With car horns, clashing instruments and frantic rushes of sound, the Danish composer's works provoke as much mirth as wonder. Is that his intention?
Two years ago a short piece by the Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was performed in London's Kings Place concert hall. Plateaux pour Deux is scored for two instruments: a cello and a set of car horns. As the cellist bowed her eloquent riffs and the percussionist honked on his squeeze bulbs, two members of the audience began to titter. The titter became a laugh. And the laugh became a guffaw.
The more those audience members tried to contain their mirth, the more prominent and hilarious those noises became. Suddenly everyone in the room had no choice but to think hard on what the music they were hearing was trying to do and to consider whether or not the performance could continue with its integrity (or even its fabric) intact. If you've ever been to a self-regarding concert of avant-garde music, you might appreciate just how refreshing that sudden, new atmosphere was.
As I've became more and more absorbed by Holmgreen's music over the last few years, I've often considered how much I'd like to tell him what happened in that London performance – and road-test my theory that he would, in fact, feel more affinity with the gigglers than with the po-faced academics.
On Sunday, the London Sinfonietta are dedicating a concert to the 81-year-old composer with the London premieres of seven of his new works.
Last week I went to Copenhagen to meet him. I'd heard much of his antics over the years, and have lost count of the number of times I've watched this brilliant video of him dancing to his own music. He is an irresistible figure, full of life – part child, part madcap inventor, part jungle adventurer.
"That sounds wonderful, that sounds good," he said when I recounted the Plateaux story. "Nobody knowing what to do … well, that's fine. In Denmark people have been laughing, and they have scolded me too. They think [Plateaux] is a stupid idea, and it is. But I think it's OK – it develops, it has a story."
Once you've got past the obvious absurdity of the sounds, Plateaux's story is fascinating and touching. It also offers an insight into what so much of Holmgreen's music does: combining two entirely incompatible elements – one purposefully banal – and bashing them against each other with delicacy and eloquence until something emerges, a third element born through a sort of primeval, physical counterpoint.
Holmgreen would surely balk at that bloated description. A new CD of the music due to be performed this weekend has a probing booklet note by doyen of contemporary music analysis Paul Griffiths, which talks of Holmgreen's piece Run in terms of arpeggios, tensions, pulsating flickerings and harmonic directions. Holmgreen says simply: "It's a man running. Maybe he's a man in a condition, who has to run. He is being whipped to run. I think actually he's a fat man. Yes: it's a fat guy running."
Childlike enchantment is all over Holmgreen's music, not least the three-part set Song, Play and Company (also part of the Sinfonietta concert) in which Company consists simply of Song and Play performed over the top of one another. That's a canny trick, and one Holmgreen has pulled before in his Percussion Concerto. Denmark is used to this stuff and the totally individual, Cage-like manner - "sound" without the trappings associated with "music" - in which Holmgreen works. But the UK isn't. "I think they [London Sinfonietta] were a little afraid of being in bad company in the beginning," he says. "The bad manners [in my music] were not easy for them and I did have a suspicion that they would find my music too naïve, too clumsy."
Which brings us neatly back to Plateaux, a beautiful piece in a sometimes clumsy skin. In Company, as in Plateaux, something emerges from the chaos of the unlikely combination: in this case, the simple beauty of John Dowland's song Flow my Tears (which was probably written in Denmark). "The elements are in opposition but they become accustomed to one another and they come to a fragile beauty," says Holmgreen. "It's like real life," he adds, looking towards the Kai Nielsen sculptures in Blågårds Plads. "Out there, the most impossible creatures are together all the time … a little bird and an elephant." Or, perhaps, a cello and a car horn.
• The Sinfonietta celebrate Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's music in a concert at the Purcell Room on 2 March at 6pm. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen will be in conversation in an event that preceeds the concert.
He's a pianist without a piano, a composer reluctant to compose. Tim Jonze finds Harold Budd unable to explain how he ended up the godfather of ambient
It's a strange thing for anyone to say, but from a renowned composer it's especially baffling. "I'm not much of a music fan," says Harold Budd towards the end of a warm, engaging if occasionally mystifying conversation. "I just don't listen to music – at all!" Even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the 77-year-old doesn't even own his favoured instrument: a piano. "I think they're ugly things," he chuckles. "Architecturally speaking, and in other ways. So to actually live with a piano? Well, that would really insult my aesthetic sense."
There are other ways in which the American composer, over a career spanning several decades, has trodden his own path. His early compositions embraced 1960s minimalism, yet he soon felt so trapped by the movement's conceptualism it caused him to (temporarily) retire. He helped pioneer ambient music with Brian Eno in the early 1980s, yet has little regard for the tag – or tags in general. "I just have utterly no interest in that sort of thing," he sighs. And despite his highbrow credentials (Budd has composed for string quartets, choirs and even penned an extended gong solo), he has devoted much of his career to collaborating with British pop stars, from Cocteau Twins to Jah Wobble.
To confuse things further, Budd cites not music but visual art (in particular, the abstract expressionists Mark Tobey and Jackson Pollock) as his chief inspiration, although the notion that he's somehow immune to the thrill of music isn't true. As a teenager, he fell in love with the electrifying sound of bebop and went on to play drums for saxophonist Albert Ayler's band while serving in the army. "I wanted to be the world's greatest jazz drummer," he says. "And I failed at that!"
Budd hadn't wanted to join the army. "I was drafted. Plucked from life, which is what happens when you're very, very poor." Although the prospect of army life terrified him – "I felt for sure I would die" – it turned out to be a godsend. "I realised that if I didn't go out and get an education I would remain a dumb person all my life," he says. "It was also the first time that I was introduced to new places to live, different aspects of society. At the time, I lived in a black ghetto in LA and black culture was really the only outside culture I had ever confronted. I liked it very much, but I'm not black so I knew I would never fit in."
