Radius / LIFE STORIES, Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2015 - Bachtrack
“If Harold Pinter had ever written an opera, this would surely be it”
Tim Benjamin gives a masterclass in how to create a one-handed opera twice over in his Life Stories. Rest in Peace, inspired by a short story from Chekhov (Life in Questions and Exclamations, 1882), is sung gloriously by James Fisher as the tramp Ezdeyev, sleeping rough in a future Moscow: a ragged poster on a peeling wall proclaims in Cyrillic that we are in Putin’s Russia. Emerging dramatically from a filthy sleeping bag on stage, Ezdeyev picks through the shopping trolley holding his tattered belongings, each one sparking a memory: what we hear are the vivid flickers of his decaying, addled mind, fascinating both for their intensity and their randomness. If Harold Pinter had ever written an opera, this would surely be it. Fisher’s fabulously expressive face, alternatively sad, wild-eyed and dreamy, and brave commitment to his character (Benjamin’s direction includes Ezdeyev pleasuring himself furtively behind a dirty magazine: mercifully, it’s brief) make this piece truly come alive, while his rich and satisfying voice makes the most of Benjamin’s often melodic, sometimes surprising writing. Mournful one minute, dancing or drunken the next, impassioned, jagged: Benjamin’s score develops and intrigues constantly.
We move to the 18th century for Silent Jack, a story adapted from that of Lady Katherine Ferrers, heroine of one of my favourite Margaret Lockwood films, 1945’s The Wicked Lady. Benjamin’s response is Amy Beddoes: abandoned by a faithless husband, she becomes a highwayman to support herself, appealing in her tragic love while unnervingly practical in her quest for survival. Silent Jack’s poetic libretto has a nicely period air: “So now I eat the bread of sorrow; I am brought low, and my deservings are upon me,” Amy reflects in her hideout, where she has dragged herself with a mortal wound. Benjamin’s distinct and pleasing soundworld for Silent Jack conjures historical drama without hamming it up. Taylor Wilson’s superb acting and sumptuous mezzo enthralled me from start to finish in the strongest show of the night: with more than a slight air of Fiona Shaw, Wilson is definitely one to watch.
Radius / LIFE STORIES, Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2015 - The Stage
“...a death scene of rare power that is profoundly tragic and deeply credible”
Tim Benjamin’s double bill, Life Stories, is a pair of affecting monologues. The first is from Ezdeyev, a homeless Russian man whose life falls apart through drink, gambling and ill health. Bass James Fisher responds well to the fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness text and brings refined acting. The writing in the second monologue, for Amy – a rejected 18th-century middle-class lady turned highwaywoman – is convincing, Taylor Wilson inhabits the role completely, and produces a death scene of rare power that is profoundly tragic and deeply credible.
Radius / LIFE STORIES, Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2015 - A Younger Theatre
“If Harold Pinter had ever written an opera, this would surely be it”
As part of Tete a Tete’s Opera Festival this double bill entitled Life Stories: Rest in Peace and Silent Jack complimented each other very well, with through-line themes of memory, loss and time – one set in the present and one set in the past. The pieces were written and directed by Tim Benjamin with a solo performer in each (James Fisher and Taylor Wilson, respectively) and a brilliant musical ensemble lead by Anthony Brannick.
Fisher had a playful, full voice with a soft and satisfying falsetto. This wide vocal range neatly allowed him to convey several characters in this piece with very little physicality needed. This performer welcomed us, opened-armed into the brain of the homeless Ezdeyev, but due to the confusing narrative, Fisher had to work harder during the moments of transition to keep us engaged throughout. This then became a difficult line to straddle between wanting to engage us as audience members and ‘over-acting’. There were some very playful moments of the eager-eyed character who seemed inspired, physically and musically by Bottom from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially during the latter section of this piece, as he is lead on the floor in chaos.
Silent Jack was a much more engaging piece for me because of the formed narrative and sense of catharsis. Wilson gave a brilliant all-round performance. Her characterisation was engaging and genuine, and although I’m unsure why there was direct address in either piece, I believed that she truly needed something from us; whoever it was that we were cast as. Her lower register was pleasing and this voice and clear physicality took us on Amy’s journey throughout. Vocally she was strong and had a really lovely quality to the voice which lulled us further into her world. Although, like Rest in Peace, there were points where I lost the narrative – her emotional journey was clear and that alone was actually enough to carry us through. I found Wilson a very satisfying performer as she is naturally very watchable.
Both performances were good, and both singers had a stage presence that was immediately clear and captivating. There were some good little sections of movement choice in both pieces which aided the humour and storytelling component immensely. Both costumes were clearly thought through by Amy Westwood and Alexandra Ware and really aided the characterisation; especially during Taylor’s entrance when I think I could actually smell mud. There were some interesting lighting decisions executed towards the end of this piece though, as the television down stage right was, firstly, still present in the second narrative and clearly dramaturgically out of place, but it was also still on and omitting light. Although confusing, Tom Sutcliffe’s decision certainly gave a beautiful final visual with a light blue wash over Amy alongside the orchestra’s individual stand lights.
Benjamin’s composition was provocative and quite beautiful. It slowed and allowed pause, but also drove the narratives in a way that made them feel interlocked and dependent on each other. I particularly enjoyed the moments of compositional foley in the space as well, the sound and noise that did not come from instruments did not feel out of place and were pleasant surprises.
Through his directorial decisions, Benjamin seems to be asking questions about the borders of performativity in opera. How did the orchestra and singers interact? What was the relationship between singer and conductor? These questions were framed from the beginning as the orchestra were pre-set on stage drinking champagne against the back drop of what was supposed to be representative of someone sleeping rough on the street. There was a clear juxtaposition for example between Fisher’s character and the Violinist, who was dressed in a full-length elegant ball gown and were, at points, no more than a metre away from each other.
As well as the harsh and pointed costume decisions, this clear physical separation of musicians seemed counterintuitive, especially as through both pieces there were clear attempts to actually integrate – as the orchestra and conductor were given roles and offered invitations to react.
This new opera offers new and exciting music performed to a very high standard by all involved. But for me, there’s still more to opera than excellent musicianship and vocal quality, and the dramatic action and coherence need to be just as rigorous to make this the truly beautiful opera it could be.
Radius / LIFE STORIES, Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2015 - Musically Notable
“...incredibly convincing, engaging, full of emotion...”
