Following on from a successful weekend of programming in November last year, the British Museum will host its first major music festival this April. Motivated by the appointment of the museum’s new director, Hartwig Fischer, this project seeks to “find new ways to explore the spaces that our visitors see each day.” The cosmopolitan programme will feature works by Stockhausen, Liszt and other proponents of Western art music; however, its exploration of cultures from further afield will be of particular interest to Songlines’ readers.
The Reigakusha Ensemble – under the directorship of Sukeyasu Shiba – have been performing gagaku, (traditional court music of Japan) for over 30 years. Dating back to the seventh century, this style was initially performed at Kyoto’s Imperial Court, and Shiba’s ensemble perform both traditional pieces – including bugaku (traditional dance) and kangen (instrumental music) – in addition to compositions written by Shiba with a view to widen participation and understanding of this historical art form. “We really focus upon the diffusion of gagaku in Japan, emphasising both its ancient roots and modern characteristics, his primary hope is that gagaku will be heard and appreciated universally,” says Shiba.
Their concert in the Egyptian sculpture room (Room 4) on April 18 will offer a unique environment and a rare chance to witness gagaku in the UK. “The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery has strongly impressed us. The program of our concert is not related to Egyptian sculpture itself, but we have an impression that this gallery will be particularly suitable for gagaku in its acoustic dimension.”
Other highlights include a radical fusion of Chinese kunqu opera with a Shakespeare classic in I, Hamlet (April 20, Room 33). The inimitable opera star Zhang Jun will perform a one-man show playing the roles of Hamlet, the gravedigger, the ghost of Hamlet’s father and Ophelia. In 2011 Zhang was designated a UNESCO Artist for Peace for promoting the art of kunqu (regarded as the ‘Mother of Chinese operas’) and this production will introduce the style to a new audience.
Hindustani vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty, founder of the first ever all-female Indian classical ensemble SAKHI, will perform on April 28 with a programme that encounters the artefacts on display in the Hotung Gallery. There will also be a performance by the Persian music group, Ensemble Constantinople, on April 22, led by their director and setar player Kiya Tabassian.
“The world collections of the British Museum provide extraordinary opportunities for musical performance,” says the festival’s artistic director Daniel Kühnel. “We can use music and performance to tell stories and present new ideas in a historic setting, challenging conceptions and exploring encounters between cultures.”