The Whitehall Road Sessions

Thursday 27 May 2021 | Britten and Ravel Quartets / Basel Saleh and Hamsa Mounif

Livestream 6pm

Our final Whitehall Road Session features formative quartets by Britten and Ravel, both of which expanded the horizons of chamber music in the first half of the 20th century. Complementing these works, special guests from The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians present a broad range of Arabic music, from traditional improvisation on ancient modes, to folk and twentieth century popular song.

Benjamin Britten was still a student at the Royal College of Music when he composed his brilliant, highly original Phantasy in 1932. The title comes from its unusual inspiration, the ‘fantasias’ composed in the 16th and 17th century for viols and winds. If its structure looks back to early music, its spiky harmonies and dramatic effects show the young composer’s engagement with the latest musical developments in Europe, a source of conflict with the conservative regime at the College.

Like Britten’s Phantasy, Ravel’s Quartet was the work that made his name on the international stage. Although they are contained within a classical quartet structure, Ravel’s strange melodic turns and layered rhythms are bracing in their inventiveness, and the influence of Javanese gamelan music, a fascination that the younger composer shared with Debussy (see our Session of 22 April) can be heard in the famous second movement’s striking pizzicato passages.

Between the two quartets, we are lucky to be joined by two special guests: composer, conductor and musician Basel Saleh (voice, oud) and singer Hamsa Mounif from The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, an ensemble comprising current and former members of the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music who have been forced to leave their homeland due to the brutal conflict of the last decade.

The duo opens with an improvisation on Maqam Rast, a popular maqam (a melodic mode used in traditional Arabic music, similar to a western scale) that is the basis of many Syrian songs.

Next, Ya Shadi Al-Alhan showcases another Arabic musical form, the muwashshah, or secular song. It was written by Sayed Darwish, the great Egyptian composer of the turn of the century.

Another treasure of Arabic popular song, Efrah Ya Albi was written by Egyptian composer Riad Al Sunbati for the legendary ‘Voice of Egypt’, Umm Kulthum. Closing the set, Ah Ya Hellow (‘Oh Beautiful One’) is a traditional Syrian song from Aleppo.


Britten – Phantasy Quartet

From the Orchestra of Opera North

Oboe: Richard Hewitt

Violin: David Greed

Viola: David Aspin

Cello: Jessica Burroughs

Special Guests: Basel Saleh (voice, oud) and Hamsa Mounif (voice)

Improvisation on Maqam Rast

Darwish - Ya Shadi Al-Alhan

Al Sunbati - Efrah Ya Albi

Ah Ya Hellow (traditional)

Ravel - String Quartet in F major

From the Orchestra of Opera North

Violin 1: David Greed

Violin 2: Katherine New

Viola: David Aspin

Cello: Jessica Burroughs

Presenter: Kate Simms

Director: Richard Critchlow

Produced by Opera North and Dependable Productions