“...a truly remarkable performance that is nearly unheard of within smaller opera companies and festivals...”
This time, composer Tim Benjamin has come up with something new: a double bill chamber opera which contains 2 one-singer stories, entitled Life Stories. With this new work, though still telling known stories, he did so in a reflective way that delved deeper into the soul of the characters.
The first piece in the double bill, R.I.P, is based on Anton Chekhov's work, ''Life Through Questions and Exclamations.'' James Fisher (bass) played an old homeless man, recalling the traumas of his life that led him to where he is.
The story began at infancy, with Fisher casting away empty boxes of diapers and children's clothes. It quickly became apparent that the character is the victim of an abusive, cold father, and a mother who is powerless to change the family dynamic. Fisher frequently sang in a convincing falsetto for a bass, as he took the character through childhood. The character tried to recite the 7 times table, and the accompaniment was reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein's ''Quod Erat Demonstratum'' from the work Candide, evoking a convincing school-like environment.
Fisher traveled through adolescence, discovering the opposite sex, and young adulthood. The orchestra ''pit'' was in fact not in a pit, but onstage, and Fisher yelled to the conductor, ''Give me some work! Give me a job!'' This kind of desperation for validation and employment still rings true today, especially with the Millennial generation.
Fisher sang through the rest of the character's life, riddled with a gambling addiction in which he threw playing cards around the stage, alcoholism, infinite doctor's bills, and finally, a terminal diagnosis. As he laid down in his filthy sleeping bag, singing, ''Time to sleep,'' the first half was complete. Stage hands clad in high-visibility Transport for London vests shuffled the homeless man along and prepared the set for the second half: Silent Jack.
I first saw Taylor Wilson as Lady Brannoch in Tim Benjamin's Madame X. As Silent Jack, she was incredibly convincing, engaging, and full of emotion.
The second half began with Wilson stumbling onto the stage with a lantern and a gun, holding her left side as though mortally wounded. She recalled the story of Lady Katherine Ferrers, a young well-to-do woman who was bankrupted by her husband who chose bad investments. She turned to a life of crime for survival, robbing carriages with nary a word, nothing but a lantern and a gun.
Throughout Silent Jack, Wilson was immersive and convincing. She never let her audience forget that she was mortally wounded, and gave a truly remarkable performance that is nearly unheard of within smaller opera companies and festivals. The juxtaposition was palpable as she sang ''No words, no pointless words,'' while recounting her story in a detailed musical monologue.
Though these two stories, R.I.P and Silent Jack, are separated by centuries, there is a definitive line that draws them together. Just as Ezdeyev angrily threw playing cards down onto the stage, Silent Jack tossed worthless investment papers into the air. Both characters resist sleep, and both characters dance a waltz. Life Stories is a short, 75 minute glimpse into two characters' lives that are separated by time but united by human frailty and fault. This easily digestible morsel of contemporary opera is one to see the next time it takes a tour.
Radius / MADAME X, various venues 2014
“Strong performances ... Benjamin directs with considerable theatrical flair”
“Succeeds in sustaining interest over nearly two hours ... The fluent, well-crafted score offers some striking moments”
“The music thrills ... an intriguing bit of weirdness”
This is a summary of many reviews for this tour; read full selection with links (Madame X website)
The "industry bible", Opera, were full of praise for MADAME X, both the music: “Tim Benjamin refreshingly provided an opera that succeeds in sustaining interest over nearly two hours ... The fluent, well-crafted score offers some striking moments” and the singers, particularly Tom Morss (“passionately focused”), Laura Sheerin (“alluring”), Marc Callahan (“wickedly glamorous”), Taylor Wilson (“tangy, chic, and vainglorious”) and Jon Stainsby (“outstandingly alert”).
One of our key aims as an opera company is to introduce contemporary opera to people who are completely new to opera, and so it was wonderful to read this review from Weekend Notes. The writer (who is new to opera) wonders what constitutes an award-winning production, and says that “if spending hours glued to the stage in wonder is an important attribute for a production to have, then this has it”. She goes on to say that she has “fallen in love several times throughout the last few hours of my life and have experienced a range of emotion. I'm not sure I will ever get over this production, nor do I want to. A few hours of performance, but a whole many more of wonder.”
There's another positive if short review from the Manchester performance of MADAME X by Jildy Sauce, who singles out Laura Sheerin, Tom Morss, and Taylor Wilson for praise, in particular highlighting Morss' “fine aria and well-deserved ovation”. The reviewer summarises “I very much enjoyed Tim Benjamin’s atmospheric opera and it would be wonderful to see the opera again in the future”.
First of the London reviews, A Younger Theatre's review of Madame X describes the cast “shining with a refreshing energy, creating a vibrant atmosphere”, singling out for praise Jon Stainsby's “great comic timing and gorgeous rounded baritone”, Taylor Wilson's “extremely charismatic and artsy Cruella-de-Vil-ish Lady Brannoch”, Laura Sheerin who “finds a beautiful balance between innocence and a fesity spirit as Zerlina”, and Tom Morss, whose “tenor hits your bones as Masetto's life crumbles”. Tim Benjamin's score is also given high praise, “beautifully composed with many delicious flavours and shades”.
Next up there's Now As I Write's review of Madame X, which highlights the “moving” violin solo which opens the first act, and the cast “from the outset offering a charming rapport and clear characterisation”. The review praises the “beautiful voices across the board”, in particular “stunning soprano Laura Sheerin” and “fantastic baritone Jon Stainsby”, and in general “the undoubtedly talented ensemble”, and concludes: “Exquisite when in chorus, inherently melancholy and ultimately soul-bearing, Madame X poses infinitely more questions than it answers”.
And here's a great review by OperaCompass, which also praises Jon Stainsby, “sung masterfully ... with a rich and assured baritone”, overall “the singers' excellent voices”, and also Tim Benjamin's “enthralling score with enjoyable tuneful passages alongside the more avant garde”.
Here's The Upcoming's review of Madame X by Georgia Mizen, which praises the opera's “very modern relevance and subtle humour”, and describes the performance as “emotively sung, intelligently presented in English and with an undoubtedly talented ensemble”, and accurately sums up the plot as “a satirical gaze upon the perpetual pennilessness of the artist”. Jon Stainsby (Botney) and Laura Sheerin (Zerlina) are singled out for exceptional praise.
