Introducing Portraits Day
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Bank Holiday Monday is Portraits Day on BBC Radio 3. Here, producer Janet Tuppen explains the exciting programming in store, and Radio 3 controller Roger Wright explains how listeners can help choose the subject of a commission from composer Jonathan Dove
Janet Tuppen: Bank Holiday Monday, 7th May, is Portraits Day on Radio 3 – the whole day from Breakfast to Jazz on 3 will be featuring music about people.So what is a musical portrait? How many composers have written music about people and how have they done so? These are questions I have been trying to answer since embarking on this project.
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As the producer co-ordinating the day, I have been researching all the music to fill the day. When looking at the breadth of music as a whole, there are many hundreds of pieces which have no external subjects: the music speaks directly in its own way. But there are other works where composers have chosen to represent subjects, characters or events. Baroque concertos and tone poems depicting nature or events are well known. Music representing people is less often discussed, and these are the works I’ve been finding out about for this Bank Holiday.
I think the most obvious musical portrait has to be Elgar's Enigma Variations, where he affectionately and brilliantly depicts a different person in his life in each variation. This was my starting point in planning the day, and it is the culmination of Live in Concert from Birmingham Town Hall, with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Elgar is able to depict moods, and characteristics of his friends, and also events in their lives. In the noble theme of the famous 'Nimrod' variation he draws on a love of Beethoven which he shares with his friend and publisher Augustus Jaeger, and so can subtly represent the relationship between himself and his friend.
From searching through books and catalogues and listening to CDs, I’ve discovered that many composers have drawn inspiration from the people they have loved – either spouses, lovers, or those who have spurned their affections. These are often deeply personal works. Schumann portraying his beloved Clara can be heard both in the Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert and in the evening programme Tom Service’s Audio Guide. Berlioz portraying Harriet Smithson in theSymphonie Fantastique can be heard in Breakfast, and Bartok portraying the young violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he became infatuated, will be heard in Essential Classics. Famous names that crop up range from screen idols to royalty to dictators. Greta Garbo, Nelson Mandela, Marie Antoinette and Louis Armstrong will all be making appearances, as will Queen Elizabeth I, plus Chairman Mao and Joseph Stalin. Some of the unusual gems I’ve unearthed are the works commissioned at the same time as Copland’s Lincoln Portrait – Jerome Kern’s Portrait of Mark Twain, and Virgil Thomson’s homage to the New York Mayor, in his Mayor LaGuardia Waltzes. These are appearing in Breakfast and Live in Concert respectively – see what you think.
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Roger Wright: As part of our Portraits Day, we want to keep the spirit of musical portraits alive and well, so we’re commissioning a new one for our own time. Radio 3 is, of course, already one of the biggest commissioners of new music in the world, but for Portraits Day we’re doing something a little different. We’ve asked one of our most important British composers, Jonathan Dove, to write a musical portrait of a 21st-century public figure – a major reflection on a person of our time. His piece will then be premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra later this year.
However in contrast to individual patronage of old, we want you, the audience, to help Jonathan find his subject. I never fail to enjoy the intelligence and wit of so much of your input – the speed of your poetic responses when we encourage you to write is just one marvellous example of your love of engaging with us.
So here is another chance for you to be involved and also to draw attention to someone you particularly admire: tell us the name of a 21st-century public figure - someone who hasn’t had a piece of music written about them. Who do you believe deserves to the subject of Radio 3’s new commission? Who would you suggest?
Many heads of state are already well-represented in existing music, so who else might we chose? There has been some fun in the Radio 3 office as we have thrown around off-the-cuff names – they have included Aung San Suu Kyi, David Hockney, PD James, Tim Berners Lee, Heston Blumenthal and, with my cricket interests, I had to offer the master batsmanSachin Tendulkar as an idea! We ended up, inevitably, with a varied but rather random list and no doubt you can do better - so please let us have your ideas.
To hear what you have to say, Jonathan will be joining Radio 3 presenters throughout Bank Holiday Monday as our Portraits Day composer-in-residence. He can then come to his decision in the full knowledge that he has the collective brain power of the Radio 3 audience behind him. He’ll be back the next day on In Tune to announce his choice.
You can text Jonathan on 83111, email Radio 3 at: email@example.com – or tweet #r3portraitsday. Just give him the name of your person, and, if you want, perhaps a reason why. You can also visit the colourful Pinterest Nominations Board.
It should be a treat of a day with lots to discover and debate.
