple, beautiful, mournful melodies the composer wrote. Its melancholic appeal has attracted versions by a range of non-classical artists – including Alison Moyet, Klaus Nomi, Ane Brun, Jeff Buckley, and many more.

Introducing our soloist, Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)

Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill needs little introduction – and it goes without saying that we’re thrilled to be working with her. Having studied at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in 2002 she won the Kathleen Ferrier Award, and she now regularly performs on some of the most prestigious stages across the world. Her voice is simultaneously luscious and strong, robust and nuanced, somehow full of her obvious passion for music and performance as well as technical excellence. See for yourself, though, in this collection of some of Karen’s best clips and recordings – including full recordings of Verdi’s Requiem, Berlioz’s La Damnation De Faust, and Mahler’s Song Of The Earth.

Introducing our guest leader, Matthew Truscott (violin)

We first worked with Matthew on one of our Christmas concerts by candlelight, back in December 2015, performing works by Bach, Arvo Part and Sofia Gubaidulina, which was the perfect programme to showcase his joint expertise of, and passion for, both Baroque and contemporary performance. Matthew regularly works with some of the best musicians in both of these fields. As a soloist and director, you may recognise him from projects with the ever-excellent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (he’s also one of the leaders) as well as The English Concert, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, English National Opera, Dutch National Opera, The King’s Consort and le Concert d’Astrée, to select just a few. An extremely busy and in-demand person, it would seem, he’s also leader of St James’ Baroque, the Classical Opera Company and the Magdalena Consort, and concertmaster with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

We’re very much looking forward to working with him again on this journey through music inspired by Ancient Greece.

View the full programme

If you’d like to read the longer programme notes about the concert in advance, please click on the picture below.

Karen Cargill joins Scottish Ensemble for Prophecy at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (Tue 20 Feb 2018), Wellington Church, Glasgow (Wed 21 Feb 2018) and Kings Place, London (Fri 23 Feb 2018).