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Canvas Cracking, Waves Slapping

 Friday, 10th March, 2017

Member and conductor Will Kunhardt delves into Britten's Sea Interludes.

In the build up to the comeback of the Classical Re:Imagined this Saturday - a concert of ocean-inspired orchestral masterpieces, Will, the Arensky Chamber Orchestra's Principal Conductor, has been reflecting on the music they'll be performing - Britten's Sea Interludes.

At the bottom of my road, past the BP garage, dancing through gaps in the rumbling traffic, was the sea.

I would pound past, one foot slapping the concrete promenade, the other balancing the board. Nose red and streaming, eyes watering, wheels hissing, sea and beach just a blue and amber blur.

Sometimes I would go cutting through the waves, a streak of pink and yellow sail in brown-blue water. Canvas cracking, pulleys chiming, waves slapping. Body right, thrust out into the spray, as the wind dragged us left.

These days, I have more time to stand, watch and listen.

Dull ochre pebbles, skidding and skittering under foot. A lucky few washed glistening orange by the waves. Bladderwrack too, black cut-outs strung across the beach.

Pale jade sea. Like the shards of glass hidden between the stones, rubbed smooth and milky by years under water. ‘Buried treasure’ we called it.

Waves, sometimes whispering, sometimes roaring, gulls, a sharp counterpoint. Longshore drift barriers marching into the water, cutting the beach into rectangles. Wind like a giant palm, pressed against cheeks, eyes and a few brave, arthritic trees, now bent double under all the pressure.

On rare days, the colours glitter brilliantly. But usually it is more architecture than art. Angular, graphic shapes in faded hues.

Pretty? No.

But beautiful? Yes.

And wild.

And free.

This British sea-world – harsh and lonely, yet alive and unbound – this is the world of Britten’s Sea Interludes.

On first listen, they have a cold, crystalline quality. But to hear only this is to miss their magic.

Beneath the surface sings a song of freedom, fierce and untamed, a song that crackles with all the energy of that elemental coastline.

Britten had to invent a new language to describe that world in sound. He had to be honest and raw. And in rising to that challenge, he captured all of our coastline’s inscrutable allure.

It is beautiful. But like that beach, it is not pretty. Not something that belongs on a postcard.

Listen closely and you’ll hear, woven into these notes, not only the sea. There is also the tragic tale of Peter Grimes. A harsh, brutal, emotionless fisherman, so it seems. But really a lost soul, deeply principled, hopelessly in love, and full of dreams for a better life, a life where he belongs.

At times it can be savage music, powerful enough to be frightening. But it is also music that holds the freedom and might of the seas in its melodies, that captures that mysterious love affair with the waves that defines our island life.

The Recording

It needs to be an English orchestra doesn’t it? So here is the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Sakari Oramo.

Oramo was a violinist, leading ensembles for years before ever stepping onto the podium. He knows orchestra’s from the inside out – quite literally – and it shows.

There’s an electricity in his manner, in that dancing baton point, that works its way into all the groups he performs with. Perfect for Grimes’ pent up hopes and fears beneath and the crashing waves above.

If you’re strapped for time, just try Dawn – the first 3 and a half minutes. But if you can, listen to them all. From the church bells ringing out on Sunday Morning to the silver and shadows of Moonlight to the wild raging of the Storm.

Classical Re:Imagined: Sea Fever takes place at the Club on Saturday 11th March, 7.30pm.