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World premiere of four pieces of choral music inspired by the National Portrait Gallery's wartime diaries
Constabulary Report Book, 25 September 1917. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The world premiere of four pieces of choral music inspired by the National Portrait Gallery’s wartime diaries, letters and internal memos will be performed by the Gallery’s choir in residence, The Portrait Choir, on Friday 13 June, with two further performances on Saturday 14 June 2014.

As part of the National Portrait Gallery’s programme commemorating the centenary of the First World War, four young composers - James Burton, Richard Wilberforce, Beni Giles and Will Dutta – have explored the Archive to find out how the Gallery dealt with the conflict, as well as look at work on display in The Great War in Portraits exhibition, to inspire the new compositions. A police inspector’s report about the Gallery’s safety; a personal letter from D. H. Lawrence to Lady Ottoline Morrell written in 1915 which elaborately describes the sighting of a Zeppelin above London; and a National Portrait Gallery memoranda detailing what to do in the event of an air raid, are just some of the rare historic texts that have been used by the composers to capture themes from the period.

The four new pieces of music will be skilfully interspersed with Tomas Luis de Victoria’s poignant Requiem Mass, one of the oldest pieces of choral music performed today. Following the first performance of the newly commissioned compositions on Friday 13 June, Gregory Batsleer, Artistic Director of The Portrait Choir, and the four composers will discuss the process of communicating themes through choral music and the broad influence of music written during the First World War.

In his composition, Richard Wilberforce has contrasted D. H. Lawrence’s 1915 letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell with a National Portrait Gallery memorandum from 1914-15. He explains the inspiration behind his piece: ‘The tension between the regimented discipline of the Gallery’s Special Constables, and Lawrence’s emotional vision of a Zeppelin, serves to illustrate the combination of lure and terror with which Londoners regarded these gliding, fire-breathing moons of destruction.’

Wilberforce is an experienced conductor and composer. He is currently the Musical Director and Conductor of the Hallé Youth Choir and The Exon Singers, and has composed a number of pieces of music, including Telling God’s Story (2005), which was broadcast on BBC Radio Three, and He Hath Shewed Thee (2007), a piece commissioned to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade

Composer and conductor, James Burton, has undertaken commissions for both orchestras and choirs, and his pieces have been performed in the USA as well as the UK. His composition for The Portrait Choir has been inspired by a police inspector’s report describing the Gallery’s safety and its blackout arrangements. It also incorporates the ancient hymn melody Te Lucis Ante Terminum – a prayer for a restful night.

James Burton says: ‘I wanted to use the spaces of the Gallery as well as focus on the subject of fading light and the end of day. This seemed the perfect jumping off point for a new piece combining the ancient and beautiful melody with the more pressing demands for protecting a beloved building and its contents from very real dangers in the midst of war.’

Beni Giles, another of the young composers, was born in 1986 and began his musical career as a chorister of St John’s College Choir, Cambridge. He went on to study composition with composer Giles Swayne before completing a Master’s course in composition at the Royal Academy of Music.

Will Dutta is a London-based artist-curator and Music Co-ordinator at the National Portrait Gallery. His projects and performances examine emerging, non-classical style across leading gallery, concert hall and club spaces both in the UK and internationally. Dutta is founder of Chimera Productions, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Artists, and also holds teaching positions at Trinity Laban in London and St Helen & St Katharine in Oxfordshire.

The Portrait Choir is the first choir in residence programme developed at any museum or gallery in Britain and is supported by Hani Farsi and the Mohamed S. Farsi Foundation. The choir is mentored by four experienced professional singers and many of its 22 members have recently finished their studies at some of Britain’s most prestigious music conservatoires. Spanning music from all periods, The Portrait Choir is in residence at the National Portrait Gallery at least five times a year to perform a wide repertoire of choral works in gallery spaces which relate to portrait themes, the Collection and the exhibitions programme.

Gregory Batsleer, Artistic Director of The Portrait Choir, says: ‘The Portrait Choir is committed to commissioning at least one new work each year and I am delighted we have provided the opportunity for these young composers to interpret and bring alive some of the material related to the First World War that is housed in the Gallery’s archive and to provide a legacy for future generations as part of the Gallery’s First World War commemoration programme.’

Manchester-born Gregory Batsleer is currently Chorus Master with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He has previously held choral conducting positions at the Hallé, RNCM, Princeton University and with the Amadeus Orchestra. He has recently worked as Guest Conductor with the National Youth Choir, Brandenburg Sinfonia, Rodolfus Choir and the Hallé Orchestra. He has prepared a number of choirs for performances at the BBC Proms and has worked closely with conductors such as Sir Mark Elder, Robin Ticciati and Sir Roger Norrington. In January 2013 Gregory took up the brand new post of Artistic Director of the National Portrait Gallery's new Choir in Residence programme.

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