The Ripieno Players


by Christopher Morley

Neglected women composers are at last receiving the recognition they deserve, ranging from the 17th-century Barbara Strozzi, through the late 19th-century Alma Mahler, and right up to the 20th-century Welsh composer Grace Williams, much-advocated by Benjamin Britten.

And paramount among all of them is Clara Schumann, muse both to her husband Robert and to his worshipping pupil Johannes Brahms, and mother of so many of Robert's children that she should have lived in a shoe.

Clara's composing gifts were all but stifled because of the demands of conjugal domesticity, but her music is at last undergoing rehabilitation, and a concert from the Ripieno Players on June 15 will help advance the cause.

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of her birth, we will hear six of her Lieder sung by Imogen Russell, plus a nod to hubby with a performance of his Traumerei miniature. A new work by the young composer Victoria Benito is premiered, and the main work in this intriguing programme is Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet, in Mahler's string orchestra arrangement.

The conductor is Joe Davies, who formed the Ripieno Players whilst studying for a music degree at the University of Oxford. He tells me the origin of the name.

"It came about by accident, really. Our first concert included Vivaldi's Double Cello Concerto, and I hadn't thought of a name until the day before the gig.

"I was referring to our two soloists as 'the Concertante' and the orchestra as 'the Ripieno Players' (ie. the classic Italian format), and it just stuck! It then happened that both I and the orchestral manager, Richard English (double bass) came to study at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on the postgrad course, and we decided to keep the group going while we were here."

Joe then goes on to tell me about his own background.

"I'm a Cumbrian-born conductor, trying to conduct in a variety of mediums, and have been lucky enough to conduct theatrical, symphonic, choral, and even partly-electronic concerts. I set up the Ripieno Players in order to promote the work of young composers and players.

"We try to do a new commission in every concert, such is our commitment to contemporary music. I'm currently studying in Birmingham, but continue to conduct groups in and around the country, and I seem to spend my life on trains, basically."

Joe continues by singing the praises of Victoria Benito.

"Victoria is a very talented postgrad composer at Birmingham, and is originally from Madrid. 'This is only a work of Fiction' is a work for solo strings, and treats all of its seventeen players as soloists as much as they are part of a group, rather like Strauss's Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings. This is what Victoria has to say about the piece:

"In these works of fiction development is mainly based on sound: it moves smoothly and very progressively. All seventeen instruments are written individually to build the general sound of the orchestra as one big instrument. The title comes from the foreword of 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke. At the end of it the author writes: 'But please remember this is only a work of fiction. The truth, as always, will be far more strange.' The first movement of this piece is just one imaginary proposal on how this composition could have been, and the second one is another imaginary proposal but in a sweet way. And both of them are also an exploration of the orchestra from a spatial perspective. But regardless of this story, it is just music for string orchestra."

Joe's future plans for the Ripieno Players look interesting.

"We're hoping to do concerts in Birmingham for years to come," he enthuses.

"Highlights include February 2020, when Birmingham-born Xhosa Cole (BBC Young Jazz Musician 2019) is coming to perform the premiere of one of his own compositions with us. We have a history of working with some exceptional soloists (cellist Laura Van der Heijden, saxophonist Jess Gillam), and this should be another highlight.

"We'll also continue to promote contemporary music and the works of composers who, we feel, are underplayed in this country: for example, we're planning to perform a work by the fantastic Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski next year."

And Joe concludes by returning to Clara Schumann.

"The Clara Schumann songs we're performing represent some of the best music the composer ever wrote. They manage to achieve what few Lieder composers achieved before or during her lifetime (only Schubert and Schumann come to mind): make an incredibly complex and musically-pioneering song sound so simple and familiar.

"We're lucky to be joined by Imogen who is building a reputation as one of the country's most exciting young sopranos. In their newly-orchestrated versions, we'll hope they'll give the audience an experience to remember!"

*The Ripieno Players perform at the Medicine Art Gallery (top of New Street, Birmingham) on Saturday June 15 (8pm). Details on, with "early bird" reductions for bookings by June 7.

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