Pathways into perception of the world through music
BBCSO/Sakari Oramo, 21 March 2018, LSO/François-Xavier Roth, 25 March 2018, ‘Pour le piano’ (Bavouzet plays Debussy), 25 March 2018
It is excititing to realize that some classical music concerts’ programmes that would seem not to be connected to each other suddenly, by some inner parallels, make you think about deeper contexts or intentions of composers, and about music’s broader aims in conveying the world around us and inside us. As an anthropologist first, a playwright second, and a theatre and music critic third, I have been always fascinated to see what exactly music does to the individual, what purposes it serves, what exactly it reveals of a composer’s mind and how it helps the audiences to understand the world and themselves better. I have been planning to write a play exploring these issues, and some concerts of contemporary London classical music scene give food for thought in this area. Recently four concerts have had programmes that showed how music can either be centered on exploring the composer’s perception of nature and its phenomena, or present a landscape of a composer/soloist mind, thus revealing two most important fuctions that music can serve as a form of art.
BBS Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo, Barbican Hall, 21 March 2018
The concert of BBC Symphony Orchestra led by its Principal Conductor Sakari Oramo started with a London premiere of Anna Clyne’s work ‘The Midnight Hour’. It revealed the composer's attempt to give a response to natural forces surrounding the human beings through making music express several of our senses. I was impressed by the attention that Sakari Oramo paid to the composer’s perception of the piece during the rehearsal. The conductor tried different ways of disbalancing the piece in front of its author, searching for the perfect way to make the controlled disharmony of its two parts work. Clyne's work is a reflection on changing moods of the night filtered through the poetic perception of two poets: Charles Baudelaire (‘Harmonie du soir’ from ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’) and a one-line poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez that is describing music as ‘a naked woman running mad through the pure night’. It is interesting that Clyne took works of the poets that explore the synthesis of arts: Baudelaire had his own unique vision of it reflected in ‘Correspondances’ from the same collection. The composer also explores the combination of poetry, vision, smells and music in her short 12-minute piece. The association with Verlaine’s poetry and its Saturnian dances also comes to mind on hearing Clyne’s work. The piece itself was very unpredictable, changeable as though it was indeed somebody’s nightmare. It changed moods abruptly in the middle, moving from Jiménez’s ‘madness’ that seemed like a flight from a night garden to Baudelairian melancholy dancing through sweet, soft and feminine sounds. as though a new dream has suddenly replaced the previous one in a person’s head. It starts fiercely and leads the listener demandingly with it, and then suddenly leaves us in a completely different place (may be a garden, may be a lake, may be a non-substantial cloud of dream) and dissipates there. It is this contrasting, unanticipated dissolution of a built-up climax midway through the piece, that leaves the most impact on the listener of Clyne’s ‘The Midnight Hour’.
The next piece gave an example of what music, particularly when interpreted by a particular kind of a performer, could also do. It was capable of revealing a map of inside workings of the brain and soul, with the introvert turns on this path reaching their most pronounced, almost shriekingly unbearable, but inescapably mind-changing forms through the lense of the vision of a talented musician. Vilde Frang, the leading Norwegian violinist of today, who has won a 2016 Gramophone Award for her recording of Britten concerto, was performing it live with BBCSO on that evening, making it the culmination of the night. Never before I had seen the soloist changing the atmosphere of the whole place so effectively and dominantly as Frang did during her performance. Earlier on in the season, when she performed the Beethoven Violin concerto with Esa-Pekka Salonen and LA Philharmonic, she was likened to a mermaid by the critic Mark Swed, and one could see why. In her long yellow-cream dress billowing over her lean body, she was poised as a single unit with her violin, with her back to Sakari Oramo, and almost always with her eyes closed. She was immersed Britten’s violin concerto as one would during the skillful operation on the brain or another process that involved a concentrated movement inside a substance (an underwater journey, perhaps, if one stays with the metaphor this performer calls for). And Frang was indeed bravely searching her way through Britten’s concerto that required different techniques and explored changes of rhythms so sudden and so assymetrical that one could envision it as an exploration of some planet’s surface. The parallel came to mind because of the sometimes dense and sometimes very puristic and almost empty textures of the concerto, leaving us almost alone with the soloist and giving the orchestra a secondary role in weaving together the atmosphere of the piece. Oramo patiently, but expertly opened the space needed for this unusual and daring performer and never allowed the BBCSO Orchestra to overpower Frang or take the lead in informing her what to do with the sound. She always knew it first and remained silent, engrossed in her vision for almost a minute after the last sound escaped from her violin. It was a very unique and modern musical exploration that could not have been so effective if it was not also for Britten’s music, that was praised for its genuine novelty at the time it was first performed in the late 1930s.
