These Strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me —
Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven
Be found a Refugee —
Emily Dickinson, These Strangers – 1864 *
To open Britten Sinfonia’s 2019/20 season as Associate Ensemble at the Barbican, tenor Allan Clayton joins Britten Sinfonia and guest conductor Andrew Gourlay for the UK premiere of Refugee, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new song cycle. Turnage sets four texts by poets Benjamin Zephaniah, Emily Dickinson, Brian Bilston and W H Auden, exploring what it means to be a refugee now and through the ages.
Refugee is performed alongside works by composers that Turnage counts among his major musical influences including his teacher and mentor, the late Oliver Knussen’s Songs without Voices. The concert opens with Michael Tippett’s five-movement re-imagining of the traditional English tune, Sellinger’s Round, rich with quotations from music by Gibbons, Purcell, Arne, Field and Sullivan. Allan Clayton returns for a final song cycle, the evocative Nocturne for tenor, seven solo instruments and strings by Knussen’s mentor, Benjamin Britten.
Over 150 years separates Emily Dickinson’s 1864 poem These Strangers and internet poetry sensation, Brian Bilston’s 2016 poem Refugees (written to be read normally, and then from top to bottom; Turnage sets it both ways). WH Auden’s 1939 Refugee Blues, written whilst Auden was living in New York, reflects on the dispacement of Jewish people fleeing the Nazi regime. There is commonality in the themes of all four poems, including a plea for understanding and empathy in the face of widespread intolerance, and reflections on the precarious nature of life which means sudden change of circumstance, through conflict, natural, economic or manmade disasters or domestic circumstance, can render us all potential refugees - or as Zephaniah writes in his 2000 poem We Are All Refugees: ‘Sometimes it only takes a day I Sometimes it only takes a handshake I Or a paper that is signed’. *
Turnage feels strongly about the need for empathy, and that the movement of people who are prepared to travel across continents in desperate circumstances in order to seek refuge and safety should make us all pause for careful thought:
‘Imagine if that happened to you? You would hope other people would accept you so why are people rejecting these people? It’s really scary. These subjects are very important and that’s what spurs me to want to create something.’
Britten Sinfonia has enjoyed a fruitful artistic collaboration with Mark-Anthony Turnage, most recently on his opera Coraline, and a specially commissioned short chamber work, Col, for the orchestra’s At Lunch Series. Allan Clayton is a regular guest artist and has appeared with the orchestra in wide ranging music, from Gerald Barry’s Jabberwocky to Handel’s Messiah.
Britten Sinfonia gives the world premiere of Turnage’s Refugee at the Enescu Festival in Romania on Thursday 19 September and the UK premiere at Milton Court Concert Hall, London on Friday 20 September.