FESTIVAL OF CHICHESTER: Musical contrasts from Ben and friends

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Ben Rogerson maintains a proud tradition of an annual Chichester concert stretching back around a quarter of a century when he brings his Minerva Ensemble to the Festival of Chichester.

Their concert at St John’s Chapel on the opening day of the Festival, on Saturday, June 18 at 7.30pm, featuring David Le Page, offers an evening of Contrasts and Transformations: Strauss’ Metamorphosen (chamber version) and Mendelssohn’s Octet, Opus 20.

“The two pieces are hugely contrasting, and their backgrounds couldn’t be more different,” Ben says. “Mendelssohn was famously 16 years old when he wrote his Octet, Strauss, 81 when he wrote Metamorphosen. Words I’d use to describe the Octet are light, optimistic, fizzy, sparkling, bubbling, effervescent… oh, that would be Champagne! And Metamorphosen? Serious, spiritual, grave, tragic, Romantic. Powerful. Not sure what kind of drink it would be. A dark red perhaps. I’m no wine expert, but you’d be eating a roast. Both are considered great masterpieces and are hugely rewarding to play, but come from totally-different sound worlds. Mendelssohn came from a Jewish family, and his music became banned by the Nazi party. Strauss, on the other hand, was a member of the Nazi party. But how Nazi was he? He was a signed-up member. Some people say he was supportive of it, but others say he was being more pragmatic because his daughter-in-law was Jewish so he had to toe the line very carefully. Toscanini refused a famous Wagner opera festival, but Strauss volunteered to step into the breach. Toscanini famously said: ‘To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.’”

A personal connection prompted Ben to look further. In 1947 Strauss conduced the Philharmonia in London, and in a picture of event, you can also see Ben’s grandfather, principal cellist in the orchestra: “I found myself researching it a bit more. By the end of the war, Strauss was very disillusioned with the Nazi machine. Germany was being bombed to smithereens; Strauss said 2,000 years of culture was being destroyed and made some comment about the bestiality and the ignorance of the regime. But at the end of the war, because he was a signed-up member of the Nazi party, all his assets were frozen. He was living in Switzerland in exile with his wife and living on credit. His publishers in the UK were Boosey & Hawkes, and Beecham was a great fan of his. They set up a festival of his music in London, and the idea was that he would come to London to collect all the outstanding royalties that were owed to him and also pick up a conducting fee. There was a lovely quote at a concert where Strauss was coming out of his dressing room and said ‘so the old horse ambles out of the stables once more’”

After the Strauss in Chichester will come, in complete contrast, the Mendelssohn: “It’s one of those pieces that you grow up with. It’s the piece that all young musicians pick. It’s the one that everyone will do late at night for a laugh. It’s effervescent and sprightly.

“You could end the concert with the Strauss if you wanted, but everyone would want to just go straight home to bed. If you end with the Mendelssohn, everyone will feel 18 again! Mendelssohn is a piece that you grow up with; the Strauss is a piece you grow into.”

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