Violinist Rebecca Howell talks about her involvement in Twilight Dances
Updated: Jun 5, 2019
Collaborating with dance company Fertile Ground for their spring tour of Twilight Dances has proved to be both a deeply inspirational and intensely challenging experience for me as a violinist. For many classical musicians, it is rare to have the opportunity to be involved in a collaborative creative process such as this: my experience of any kind of theatrical performance so far is much more limited to life in an orchestral pit, usually sitting beneath the stage without much idea as to how set design, costumes or on-stage action is unfolding. It has consequently been an invigorating experience to be integrated into the movement of the dancers, alongside musicians Andra Vornicu, Abi Hammett and Laura Armstrong.
Having grown up in Hexham, Northumberland, I graduated from Durham University in 2016 with a first class BA (Hons) in Music before completing a Masters at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) where I am currently pursuing a year of continued professional development. My time at Durham provided me with ample opportunity to grow as a violinist: I was delighted to win the university’s Soloist Prize in 2016 and toured to Paris as a soloist for Saint Saens’ Violin Concerto No.3. Life at the RNCM has proved similarly rewarding: a highlight was winning the Salon Prize for performance of a showpiece, accomplished in fancy dress! Chamber music has always held particular appeal owing both to its greater capacity for creative autonomy combined with its demand for a heightened level of alertness and responsiveness from all musicians involved. As a medium, the string quartet has an incredible repertory and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden occupies a celebrated position: it is a delight to have the opportunity to explore the work in preparation for this tour.
Death and the Maiden is a momentous work. It owes its title to the melancholic theme of the second movement which is a quotation of an earlier vocal composition bearing the same name. Hauntingly, the quartet was composed at a time when Schubert realised he may be dying and whilst the music is often turbulent, the slow movement is deeply introspective. Considering its evocative title, it is almost as if the work predisposes itself to dance. This is most true for the final movement – a whirling and fiery tarantella, historically known as a dance of death. We commenced our rehearsals with Fertile Ground by exploring this movement alongside the established Quator Voxpopuli, from Montreal, who will join the dancers for their Autumn Tour. Whilst much of the choreography had been laid down for this movement, it was mesmerising to watch the dancers, alongside co-directors Malgorzata Dzierzon and Renaud Wiser, respond to the music and experiment with new ideas, often through improvisation. This was a much freer approach to choreography to that which I had anticipated. Spending time with Quator Voxpopuli was also invaluable and their insight, coupled with their friendly and approachable nature resulted in an atmosphere which increased the sense of collaboration. During these days of rehearsal we also experimented with different placements of the quartet across the stage, perpetuating the sense that the dancers and musicians are forever intertwined. This created a heightened sense of togetherness across the space and I really appreciated this during later stages of rehearsal.
Fertile Ground’s commitment to engaging with emerging artists from the North East has been a reminder of the diverse and vibrant musical life in this area. Returning here has reminded me of the excitement there is for music, both classical and traditional, across the region. The North East boasts a strong heritage of music making and this is sustained by the many festivals and concerts. It’s so encouraging to see upcoming musicians being supported and nurtured by the many local events and it’s amazing that in a time when arts cuts are sadly prevalent, musical life is increasingly strong with many organisations such as the Royal Northern Sinfonia discovering new ways to energise their audiences and remain highly relevant. Nothing could be more relevant than the work of Fertile Ground, who, beyond their tour schedule have been working with schools and performing in unconventional spaces. I admire the way they are inspiring a new generation of dancers and exposing new audiences to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden and I am hugely excited for the upcoming performances.
Violinist, Rebecca Howell