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Melos Sinfonia perform <em>Written on Skin</em> in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg
15 Oct 2017

Written on Skin: the Melos Sinfonia take George Benjamin's opera to St Petersburg

As I approach St Cyprian’s Church in Marylebone, musical sounds which are at once strange and sensuous surf the air. Inside I find seventy or so instrumentalists and singers nestled somewhat crowdedly between the pillars of the nave, rehearsing George Benjamin’s much praised 2012 opera, Written on Skin.

Melos Sinfonia perform Written on Skin in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg

Above: Oliver Zeffman

Photo credit: Andy Staples


Conductor Oliver Zeffman is taking the members of the Melos Sinfonia - the ensemble which he founded at the age of just sixteen - and a cast of young soloists (Lauren Fagan, Ross Ramgobin, Patrick Terry, Bethan Langford and Nick Pritchard) through their paces as they prepare the concert staging of the opera that they will present in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg in the coming days.

In contrast to many new operas, Written on Skin has not been condemned to post-premiere obscurity and since the first production at Aix in 2012 it has travelled far and wide, receiving two stagings at Covent Garden, in 2013 and earlier this year . I ask Oliver Zeffman what drew him to the opera - which, with its large orchestra which includes a panoply of percussion, glass harmonica and bass viol among its coloristic palette, presents considerable logistical challenges. A semi-staged performance at the Barbican in 2016 with composer Benjamin conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra evidently had him hooked: Oliver passionately extols - at the breakneck tempo which is evidently his default mode - the riches of the score and, most especially, the disturbing ‘precision’ of Martin Crimp’s visceral libretto, offering snatches to illustrate: ‘Strip the cities of brick’, ‘Push our love into that man’s eye like a hot needle. Blind him with it! Make him cry blood!’

Reviewing Written on Skin at the ROH in January this year, I described it as ‘spare, harrowing and unsettling’. Crimp’s tale blends sensuality and sadism, retelling a medieval Provence legend from a contemporary vantage point. The librettist himself has described his ‘instinctive desire to allow our contemporary world to bleed through the drama. Hence my invention of the 21st century angels who initiate and provoke the action and even - in the case of the Boy enter into it’, and we are constantly shifted from medieval to modern by reference to contemporary settings such as a shopping mall or a ‘Saturday car park’. The text juxtaposes the religious with the erotic and conjures a poetic register which is both timeless and of our time; refined yet ruthless. The shocking close of the opera perfectly illustrates this, as Agnes taunts her abusive husband, The Protector, who has just forced her to eat her lover’s heart: ‘No force you use, nothing you forbid, can take away the pictures that Boy’s hands draw on this skin. He can unfold the tight green bud, unwrap the tree, darken the wood, lighten the sky, blacken the dust with rain - each mark he makes on me is good - each colour clear.’

I enquire about the particulars of the Melos’ planned staging. Oliver seems happy to leave the dramatic decisions to Jack Furness, founder and Artistic Director of Shadwell Opera - he says that it’s important to trust the people with whom you’ve chosen to work - but explains that although the Melos Sinfonia will present a ‘concert staging’, the direction will delineate the action of the text precisely for the audience. It strikes me that there is a ‘quasi-ceremonial’ quality about Written in Skin, as the vocal arioso slowly unfolds, as incisive as the text itself, which lends itself to a concert staging format. Indeed, the libretto incorporates narrative, as the characters explain and describe their own actions: ‘The Boy takes from his satchel an illuminated page’, or ‘The Protector wakes up …’

Nick Rutter.jpgOliver Zeffman. Photo credit: Nick Rutter.

It seems apt, too, for Oliver - still only twenty-five - to be performing the music of George Benjamin, who was himself similarly precocious and full of initiative, travelling - at the age of sixteen - to Paris each month to study with Messiaen at the Conservatoire, and earning a contract with Faber when still a teenager. Benjamin went on to studies at Cambridge with Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. Oliver’s undergraduate life began at Durham University where he initially studied History, before adding Russian, a move which saw him spend a year in St Petersburg where he became fluent in the language and studied at the Conservatory under the direction of Alexander Polishchuk: ‘harmony, analysis and useful things like that’, he says, ‘I had had very little proper grounding in those kind of things before SPB and they were incredibly important for me to study, both there and at RAM.’ He also made the sort of contacts which have clearly been crucial in determining his future path.

