Preview: “Minimalism” by the London Sinfonietta at Portsmouth Guildhall

An interview between Simon O’Hea of Music in Portsmouth and London Sinfonietta’s Principal First Violinist, Jonathan Morton

As a budding musician, try to take a leap of faith – that sort of faith will fit keep you going through the tough times. Let’s learn from the experience of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.”


We’re going to chat about London Sinfonietta, which is playing at Portsmouth Guildhall on Wednesday 15 May.

What I can pick up from your website is that your ensemble seems pretty avant-garde. What I mean by that is that you’re very good at bringing in new and exciting music into people’s consciousness.


Yes, the London Sinfonietta was founded in the in the 1960s as a kind of new music ensemble. At that time similar specialised groups were set up in France and Germany.

It was and is a pioneering orchestra, exploring and commissioning new work right since its inception.

So on the basis that we have been commissioning work for more than 50 years, there’s a whole body of work for the Sinfonietta to revisit, which in my opinion is really interesting and enjoyable. We will be doing just that at this concert in Portsmouth.

Some of the music which will be played was written more recently, but a lot of it was actually written 30 to 40 years ago. And as you know composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich are still very much around; their language and innovations have really spread through the whole musical world, not just the classical world. They’re really incredibly important musical voices of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Is their music really avant-garde? I suppose avant-garde implies something that’s quite hard to kind of get into or difficult to kind of listen to or enjoy. I don’t think this music fits that definition. On their own level, what you know, wherever they come from, whatever background or what however much musical knowledge they have, there should be a kind of way for people to connect with the music in a performance.

So yes, I’m very much hoping that there will be pieces in the programme that that people can get into and be grabbed by.


On reflection, then, I think it’s right to steer away from the word avant-garde. But people will read the concert description and be intrigued by what “dancing textures created by pioneering multilayered tape pieces” actually mean. If we can add a little bit more detail that would be helpful because I suspect a lot of people may have not have heard these pieces before, and it’s just question of getting that “hook”.


Let’s look at the music of Philip Glass, for example. His music has just spread everywhere. It’s not even thought of as a kind of new music or contemporary music or avant-garde. It has a great reach with it is audiences all over the world: young people can get into it, and older people can get it. It just seems to be a kind of music that people can find a way into somehow quite easily.


That’s great. So, turning to a more general theme, what advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?


It is definitely a difficult time for a lot of people, not just those in the arts. Live music is struggling: there’s basically generally less money available for the arts, and I imagine if you’re a young person that can be quite daunting. It might make you think, do I really want to go down this route?

Yet, if you step back and take a broader historical view, being an artist or a musician has probably always been quite a difficult choice in terms of making a living. But I also think that people have always felt that it is somehow essential. The things that have survived from hundreds of years ago are a testament to that. People sacrificed a lot to make these incredible works of art, whether they’re paintings or sculptures or compositions or whatever.

That hasn’t changed today. If anything, these things are more important than ever. And what gives me hope is that when you are on stage and you are communicating with an audience, you can really feel – most of the time – that there’s a real connection with them and that people are getting real value. When people listen to live music, a pretty special thing that happens. I don’t feel that this has changed.

So, what am I trying to say to young people? Try to take a leap of faith – that sort of faith will fit keep you going through the tough times. You know you will be rewarded if you’re able to share what you can with an audience, and it doesn’t have to be a large one.

All of this is neatly exemplified by the story of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. When they were started writing music in New York, no publisher would publish their music. So they earned a living by being removal men. That that’s how they paid the bills. Then they would put on these concerts in sorts of warehouses that were empty and charged low prices for entry or enabled free entry. And they had to get musicians to play their music. No one else would play it. Nobody would publish it. No one would touch it. It was really tough. No one would take them seriously. Now, of course, you know, there’s no guarantee that that’s going happen to everyone.

It’s their music that eventually won over people; it wasn’t what they said or how they lived or what they did. It was just the writing and the performance of the music that – you could argue –  changed the musical world.

Another point: there’s enormous discipline and time investment in both writing and performing music. You need these to learn the skills and develop the craft, and it’s so refreshingly analogue. What I mean by this is that this activity is another way of going against the tide because we live in such a digital world where everything is sort-of automated. It’s wonderfully refreshing to be able to spend time not being connected to the digital world.

You will know if you’re an instrumentalist that you can easily spend several hours in a room with physical instrument that you have to master. That has nothing to do with technology whatsoever. You need mental focus and concentration, but it can be a really refreshing and important sort of antidote to this world that we’re all living in.

The same applied to a singer, where the instrument is the human voice. Being in a choir and singing has so many positive impacts on well-being and a sense of community. There seems to be such a yearning for it and a need for it, you know. And yes, I always tell any students that I work with that they should sing more – this includes instrumentalists, who don’t sing anyway near enough! I don’t mean people should aspire to sing at a professional standard, but just to use their voices to sing the piece that they are playing.

About Jonathan

Outside of his role as the London Sinfonietta’s Principal First Violin, Jonathan Morton enjoys a varied career as a chamber musician, leader, director, and soloist.  His versatility finds him equally at home in the core classical repertoire, 20th and 21st century music, and in collaborations with musicians and artists from different genres. His eclectic and engaging programming has won praise from audiences and critics alike, offering fresh perspectives on familiar repertoire as well as championing new works.

As a soloist Jonathan has performed works written for him by David Horne, John Woolrich, Luke Bedford, Mica Levi, Joe Cutler, Deborah Pritchard, and Francisco Coll amongst others. Jonathan enjoys playing with other groups and has appeared with BIT20, Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, City of London Sinfonia, Musikkollegium Winterthur, the Nash Ensemble and the Colin Currie Group.

Jonathan enjoys sharing ideas with the next generation of string players and has directed projects at the Royal Northern College of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and the University of Auckland. He is Artistic Director of Scottish Ensemble, where he is increasingly collaborating with other art forms such as dance, visual arts, & theatre.

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Image of Jonathan Morton (c) Monika S Jakubowska

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