Next we have a review of Madame X by Carolin Kopplin for UK Theatre Network. The review picks up on some of the references in Tim Benjamin's score, and praises the singers: “the quality of the voices is excellent throughout”. Of many musical moments, the reviewer was particularly impressed by “the beautiful piece that is sung by the worshippers at the beginning of Act 2”, and singles out Taylor Wilson as Lady Brannoch and Marc Callahan as the capitalist Mr Wilmore “who almost steal the show”. In summary, the review proclaims Madame X “an intriguing new opera that is definitely worth seeing”.
There was one review from the world premiere in the Yorkshire as Todmorden News reviews Madame X. Again, the review highlights the opera's satire of the rich, and praises the “inventive staging and the assertive voices”. The music is praised for being “accessible and tuneful“, and the review concludes by recommending Madame X as “well worth a visit and there's a sting in the tail”.
We also have a review of Madame X by I Care If You Listen. This is the first review to pick up on some of the gender politics lurking beneath the surface of Madame X, and singles out Taylor Wilson for praise, who left the reviewer “wishing we had an entire opera about Lady Brannoch”, together with Marc Callahan, who “immersed the audience in this deliciously skeezy, predatory, slimeball character”. Overall the review describes the cast of Madame X as “impressive and in excellent voice” and the opera overall as “enjoyable - especially if you enjoy new opera”.
The traditional press also made an appearance, with the Evening Standard praising “an intriguing bit of weirdness” and singling out, again, Jon Stainsby's “particularly pleasing presence” and also the score, highlighting “a Passion-like lament with cello obbligato and a choral development of Gregorian chant [which] thrills”. The Guardian praise MADAME X's particularly strong performances from Marc Callahan (“dangerous charisma both vocally and physically”), Taylor Wilson “all hauteur and thrilling low notes” and Tom Morss' “touchingly naive” Masetto. The review also praises the composer and director: “Benjamin directs the opera himself with considerable theatrical flair”.
Finally, there is a review by Manchester Salon of the RNCM performance of Madame X, which praises the cast, “excellent in both acting and singing”, in particular Taylor Wilson (“a powerful presence”), Jon Stainsby (“wonderful”), and Marc Callahan (“well measured menace”). The reviewer finds that the music was “fascinating to hear ... certainly a modern composition, yet also very melodic, a musical tapestry that worked well in capturing the emotions of the drama”, and that the “musicians were outstanding”. The review ends hoping “that there will be more performances – it would be criminal otherwise”.
Radius / EMILY, Todmorden Hippodrome, July 2013 - Seen & Heard / Rob Barnett
“It brought the house down ... a tribute to the composer and the utterly convincing singers”
The Emily of the title was the Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (1872—1913). She was a fervent activist and although a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, as a rugged individualist, acted by herself rather than operating within the WSPU ‘command structure’. Her arrests were for stone-throwing, assault and arson, and she was one of those force-fed at Holloway Prison. She met her death from injuries after being hit by the King’s horse, Amber, competing in the Derby at Epsom; intriguingly one of the contemporary sources claimed that the fatal injury to her skull was not caused by an impact from the horse. In any event the race took place one month and a century before last night’s premiere. It is not clear whether Davison intended her own death but having chosen to rush out into the path of the horses at the point where the media’s cameras were concentrated her protest certainly gained high and enduring dramatic prominence. The early cine footage of this event (not portrayed in the opera – it didn’t need to be) is one of the most public icons of a movement that largely secured its goal after the personal and social seismic upheaval of the Great War. It was achieved gradually through various Representation of the People Acts between 1918 and 1926 – at least so far as the law is concerned. Incidentally, I wonder if this opera the only one where the convoluted long title of an Act of Parliament is sung, as it was at the very start of Emily.
The libretto for Emily was researched by Benjamin mainly at The Women’s Library in London among a large collection of original material relating both to the Suffragette movement in general and Emily Davison in particular. Mind you, before we get too seduced by the original language we need to remind ourselves that it too – or some of it – will be liberally soused in the political posturing and propaganda of the time.
The opera is as the composer says “a sequence of dioramas … beginning with a brief account of the ultimate victory of the suffragettes … then presents scenes from Emily Davison’s life leading to her death at Epsom Downs.” The only named character is Emily. The others are designated as professions or generic groups: A Doctor, A Judge, a Woman and so on. This emphasises Emily’s isolation and her decision to act alone. It also courts criticism as poster-art caricature territory and just that hint of sloganising.
The composer’s approach here was to have the music embracing the text tightly and deploying “many strands and themes, some overt and some subtle. Rendered in music (short sequences of notes, some rhythms, some chords / collections), they formed my starting-point.” These components are applied “forwards, backwards, upside down, stretched and chopped up, and through juxtaposition with each other”, and intensify the text which when sung was projected in surtitle form. The music avoids big set-piece arias and instead imaginatively complements the words taken verbatim from original sources, including letters to the press and letters – often vituperative – to Davison as she lay dying in hospital for four days after the Race. The music is essentially lyrical, seething with instrumental detail, but dressed from a wardrobe that accommodates a sombre dissonance. Parallels are always dangerous, but think in terms of a meeting place between Berg’s Lulu and Weill’s music theatre. I should emphasise, though that Emily is most definitely opera and not a musical. Extractable set-piece arias are avoided except perhaps “The Hub of the Universe” finale where Emily’s spirit joins the full cast holding ballot papers high and radiantly triumphant; it brought the house down. A ruthless and fascinating concentration on the narrative is maintained – a tribute to composer and the young but utterly convincing singers. It was great to hear such green and sappy voices as opposed to the braying vibrato we often encounter. I should also add that Benjamin’s writing broadly reminded me of the approach found in an English opera of the 1990s: Will Todd’s underestimated Victorian era Brunel.
The scenery is spare, Victorian and subdued. It is used and lit with economy, efficiency and effectiveness. There are many telling effects and the riot scene is amongst them. I am not sure whose idea it was to give the force-feeding scene in dumb show on one side of the stage and three Establishment Bloods foppishly singing the words of letters praising the use of force-feeding on the other. However it worked magnificently – a grim effect unnervingly well registered.
