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 Kingwhich 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. 

Meet Joshua

Why did you decide to set up High Barnet Chamber Music Festival?
In many ways, HBCMF was inspired by the devastation of the last year. By October 2020 I was so upset by the lack of music-making that I was simply desperate to make something happen, and in particular to provide a platform for musicians my age. Whilst there had been some concerts happening here and there, they were mainly the ‘big names’ at major venues; there were very few of the grassroots concerts that are so crucial for developing the next generation of talent.

It occurred to me that High Barnet had a strong sense of local pride and community, but that there wasn’t really anything like this, so I put out some feelers and from that our team came together: Matthew Freedman, Caroline Grint, Rhian Morgan, and me.
 
You’re conducting your ensemble Mad Song. Why the name?

The group came out of some performances of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, which is this crazy piece depicting the madness of King George III, and so it was that work that inspired the name. I was confident it would remain one of our ‘party pieces’ (as it has!), but also that it well describes lots of the repertoire we perform.
 
What has been your favourite musical experience?

Conducting Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie three years ago. It’s this enormous piece for a massive orchestra (including Wagner Tubas, an organ, a whole offstage brass section, and even a wind machine) that charts a day’s hike up and down a mountain in the Alps, replete with waterfall, pastures, a storm, and of course the arrival at the summit and the view over the Alps. I’d actually played it aged 15 in my youth orchestra and my friends and I developed something of an obsession with it. To come back to it years later and get to conduct it this time was an unbelievable privilege.
 
How have you found the last year?

It’s been really horrible. I’m a composer as well as a conductor, and whilst you might think that time at home with nothing else to do is perfect for composing, I found that my emotional energy was totally exhausted and it was impossible to find any inspiration. With the world as it was, and no hope of any imminent performances, finding any creative energy was intensely difficult. It’s the longest I’ve gone without performing in as long as I can remember, and I’ve missed that phenomenally.

At the same time, I’m very lucky. My doctorate provides stable life circumstances, I've been living comfortably with my partner throughout, and I haven't lost anyone close to me, and so in many ways I feel perversely fortunate at how I’ve fared, particularly compared to many of my friends who have suffered bereavement, eviction, unemployment, and who knows what else.
 
Tell us a bit about the programme you’ll be performing at the Festival. Why are you playing these works?

I’m so excited about this programme! Music from fin-de-siècle Vienna and its surroundings is simply my favourite music, so to present these three works is such a treat. It was a time of incredible flux in all the arts, and is imbued with this extreme urge to express the intense emotional experience of life. At its best, it’s music where composers totally open up and give everything they possibly can: they really deal with life’s Big Questions. It means the music is totally exhausting to rehearse and perform, and very demanding for the players, but when you pull it off it’s immensely rewarding.

What’s more, there are fascinating biographical links between the composers, which was part of what drew this programme together. As Müller-Hermann and Schoenberg were coming of age, Mahler was the central figure in Vienna. In fact, he was such a celebrity that tour guides would point out Herr Mahler on his walks along the Ringstraße. He was a strong supporter of Schoenberg’s, and indeed his wife Alma reports that as he lay dying in the Vienna Sanitorium he was expressly concerned with ‘Who’ll take care of Schoenberg now?’

Whether the two men knew Johanna Müller-Hermann is unclear, though it seems likely. Mahler’s wife, Alma (herself a composer), was certainly aware of Müller-Hermann through her erstwhile lover, the composer Alexander Zemlinsky. He taught both Müller-Hermann and Schoenberg, who would then marry Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde.

Müller-Hermann’s other teachers include J.B. Foerster and Guido Adler, both musicologists and friends of Mahler’s. She also dedicated her Op. 14 songs to Alma in 1915, although Gustav had been dead for four years by this point. To my knowledge there’s not yet definitive proof that she knew Gustav, although the evidence suggests it was rather likely, but this all indicates just what a closely interconnected web Viennese society was at the time.

If our audience wanted to listen to some other music related to your programme, what would you recommend?

In her interview, Anita did a good job recommending some Mahler and some Brahms to complement the Lieder, so I’ll try and avoid duplicating those.

Schoenberg’s gorgeous Verklärte Nacht would be a good way into the Late Romantic language; likewise, Alban Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder and Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder—and for the latter it simply has to be Jessye Norman singing—are ravishingly beautiful.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 is saturated with Mahlerian gestures and fingerprints, and does a fantastic job tracing the path from the late tonal works through to the beginnings of his so-called ‘atonal’ music.

For a slightly more rogue choice, you could try Franz Schmidt's luscious Symphony No. 4. Schmidt actually played second cello in the premiere of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, and this symphony demonstrates a wealth of influences from the major Austro-Germanic composers, as well as his particular expressive personality.

 
As a more light-hearted way to get to know you, if you were an ice cream flavour, what would it be & why?

Mint choc chip. Trying to be refreshing and calm, but can’t resist a bit of decadence here and there…

Meet Anita

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…