Opera North Blog

Tim Williams of Psappha on Transfigured Night


Two of Europe’s leading chamber ensembles, Hebrides Ensemble and Psappha, will join forces for Transfigured Night, a celebration of their 25th anniversaries – and a tribute to the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – at the Howard Assembly Room on Friday 11 November.

The concert marks Psappha’s return to the venue following their celebrated performance in the world premiere of Mark Simpson’s Pleasure in April. We spoke to Artistic Director Tim Williams, who founded the ensemble in 1991, about Psappha’s long association with Maxwell Davies, and the thinking behind this special programme.

“Psappha’s relationship with Peter Maxwell Davies lasted for more than 20 years. We gave the premières of a number of works including his first opera (after a 17 year break) in 2000, Mr Emmet Takes a Walk. With libretto and direction by David Pountney, the work toured throughout the UK and Europe. Working with Max was always inspiring. He knew every single note of every piece he’d ever written and always gave a fascinating insight into each and every work we performed by him. 

During a short trip to Orkney in July 2014 I spent some time with Max and we discussed The Last Island. The music and Max’s accompanying programme note offered such a compelling description of the Holms of Ire – the two tiny islands just off the coast of Sanday - that I suggested I make a film to accompany a future performance. Max thought this was a wonderful idea and that I should come back as soon as possible to do it!

Two years later, in July of 2016 - shortly after Max passed away - I went back to Orkney. My aim was to create something that enhanced Max’s music and showed the unspoiled, rugged beauty of this part of the world. It seemed fitting to include some footage I shot back in 2014 towards the end of the work. The resulting film will provide the backdrop to our performance of The Last Island to open the concert.

“Max and Harrison Birtwistle formed a small chamber ensemble - The Pierrot Players - in 1965, initially to perform Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Schoenberg’s work influenced Max’s music so it seemed fitting to include his Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) alongside Max’s own string sextet The Last Island in this concert. 

Complementing these works will be an exciting new co-commission from David Fennessy, and Max’s masterpiece Farewell to Stromness in David Horne’s arrangement for string sextet and cimbalom to close.

We’ve long been admirers of Hebrides Ensemble, with whom we have a lot in common, not least our birthdays and our friendships with Max: Hebrides' Artistic Director, William Conway, worked closely with him at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the eighties, and Max went on to write a string trio and an oboe quartet for the Ensemble. Transfigured Night will be our heartfelt farewell to Max, and a celebration of our joint silver anniversaries.”

Hebrides Ensemble and Psappha perform Transfigured Night at the Howard Assembly Room on Friday 11 November.

Hebrides Ensemble: Zoë Beyers (violin, Catherine Marwood (viola) and William Conway (cello)
Psappha: Benedict Holland (violin), Heather Wallington (viola), Jennifer Langridge (cello) and Tim Williams (cimbalom).

Stills from 
The Last Island by Tim Williams.

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