The resilient and steely Davison stood out impudently from her aristocratic celebrity sisters. A teacher, she seems to have come from working class mulch and was perhaps seen as all the more dangerous for that; and perhaps also something of an alien presence within her own sisterhood. I detest the word, feisty, but that is how she was played here. She is not seen in act 2 except as a corpse in a very strange and comically gruesome post-mortem scene and as the spirit of barricade victory in the finale. All the voices and the acted characterisation were strong and despite the anonymous titles these singers managed to fend off most of the tendency towards political caricature with just enough to express vibrancy. The Policeman/Gaoler was particularly memorable, as was the Doctor and rather wan barrister.
The market day scene in act 2 was vivid with the hucksters’ banter, sham medicine mountebank (where can I get that Fat cure?) and theatre promoters making a rather good counterpart to similar Vanity Fair scenes in Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s Progress and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd - the latter another dark Victorian extravaganza. Clever to weave in among this welter of Mammon reports of Davison’s protest at Epsom. The sly and dapper little journalist was memorable.
Radius / EMILY, Todmorden Hippodrome, July 2013 - Northern Soul
“A gorgeous crescendo and a powerful epilogue ... They have created quite a feat”
For a man who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Composer’s Award aged 17, composer and director Tim Benjamin is a charming and modest man. I say modest because now, at 37, Benjamin offers up his new opera, Emily not in Manchester where he studied at the Royal Northern College of Music, but in the little known, yet perfectly formed, 1908, 500-seater Hippodrome Theatre in Todmorden, Yorkshire.
I was thrilled to be invited to the dress rehearsal of the opera – which follows the final years in the infamous suffragette, Emily Davison’s life – before its world premiere on July 4. Prepared for the bumps, creaks and scrapes one normally encounters in a dress, I sat in the circle balcony for Act One and was pleasantly surprised to find the first half both smooth-running and thoroughly engaging.
Opening in 1918, the prologue sees a politician address the House of Commons at the passing of The Representation of the People Act. We then flash back to 1910, when a certain suffragette and heroine of the piece, Davison (Stephanie Stanway), is caught by a policeman (Louis Hurst) hiding in a ventilation shaft inside the Palace of Westminster. This first scene jumps about in time with several attempts at the arrest of Davison, finally culminating in her being thrown into prison.
Scene two has the stage split into two areas. A doctor (Marc Callahan), a politician (Christopher Jacklin) and a magistrate (Sebastian Charlesworth) are in a London club discussing Davison’s criminal record and the punishment she will receive. On the other side, we see Davison’s incarceration and her eventual punishment: force-feeding. As the gentlemen quaff whisky, Davison is near-choked as hosing is thrust into her gullet. It’s a disturbing spectacle and the powerful climax ends with Davison vowing “no surrender”; a moving lament.
Act Two opens with Davison having already sustained her fatal injuries from the King’s horse at Epsom Downs. Here, Davison lies on the mortuary table, ready for post-mortem. The news is told by the reporter (James Claxton), who is both the only non-singing principal role and a local community theatre actor. Claxton does a splendid job and holds his own aside the singers.
Then, the opera begins to jump about in time which has a peculiar distancing effect. Although it’s clear the research has been done and there’s plenty of fascinating history throughout, there’s an almost clinical interpretation of events.
This, is, in part, due to Benjamin’s decision with regards the libretto. As he states in the programme, he doesn’t work with librettists, instead opting for source material. “I try to find documents never intended to come anywhere near a stage: previously I’ve set…diaries, bread and cake recipes.”
It’s a sticking point as, with the help of a story, rather than a retelling of historical events, there may have been scope for a deeper emotional journey with which an audience might engage.
Having said that, this ambitious new opera is entertaining and there is enough going on both offstage and in the orchestra pit to offer huge returns for a night out. There is a wonderful solo by Meinir Wyn Roberts playing a woman who, on discovering a letter sent by Davison’s mother, is compelled to empathise. It’s a moving moment as is, too, the final scene.
Davison’s ghost moves about a polling station for some time after her demise. She is unseen by the voters – both men and women by now. This is a gorgeous crescendo and powerful epilogue which left me feeling both unworthy of Davison’s sacrifice and also proud of those women who fought (and are still fighting) for equality.
Benjamin, alongside his musical director, Anthony Brannick, has created quite a feat. Working with both trained opera singers in principal roles and local supporting actors from the Hippodrome’s amateur dramatics company, the opera has an earthy and eclectic energy.
Having already sold more than 300 tickets for the short three-night run, it’s time to pick up the phone, book your tickets (a meagre £12), get in your car/catch the train/bus and take a trip to the lovely West Yorks theatre to watch a world premiere about a very important woman indeed.
Radius / EMILY, Todmorden Hippodrome, July 2013 - Todmorden News
“An enchanting visual spectacle, with incredible voices and haunting, hypnotic music ... it even managed to get me to rethink opera”
Before I start, let me tell you I’m not the biggest fan of opera. I kind of think it’s elitist, too showy and mildly annoying.
But I put all those thoughts away when I saw Emily, the brand new opera opening at Todmorden Hippodrome on July 4. It is an enchanting visual spectacle with incredible voices and haunting, hypnotic music.
Charting the tragic story of the suffragette Emily Davison, Tim Benjamin, composer and director, brought something completely new and very big to our small town.
Unusual storytelling, exquisite costumes and an evocative set (Lara Booth’s genius) slowly draws the audience in while you gradually grow accustomed, then end up loving the intense and moving voices.
These voices are coupled with great action, great tenacity and great emotion from all. For me the dynamic between Stephanie Stanway and Louis Hurst early on was thrilling but Jacklin, Roberts, Callahan and Charlesworth later shine too, each in their own distinct way. Under Antony Brannick’s effortless direction, the music is an undercurrent that can rise to bring you right there in the action.
This brave collaboration between resident and visiting companies again shows what magic the Hippodrome is capable of. It even managed to get me to rethink opera.
Radius / Purcell Room, October 2009 - Classical Music magazine
“...verve and ear-catching musicianship”
This review is from Classical Music, December 2009, in which Mrs Lazarus was “Premiere of the Year”, and is by Andrew Stewart.
