22nd July 7.30pm: Mad Song & Anita Monserrat
Gustav Mahler arr. Joshua Ballance, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Johanna Müller-Hermann arr. Joshua Ballance, Fünf Lieder, Opp. 11 & 32
Arnold Schoenberg arr. Anton Webern, Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9
Mad Song are a dynamic young ensemble who specialise in performances of 20th and 21st century music. Founded in 2019 by conductor & composer Joshua Ballance, they have become renowned for their committed performances, particularly of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King, which they have performed around the UK. Their performance at the Aberystwyth Festival was praised for its "brutality and raw energy" (David Campbell).
They have frequently workshopped and premiered works by emerging composers, whilst 2020 saw their recording debut: they joined the Octandre Ensemble in the studio for music by the English composer Frank Denyer. That year, they were also selected by the Park Lane Group to perform in an anniversary celebration of the composer Roberto Gerhard. Upcoming concerts include a concert of early twentieth-century Viennese music with mezzo-soprano Anita Monserrat, and a return to Eight Songs, this time for a performance in Cardiff curated by Maxwell Davies expert Professor Nicholas Jones.
Anita Monserrat was born in 1998 and began singing in Salisbury Cathedral Choir. In addition to her duties singing the regular round of daily services, Anita sang in frequent concerts and radio broadcasts, recorded Bernard Naylor’s nine motets and appeared in a BBC4 documentary about the cathedral choristers of Salisbury. Anita then attended South Wilts Grammar School and continued her vocal studies with Rachel Sherry at Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She performed regularly as a soprano soloist with choirs in school, at Junior Guildhall and in Salisbury and was also a member of the first violin section of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.
Anita graduated in June 2019 with a degree in Music from Trinity College, Cambridge, where she held both choral and instrumental scholarships. As a member of Trinity College Choir, she performed both Bach’s B Minor Mass and Christmas Oratorio at St. John Smith’s Square with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, recorded frequently and undertook several international tours. A highlight of her final year as an undergraduate was both co-directing and performing in an unconducted performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion with Nicholas Mulroy, Jonathan Rees and Margaret Faultless. Whilst spending a fourth year in Cambridge studying for an MPhil, Anita was involved in a lot of student operas, singing the roles of Sesto in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Semele in Handel’s Semele and Tisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. She also appeared as the soloist in the 2020 ‘Easter from King’s’ broadcast, as seen on BBC2. She is now in her first year at the Royal Academy of Music as a mezzo-soprano, learning with Alexander Ashworth and Catherine Wyn-Rogers.
How did you start singing? What’s been your educational journey in singing up to this point?
I suppose I technically ‘started singing’ through nursery rhymes as a toddler, which I apparently repeated ad nauseam everywhere I went! However, the most formative years of singing really started when I became a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, aged 9. That was my first interaction with the choral tradition, and was also where I believe my educational journey with singing (and general musicianship) began. Had I not been a chorister, I think that my trajectory as a musician would be very different to what it has been.
After my four years at Salisbury, I went to my local grammar school and continued studying at the junior department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I then went to Cambridge University, where I was a choral scholar in Trinity College Choir. It was at university that I realised that singing was what I wanted to pursue to postgraduate level, and I am now at the Royal Academy of Music, studying as a mezzo-soprano for a Master’s in Vocal Studies.
What has been your favourite musical experience?
It is incredibly difficult to isolate one musical experience as my all-time favourite! However, one that I certainly remember very fondly was an unconducted St Matthew Passion that I jointly organised with a friend of mine in our final year as undergraduates in Cambridge. Given that the project was unconducted and entirely reliant on each individual musician, the amount of work that went in to the rehearsal process made the final concert so rewarding.
How have you found the last year, largely devoid of concerts?
My year has been filled with zoom choirs, which I never want to do again…! I have however been very lucky to have had my studies at the Academy to keep me occupied since September, and furthermore to keep me engaged with music and singing. There was such a jarring contrast between pre-Covid life at university, where there were six or seven concerts happening simultaneously on any given day, to a world where live performance was non-existent.
Tell us a bit about the programme you’ll be singing at the Festival. Why perform this music?
I’ll be singing Mahler’s song cycle Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen and a selection of songs by Johanna Müller-Hermann. It’s always such a treat to sing Mahler, as the vocal writing feels so luxurious! The cycle is heavily influenced by folksong and, interestingly, Mahler wrote the texts for this cycle himself. The words draw on German folk poetry from books such as Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and many of the folk melodies that reappear throughout the cycle are later used in Mahler’s First Symphony.
The Müller-Hermann was completely unknown to me prior to this project, and it’s such a wonderful contrast to the Mahler in both composition and mood. I really hope that I’ll be introducing these songs to some people for the first time!
Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is a really significant piece in the vocal repertoire. What’s it like learning & performing such a famous and oft-performed work?
It is, of course, intimidating to learn a work that is so well known and well-loved in the vocal repertoire. However, it’s also important not to let yourself be suffocated by the prestige surrounding the work! As a singer, I’m fortunate that there are words, as this is another element that can inform and mould my interpretation. However, I would much prefer to view this performance as an introduction to my exploration of this particular song cycle. I’m sure that as and when I next return to this work, my perspective and ideas will have completely changed!
I know we’re not meant to have favourites, but is there one song out of the nine in the programme that you particularly like?
It would have to be the fourth song of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. I think that it’s so emblematic of Mahler and the total contrast of characters in such a short movement is completely masterful.
If our audience wanted to listen to some other music related to your programme, what would you recommend?
Definitely Mahler’s First Symphony to complement the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, but all of the symphonies are incredible – especially ‘Urlicht’ from Mahler's Second Symphony and the first movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Veering away from Mahler, I consider Brahms’s Zwei Gesänge for voice, piano and viola to be of a similar ilk, not to mention completely gorgeous!
As a more light-hearted way to get to know you, if you were an ice cream flavour, what would it be & why?
Given that this question has been circling around my head for the past three days, it seems only fair to say that I would be a Neapolitan ice cream, as I am clearly incredibly indecisive…