After graduation, further studies followed at the Royal Academy of Music; he was the youngest of eight nominees for the Néstle-Salzburg Young Conductor’s Award in 2015, though he makes light of the question of ‘technique’, telling me that if a conductor really knows the score then their baton will communicate. He admires the work of Valery Gergiev - who has been an important mentor and who has invited the Melos to perform Written on Skin at the Mariinsky Theatre - and when I criticise the Russian maestro’s ‘hand-fluttering’ gesture which I struggle to interpret when watching Gergiev conduct, Oliver immediately rebukes me for, he says, it can really work. ‘If you have your own way of communicating something to the orchestra, however unconventional, and it succeeds in communicating what you want, then it shouldn’t matter what it looks like to the audience. It’s about the resultant sound - which is the main goal - and whether you can affect the sound the orchestra makes in the ways you want with your gestures, whatever these might be.’

I ask Oliver why he felt the need to establish his own orchestral ensemble at such a young age. As a violinist (‘not very good’ he says - though these things are surely relative!) in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, he wanted to try his hand at conducting, but as no-one is going to ask a sixteen-year-old to conduct he just got on with things for himself. Originally, the ensemble comprised chiefly musical ‘friends and family’, but gradually his musical network expanded. Casting an eye over the programmes performed during past seasons, it’s interesting to see how the scope, ambition and innovativeness of the Melos’ music-making have evolved. Operas have included Mozart’s The Impresario, Walton’s The Bear and Rachmaninov’s Aleko. There have been world premieres of music by Philip Ashworth, Joel Rust, Edward Nesbit, Arthur Wabel and others. Unusual works are paired together. Oliver introduces a culinary metaphor: it’s like when you’re cooking at home and you’ve got the basic dish and you think, ‘what would go with this?’, and experiment a bit. So, Andrzej Panufnik’s Cello Concerto might be programmed alongside the UK premiere of Myaskovsky’s Symphony No.27; or, Walton’s Façade might share the billing with Peter Maxwell Davies Eight Songs for a Mad King.

One of the Melos Sinfonia’s major projects has been the fostering of a ‘cultural dialogue’ between the UK and Russia, which has involved several tours to Russia - the ensemble has appeared as part of the International Conservatories Festival and the Sound Ways Festival, and performed in venues including the Mariinsky Theatre, the St Petersburg Philharmonia and St Petersburg State Conservatory - and the commissioning of new works from both British and Russian young composers. An important element of this exchange has been giving Russian audiences the opportunity to hear unfamiliar works: thus, Russian premieres have been plentiful and eclectic - Ligeti’s Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures, Dmitri Smirnov’s Dream Journey, Alexander Goehr’s Triptych, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Lo spazio inverso, Holst’s Savitri and Colin Matthews’ Divertimento, to name but a few. Oliver insists that Russian audiences are more open-minded than those in the UK: the latter tend to opt for programmes of music with which they are already familiar, or whose composers are personal favourites, whereas Russian audiences are eager to open their ears to the new - although, paradoxically, he says that he encountered little contemporary Russian music in concert halls during his one-year sojourn in the country.

For a twenty-five-year old, Oliver has built up an impressive list of achievements and experience. He has worked with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, assisting conductors such as Ed Gardner, David Zinman and Manfred Honeck, rehearsed Mahler’s Symphony No.8 with the New Japan Philharmonic for Daniel Harding, and recently prepared the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra for concerts with Valery Gergiev in a programme including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. 2017 has been a busy and exciting year. In the summer, he made debuts both at West Green House Opera conducting Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. In the coming months he will again work with Gergiev, preparing the Rotterdam Philharmonic for performances of Mahler’s Symphony No.7, and in the summer of 2018 he will work with the LA Philharmonic, assisting Gustavo Dudamel and others, at the Hollywood Bowl.

To be honest, one hour in Oliver’s company was exhilarating but exhausting! The cliché ‘force of nature’ really does seem apposite. No sooner had the rehearsal at St Cyprian’s ended than he was among his players, chatting and thanking them as he collected in parts, folded music stands, disassembled percussion instruments. Alongside concert-planning and conducting, he adds administration and fundraising to his responsibilities. He seems genuinely surprised when I suggest that taking seventy musicians to Russia is an adventurous logistical exercise. After our meeting, I reflect back on Oliver’s response when I had asked about his music-making activities at Durham: he doesn’t seem to have been heavily involved in the undergraduate music scene, and explained that there was a prevailing attitude of ‘this is the way it’s always been’. Oliver is clearly not one to let ‘convention’ stand in his way; if there is music that he wants to play - more Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss’s tone poems are on his wish-list - then you can be sure that he will, and to acclaim.

Claire Seymour

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