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Musical vistas as food for imagination

Grime, Prokofiev and Strauss. London Symphony Orchestra, Harding/Kavakos, 18th February 2018

Sunday is a good day to let one’s imagination roam freely. Some rest during the weekend has been had, and people come to the concert with their minds ready to process the music that is offered to them. Indeed, the evening of 18th of February 2018 in the Barbican was one of those occasions that prove that in music the semiotics of perception are as important as in any other art, and listening is actually the co-production of images and sensations, the creation of connections between neurons in your brain, rather than just a passive activity. That particular evening was inviting us to create vast visual paintings in our brains, while of course our mastery of doing so ranged individually. The young British composer Helen Grime’s ‘Virga’ (2007) invites us to imagine ‘a precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates before reaching the grouns’ (as John Fallas writes in a programme note) and then continues to emmesh our minds in watery imagery by allowing us to envision the replacement of ‘kaleidoscope of droplets’ by melody that could be ‘representing the altitude at which a change in air pressure causes precipitation to evaporate and disappear from sight’.

So, if we think about it, the composer ventures on a mission to represent the entire weather system within ten minutes of the actual piece sounding, and in her textures chooses a rich density of sounds that could allow for materialization of the imagined matter in our mind. So, instead of being distributed over time, this piece actually tries out the focalization of sounds in a very short period of time and the creation of canvas which has dimensions similar to a painting, as you have to take it in all at once before it disappears. Under the baton of Daniel Harding who has just finished his tenure as LSO’s Principal Guest Conductor, this piece indeed acquired all the levity necessary for its floating upwards from all the instruments of the orchestra including piccolos and celeste, and then in the end fading away into the atmosphere as though the sound can indeed evaporate as water. This magical effect is evidently not so easy to reach, and the feeling of exhilaration in this mastery of both the composer and the orchestra was established by this piece. The atmosphere of united companionship in music creation was paradoxically also established by an initial mix-up, when the conductor appeared on the stage before the orchestra leader and then the LSO members jokingly greated the tall leader Roman Simovic as though his appearance was a special treat of the evening, while the brisk and youngish Harding smilingly jumped on the stage straight afterwards.

Leonidas Kavakos, the renowned Greek virtuoso, was the next on the evening’s program and performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto 2 in G minor with LSO. It was interesting to see also the moments here when a live performance does not go exactly as it planned and shows musicians as the real people existing here and now, with the flow of the concert also depending on the minute details of a particular evening’s development. At the very moment when Kavakos was touching the string for the first note, someone’s heels started to make a distinctive sound up the stairs of the Barbican. Why would somebody want to leave at this point, is unclear, but the sound was somehow rhythmically making a prolonged point, so Kavakos had to do several faulty starts to his concerto before actually beginning the piece. During the piece itself Kavakos showed the exemplary integrity of a performer, never thinking of himself as a soloist worthy of our attention and never doing the gestures of inspiration that some violinists are so eager to indulge in. He was very concentrated on the music while forgetting about himself, serving as a Virgil to us, multiple Dantes, in our exploration of Prokoviev’s music. He was engaging us and leading onto intellectual journey, with Prokofiev’s music, so malleable in terms of tempi, textures and developing ideas, while at the same time still romantically beautiful, being like an elegant and emotional volume of poetry for us to explore.

While listening to it, one felt the same rich density that one felt during Grime’s piece, but now it was less a picture, but rather a debate or a discussion, where virtuoso rhythmic irregularities served as representations of doubts, uncertainties, may be even brainstorming sessions of a certain area of human knowledge. Kavakos never made us believe it was rehearsed, so incredibly existing at this-very-moment (as if a musical thought has been created on the spot, in the heat of the debate), while always structured and leading us ahead his delivery of Prokofiev’s music was. With the sound coming from his ‘Willemotte’ Stradivarius violin, the aesthetics of this poetical journey were also extremely important, as it is always through the beautiful sound sounding almost like a viola rather than a violin that the actual sensation of this intellectual journey was coming to our ears. Kavakos deserved four or five rounds of applause during which the after-taste of this concerto still lingered in people’s minds, as they were unwilling to leave, so Simovic and Kavakos decided to perform a duet as an encore.

After the interval the LSO and Harding performed The Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss, coming back to the explorarion of the power that music has to deliver visual imagery. Listening to the incredibly rich orchestral palette that LSO inherently possesses makes it understandable while many film composers choose LSO to record their music with: most famously, John Williams for ‘Star Wars’ and most recently, and no less triumphantly, Alexandre Desplat for his soundtrack to ‘The Shape of Water’. The Alpine Symphony was an exquisite piece to showcase LSO as the body of musicians able to deliver an intense and vivid visual panno for its listeners, and Daniel Harding did a perfect job in bringing out the variety of interconnected and interlayered sounds from this wonderful orchestra. The music itself felt indeed not only like a temporal development within 24 hours (from the night till another night) intended by the composer but also like a journey up (and sometimes down, or through, or across) the range of uneven surfaces somewhere high beyond the human reach. During listening to this symphony one was reminded of the moment in Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ where the protagonist has a musical dream where he is walking in a wild uneven landscape which opens his mind into its own subconsciousness (although it is usually agreed that Mann had Mahler’s music in mind when writing this). The whole experience was intensely visual and sometimes even physical, as though mirads of landscape paitings depicting storms in the mountains were somehow condensed or processed through a 3D printer to create the textures of the Alpine Symphony.

Here were the sunrise, the flowering meadows with cow bells ringing here and there, the precariousness of mountain paths, the real thunderstorm with the wind gushing (three wind machines were used in a percussion section) on the descent – all framed in the ‘stille nacht’ depicted by Barbican technicians through the actual dimmering of lights in the hall. Harding being a professional pilot in his other life (he sported fancy cufflinks with tiny aircrafts – a parting gift from LSO), this was indeed a collective orchestral flight to the shimmering heights and mountain tops. Not unlike in a ‘Wizard of Oz’ story, we, the audiences, were also taken on board in this whirlwind of sounds constantly aiming above.

The resulting sense of camaraderie between musicans and the audience was palpable in the last applause where Harding was jumping off and on the podium like a happy boy who has accomplished a challenging, but fulfilling task. Thus, this particular concert was indeed the proof that music could evoke a vast range of visual imagery, which is important in our era of the synthesis and hybridization of media of artistic expression. The major difference from, say, films was that LSO, Harding, Kavakos and Grime actually taught our own cortexes to produce these images and did not bring them to us fully processed and prepared to consume as modern media often do. That is the kind of an intellectual and sensual experience one actually seeks in a classical music concert hall of today, after all.

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