Those familiar with the eternal mantra “classical music is dead”, will appreciate the need for a strongly contrasting counter-subject. Tim Benjamin, whose Oxford doctoral thesis and congruent book deal with the economics of new music, clearly has the energy and vision required to inject fresh life into the art form. He made his mark as winner of the 1993/94 BBC Young Musician of the Year Composer’s Award, before scooping a Stephen Oliver Trust prize soon after for his first opera. Benjamin’s chamber ensemble, Radius, came into being in 2007 and has done its bit since to promote new work with verve and ear-catching musicianship.
Radius was on top form for its Purcell Room outing last October, by turns exuberantly eloquent and eloquently exuberant in Webern's arrangement of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. Their world premiere reading of Benjamin’s Mrs Lazarus spoke volumes for the combined imaginative powers of composer and performers, the former responding with carefully calculated restraint in his setting of Carol Ann Duffy's eponymous poem. Soprano Danae Eleni, subtle in her shading of words and always alive to the poet's song of mourning and memory, revealed the rich theatrical component of Benjamin’s score as an ensemble player, holding the stage persuasively as soloist without parting from her colleagues in the band. Mrs Lazarus certainly deserves to rise again.
Radius / Purcell Room, October 2009 - Musical Opinion
This review is from Musical Opinion, January 2010. The author has written further about the concert on his blog.
Tim Benjamin's Radius ensemble comprises some of Britains most decorated young new music performers, and since its début in 2007 the group has become known for its polished recitals of contemporary and 20th-century repertoire. For their latest Purcell Room appearance, Radius flanked a major new piece by Benjamin, Mrs Lazarus, with early works by Berg and Schoenberg, drawing together old and new incarnations of expressionism.
Mrs Lazarus is a setting of Carol Ann Duffy's poem, the story of a widow haunted by her dead husband as she seeks solace with a new lover. Benjamin is making a speciality of semi-staged music theatre works, and Mrs Lazarus - directed by Lewis Reynolds - was a particularly successful example. The staging was extremely light, with piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet placed in a square around the soprano, Danae Eleni, who had a license to move as she wished. I was especially struck by the instrumental prologue, which seemed to encage the vocalist before she had even had a chance to sing. Some of the coloristic effects recalled horror movie soundtracks, but the overall impression remained suitably spooky. At the crucial point where the poem shifts from past to present tense Benjamin's fluid writing locked into tense, even phrases, like becoming suddenly aware of ones own breath.
Of the older pieces, the Schoenberg was well played, although I felt that its more conventionally romantic idiom took the performers off their interpretative toes, but Bergs opus 1 Piano Sonata was given a spacious and detailed reading by John Reid that brought out the full range of Bergs harmonic distortions with breathtaking clarity.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson / Musical Opinion
Radius at Wigmore Hall, June 2009 - Musical Criticism
“The performance engaged throughout”
“A strong end to an eclectic and often captivating concert”
This is an extract from a longer review which can be read in full here.
... Radio Music proved to be hors doeuvres for the meat of the second half, the world premiere of Tim Benjamin's tightly conceived narrative piece for actor and five musicians, A Dream Of England. Raymond Blankenhorn as the young Charles Darwin recited/performed passages of text from Darwins journals and collected letters dating from the naturalists five year journey around (primarily) Southern America on the H.M.S Beagle. The quintet of musicians (the four mentioned thus far with Watts now on bass clarinet, and an assured Adam Walker on flute) supplied commentary and contrast sometimes behind the voice, but most often between the paragraphs of text.
The performance engaged throughout; ... Blankenhorn proved charming. He was interesting and interested without ever being too forward in the characterisation. The music was the most impressive we'd heard all night. The pungent repeating figures in piano and winds gave a flinty edge to the musical annotations, whilst the performers were full of poise and purpose. Benjamin maintained a variety in the form which ensured the work kept its hold to the end: often the music slyly undercut or simply remained calmly neutral from Darwins blithe statements about the instrumentality of animals, or his elegantly imperial attitudes to indigenous tribes and to slavery (casual, kind but oh so self-rewardingly noble). At crucial points however Benjamin shook off this neutral approach and inserted himself into the text. To whit: the music suddenly becomes quiescent and brutal after a particular cruelty regarding a condor bird is announced, or at the end, wonderfully, when Darwin glories in British Civilisation rising up to the full glory of its destiny, and the music sardonically steams up a scale in mordant majesty. A strong end to an eclectic and often captivating concert.
Stephen Graham / Musical Criticism
Radius in Seen And Heard / Music Web International, May 2008
“A memorable performance, which appealed musically, dramatically and intellectually”
“An outstanding concert”
This was a well balanced programme of new works for chamber ensemble, ably performed by Radius in which I was most looking forward to the performance of George Crumb's Eleven Echoes of Autumn. Composed in spring 1966, the work is formed of eleven sections which follow on continuously from one to another, and is scored for alto flute, clarinet, violin and piano. With the stage illuminated in a soft light, this was an atmospheric rendition from beginning to end. There was some particularly wonderful playing from violinist Alexandra Wood (including an extremely impressive passage of perfectly in tune whistling and playing) and pianist John Reid. The flute and clarinet were required to play certain passages into the piano to use the instrument’s resonance; here, the clarinet was highly successful, with powerful resonances creating a magical effect, although the flute did not seem to get far enough into the piano to allow the technique to work in the same way. This is a theatrical and dramatic piece, which draws the listener in. As one audience member said, it makes you feel that you have to listen actively, in case you miss something. This was a gripping and emotive performance which lived up to my expectations.
The programme contained two works by Radius’s founder and director, Tim Benjamin. A Guess-Me-Knot was a well constructed quartet for flute, bass clarinet, violin and cello. Taking a three note motif as a basis, the music formed a maze of interweaving lines which combined with, and contrasted each other with much success. Pairs were formed between flute and bass clarinet, and violin and cello, featuring high string harmonics, rhythmic unisons and an excellent use of repetition to unify the work. There was an first-rate sense of ensemble (although there were some moments of minor intonational discomfort between the winds) and Benjamin used the forces available to full effect.
The Rosenhan Experiment is a music theatre work for countertenor and piano, which tells the story of an experiment conducted by David Rosenhan in 1972, into the validity and reliability of psychiatric diagnosis.
