Composer in Residence 2018/2019

George Benjamin

George Benjamin
(Photo: Matthew Lloyd)

During the 2018/2019 season the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation will place a major focus on the English composer and conductor George Benjamin, covering the full artistic spectrum of his works for the first time in Berlin. Seven concerts will be devoted to operatic, piano, chamber and orchestral works by the composer, three of which will be presented in collaboration with the Musikfest Berlin.

Composer and conductor

George Benjamin, a student of Olivier Messiaen and Alexander Goehr, felt a calling to music at a very early age. He began composing when he was seven and as a twelve-year-old already had only one goal: to write operas. His success as a composer began with an instrumental work in 1980, however: Ringed by the Flat Horizon, which he dedicated to his teacher, Olivier Messiaen. His studies with Messiaen made a deep impression on him: the humanity of his teacher, his boundless passion for music, his feeling for harmonies and his novel ideas on rhythm were an inspiration to George Benjamin, although – as he points out – he has since diverged considerably from the aesthetic standpoint of his teacher. George Benjamin combines two passions which are completely different in his opinion: conducting and composing. “Conducting is very sociable and almost a physical activity,” he explains. “Composing, on the other hand, is purely in the head. It has to be very quiet, and you need unending patience for it. But I love both!” During the coming season the Berlin concert public will be able to experience Benjamin in these two very different roles.

Superimposed musical layers

Benjamin made his debut conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker with Ringed by the Flat Horizon in 2006, an occasion he recalls with pleasure. “I still remember the exceptional quality of the orchestra’s sound, the resonance and depth of sound from the bass! It is extraordinary.” Together with the Philharmoniker Benjamin will present his two-part orchestral work Palimpsests, in which he creates a fascinating soundscape of superimposed musical layers. When one considers George Benjamin’s oeuvre in its entirety it is obvious that each of his works tends to differ significantly in character from the previous work. According to the English musicologist and composer David Wright, “His characteristically slow method of working is connected to a detailed analysis of the material created and his understanding of the consequences it has for the compositional process and the musical result of each individual work.” Moreover, Benjamin has a keen instinct for surprising, often ingenious combinations of instruments.

Brilliant fusion of music and language

He was not able to fulfil his heart’s desire to compose operas until relatively late. The decisive moment for him was his meeting with the English playwright Martin Crimp, who supplied him with the ideal librettos. Benjamin’s chamber opera Into the Little Hill, based on the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, was premiered in 2006. It was followed in 2012 by the opera Written on Skin, which was drawn from a medieval legend and tells a moving story of love, power and cruelty. Although both works are set in the distant past, the subject matter is incredibly current. “The way Martin Crimp combines the very modern with the very old has a magical charm for me.” What distinguishes the two stage works, which will be heard in Berlin for the first time, is their brilliant fusion of music and language. Written on Skin was composed for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, whose transparent sound and marvellous articulation Benjamin had in mind while composing the work. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra will present both operas in the Philharmonie, with George Benjamin conducting.

During the Philharmonic chamber concert series the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin will perform his Octet, and the Musikfest Berlin will devote a matinee to Benjamin featuring pianist Florent Boffard. The Education Programme of the Berliner Philharmoniker will also contribute to the focus on Benjamin and is developing a creative project based on Into the Little Hill.

(Photo: A. Bofill)