Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Silver Swan, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern

The Clod Ensemble is a somewhat unlikely company moniker for a group that, last night, appeared in the centre of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall like a quorum of angels. This event, tailored nicely to the character of the huge space, saw the seven female singers of the ensemble perform music by Paul Clark after motets by John Smith and William Lawes. The latter adaptation was  embellished with a troupe of dancers in the East half of the hall. We the audience stood at the top of the hall's rake, moving down during the first piece and then splitting into above and below groups to watch the second.

The singing from the ensemble was excellent and the music itself is a pleasant, imitative swirl of melody, a synaesthetic light in the sepulchral darkness of the hall. At first though the acoustic multi-facet of the space creates a disjunct between the performers, the music and the space which is entirely in keeping with the separation of experience and meaning in abstraction in general (similar of course to many art works held in the galleries of the museum itself). To experience this constellation of sensation and symbol in the space at such a strange time (after closing, in the dark) was very special. I also loved the stasis of the singers compared to the ant-like scurrying of the dancers, apparently caught in some sort of modern, post-lapsarian brainlessness as the angelic chorus sympathise but suggest the possibility of comfort and even direction.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Greenwich Early Music Festival

This morning I wandered around the Royal Naval College in Greenwich on the third of three days of the International Early Music Festival and Exhibition. An expo for the period instrument community, there were two rooms full of reproduction instruments from before the 19th century. The chapel and a handful of other spaces are host to demonstrations, masterclasses and concerts.

I had no business there, though I fully expected to bump into colleagues and did (one of them also passing through to teach pupils at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire which has been resident in the College since 2005). Most of all I wanted to get some idea of the atmosphere of an early music trade fair.

Naturally, the event is dominated by instruments. From piccolo recorders to an electric gamba (!) and collection of natural trumpets that looked like a model of the Lloyds Building there's almost anything you might think of were you to be shopping for a baroque ensemble's worth of hardware.

For example, here's a table exhibiting the beautifully decorated body shells of lutes (right).

I came across another colleague rushing to buy an oboe she had tried and liked the previous day. This involved her digging through a table covered in shawms and bagpipes. There are also stalls for music, periodicals and accessories from music stands (daft and expensive) to electronic tuning devices. The stairwell to The Painted Room is choc full of keyboards from spinets to harpsichords. Bows are not short on the ground either.

Today's blue riband events were BBC Radio 3's Early Music Show live lunchtime concert broadcast presented by Lucie Skeaping (which I caught on the train home) and the final evening concert given by the European Union Youth Baroque Orchestra. For a rich but modest festival this is still a collection of events on a significant scale.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Dorothy Annan Murals, Fleet Building, Holborn

This morning I noticed something that has been staring me in the face for fifteen years. These tiled murals are on the side of a former BT building, the Fleet Building, between circuses Ludgate and Holborn. The building has been closed for some while clearly awaiting re-development or demolilshing. It occured to me that that would be a pity as the murals are pungently of their time - 1960, in fact, as a signed tile by the artist, Dorothy Annan testifies.

A little scratching around the internet later and I discover that investment banking giant Goldman Sachs own the Fleet Building but have been stymied in plans to re-develop it because of the listing of the murals as Grade 2 by the DCMS after petition by English Heritage. Whilst it's thoroughly satisfying in the current climate for a banking institution to be tripped up by the work of a little-known artist in conjunction with the DCMS no doubt they will get their way in the end. One hopes that the murals will find a new home elsewhere in the process.

UPDATE: This morning (20/11/12) I walked past the Fleet Building and this was what I saw (right). Clearly work has started on dealing with the murals. Whether they are being cleaned, removed or destroyed I cannot tell. I am pleased that I had an opportunity to see them in situ before this rather serious and exclusive-looking hoarding went up.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Pilgrim's Progress, ENO

Ralph Vaughan-Williams' own Bühnenweihfestspiel, A Pilgrim's Progress is more oratorio than opera. The Passions of Bach -the St. John Passion been fully staged by the company - are evident in the dialogue and the aesthetic bulwark of Nicholas Lehnhoff's tremendous production of Parsifal also hang in the Coliseum in spectral solidarity. Solidarity is what this ascetic (though not necessarily economical) production of Yoshi Oida is about. Set in an anonymous jail the eponymous Pilgrim seems to have been set in isolation from the other inmates. Seems, as his first words prepare us for the extemporal nature of his experience, of the story: 'So I awoke and behold it was a dream'. He recalls the nature of his experiences, whether in the jail or outside in life, prior to his incarceration and these expand - with the help of jail walls constructed of moving set-trucks - to take in the other inmates, who play out the characters in his recollections, or the tropes of Everyman's experience.