The scene is set by ominous and sombre repeated piano notes, interspersed with lush harmonic chords, which had a sense of being emotionally charged. As the narrator asks "can the sane be distinguished from the insane?" the tone is distinctly dark. Benjamin uses one singer as both doctor and patient, narrating the part of the doctor and singing the patient's role. The contrast between the spoken voice and the high pitch of the countertenor’s sung range further accentuates the difference, while providing an underlying sense that all is not well; in this strange psychological world, deeper meanings prevail, and the parallels with the schizophrenic diagnosis were strong. One small grumble; Robert Ogden’s diction was not as clear when singing as when speaking (perhaps as would be expected), and as a result of the constant changes from one to the other, it was sometimes hard to follow the sung text (it should be said that the libretto was provided for the audience, but the lighting in the hall meant that it could not be read during the performance).
Otherwise, though, this was an excellent work, performed convincingly. The stage action was simple and effective, and the acting was good, maintaining the flow in what was essentially a static scenario. Mention should also be made of the brilliant piano writing; John Reid played continuously throughout the work’s substantial duration, at times the centre of the musical attention and at other times blending gently into the background of the action. This is an fine work, full of impact, which deserves future performances. Benjamin handles the subject matter with intelligent consideration, raising probing questions about the treatment of the mentally ill. There is just the right balance of humour to offset the seriousness of the subject matter, without a hint of becoming flippant. This was a memorable performance, which appealed musically, dramatically and intellectually - look out for more performances.
The remaining two works in the programme were Birtwistle's Lied and Adès's Catch. For me, the least successful of these from a compositional perspective was the Birtwistle, which seemed a little disjointed despite both players giving a musical and at times poetic performance, which reached far beyond the technical. This was an assured presentation, with excellent communication between the players. Adès' Catch is a humour-filled work which featured Charys Green, Radius's clarinet player, in a highly accomplished performance. Complete with quotes from nursery rhymes, the players of the ensemble are required to entice the errant clarinettist (who plays from around the hall, as well as crossing the stage several times) to join them. With some excellent instrumental effects (including some wonderful cello pizzicato on the 'wrong' side of the bridge), this was the final work in an outstanding concert.
Carla Rees (Music Web International, May 2008)
Radius in the Gazette and Herald, 24th June 2008
“Brilliant musicality, an immense display of technical prowess”
It wouldn't be Corsham Festival without something you've never heard before, can't quite understand, daren't miss a note and at the end over a glass of wine wonder really what you've heard.
Nor should it be.
Radius did all sorts of things: clarinet and flute, with backs to the audience, for instance, played actually into the piano (without, it has to be said, any perceivable difference). Interesting. But there was some brilliant musicality, an immense display of technical prowess and, though he has much to learn in the professional world, an elegant textured cello from Oliver Coates.
They gave the world premiere [This was not actually the world premiere - that took place on 25th May 2008 at the Purcell Room - ed.] of A Guess-Me-Knot, written a few months ago by Tim Benjamin, who was present to share the plaudits with the players. Like much else on the evening's agenda, it was an immensely challenging piece; and, again like much else, is something I'd like to hear again - probably in many years' time.
Reg Burnurd (The Gazette and Herald, June 2008)
The Guardian, September 2007
“Corley's story is one that needs to be told, and it is told using music that needs to be listened to. If you're in London, if you're listening, go.”
There's someone out there, listening to me. I know it. You don't believe me, but it's true.
Thus might a composer well address a concerned friend or parent.
On this occasion, however, the speaker was Michael Corley, a man whose surveillance conspiracy theory occupied several corners of Usenet in the early 1990s. Collecting a small community of correspondents, ranging from credulous and sympathetic to downright sarcastic, the paranoid Corley issued frequent postings about the personal insults allegedly levelled at him by newsreaders, radio presenters and random members of the public. Strangest of all, these ill-wishers seemed to Corley to be privy to the goings-on in his apartment. His television watched him back. His radio listened to him. But no one could find the bugs.
The true story of the unfortunate Corley has been made into an opera, or rather semi-opera, by the composer Tim Benjamin. Having retrieved acres of Corley correspondence from Google's Usenet archives, Benjamin and his librettist Sean Starke have crafted a dialogue in which Corley's rantings and the responses of his correspondents, identified on stage only by their clunky, early 90s-style email addresses (or in one case, as the sinister, disembodied, "email protected") form a well-defined dramatic arc. Corley sits centre stage, hidden behind a desk crammed with recording paraphernalia and his computer. His face is projected, close-up, on a giant screen, while the other characters sit aside, blinking under harsh lights.
Operas have always been about key societal myths. From Orfeo and the myth of the transcendence of the human condition through art, to La Traviata and the idea that patriarchal society is both undermined and redeemed through its "fallen" women, operas have provided culture with one of its clearest and most powerful mirrors, if also one of its most highly gilded. In the present case, the myth of universal surveillance and the slow crushing of individual autonomy by the security services is one of the most persistent, prominent and most necessarily examined of our age.
At worst, of course, the surveillance myth - as expressed, for instance, in our country's idiotic mistrust of identity cards - is simply a bathetic attempt to accord our actions and thoughts with a greater significance than they possess. On the flipside, however, society's collective paranoia can be read as a protest against a deeper, more real collapse of freedom through the atrophying of the collective imagination, the fracturing of community and the commodification of every last shade in our emotional spectrum. The idea of freedom has no meaning when the market for action has bottomed out.
Quite perfect, then, that a story about the profound, dehumanising suffering of a sad little man should be set to music. For there is no art better suited to portraying the fracturing of mankind's relation to its social environment than the astringent tones of post-tonal classical music. Its broken, cracked lyricism speaks more profoundly to contemporary humanity than any other artform. Or it would, if there were anyone listening.
Every year, opera houses spend millions of pounds redressing the great works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fine-tuning their musical mythologising to today's audiences. This is great work, work that's necessary to impose a little clarity on our hoarding, bag-lady culture.
But it would be good, too, if a little more of this money went on new works, using new music to address the myths we urgently need to confront today.
In the meantime, Corley's story is one that needs to be told, and it is told using music that needs to be listened to. The last performance is tonight. If you're in London, if you're listening, go.
Guy Dammann (The Guardian, September 2007)
Classical Music, December 2007
“The performance by the young contemporary music ensemble Radius
was exceptionally assured”
The Corley Conspiracy by Tim Benjamin and Sean Starke is a piece of music theatre set in the world of Usenet, a precursor of today's internet blogs and chatrooms. The 75-minute drama, which was premiered in September in the Purcell Room, is based on the real-life messages posted there during the mid-nineties by one Mike Corley.
