Quick Questions: Matthew Barley

On Thursday 19 October, the Mullova Ensemble bring Transfigured Night to Turner Sims. A beautiful evening of music and dance, you will be taken on an immersive journey into a nocturnal forest, setting the scene for Schoenberg’s masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht, a profoundly moving ode to love.

Ahead of this, we talk to cellist Matthew Barley about the birth of this project and what the audience can look forward to.

TS: Contemporary dance and electronic music sounds like an unusual way to present classical music. What can our audience expect?

MB: Our ensemble will offer audiences a new route into Schoenberg’s magical work. The idea is to create a powerful procession of small pieces, expressed not just through music, but through staging, lighting and dance, to bring the viewer to a place of deep attention before Verklärte Nacht begins. You will be spell-bound and ready to experience the piece in a new way!

TS: People can find Schoenberg quite a daunting composer. What is special about Verklärte Nacht?

MB: Quite rightly, people can be a bit scared of Schoenberg: much of his music is grating, hard to listen to and quite unrewarding except to real aficionados…but this early masterpiece, Verklarte Nacht, written when he was just 25, and well before he developed his 12-tone system, is extremely different. It is one of the most romantic pieces I know – full of sumptuous harmonies and achingly beautiful melodies…more like late Brahms…it welcomes the listener like a warm embrace.

TS: Tell us about Ching-Ying Chien. How will be dance be incorporated into the performance?

MB: Ching-Ying Chien is extraordinary. She really is something quite special. When we were casting for the dancer, Viktoria said ‘Why don’t we try Ching-Ying Chien?’ and I said ‘Ooh, no, she wouldn’t want to do this project, surely?’. I was delighted to find out that she was actually really interested. Ching-Ying dances throughout the first part of the programme. Some of this is choreographed by Joshua Junker from the Royal Ballet to electronic pieces by Jasmine Morris. Some of her dancing will be improvised as the ensemble play works by Bartók, Strauss, Janáček, and of course Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

TS: Was there a particular message behind this project?

MB: It was partly about about the consoling power of music, which is so important. It came about in that post-COVID feeling of wanting to do something transformative. The central message of Verklärte Nacht is that love has the power to transform, and to overcome difficulty. We were very moved by the challenges facing the world, and, like so many artists, wanted to find some humble way to offer our contribution for peace, healing, and greater understanding and cooperation.

TS: You have launched an arts foundation to run creative workshops using music and theatre to help university students with mental health. How do these workshops explore the connection between creativity and well-being?

MB: Music is something that mankind has been doing for tens of thousands of years before notation came along, way before performance came along. There are some fascinating things written by ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese that go in to it – why music happens, what we use it for – and it’s all about well-being and mental health and healing, it’s fascinating. The workshops we are designing use creative music and theatre to promote, improve and maintain positive mental health, especially for students in higher education. Alongside this, they address longer term behaviours and thoughts around how to use music in daily life to make an effect on your mental health, alongside how to use music to find motivation to do all the ‘right things’ of eating well, sleeping well, limiting social media, getting fresh air and exercise.

TS: You’ve performed at Turner Sims many times before. Is there anything about returning to our stage that you are looking forward to in particular?

MB: Definitely the acoustic – Southampton must be so happy to have such a warm and natural acoustic as this – it is a real joy to play in and we can’t wait!

Book your ticket to see Matthew Barley and the rest of the Mullova Ensemble perform Transfigured Night on Thursday 19 October here

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