The culmination of a long association with pianist Matthew Mills, Bagatelles represents some 30 years of piano music by British composer Bernard Hughes.
I’ve been involved with Michael and his work for about 20 years now, since he first turned up at my school (!) having been booked to give consultation lessons to me and another similarly composing-mad pupil. I brought him a recently-completed orchestral piece that the school orchestra had just premiered, and while he didn’t exactly tear it apart, after an hour or so I was very aware how limited was my vision of the world (musical and everything else besides) and how much there was I didn’t yet know, hadn’t even begun to imagine. I felt slightly chastened but much more inspired: my youthful arrogance was punctured, but he’d still taken me seriously. It seemed like the start of a conversation I desperately wanted to continue; so I rang him up during the summer holidays, and a long apprenticeship was begun – first informal (all-day trips to Steyning for nothing more than a bottle of wine), then formally as a postgrad at Southampton, where he still teaches. Like so many of his ex-students, I would say that my studies with Michael were the formative musical experience of my life.
As an undergrad during May Week I’d ambitiously exhumed the cantata Maldon, persuaded Richard Jackson up to sing it, roped in the college chapel choir and a few pro trombonists and percussionists from London: a fantastically savage experience among the genteel garden parties taking place all around.
A few years later I started EXAUDI with Juliet Fraser. Michael’s Anima Christi, revised specially for the occasion, was the centrepiece of our first concert in 2002, and the centrepiece too (along with Maldon) of our first disc, issued by NMC in 2004 and still available. Since then we’ve performed more than a dozen major works of his, including six world premieres. It’s been one of our most enduring and happy associations – Michael’s relationship with the voice is deep and absolutely sympathetic (whilst never shying away from an extreme vocal or musical challenge); the singers love singing his music, love being stretched by it physically and mentally, love the profound musical rewards it yields, its rich resonance with earlier vocal music (an ensemble favourite is the extraordinary Gesualdo: Libro Sesto from 2013), its sensitivity to the dramatic potential of the performance act.
To mark Michael’s 70th we felt we needed to do something special. A grant from The Hinrichsen Foundation allowed us to contemplate taking on one of the peaks of the 1970s vocal ensemble repertoire – Michael’s as-yet-unperformed Tom Fool’s Wooing. Completed in 1978 for an ensemble of 14 voices, it was written for the John Alldis Choir but had never made it to the stage by the time the choir disbanded. Its vocal challenges are immense – page upon page of rollercoasting coloratura lines scaling insane heights in an ecstatic celebration of spiritual and erotic love. It had to be done.
In collaboration with the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, EXAUDI is presenting a weekend of Michael Finnissy’s music on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th March. For the Saturday night concert, EXAUDI will perform Tom Fool alongside another work from the 1970s, Cipriano. The Guildhall New Music Ensemble will complement this with the premiere of Orfeo (1974/2015) and the piano duo Wild Flowers.
On the Sunday there’s a chance to explore Finnissy’s work in more detail in a morning Colloquium, led by talks on the vocal and piano music by myself and Christopher Fox respectively, and concluding with a Roundtable in which the composer will take part.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon, virtuoso pianist Jonathan Powell will give a complete performance (3.5 hours) of the Verdi Transcriptions.
All events are free and unticketed – just turn up.
Happy birthday, Michael!
Find out more about the events here