George Benjamin



Born in 1960, George Benjamin began composing at the age of seven. In 1976 he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study with Messiaen, after which he worked with Alexander Goehr at King's College Cambridge.

Ringed by the Flat Horizon was played at the BBC Proms by the BBCSO under Mark Elder when he was just 20. The London Sinfonietta, under Simon Rattle, premiered At First Light two years later.  Antara was commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the Pompidou centre in 1987 and Three Inventions was written for the 75th Salzburg Festival in 1995. The LSO under Boulez premiered Palimpsests in 2002 to mark the opening of ‘By George’, a season-long portrait at the Barbican. The last decade has seen further multi-concert retrospectives of his work in Paris, Lucerne, London, San Francisco, Frankfurt, Aix, Turin, Milan, Aldeburgh, Toronto and New York.

His first operatic work Into the Little Hill, written with playwright Martin Crimp, was commissioned by the 2006 Festival d'Automne in Paris. Their second collaboration, Written on Skin, premiered at the Aix-en-Provence festival in July 2012 and has been scheduled by almost twenty international opera houses since then and has won as many international awards. He conducted the UK premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in March 2013; the production was filmed and broadcast by BBC television.

As a conductor he regularly appears with some of the world's leading orchestras, amongst them the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Philharmonia; he has a particularly close relationship with the Royal Concertgebouw, who gave the world première of his latest score, “Dream of the Song” in Amsterdam this September.

George Benjamin has conducted numerous world premieres, including important works by Rihm, Chin, Grisey and Ligeti, and his repertoire stretches from Schumann and Wagner to Abrahamsen, Knussen, and Murail. He has frequently performed and taught at the Tanglewood festival in the USA since his first appearance in 1999, and returns there regularly.

In 2012 the Southbank Centre presented a retrospective of his work as part of the UK’s Cultural Olympiad. An honorary fellow of King’s College Cambridge, the Guildhall, the Royal College and the Royal Academy of Music, he was awarded a C.B.E. in 2010 and was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2011. This autumn he was appointed Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ambassador to London, and “Written on Skin” was awarded the triennial Composition Prize from the Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco.

Since 2001 he has been the Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King‘s College, London. His works are published by Faber Music and are recorded on Nimbus Records.

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    Written on Skin


Prinzregententheater, MUNICH

Benjamin : Ringed by the Flat Horizon
Boulez : Cummings ist der Dichter
Ligeti : Clocks and Clouds
Haas : Limited Approximations

Klaus Steffes-Holländer / Matan Porat / Florian Hoelscher / Julia Vogelsänger / Akiko Okabe / Christoph Grund pianos

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George Benjamin

Into the Little Hill

Alice Tully Hall

Last week, during a discussion onstage after the opening-night performance of George Benjamin’s haunting opera “Written on Skin,” Mr. Benjamin, who has conducted the piece many times, lavished praise on the textured, exciting performance Alan Gilbert had just led.

“I’m a composer who conducts,” Mr. Benjamin told the audience. Pointing to Mr. Gilbert, he added, “This is a real conductor.”

On Sunday afternoon, however, Mr. Benjamin demonstrated to a nearly full house at Alice Tully Hall that he is a highly skilled conductor. In a program presented by the increasingly innovative Mostly Mozart festival, Mr. Benjamin led the International Contemporary Ensemble, a crack new-music group, in riveting, lucid accounts of Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques” and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, both featuring the brilliant French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. After intermission, Mr. Benjamin conducted “Into the Little Hill,” his 2006 chamber opera, a grimly modern take on “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” with an eerily alluring 40-minute score. That Mr. Benjamin led such an assured account of his mysterious opera was no surprise. His depth as a conductor came through especially in the dazzling performances of the Messiaen and Ligeti works he drew from the superb players.

“Oiseaux Exotiques” (“Exotic Birds”), composed in the mid-1950s, sounded stunningly fresh in this animated performance. Scored for varied wind instruments, percussion and a piano (a formidable solo part), this 16-minute piece sounds like a carefully rendered mélange of birdsongs, from chirpy short ones to skittish riffs that almost suggest 12-tone rows. On the surface the music may seem thorny, but it’s hard to think of a more riotously joyful mid-20th-century score.

Ligeti’s five-movement piano concerto might be a repertory work were it not so difficult. In this 25-minute score, completed in 1988, you hear elements of the styles that fired Ligeti’s imagination, from Bartok’s folkloric idiom to Conlon Nancarrow’s giddily complex player-piano works. Yet here is an idiosyncratic concerto teeming with invention.

As with “Written on Skin,” ambiguities permeate “Into the Little Hill,” the first operatic collaboration between Mr. Benjamin and the playwright Martin Crimp. The setting is vague. There is even a suggestion that the rats plaguing the town could be other, undesirable people. Just two singers, a soprano and a mezzo-soprano, share all the roles and mix lines of narration into their dialogue. The pied piper is a creepy figure: a man with no eyes, nose or ears.

This unconventional opera might seem hard to stage, though a simple, effective production was presented by Lincoln Center Festival in 2007. Mr. Benjamin’s rumbling, spectral and mysterious music, scored for an unusual ensemble including basset horns and a banjo, worked its magic in Sunday’s taut, intense concert performance. The mellow-voiced mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley varied her sound and persona impressively as the Minister and the Minister’s Wife; the agile soprano Hila Plitmann brought radiant sound, even during passages of sky-high vocal writing, to the Stranger and the Minister’s Child. Both also sang the music of the Narrator and the Crowd.

That Mr. Benjamin’s work shared a program with two giants of 20th-century music seemed entirely fitting.

George Benjamin

Written on Skin

CD release

George Benjamin’s Written on Skin out on DVD

A DVD of Written on Skin (filmed at the Royal Opera House) was released in January on the Opus Arte label and has inspired renewed claims that this is one of the greatest operas of the 21st Century.

‘George Benjamin’s opera is the most subtle, the most sophisticated, the most powerful musical drama of the modern era… Benjamin’s achievement is to make opera seem natural in the 21st century: Written on Skin is a vivid successor to Pelléas et Mélisande in its lyrical sensuousness and to Wozzeck in its cinematographic fluency and unsparing analysis of the human condition.’

Financial Times (Andrew Clark), 31 January 2014

‘The first truly great opera of the 21st century…the [its] communicative power is immense, with Benjamin’s highly coloured music, never forbiddingly complex, consistently moving in step with Martin Crimp’s tangy and chiselled words.’

The Times (Geoff Brown), 17 January 2014

Financial Times and The Times