Obsessed with the idea that he is the target of sinister messages embedded in radio broadcasts and other everyday events, his posts demonstrate a paranoia that his co-users cannot fathom. Unsure whether he is mad, a prankster or the perpetrator of some anthropological experiment of which they are the subjects, their responses to his posts veer from concern to frustration to derision at Corley's increasingly byzantine ramblings.
The written words of the various characters are not sung, but spoken by actors, the music coming in the form of a score for chamber ensemble. Punctuating the unfolding story, the music acts both to enhance the events on stage and to provide an accompaniment to our own questioning of them - a neat psychological effect. Benjamin's compact yet atmospheric music helps turn what is nowadays a common activity (reading messages from strangers on the internet) into something much more compelling.
The performance by the young contemporary music ensemble Radius was exceptionally assured, as befits a group of individuals capable of dashing off solo works by Berio, Simon Holt, Xenakis and Cage (as they did in the first half of the evening). It's certainly a piece worth seeing, and I hope there are plans to perform it again.
Toby Deller (Classical Music, 22nd December 2007)
SPNM New Notes, May 2007
“An enviable assortment of gifted young players ...
this concert was brilliantly executed and conceived.”
“The superbly individual performance of Benjamin's piano prelude by Berenika ... thundering and taut playing threatened a virtuosic violence.”
“Benjamin's quirky series of bagatelles ... this judicious musical künstlerroman brought a welcome levity ... certainly something to smile about”
Radius are a new music group bringing together an enviable assortment of gifted young players. Following on from the ensemble's debut performance at the Wigmore Hall last week, this concert was brilliantly executed and conceived. Spearheaded by the composers Ian Vine and Tim Benjamin, who met whilst studying composition with Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music, Radius specialise in angular, serial, modernism played with commitment and intensity.
Vine's own underpaintings began the concert, its long decaying lines prompting some fine breath control from clarinettist Charys Green. Still more striking was the superbly individual performance of Benjamin's piano prelude by Berenika, whose thundering and taut playing threatened a virtuosic violence. Yet this was also a programme concerned with influence and lineage: the first half was completed by two rarely-performed works by Louis Andriessen and Anthony Gilbert. The latter's Moonfaring, which represents Australian tribal rites in a seven-movement work for cello and percussion, was particularly impressive. Adrian Spillett's sensitive marimba work combined with Oliver Coates' haunting phrases to create a performance that was both sonorous and plangent.
Another connection linking the various featured composers were their experiments with musical structures. Andriessen's piece for violin and piano follows the syllabic count of a Jan Engelman love poem, whilst John Cage's Five forgoes set instrumentation or rhythmic specificity for a series of held notes governed by mechanical time periods. Elliot Carter's Espirit Rude/Espirit Doux II for flute, clarinet and marimba takes its cue from the aspirated vowels of classical Greek. Throughout the programme, the performers coped well with the formal and logistical challenges such works present, none more so than Daniel Rowland in his heart-stopping interpretation of Berio's Sequenza VIII for solo violin.
Yet it was only in Benjamin's quirky series of bagatelles that the ensemble were finally united. Throughout this judicious musical künstlerroman, the players brought a welcome levity to the proceedings. On the evidence of these first concerts, all concerned certainly have something to smile about.
William May (New Notes, 2nd May 2007)
Radius in The Cherwell, May 2007
“Radius are the sum of a remarkable group of parts
and demand to be listened to and engaged with”
“Cellist Oliver Coates' percussive, athletic bowing displays wonderful dexterity ... an overwhelming and sensuous experience”
“Benjamin's Five Bagatelles was most successful in embracing the 'New' ...
a piece which continually eluded expectation”
“Radius neither attempt to associate themselves with trendy electronic fusion movements nor pander to the proles by sandwiching Mozart with Modern”
Walking into Britain's oldest concert hall, a swollen wadge of paper is thrust into my hand. Fat, burdensome programme notes are the norm for "experimental" or "modern" performances, and I wonder if Radius' chosen epithet "New" will mark them out as any different. Including a selection of works by 20th century masters, newly premiered works and pieces by slightly lesser known living composers, Radius neither attempt to associate themselves with trendy electronic fusion movements nor pander to the proles by sandwiching Mozart with Modern.
Anthony Gilbert's Moonfaring draws the audience into the tribal rites of spiritual evocation at one level removed; for this is the evocation of an evocation (bear with me) - a musical translation from Aboriginal to European classical instruments and ears. Cellist Oliver Coates emulates the dijeridoo with great precision, and his percussive, athletic bowing displays wonderful dexterity. Gilbert's aim to go beyond merely borrowing the musical expressions of another culture and to actually re-represent them in "western" terms is quite a challenge, but such issues are absorbed into what was an overwhelming and sensuous experience.
Of the most recent compositions, Radius director Tim Benjamin's Five Bagatelles was most successful in embracing the "New". A challenge to memory, imagination and aural perception, we were lost in a piece which continually eluded expectation. Including BBC "Young Musician of the Year" winner, percussionist Adrian Spillet, Radius are the sum of a remarkable group of parts and demand to be listened to and engaged with as more than an accompaniment to the weighty programme notes.
Cara Bleiman (The Cherwell, Friday 4 May 2007)
Radius in The Oxford Student, May 2007
“Delicate moments juxtaposed with some explosively extrovert performances”
“Very impressive performance ... brain-child of composer Tim Benjamin ... delivered fluently and never allowed to lose the mesmerising quality”
“Benjamin weaves engagingly pithy textures ... dramatic performances ... genuinely exciting”
The Holywell Music Room, which boasts a rich cultural history that pre-dates even Haydn's famous visit to Oxford in the late eighteenth century, hosted a very impressive performance on Wednesday from recently formed professional new music group Radius (www.radiusmusic.org). The ensemble - brain-child of composer Tim Benjamin, of Christ Church - aims to perform canonical twentieth century works as well as those by living composers and benefits from a maintaining a close working relationship between the composers and internationally acclaimed performers that form the full-time line-up. But how does the modern audience, which for the most part is better acquainted with works written at the time of the Holywell's creation, react to a concert of music which "does not sound like Haydn", as Louis Andriessen describes his featured work Tuin van Eros?
