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Jessica Burroughs talks Distilled


This Thursday sees the welcome return of Opera North’s Distilled series to the Howard Assembly Room. Exploring innovative ways of presenting classical music, Distilled aims to offer more intense and immersive audience experiences.

Jessica Burroughs, Section Leader Cellist in the Orchestra of Opera North, has curated an exhilarating programme which blends Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with contemporary classical pieces by Dutilleux, Arvo Pärt and Nico Muhly. Jessica took time out of her busy schedule to tell us more.

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How did you discover the cello and what was your route into playing professionally?

When I was a child, my mum would spend a couple of hours each Sunday doing the ironing. I always loved the smell of the iron and the clean washing, so I used to curl up under the ironing board and keep her company. She always had the radio on – Classic FM or Radio 3 – and one afternoon I heard a solo cello piece. I was transfixed by the warm singing sound of the instrument, and I immediately wanted to play it. I think it took another couple of years, though, before I persuaded her that I was really serious about the instrument.

My mum worked for what was known then as Kirklees Music Service and I had a fantastic cello teacher there. As part of my work experience at school, I was lucky enough to shadow her and that involved watching her playing as an extra for the Orchestra of Opera North on a CD recording at Huddersfield Town Hall. I also play on a cello that I bought whilst I was at college off a violinist in the Orchestra. It’s so lovely to think about these unconscious connections that I made with the Orchestra at such an early age!

Jessica Burroughs playing the cello, aged 10

Can you tell us a bit about Distilled and your upcoming concert, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3?

The Distilled series at the Howard Assembly Room explores new ways in which to present classical music. It gives the audience an intimate chamber music experience whilst showcasing the wonderful musicians of the Orchestra. Our newly appointed leader, Katie Stillman, will be our soloist and director for this concert, and I’m so thrilled that she will be showcasing her incredible energy and talent.

For this concert, we have two of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, No. 1 and the more famous No. 3. He wrote six in total and quite simply, they are concertos for large ensembles. Each part has its own role and this is particularly noticeable in No. 3, where the scoring is for three violins, three violas, three cellos and a harpsichord. The first concerto is even bigger, almost a small orchestra, and has solos for the violin, bassoon, two horns and three oboes.

Portrait of Bach, by Elias Gottlob Haussman, 1748

Are there any challenges to programming ensemble pieces of this size? How do you deal with them?

One of the challenges when programming large chamber works using a myriad of different instruments is what to do in between the pieces while we reset the stage. I wanted to create a feeling of continuity and expansiveness. So to try and achieve this, I’ve chosen to include two more short pieces which act as incidental music. The music is intended to create atmosphere and draw the listener in, whilst detracting from the movement on stage.

The first piece I have chosen is by Dutilleux and it’s called Tribute to Bach. It’s actually a movement taken from six short character pieces that he wrote for solo piano, and he called Along the Waves. The second piece, Drones and Violin, was written by Nico Muhly. The use of the drone, here played by the piano, creates this amazing feeling of time standing still.

How does it feel to play the Brandenburg Concertos alongside the more contemporary pieces?

Bach’s music is often described as meditative, serene and spiritual, so it seemed natural to me to sandwich Arvo Pärt’s Fratres between these two great works. When I listen to Fratres, I instantly feel like I’m being suspended in mid-air. The music comes out of nowhere, as if someone has just opened a door and it was already playing. And, similarly, it disappears at the end as if into nothing. Once the main theme has developed, it has this beautiful choral like figure which is accompanied throughout by a drone. And in this concert, that drone is played by Lydia on the cello and Claire on the double bass. The music is so simplistic, but part of the fun and difficulty for us as musicians is to create this incredible stillness during the performance. I think to get that atmosphere you almost have to hold your breath.

Jessica Burroughs

Distilled: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is at the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 18 April at 7.30pm.

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