The final piece, while not directly informed by a young composer or a young performer, somehow suddenly sounded less impressive or vital under Oramo’s supervision. After his triumphant interpretation of Sybelius symphonies cycle during this winter one expected the same dynamics from Beethoven Symphony No.6, especially since it dealt with representations of nature and its landscapes in music. But somehow Oramo was too soft and too reflective in leading BBCSO through this final piece of the concert, and one felt he could not find the single thread that could bring the symphony together, especially since the piece itself lacks the usual Beethoven’s climactic points and overall vitality. Still, the symphony was interesting in its evocation of the link that was explored in the piece by Clyne – the perception of natural phenomena by a human mind and its reflection in music. Strauss’s ‘Alpine Symphony’ achieves the same effect but probably with much stronger force and lasting effect, and somehow it was only a very delicate replication of birds chirping (indicated by Beethoven in the score lines for particular instruments), the tempest movement and the final country dance that stood in mind after Oramo’s interpretation.
Sakari Oramo and Vilde Frang
London Symphony Orchestra/François-Xavier Roth, Barbican Hall, 25 March 2018
A completely different dynamic of the evening was present at the concert of London Symphony Orchestra guided by François-Xavier Roth on Sunday 25 March 2018. The programme, however, interestingly enough, had similarities with the one chosen by BBCSO and Oramo, and this point made them in my mind a good ground for comparison. The evening explored influences of Claude Debussy on other composers and combined the works of Pierre Boulez (probably a tribute to his birthday the next day), Béla Bartók, a world premiere by Ewan Campbell, and Stravinsky’s and Debussy’s orchestral pieces. Similarly to the previous concert, this evening included a new piece by a young composer, and this piece also powerfully reflected human perception of nature. Cambpell’s piece was called ‘Frail Skies’ and in its intention it linked the visualisation of volatility and beauty of the sky with uncertainties of the times and changeable views of people. Similarly to ‘The Midnight Hour’ by Clyne, Campbell’s piece also had a climax in the middle and a sudden change to a very different, tender, ephemeral state afterwards. Campbell exquisitely built up the atmosphere of the gloom gathering above in the skies, with tam-tams from both sides of the orchestra creating an intense enclosure that was to be raptured by nature’s movements. The gulls’ cries were introduced into the orchestra’s texture with such naturalism that I could not believe I was sitting in a concert hall. The overall emotional tension that Campbell was capable of evoking in his work, its sudden resolution to a new, quieter atmosphere that was still full of innuendos and uncertainties was so modern in its persuasive, powerful and simple structure, so close to the psychological state of a modern human being that it felt that music can really do wonders in finding its paths of connecting inner and outer modalities of our existence in the world.
François-Xavier Roth and LSO
With Campbell's piece opening the second part of the evening, the first part of this concert somehow connected in my mind with Vilde Frang’s performance of Britten’s violin concerto in BBCSO/Oramo evening. This part featured ‘Livre pour cordes’ by Pierre Boulez (1968, revised by the author in 1988) and a Violin Concerto No.2 (1937-1938) by Béla Bartók, with soloist being Renaud Capuçon who has just recorded two Bartók’s concertos with LSO conducted by Roth. Although Bartók’s piece is very different from Britten’s, coincidentally it had been written at the same nervous pre-war period of the late 1930s. Also Capuçon, quite similarly to Frang, was also establishing his own strong presence in the Barbican, creating a completely different, almost wild and fanatical atmosphere, where he and the conductor were much more attuned to each other, as though having amounted the same fantastical horse carriage and drawing it further and further through the hills. The Bartók’s concerto was as contrasting in its rhythms and variativeness as Britten’s, but it had the ferocity that made it hard to compare it with exploration of human brain. Rather it was an unbalanced, ferocious, almost careless, but always articulate spree through the unknown recesses of human soul. Before Capuçon’s performance I was rarely aware of how much personal energy can a soloist infuse the concerto with, and was fascinated to see how it was increased in geometrical proportion through orchestral participation in the violinist’s almost reckless, and yet so perfect, journey. When compared to Capuçon’s appearance, a piece by Boulez was much more ‘seche’, intellectually structured, but, interestingly enough, in the sounds produced by four soloists (as initially it was Livre Pour Quatour – Book for Quartet) there was the same mix of lyricism combined with fragmentedness, a combination of bareness and exuberance that Roth’s programming it with Bartók seemed almost inescapable, as if Boulez’s piece was a later reflection (or dialogue with) on the Hungarian composer’s work.