We were immediately drawn into the performance by the exposed and sparse musical texture that begins Ian Vine's underpaintings, as the composer depicts the dauntingly bare canvass of an early stage in the sketching of a painting. Such textures, as were also found in John Cage's Five, among other of works presented, were delivered fluently and were never allowed to lose their mesmerising quality, or to stagnate. The programme, which was well structured and varied, saw these delicate moments juxtaposed with some explosively extrovert performances. Daniel Rowland's rendition of Berio's Sequenza VIII for solo violin stood out as notably impressive as did Berenika's reliably dramatic performance of Benjamin's Prelude I, for solo piano, of which she was the original commissioner.
The finale to this nigh-infallibly performed programme was Benjamin's Five Bagatelles which, along with underpaintings, enjoyed its world premire only five days earlier at London's celebrated Wigmore Hall, at which Radius performed the same programme for their debut concert. Benjamin weaves engagingly pithy poly-stylistic textures whose surface disruptions work in a very different way to the inharmonious discussions near the beginning of Prelude I. Juggling these multiple styles and short formal units, Benjamin does not allow even the openly comic incongruity of the hymn tune in the fourth movement to disturb the continuity of the work. Movements four and five have the feel of a double epilogue after the climax in the third, and play on the expectation of having a climax at the end of the piece (and concert). Perhaps this indicates that Benjamin does not feel that the bagatelle need always be a resoundingly light-hearted affair; perhaps there is a deeper analogy to be found?
Those who attended both nights of Radius' mini-tour felt as though Wednesday's performance matched the grandeur of the Wigmore Hall concert, Anthony Gilbert describing the performance of his Moonfaring here as "very imaginative" and among the best he had ever heard. He had particularly high praise for the undeniably impressive sound that cellist Oliver Coates conjures.
Among the audience there was a relatively large number of established composers, performers, and students of new music and I could not help but wonder about the extent to which contemporary "classical" music is restricted to "preaching to the converted". I hope that engagingly dramatic performances such as Radius offer will challenge the all-too-prevalent general attitude towards this repertoire as merely character-building rather than genuinely exciting. Look out for Radius at their next concert, at London's Royal Festival Hall in September.
Mark Gotham (The Oxford Student, May 2007)
Radius in Seen And Heard / Music Web International, January 2008
“This was virtuosity in the extreme - and he made it seem easy”
“This was an excellent concert ... there was some first-rate playing”
This was an interesting evening, made up of a variety of contemporary works for chamber ensemble. Serving as a 50th birthday celebration for Simon Holt, tonight was the group's second performance at the Wigmore Hall.
The concert opened with the world premiere of Ian Vine's X, a percussion solo performed engagingly by Adrian Spillett. The piece opened atmospherically, with its understated quiet pulses ideally suited to the acoustic of the hall. A one movement work in four sections, the piece developed through timbral changes and increasing complexity. This was a hypnotic work, which was performed convincingly by Spillett.
This was followed by the brilliant Three Portraits by Radius' director and founder, Tim Benjamin. In homage to Elgar, these three short movements were described by the composer as Ôaffectionate portraits of friends'. Unsurprisingly, these pieces were full of character and were refreshingly entertaining. Scored for violin, cello, horn and piano, Benjamin demonstrated considerable skill in his use of the instruments, balancing the horn carefully with the rest of the ensemble so that it never dominated unless intended to do so. The ensemble played better together here too, with the horn played with much sensitivity by Jocelyn Lightfoot. There was some wonderful team work between the violin and cello in the calmer central movement, with a decorative piano line performed with careful attention to balance. The final movement opened with an amusingly used quote from The Rite of Spring on the horn, with interrupted lines as all the parts battled for melodic supremacy. This was an excellent set of pieces and I would have liked more!
The opening of the second half was, for me, worth the cost of a ticket on its own. Cellist Oliver Coates performed Xenakis' solo work, Kottos. A highly demanding technical challenge, using many contemporary sounds and rhythmic complexity, Coates was always in control and full of charisma. This was a highly communicative performance, full of rich sonorities and musical integrity. Coates is a master of his instrument, who had me transfixed for the duration of the performance. This was virtuosity in the extreme Ð and he made it seem easy. He is, without a doubt, someone who has a dazzling career ahead of him.
Carla Rees (Music Web International, January 2008)
Radius in The Guardian, January 2008
Started last year by thirtysomething composers Tim Benjamin and Ian Vine, Radius are that rare thing these days, a brand-new ensemble devoted to contemporary music with no audio-visual gimmicks or crossover concessions to win easy popularity. Performance standards are very high, and the fact that Radius have managed to survive this long without receiving or asking for a penny of public subsidy is a minor miracle too.
This concert was built around an early 50th birthday salute to Simon Holt. Vine, who studied with Holt, had put together a sequence of five short celebratory pieces, all specially commissioned, while the programme also included works by Xenakis and Morton Feldman.
The new pieces had a wide stylistic range, moving from the Satie-like rocking chords of Laurence Crane's Simon 10 Holt 50 to Vine's luminous Fifty Objects, suddenly cut short by an outburst of frantic activity, via equally concentrated pieces by Paul Newland, Anthony Gilbert (Holt's teacher) and Larry Goves. It all made an elegant, modest tribute.
Andrew Clements (The Guardian, 10th January 2008)
Radius in The Rambler, January 2008
“It is a pleasure to hear an ensemble of Radius's quality testing the Wigmore's acoustic”
Following their debut last year, this was Radius's second show at this prestigious and traditionally conservative venue. As before, they brought an eclectic collection of works by established modernist masters and younger British composers. Last night we were treated to pieces by Feldman, Xenakis and Vivier, as well as works by Radius's co-founders Tim Benjamin and Ian Vine, and five short pieces composed in honour of Simon Holt's 50th birthday.
It is a pleasure to hear an ensemble of Radius's quality testing the Wigmore's acoustic with some experimental repertoire, and Feldman's Durations I (1960) was a gift in this respect. Still more successful was Xenakis's Kottos (1977), given a powerful rendition by cellist Oliver Coates, every detail of the composer's sonic imagination ringing clear. The other solo piece, Ian Vine's X (2007, wp) for percussionist I thought was outstanding. I spent the first half without a programme, and could only remember the composer names, not any of the works to be performed, and I intend it as a high compliment when I say that I was pretty sure that this must have been the programmed Xenakis.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson (The Rambler, 9th January 2008)