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Janet Tuppen: To accompany the music, there will be images of the personalities within the music on the Radio 3 website, under Galleries on each programme page. And throughout the day, listen out for our Pen Portraits – descriptions of visual portraits as interpreted by some of our leading writers today: Aminatta Forna, Paul Farley, Louise Welsh, Ian McMillan and Osi Rhys Osmond.
The people within the music are at the forefront of this day, and by looking into their lives and how the composers have depicted them, we can reveal more about familiar works, uncover some unusual repertoire, and ultimately also learn more about the composers themselves. I have found this to be a fascinating journey of discovery, and I hope you will too.
Here are more details of the portraits to be found in Monday's programmes - you can click on the hotlinks to visit the programmes pages.
Notable pieces which Petroc Trelawny will be playing on Breakfast include Rossini’s exciting characterization of William Tell in the overture to his opera, and a lively portrait of Mark Twain.
Essential Classics will also feature Britten’s homage to his teacher in his Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, and Rob Cowan will be talking to the portrait painter Jonathan Yeo.
Self-portraits are another aspect of the day. One of the composers most conscious of placing himself in his own music was Richard Strauss, and he is Donald Macleod’s Composer of the Week, which on this Bank Holiday features music where he references himself – sometimes seriously, and sometimes, somewhat unexpectedly, with more humour.
The Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert features a live performance from Wigmore Hall by the pianist Leon McCawley, and the main work in his programme is Schumann’s Carnaval, a delightful collection of miniatures, which apart from featuring Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann), also depicts Chopin, Paganini, and the two opposing sides to Schumann’s own personality, which he calls Florestan and Eusebius.
Afternoon on 3 focuses on fictional portraits for the first half of the programme, and Louise Fryer is joined by the actress Fiona Shaw to discuss these. Shostakovich takes centre stage after this – his symphonies famously have many different layers of meaning, and it is in his Tenth Symphony that he draws a picture of the person who towered over Russia for so long – the dictator Joseph Stalin.
For the afternoon's live In Tune, Sean Rafferty takes a trip to the National Portrait Gallery in London, where he will be joined amongst the portraits by Ensemble 360, the pianist David Owen Norris, and Voces 8, featuring musical portraits from Britain and across Europe.
At 6.30pm, there is a chance to look at the methods different composers have used to depict people, in Tom Service’s Audio Guide. Joining Tom live in the studio are the harpsichordist Sophie Yates and the composer Robin Holloway, to look in detail at portraits by composers as diverse as Francois Couperin, Mussorgsky and Virgil Thomson.
Alistair McGowan, impersonator extraordinaire, hosts Radio 3 Live in Concert from Birmingham Town Hall, where the BBC Concert Orchestra are performing a programme of English and American portraits, conducted by Barry Wordsworth. Abraham Lincoln was not the first person whom Aaron Copland thought about portraying when asked to write something about an ‘eminent American’. But eventually it seemed inevitable that Lincoln should be the subject. Copland said, 'I hoped to suggest something of the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln's personality' – and you can judge for yourself if you think that comes across in this imposing work. On this side of the pond, as well as hearing from Elgar, the English monarchy is celebrated byEric Coates, who wrote his suite for Elizabeth I, Elizabeth the Queen Mother and our currentQueen.
During the interval, in Discovering Music, Stephen Johnson considers three of the best opera characters as depicted in their music.
In Night Waves, Philip Dodd is joined at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery by the novelistIan Rankin, the artist Alison Watt, the poet Robert Crawford and John Leighton – director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland. Their discussion will focus around the idea of capturing a likeness in art.
This week’s Essay series is all about the sitters in portraits. Each day a different person will be talking about their experience of sitting for a portrait, and their reaction to the finished work. Monday’s Essay is by the artist Maggi Hambling talks about her own self portrait.
Portraits Day rounds off with Jazz on 3, looking at portraits in jazz. Jez Nelson talks to Alex Hawkins about the portraits of Duke Ellington, and there are two specially recorded sessions featuring new jazz portraits. Tom Challenger and his band Brass Mask perform a portrait of Ornette Coleman, and Shabaka Hutchings, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, creates a portrait of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
- View the Portraits Day Facebook Album
- Listen to Pen Portraits (from 630am on Portraits Day)
- Visit the Portraits Day Pinterest Board.
- Visit the Essential Classics Portraits Gallery
- Visit the R3 Live in Concert (Elgar Enigma Variations) Portraits Gallery
- Find booking details for the BBC Concert Orchestra concert at Birmingham Town Hall. (THSH website, Birmingham).
- Watch a video and view a slide show of Portraits chosen by art critic Laura Cumming (part of the BBC's 'Your Paintings - Uncovering the nation's art collection').
- Visit the National Portrait Gallery website
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