The evening of LSO/Roth, in comparison to that of BBCSO/Oramo, never lost its impetus, and finished with masterpieces from Stravinsky and Debussy - the composer of the day, as it was centenary of his death on 25 March 2018. Here Stravinsky’s piece seemed like a preparation for Roth in his mastery of the orchestral forces before him to deliver a climax of the evening – Debussy’s ‘La Mer’. Both pieces, interestingly, corresponded to the second part of BBCSO/Oramo concert in their strong invocation of natural imagery through music, and again asked for parallels. In Stravinsky’s piece 'Le Chant du Rossignol' it is to the flautist Gareth Davies (nightingale solos) and trumpetist Gerald Ruddock (fisherman’s song) that Roth gave power to shine among the invocations of Chinese royal court’s atmosphere created by Stravinsky very much in Mussorgsky’s or Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairytale style (one was also reminded of Ilya Repin’s paintings of the late 19th century period). In conducting Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ (1903-05) that was the culmination of the evening, Roth went to some unbelievable personal summits as a conductor, introducting quite a different sea experience from the one that could be experienced earlier on when Philharmonia orchestra played this piece under Pablo Heras-Casado. Under Roth, ‘La Mer’ has suddenly acquired the intensity of colours through daring changes of sound dynamics that he introduced into Debussy’s score. It was not only about the ever-changing character of the sea and its fluid atmoshere and moods, it was not only painting through music (an association that could come to mind when one speaks of Debussy). In LSO and Roth's intrepretation, Debussy's piece was a unique, multi-membered sea-animal that was shaping itself from droplets of water, sea steam and froth, and building its muscles from tension of multiple layers in the score that, as has been remarked, create almost a 3D feeling in listeners' minds. Under Roth's guidance on that night the sea monstre breathed and rose, fought and lived, with nature suddenly becoming physically human and present in the music hall as a living creature.
‘Half Six Fix’ concert – LSO/Roth, 28 March 2018
François-Xavier Roth during 'Half Six Fix' presentations
And if the impressions from ‘Debussy and Beyond’ concert on 25 March 2018 were not enough, LSO had another instalment of their ‘Half Six Fix’ series on 28 March, featuring two works from Sunday concert – Stravinsky’s ‘Le Chant du Rossignol’ and Debussy’s ‘La Mer’. This new format of concerts lasts only an hour, allows the audiences to follow programme notes through a special EnCue application, and also features video projections of musicians while they are playing the piece. François-Xavier Roth was a perfect emcee during this concert, with his presentations for each work being not less fascinating than the actual works. The rapport he established with the public was extraordinary – he praised the Frenchmen and French music, ironically mentioned their lack of symphonic work only to explain it by their love of everything strange and original, dwelled on the connections between Stravinsky and Debussy and innocuously inserted Stravinsky’s work into French musical tradition without us noticing. He talked about how both works were perceived, and highlighted their similarity here: both were shadowed by their more famous predecessors (‘Rite of Spring’ for Stravinsky and ‘Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune’ pour Debussy), with composers having to defend their right to write new original works against public expectations. Roth also sang a song from the 1960s – Charles Trénet’s ‘La mer, on va danser’, putting everybody in exactly the right mood by taking away our reverence of classical masterpieces and replacing it by the sense of familiarity, expectaton, genuine interest in these works. His explanation of each section also helped: Roth told us the fairytale for ‘Rossignol’, drew our attention to musical parts of the story and even let LSO musicans play particular lines that the listeners should pay attention to. He made the same with Debussy: showed how the work shows the sea’s procession during the day, mentioned the fact that cymbales and glockenspiel were given solo parts for the first time in musical history, and told a joke about Erik Satie saying that ‘there is a nice musical line around 11am’ in 'La Mer'. One surely went home with the wish to know more about both pieces, and inspired and thrilled by the LSO’s second rendition of these marvellous works under Roth’s supervision. It seemed a perfect way to make music closer to audiences and to prime their minds for its understanding, and hopefully these series will continue.
