Rubythroat and Shapeshifter: Five Key Questions

On Thursday 15 October, two brand new ensembles – Rubythroat and Shapeshifter – are making their debuts at Blackheath Halls in a fascinating concert of Mozart, Monteverdi, Ravel, Berio and Rands. We asked the ensembles’ founders Jonathan Tilbrook and Linda Hirst all about it, starting off with the obvious question:

  1. So what on earth are Rubythroat and Shapeshifter??

LH: They’re both brand new ensembles. Rubythroat is a vocal ensemble of between 4 and 8 singers…

JT: … and Shapeshifter is a flexible instrumental ensemble of up to 40 players, able to embrace the unusual and fascinating combinations of instruments required for some significant repertoire of the second half of the twentieth century, as well as the more conventional ‘chamber orchestra’ works.

  1. How did the ensembles come about?

JT: There was a lot of 20th century chamber music/chamber orchestra repertoire that we wanted to explore – Stravinsky, Ravel, Berio, and much more – alongside more traditional works by Mozart, Schubert etc., but there wasn’t an appropriate ensemble for this. So we made one up!

Jonathan in action with the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra

Jonathan in action with the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra

LH: I wanted to create a vocal ensemble to perform both old and new music, and particularly to work on avant-garde music of the 1970s and 1980s, which is not only wonderful music to perform and listen to, but is also a great exercise for the brain.

  1. What are those names all about?

JT: The name Shapeshifter is fitting because the ensemble needs to be flexible not only in its size but also in its combination of instruments. This means that not only can it tackle unusual repertoire, but it can also combine in intriguing ways with other ensembles, potentially of any kind: perhaps in the future there could be collaborations with outfits from other genres such as jazz, and also touring projects? This open-minded and explorative approach is emblematic of Trinity Laban’s philosophy.

LH: The Siberian rubythroat is a variety of bird. I once had a piece written for me which transcribed its song for the human voice, and I’ve loved the name ever since! About ten years ago we did a one-off performance of Berio’s A Ronne at the Cheltenham Festival, with a pop-up group of Trinity Laban singers. I called that ensemble Rubythroat – I’ve always called my pop-up groups Rubythroat!

Siberian rubythroat

Meet Luscinia calliope, aka the Siberian rubythroat….

  1. What will students get out of it?

LH: This is a great chance for students to engage with repertoire that’s too rarely heard, but which is very theatrical and particularly rewarding to perform. I’ve been able to offer them my own experiences of working directly with both Bernard Rands and Berio: in fact, I’ve shown all the students a YouTube clip of me singing A Ronne with the Swingle Singers, directed by Berio himself, back in 1976.

JT: In terms of the students’ learning process, Shapeshifter will prepare them for a professional world where many excellent large chamber ensembles are choosing to focus more and more on this relatively uncommon repertoire. The technical demands are very high in the ensemble, thus providing great experience for some of Trinity Laban’s most talented players.

  1. Why are the two ensembles joining forces?

LH: We’ve been able create a programme that will not only offer audiences beautiful sounds, but will also enable them to make connections between pieces of music written centuries apart. For example, there’s a very direct line between Monteverdi and Berio; Berio adored Monteverdi and made arrangements of his music. They both belong to the same Italian vocal tradition, and I think audiences will really enjoy being able to hear that.

JT: … And the connections continue, by virtue of the fact that Bernard Rands studied with Berio! The two ensembles were founded to explore complementary repertoire, so combining them made perfect sense. It’s going to be a very exciting concert, and the beginning of what we hope will be an artistically very diverse and stimulating series of programmes appearing in future concert seasons.

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