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Journeys of memory: Adès, Barry and Stravinsky

London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Thomas Adès, 11 April 2018, Royal Festival Hall

The programme of yet another concert in London Philharmonic Orchestra’s ‘Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journeys’ was one of the most fascinating in the series and may be in the whole season at Southbank Centre. The renowned composer Thomas Adès was conducting his own orchestral suite ‘Powder Her Face’ that was receiving its UK premiere, a new Organ Concerto by Gerald Barry (receiving its London premiere) and an exquisite theatrical treat – the melodrama ‘Perséphone’ by Igor Stravinsky.

It is only in London that one could get a luxury of two premieres of large works by two living composers with both of them being present – one (Gerald Barry) sitting in the audience after giving an insights talk into his career and compositional approach and another in the conductor’s box. One gets the sense of immediacy of contemporary musical creation and the excitement to be there when composers present their works to the public. Such evenings indeed become historical events in retrospect, as the premieres pass, while the works begin the journeys of their own through the concert halls of the world. It is interesting in this respect that the whole evening was dedicated to the theme of passing time and recollection, and memory of the past that could lead us to death and life at once.

Thomas Adès, jumping youthfully onto the podium, presented his own work, the Powder Her Face Suite (2017) that was a result of joint comission from six European and American organisations and was a reworking of orchestral music for his own opera ‘Powder her Face’ that was first performed in 1995. Some further sections have been added to it, and it was the first chance for London audiences to hear it. The suite (as well as the opera) centers on an elderly Duchess (the prototype was the Duchess of Argyll) who continiously remembers different events in her personal life that include quite extravagant events (wedding, chase for paper evidence, eviction from the hotel). The events remind one very much of Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ and the music sometimes stylistically resembles the score for the film in its quotations from 20th century tangos and melodies, while also incorporating the very modern sounding madness of a rushing mind. The disturbed memory collage of an old lady’s conscience is represented with fantastical clarity by Adès (one indeed could visualize such characters as a hotel manager, a maid an an electrician represented by instruments from the windwood section). One could also sense the rhythms of the chase and the run, and the general distortion (sudden stops and recaps) of a mind that looses the picture and interprets its differently from the vantage point of recollection, only to be engrossed in another vivid memory again. The composer Adès did an extraordinary job by combining the representation of the moving pictures (almost as if we were watching a film) with bravely and inventively delving into rhythmical representation of the workings of the disturbed memory. The time and the mental clock here were indeed working, but showing their own time, almost like in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The conductor Adès was agile in indicating where each of the instruments should take the lead or suddenly go silent only to produce the series of new sounds again, and turned and pointed to different sections of the orchestra, never losing sense of the general arch of the piece that was running and spreading almost against the alloted time. A wonderful, colourful treat from the composer/conductor Adès and the LPO!

The second piece was the Organ Concerto (2018) by Gerald Barry which was an intimate exploration of the composer’s own memories of attending the church in his childhood (the village of Clarecastle in the western Ireland) and playing the organ in Ennis Cathedral (Ireland), in Haarlem (Amsterdam), Dublin and Cologne. Other objects and living creatures that inspired the composer were the metronomes (reminding him of a pyramid shape in Egypt) and a cat Blue Gadoo that was fighting ‘for atonality against tonality’ and was also represented in the final work. A famous organist Thomas Trotter was the soloist in the piece and probably representing the composer himself. In a way, the concerto took a lot of Proustian qualities, with the soloist representing the creator himself and the dearest memories of the author incorporated into the score, with the author not being afraid of sudden silences and voids and structural assymetries. The metronomes passage was particularly effective – the organist started one in complete silence and then other 20 musicans followed, and the time suddenly acquired real physical qualities – its production was happening here and now, like in certain modern installations of art. Then the solo on a harmonium moved us back to nostalgic memories, from which we were extorted by new, unusual sounds by the orchestra. Overall, it was a piece one needed to live through individually, so subjective and idiosyncratic was the musical pallette and the overall structure that everyone was plunged into quite a different experience of this Organ concerto. Thomas Trotter was very organic (if the pun is allowed) here, never dominating the orchestra, but joining in this memorial to the past. The unity of the soloist and the orchestra was especially visible in the last passage, where the hymn ‘Humiliated and Insulted’ was played, with brass section gaining special attention here. Adès was extremely good in changing the mental register and tempo of his conducting, while applying the extraordinary versatility of instrumental colours and dynamics that was characteristic of his piece to Gerald Barry’s work.

After the interval the delights of the evening continued as it was Stravinsky’s melodrama Perséphone (1934) that was presented by the magnificently large number of artists joining London Philharmonic Orchestra. London Philharmonic Choir divided its forces between left (women) and right (men), while in the middle were set white-clad Trinity Boys Choir (who have just shined in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at English National Opera) and are about to sing at RFH again on Sunday. The tenor Toby Spence was vocally relating the story to us, while a wonderful and beautiful Kristin Scott Thomas (in a gorgeous yellow dress) was reading for Perséphone (in French, the second native language for the actress). The libretto by André Gide is extremely poetic: it is the story of Perséphone abducted from the care of Nymphs and picking the narcissus, descending into the underworld to meet Pluto, her husband under the earth who adopted a child Demoophon but who will become Triptolemus on earth (and whom Perséphone will marry in her earthly life on her return). Perséphone emerges, reborn from the earth like Aphrodite from sea froth and reflects on her future fate in sharing two worlds at once. The subject matter stylistically is neo-classicist and somehow reminds one of Wilde’s ‘Salomé’, but has a completely different mood and intention – it is as lyrical as Debussy’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ and as poetic as Boticelli’s paintings.

The libretto and the resulting melodrama has many visual images iconographically characteristic of renaissance art (pomegranate, flowers, rebirth, descent into undeworld), and that was probably very close to Stravinsky’s heart as he loved to explore such ritualistic, primeval scenes imbued by modern musical vision he brought into it. The piece sounded extremely poetical and light, almost shimmering in its ethereal beauty, in a way Stravinsky expressed his very characteristic feature – being almost not himself while still being recognizable. Here, although woodwind sections, harps and celestes had their solos, it is to human voices that the listeners pays most attention, as they are interspersed in their succession through the piece – the female chorus, the tenor (Spence), later the male chorus and in the final parts the boy chorus all interact in their presentation of the story (almost like in Bach’s Masses), while Perséphone (impersonated by a tender, mystical voice of Scott-Thomas) relates her own story (again, somehow Salomé with her sincerity and cruel straightforwardness comes to mind, paradoxically). Scott-Thomas in her dress of rich yellow hue was herself like a Madonna with pomegranate from a Boticelli painting – her presence made one move back both to Greece and to Renaissance at the same time. It was an extraordinary, uplifting evening of three absolute treasures uniting our different senses and capacities of perception, and bringing us to three various times in the past through our imagination ignited by music from three composers –a truly unforgettable jewel from LPO!

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