In November George Benjamin was the festival focus for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he was featured as both composer and conductor across four programmes, taking in his orchestral, stage and chamber works in Helsinki.
The festival focus began with the Finnish premiere of Benjamin’s Concerto for Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, which premiered at the BBC Proms in 2021 from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by the composer. It is varied and dynamic across an unbroken 17-minute span, with skittish lines playing against still, suspended ones. Its various instrumental protagonists play multiple roles – both dramatic and sonoric – including a volatile solo tuba, elaborate horn duos, bubbling clarinets and two pairs of rumbling timpani. Watch Benjamin conduct the Concerto for Orchestra here.
The programme also included Benjamin’s Dream of the Song with countertenor Iestyn Davies and women’s voices of the Helsinki Chamber Choir. The 20-minute piece – part song-cycle and part cantata – sets verse by three major poets who spent formative years in Granada; two – Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol – wrote in Hebrew in the mid-11th century, while the third, Federico García Lorca, wrote in Spanish and was killed by Fascists soon after the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. All were inspired by 9th-century Arabic poetry in Andalucia. Davies previously sang the piece at the Barbican in 2016 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen – the dedicatee of Benjamin’s Concerto for Orchestra.
On 10 November Benjamin conducted Written on Skin, his second project with playwright Martin Crimp, receiving its Finnish premiere. The semi-staging was directed by Ben Davies. Bass-baritone Nick Pritchard took the role of The Protector, with soprano Lauren Snouffer as his stifled wife Agnès and Cameron Shahbazi as the Boy; Shahbazi recently originated the roles of Lover 2/Composer’s Assistant in Benjamin and Crimp’s latest collaboration Picture a day like this. The 95-minute piece has received over 150 performances since its debut at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2012 and acclaimed as one of the finest works of the twenty-first century by the Guardian; Katie Mitchell’s world premiere production will travel to the Deutsche Oper Berlin at the end of January 2024.
The focus concluded with two performances of Benjamin’s first collaboration with Martin Crimp Into the Little Hill on 15 and 16 November, conducted by the composer, and starring Hilary Summers and Anu Komsi. Together they premiered Benjamin’s 40-minute lyric tale in two parts, which retells the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, in 2006 at the Festival d’Automne in Paris.
Musicians from the FRSO also performed a chamber programme curated by Benjamin on 12 November featuring Fantasia 7 (1995), Benjamin’s 5-minute transcription of Henry Purcell for clarinet, violin, cello, and celesta, and Oliver Knussen’s Cantata (1977) for oboe and string trio – as well as music by his mentor Olivier Messiaen, Hans Abrahamsen, and Gérard Grisey. Benjamin has been a longstanding champion of Abrahamsen and Grisey, conducting works by the former at the Aix-en-Provence festival in summer 2023; Abrahamsen was also the dedicatee of Picture a day like this.