The Yellow Wallpaper

Thursday 12 April 2012, 12:03

Laura Sinnerton Laura Sinnerton

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Our job puts a surprising amount of physical strain on the body, not to mention the great reserves of mental energy that it requires. I have often struggled with being able to 'turn off' but I realise how necessary it is, and so, at the beginning of this week I put my viola at the back of the wardrobe to enjoy a lovely patch of annual leave.

Our first week back is decidedly stress free, with just the heavenly Mahler 4 to prepare beforehand. What? What is that mumble I hear from other parts of the Orchestra? Do speak up chaps! It's not just Mahler 4? Ah yes, there is a brand spanking new work by our Composer-in-Association, Simon Holt, that features... no violas!

Please do not think that in anyway I am being dismissive - I am just enjoying a brief moment of smugness. In the 2010 Proms season we performed Simon's 'a table of noises', a percussion concerto for Colin Currie. There were no violins involved in the work at all, and many of my violin playing colleagues were rather (very) smug about going to enjoy another coffee, or a walk round South Kensington, whilst we violas, cellos and basses (and of course our windy, brassy colleagues also) sweated our way through what was really a very difficult, if groovy, score. I have not forgotten their smugness.

Simon's new work The Yellow Wallpaper is a commission by Radio 3, and is the last of his works in his tenure as Composer-in-Association. It features the gorgeous voice of Lisa Milne, and a number of other female vocalists dotted through the orchestra. With a libretto by poet David Harsent (who, incidentally, also composed the libretto for Birtwistle's 'The Minotaur' which I cried at the end of because I felt sorry for the Minotaur), Holt's work takes its inspiration from a novella by American feminist writer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The Yellow Wallpaper was a work that I was aware of, but had never quite got round to reading. A bit like my dust covered copy of War And Peace, but feminist. However, I rectified the situation over annual leave (by reading The Yellow Wallpaper, not War & Peace).

It is an exceptionally uncomfortable read; set in the late 1800s, through a series of journal entries, it tells the story of a woman's dissent into probable insanity due to the ridiculous, though at the time perfectly normal, treatment she receives for postpartum depression. It is claustrophobic and as a modern reader, it is horrific to read what the protagonist is put through. It made me feel exceptionally uncomfortable, in the same way that James' Turn Of The Screw gave me a horrible gnawing feeling in my stomach for days after I first read it.

I really am interested to see how Simon brings this work to life. Music gives us the ability to express the lightest and darkest areas of the human soul and this work really does expose some of the very darkest corners.

The Orchestra will be performing Simon Holt's The Yellow Wallpaper and Mahler's Symphony No 4 at St David's Hall, Cardiff, on Friday 20 April, 7.30pm. For tickets and information, call the Orchestra's Audience Line on 0800 052 1812.

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