‘Pour le piano’. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Deboussy, Milton Court, 25 March 2018
The third concert stands apart from the other two in its intention, format and programme. However, it preceding the concert of London Symphony Orchestra on 25 March 2018, and also having the same focus on interconnections between inner and outer elements of the world that music could express, it was linked in my mind to the same line of though about the role of music and the way to understand it. The programme presented by a French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet ran in an intimate setting of Milton Court concert hall and proceeded with three instalments of Debussy's piano music, chronologically starting with such early pieces as 'Ballade slave' (1890), 'Nocturne' (1892) and 'Tarantelle styrienne' (1890) and continuing through 'Images oubliées' (1894), 'Suite bergamasque' (1890) and 'Images' (1901-05) to 'Préludes', Books 1 and 2 (1910-1913)and ‘Études’ (1915). The most interesting part of the evening was for me continuous involvement of the performer in the discussion with Barbican classical music programmer Paul Keane who stepped in to replace the Debussy specialist Roger Nichols.
This was a wonderful chance to see how a composer’s mind worked – interpreted by a performer who had to understand small details of Debussy’s thinking while working on his pieces. Bavouzet never used much reverence when talking about the works he was playing. No, for him it was a mind at work, and he was trying to understand his connections with other composers (even hidden, occasional, not obvious), his influences, his jokes inside the actual works and the specifics of Debussy’s piano music both for a pianist and for a listener. Bavouzet jokingly showed us how Wagnerian ‘Tristan’ chords were hidden in some of Debussy’s works and then later in one of the etudes explained how Debussy ironically used Czerny’s simple exercises and had fun with one of them. He also mentioned that many of the titles for the préludes were in fact provisional – put in the end of the score and in brackets, so the visual imagery of, say, ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’, or ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ is never certain, always dependent on the performer’s interpretation and should not limit us in perception of the work. Bavouzet also talked about a quite famous association of Debussy’s work with impressionism in music and said that the composer itself would have denied such connections, the movement having bloomed two decades earlier than his works, but Debussy’s work, the pianist said, is undeniably atmospheric and never possible to grasp intellectually. In comparison to Ravel, whom, as Bavouzet insisted, one should in no way put in one line with Debussy, one never knows what is going on in Debussy’s music, one never understands it, and that causes us again to try the synergy of our senses to experience it. Bavouzet also put Debussy in a context of future perception by the composers that lived after him, mentioning his encounter with Pierre Boulez and the latter’s considering ‘Arabesque No.1’ as one of the best pieces of music existing in the world (that puts our perception of Boulez in a new light, Bavouzet added).
With my young neighbour (probably a Guildhall student) following the recital on his Ipad Pro, I felt somehow that this music was no longer something distant – it was almost as it was reproduced as a semiotic experience in each of the listener’s minds. It did in the minds of previous listeners, it had its own life in Jean-Efflam’s Bavouzet’s own head and, now, translucently played, with its multiple layers and textures so generously and tenderly revealed to us by the performer, it started its own momentary life in our minds. At some point, in hushed lights of Milton Court, I felt as if the music was half emanating from nowhere in this world and half appearing in my own conscience of its own accord – Bavouzet played it so gently, so sonorously that it became part and parcel of the wooden walls of Milton Court, of my neighbours’ breath and presence, of my own existence and concentration. I don’t think I have lived through the moments of contacts with music more acute and more simple, and more beautiful and overwhelming than this. It happened because through his kind words and musical examples Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made us appropriate Debussy’s music – we were no longer afraid of it, it was not just a collection of classics, it was living, breathing, melodically spreading in time, it was multi-dimensional, and what’s more important – it was having its source in the silences and focus of our own minds. Somehow, with Debussy’s creations now inhabiting our imagination, it was like drinking water from a fountain where Pélleas and Mélisande once met, and then seeing the golden ring disappear in its depths.