Sir Mark Elder conducts Britten Sinfonia

Gustav Holst’s Sāvitri

with Pagrav Dance Company

Wednesday 4 May at 7.30pm, Barbican Hall.

Britten Sinfonia and Sir Mark Elder join forces with Pagrav Dance Company and leading kathak choreographer Urja Desai Thakore, to bring new life and context to Gustav Holst’s one-act chamber opera Sāvitri. 

Holst’s musing on love and death takes inspiration from the ancient, Sanskrit Mahābhārata tale of Sāvitri’s battle to save her husband, Satyavan, from ‘Death’. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge takes the title role, with baritone Ross Ramgobin as Death and tenor Anthony Gregory as Satyavan in this new interpretation.

Vaughan Williams described his friend Gustav Holst’s music as reaching “into the unknown, but never losing touch with humanity.” * Unique in British music and opera, Holst’s Sāvitri, which Holst began in 1908 and was first performed in 1916, frames the epic and universal through understatement and intimacy – this compact work involves just three soloists, 12 instrumentalists and a small chorus. The concert also features Holst’s setting of hymns from one of Hinduism’s most important works, the Rig Veda, alongside music by Grace Williams – her Sea Sketches – and Benjamin Britten – his Frank Bridge Variations. Both were contemporaries at the Royal College of Music, and close friends with Holst’s daughter, Imogen. 

Jacqueline Shave’s longstanding trio with tabla virtuoso Kuljit Bhamra and jazz guitarist John  Parricelli completes the programme and marks the end of an era, as Shave steps down as Britten Sinfonia Leader after 17 years (a position she has shared with Thomas Gould since 2016). Jacqueline has been a central part of Britten Sinfonia’s development as Leader, director and soloist.  As one of the country’s leading chamber musicians she is also well known for her wide ranging musical interests which she will further develop, whilst continuing to collaborate with Britten Sinfonia in a less formal, emeritus role.

Holst’s serious engagement with Indian literature and musical culture transcended the European fashion for ‘orientalism’ at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. As a young composer, Holst (1874 – 1934) embarked on Sanskrit language and literature studies at the School of Oriental Languages with the aim of reading the original texts of the great Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahābhārata, and the Rig Veda hymns, one of the oldest and most important scriptures of Hinduism. As a student at the Royal College of Music in London, he heard concerts by Indian musicians and lecture-recitals by performers-scholars, and developed an interest in Indian classical music. These studies found voice in a series of works, including his epic opera, Sita (1906) and the two works featured in this concert, both featuring Holst’s Sanskrit translations.  

This new interpretation of Sāvitri is a collaboration with leading UK Kathak practitioners, Pagrav Dance Company and is the first opera choreographed by Pagrav’s Artistic Director Urja Desai Thakore. She comments: “The North Indian classical dance form, Kathak, dates back more than 2,500 years and has constantly evolved. In my own choreography I use Kathak dance vocabulary to write my own sentences. In the case of Sāvitri, rather than presenting a literal retelling of the story, the movement explores the interconnecting spiral of emotions and tensions in the music and the story.  It’s the first time that we’ve created a new dance work to a piece of Western classical music and it has been an enriching, fascinating process for both the Pagrav dancers and myself.”

Meurig Bowen, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Britten Sinfonia comments: 

“Finding fresh ways of presenting lesser known, rarely performed repertoire is always going to be important to Britten Sinfonia, because rediscovering and reappraising can be as exhilarating as unleashing the brand new. Savitri is a perfect piece for us to look at in this way – ideal in scale for us, so sincere and eloquent in itself, but ripe for 21st century re-interpretation.”

* From Vaughan Williams’s introduction to Imogen Holst’s biography of her father, Gustav Holst – A Biography (Faber)