A ceremony for 14 musicians

6 March 2020


Q&A with Alexandra Wood, Leader

Alex shares her thoughts about Harrison Birtwistle’s
Cortege, an imaginative work of orchestral theatre and virtuosic intensity. The piece calls for a striking visual set-up with 14 musicians positioned in a semicircle, taking turns performing a solo line from the centre of the ensemble and unfolding like a ritualised dance.

Later this month, we give audiences the first-ever performance of Cortege in Birtwistle’s original staging in which sections are performed from memory, taking the piece on tour (21-28 March) to Heidelberg and our resident homes around the UK (The Apex Bury St Edmunds, St George’s Bristol and Kings Place London).


Harrison Birtwistle subtitles his composition Cortege ‘a ceremony for 14 musicians’. Can you tell us a bit more about how the piece functions as a ceremony or ritual?

Players are arranged in a semicircle and take turns to emerge from the accompaniment group and come to the front ‘solo’ spot where they perform a kind of virtuosic cadenza. The bass drum is an important signal throughout the piece and this adds to the ritualistic, earthly element.

Cortege makes a rich and intriguing pairing with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. What links do you sense between these two works?

Cortege obviously creates a strong, bold musical contrast with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, but the theatrical, dramatic elements link them. And also, in a way, both works use instrumental ‘stars’ – groups and individuals – which highlight certain characteristics or moods.

How do you find the experience of playing from memory? In what ways does it change your experience of a piece? 

Playing from memory helps me to uncover the layers of the music, so I understand the structure better. When the whole orchestra performs from memory, it also frees us physically, from the music stand and chairs, but we also move and dance more, which adds to the excitement and drama we feel on stage – and with any luck in the audience too!

Do you have any rituals, earthly or otherwise, that you carry out before going on stage for a concert? 

If I am performing from memory, I always like to look through the part before every concert, however many times I might have played it – almost like a visual last-minute reminder. I always work backwards from the end too!


Earthly Rituals Tour

Harrison Birtwistle Cortege
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488
Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F major, ‘Pastoral’ (from memory)

Sat 21 March – Heidelberger Frühling (Germany)
Mon 23 March – The Apex, Bury St Edmunds
Tue 24 March – St George’s Bristol
Sat 28 March – Kings Place, London

Touring with pianist Yeol Eum Son


Photo part of Living Music, 2019/20 Season
Photo credit: Jim Hinson, Stanton Media