One of Oida's fine decisions is to keep the on stage action steady and minimal. The quality of the production is reliant on its singing. Roland Wood in the title role may offer the finest baritone singing I've heard (in patchy attendance!) since Roderick Williams breathed life into Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin three years ago. The almost mandatory production paraphernalia that both big houses in London employ do make a showing here, in the rags that become a megaphoned-monster, which is highly effective. Sue Wilmington's costume designs are similarly pared down and effective... notwithstanding the riotously gaudy Vanity Fair scene, recalling the orgy of the recent Flying Dutchman (or indeed Turandot) on the same stage. This struck me as excessive, given that the production was working on the credibility elastic of the inmates assuming roles - would they really have been able to conjure such an inventory of colour and costume?

Restraint never failed the pit though. Martin Brabbins triumphed with the house orchestra keeping the swollen orchestration held back. The powerfully English sonorities, pastoral-mystic modality and tidal unendlische melodie once again recalls Parsifal but with the conviction and post-war decorousness that sets it apart from Wagner's drama of itinerant faith - or indeed Britten's contemporaneous oratorio on 'the pity of war', the War Requiem, another meditation on the transmigration of souls.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Sweelinck Ensemble, St. Anne's Church, The City

'Built by Sir Christopher Wren and consecrated in 1680' is the proud subtitle of the programme to another in a long-running series of lunchtime concerts housed, hosted and promoted by the Music Society of St. Anne & St. Agnes Church, Gresham Street, in the City of London. These words, a great kitemark of authenticity for such a building in the square mile, also hint at the acoustic properties of the space. A tall, square box, designed (appropriately for a liturgically Lutheran church) after the Nieuwe Kirk in Haarlem in the Netherlands, music-making in the church rings present but with bloom. It is an ideal venue for chamber music concerts, particularly those favoured by the 'house' musicians, The Sweelinck Ensemble, directed by the Cantor (or Church's director of music) Martin Knizia.

In tandem the group and the church have forged a solid reputation for the performance of J.S. Bach. Primarily, this is through the popular series of Bach Vespers in which a cantata by Bach is performed within the liturgy once a month. However, as the name of the group suggests, their repertoire is rather more varied. This event took in the music of Bach's celebrated predecessors Heinrich Schütz and Dieterich Buxtehude as well as less well known German Baroque composers, and all seasoned with a Purcell Trio Sonata.

In the tradition of chorale preludes at Bach Vespers, so Knizia played Heinrich Scheidemann's Praeambulum in G on the main organ. To follow came the first in a series of cantatas featuring soprano Emily Atkinson (right). Schütz's Paratum cor meum, from the Venetian Symphoniae Sacrae I bears the trappings of that city's Baroque stylings, though the group chose to emphasise its polyphonic interplay ahead of its rhetoric.

The first dedicated instrumental work of the programme came with Dietrich Becker's Sonata I (from Musikalische Frühlings-Früchte), Knizia moving from the chamber organ to the harpsichord. This fine piece manipulates the narrow palette with occasional harmonic chicanery, demanding well-tuned playing from the violinists Benjamin Sansom and Philip Yeeles (neither of whom, commendably, was above bending notes to achieve a living, singing line).

Returning to Schütz's Symphoniae Sacrae I (Exaltavit) Atkinson demonstrated a coloratura to match the rigour of the violins, crowned with crystalline sound in alt, a perfect fit to the aforementioned acoustic. To showcase his soloist, Knizia then programmed an intimiate, unavoidably rhetorical work from the compser's Kleine Geistliche Konzert I, O süßer, o freundlicher, a love song to Christ with only Peter McCarthy's violone for company.

A pair of Buxtehude solo cantatas followed, separated by Purcell's Trio Sonata No. 9 'The Golden'. This work seemed to have a conspicuous bounce to its dancing rhythms compared to the more plangent German works of the programme, Sansom playfully delaying the realisation of the strong beat in his leading statements.

Buxtehude BuxWVs 38 & 39 set similar texts, upping the drama from the former to the latter. The group found some real composure in the second cantata's closing stages, taking time to savour the detached episodes of writing (not to mention Atkinson's crisp German).

The experience of fine but fairly niche music-making in this decorously sited City church was highly favourable. The concert - all their lunchtime concerts, and the monthly Bach Vespers service - is free, with tea provided. A retiring collection goes some way to making up the costs of hosting the event and reimbursing the train tickets of the performers (£5 is suggested as a donation, with Gift Aid envelopes provided). On this occasion an audience of around fifty were in attendance, many subscription holders of the Society but with a smattering of suited local workers.