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In My Mind’s Eye, Horatio

National Youth Orchestra and London Schools Symphony Orchestra, January 7 and 9, 2018, Barbican Centre

Two orchestras of young musicians presented their work to London audiences this January at the Barbican Centre, and it was extremely inspiring to see these young people reach such heights in their professionalism and play very interesting and demanding works in their programs. National Youth Orchestra presented a program of masterpieces where the fantasies and fairy tales were intertwined, while the London School Symphony Orchestra presented two pieces that were also united by the theme of inner retrospection, with music revealing a human perspective on the world around, reaching far out into the space, where even the planets could have human characteristics. Also, both programs had intense theatricality in common, with some pieces verging on stage performance and some actually being opera re-created in a concert setting. It is interesting to trace the development of this theme of inner perspective of the world ‘from childhood to maturity to metaphysics of all humanity’, in so doing mixing works from programs of two evenings.

London Schools Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Richard Armstrong had a very interesting piece in their program that in a way was a key (of course unintentionally) to both programs. It was Barber’s ‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915’ (1947) for soprano and orchestra inspired by the lyrical prose-poem by James Agee. The poem is a five-year-old boy’s contemplation of one summer evening which becomes a very acute and detailed observation, made so, of course, by a writer’s later retrospection (and, in case of music, similarly, by composer’s memory). The eye of the boy lingers and takes everything in – people, cars, sounds, dogs, trees. And then the image focuss on the quilt spread by his father and mother, and we understand that the boy is lying on it and looking at other neighbours gathered there, and the time flows, and everyone around is alive and happy, and then the boy is taken to bed, without knowing, in fact, who is and why is he here, on this earth. Only we, the readers, know, that soon the father will die in a car crash (and similarly Barbers’s father suffered from ill health).

London School Symphony Orchestra

Proust-like lyricism transcends this poem, and soprano Louise Alder, who has recently won several prestigious awards in opera competitions, delivered the words carefully, slowly, contemplatingly, as though she itself got these images in her head and was observing the world while singing it. Barber made the music give birth to these images, never accompany them, only sometimes illustrating more artificial ones like autos and streetcars passing, symphonically creating the balm of this evening the glory of which is never to come. Louise Alder was both an observer and a creator of this picture, as images rose from her voice and were delivered to us as either fruits of her imagination or clouds passing by. The singer carefully traced this path of cognition and emotion through them, never allowing too much emotion to overcome her, but always moving forward, while cherishing every second image passing by. And this silent acuteness was the most moving in this piece – one understood one needed to listen, to catch every word and every vocal line, to let one’s imagination draw the images in long pauses between the sounds and appreciate the fertive moments that life and memory can give us.

'Duke Blubeard's Castle'. Credits: Tracey Whitefoot

National Youth Orchestra led by the conductor Sir Mark Elder had a program that had a similar intensity of creation of the world which was never certain to exist. Starting with Anatoly Liadov’s orchestral piece ‘’The Enchanted Lake’ (1909) and Paul Dukas’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (1897), the NYO proceeded to the main event of the evening – the rarely performed opera ‘Duke Blubeard’s Castle’ (1911-1912) by Béla Bartók. NYO united their forces with actors from National Youth Theatre, and also with director Daisy Evans, lighting designer Jake Wiltshire and illustrator Chris Riddell to take us into the enchanted world the Blubeard. Two wonderful singers – Robert Hayward and Rinat Shaham (who stepped in for Claudia Mahnke on short notice) were singing parts of Bluebeard and his new wife Judith. The opera, based on libretto by Béla Balazs, is the interpretation of Charles Perrault’s fairytale and also has a tinge of Maeterlinck’s dramatic world, bringing strong associations with his earlier plays, such as ‘The Death of Tintagiles’, where a boy succumbs to unknown and unseen Queen in the castle, and ‘The Intruder’, where again a force or a somebody never seen by the inhabitants of the house, brings death to the place by entering it. Bartók symphonically re-creates the imagery of the story, with harps, celestes and flutes bringing forth the imagery of first a garden and then a lake created by dropping tears, while piccolo and xylophone musically emulate the instruments of torture. Everytime the blood appears in the room there is also a special instrumental sound, a change of pitch that indicates it. During the concert the light was changing also to bring us closer to the atmosphere of each room. The end of the opera brings the action, which could be perceived as purely a fantasy to another level, as here three other wives appear and Judith joins them, while being crowned by Bluebeard – joins to never leave this final room again.

Robert Hayward. Credits: Tracey Whitefoot

This opera, while it could remain on the level of a simple fairytale, it is evidently trying to tap on the level of subconscious fears and feelings, and also to create a symbolical image of an attempt to trap one’s memories in a locked and deeply hidden box. May be each room’s imagery is a symbol of a special time in an individual life, or even an epoch in the development of humanity? It is unclear whether it is possible to save and retrieve (one could think of Proust’s ‘Le Temps Retrouvé’) one’s memories, or whether, once stored, all memories become dead, withering away in the distance from normal development of time. It was revealing to hear this opera from young singers, actors and musicians, as they still have to learn the qualities of passing time and the inevitable nature of every moment disappearing into the past. However, the whole tragic atmosphere of the opera and its sinister qualities hidden beyong the disguise of a simple fairytale were exquisitely delivered by NYO and two soloists, with Shaham almost trembling while singing and Hayward maintaining the face and pose of someone who has conquered all feelings inside him and only keeps them in separate small rooms as timesakes.

Rinat Shaham. Credits: Tracey Whitefoot

And finally, coming back to London Schools Symphony Orchestra, it is interesting that even their final piece, Gustav Holst’s famous ‘Orchestral Suite’ (1917), while depicting the characteristics of various planets, actually could be interpreted as the succession of different gazes of an individual changing with the passing of time. Thus, starting from Mars and Venus, Bringers of Wars and Peace (the youthful states and characteristics), following through with Mercury, The Winged Messenger and Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity (may be, the middle age) and ending up with contemplative characteristics of such planets as Saturn (The Bringer of Old Age), Uranus (The Magician) and Neptune (The Mystic). It is interesting that Holst was one of the first ones for his era to try to create a canvas of human emotionality where the movement was not necessarily one-directional and where one could just to remain in the state of stasis and contemplate the infinity. The young musicians of LSSO, expertly and carefully directed on their exploration of the planets in space which could also be solipsist pictures of the world seen by one person by Sir Richard Armstrong, showed a lot of maturity in presenting these majestical musical pannos so well known to us from other interpretations. One could say that they were exploring the possibilities of human flexibility of character and the options of state of mind which might be still unexplored by them in their youth but to which music offers the keys, leaving time for experiencing them as time passes It is their mind’s eye that will become their main instrument in this journey, as it has become ours during these two philosophically rich and musically insightful evenings.

London Schools Sympony Orchestra

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