So Budd studied architecture then music – much to the bafflement of his family. Hearing John Cage deliver his lecture Where Are We Going And What Are We Doing? opened his ears to a new way of thinking and, in 1970, he recorded The Oak Of The Golden Dreams, a minimalist drone piece that arose from his experimentations with a Buchla synthesiser. Yet Budd found himself resenting the "academic pyrotechnics" at the heart of the avant-garde community and gave up composing altogether, before deciding to channel his anger into a reaction against everything he had previously learned.
In 1972, he wrote Madrigals of the Rose Angel which, with its harps, chimes and female choir, favoured surface beauty and emotional pull over theoretical framework. It caught the attention of Eno, who eventually recorded it, as part of The Pavilion of Dreams, Budd's landmark 1978 album. "The Pavilion of Dreams erased my past," says Budd. "I consider that to be the birth of myself as a serious artist. It was like my magna carta."
Budd's inspiration was once again visual art, in particular the work of the Pre-Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. "I have to admit to you that part of that was political," he says, with a hint of mischief. "Because it was a regard for a kind of art that was completely disengaged from all serious art at the time."
Working with Eno changed Budd's life. "I owe Brian everything," he says, "But the primary thing was attitude. Absolute bravery to go in any direction. I once read an essay by the painter Robert Motherwell and he pointed out a truth that is so obvious and simple that it's overlooked: 'Art without risk is not art.' I agree with that profoundly. Take a flyer – and if it fails don't let it crush you. It's just a failure. Who cares?"
Eno and Budd were soon hailed as the godfathers of ambient thanks to collaborations such as 1980's Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror and 1984's The Pearl. Budd embarked on collaborations with other British artists: John Foxx, Andy Partridge, David Sylvian. "I couldn't get arrested in America," he says. "But as soon as I landed in Britain, I was taken seriously as an artist. What a change from just a few hours earlier!"
His work with the "wonderful" Cocteau Twins was a highlight: together they made the mesmerising 1986 album, The Moon and the Melodies, while his more recent collaborations with the group's Robin Guthrie have produced woozy instrumental magic such as How Distant Your Heart. Budd praises singer-songwriter Liz Fraser for her way with a title, something he's also adept at: take Flowered Knife Shadows, or his new double-CD retrospective, Wind In Lonely Fences, which allows you to enjoy his back catalogue before you've even listened to it.
Budd, though full of admiration for all of his British collaborators, struggles when it comes to describing his own music. "I'm not very good at self-analysis," he says. "I should explore my own feelings more." In fact, throughout the interview, he apologises for not knowing how to answer certain questions. When I wonder if the lack of instruments in his house in South Pasadena, California, is due to an appreciation of silence, he says that it never crossed his mind before. Asked what he does when the sudden urge to play hits him, something you imagine must strike all musicians, he stumbles: "But I ... but I don't get the urge to play!"
He does, however, tell me something that reveals much about his unique approach to music. In 2012, he released Bandits of Stature, an album of cinematic works for string quartet. As he tells me about the recording sessions, his voice starts to waver. "My wife, who was also the mother of my 13-year-old son, passed away a year and a half ago," he says. "I wrote a lot of that music when she was still alive. And so it was extremely painful to revisit that place."
Last year, Budd completed a year-long project writing music for videos made by his friend the artist Jane Maru, in which he'd enter the studio with no preparation – no notes or even ideas – and record whatever he came up with that day. "Whatever I did was mixed and pressed, without it ever having to be revisited," he says, his voice brightening. "I had to use every ounce of everything I had. And I loved the process, oh I loved it! It was a definite reacquaintance with my old self, which I hadn't realised I missed so much. Oh my god, was I grateful!"
Such enthusiasm seems at odds with the idea of Budd not being a music fan, but it does make a sort of sense. I suggest that this may be what sets him apart from the average listener: that he feels music more intensely, so can't put himself through such highs and lows each day. "I never really thought about that," he says, chuckling again, as if baffled by the sheer mystery of himself. "But you know, it's a very good point. I think I'm going to take that as gospel."
Harold Budd's Wind In Lonely Fences 1970-2011 is out now.
Barbican, LondonHuw Watkins' Flute Concerto, written for the extraordinary Adam Walker, is a virtuosic rollercoaster ride
Dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado and conducted by his former assistant Daniel Harding, the LSO's last London concert before its tour of China, South Korea and India opened with the world premiere of Huw Watkins' Flute Concerto, written for the orchestra's principal flautist Adam Walker. It's a neo-classical work in some respects, laid out along traditional lines with a central andante flanked by two allegros, the first broadly following sonata form, the second a sparky rondo, albeit with a low-key ending. There are echoes of Brahms in Watkins' use of the ceaseless transformation of cell-like figurations in the opening movement. The scoring, meanwhile, has an appealing Elgarian warmth.
It's also, however, a rollercoaster ride from beginning to end, thanks to the formidable demands Watkins places on Walker and the latter's extraordinary ability to surmount them. Flute and orchestra play in tandem for the first two movements. Walker is given little respite until the rondo, and even here the difficulty of the solo writing is immense. The first movement's continuous flow takes him to the limits of his technique. The curving lines of the andante require exemplary breath control and subtleties of phrasing. Walker, playing with staggering virtuosity and charm, kept the audience on the edge of their seats throughout, and brought the house down at the end.
After the interval, Walker took his regular place in the orchestra for Mahler's First Symphony, coolly appraised by Harding until he reached the finale, which he launched with such violence that we were completely knocked off balance. Up to that point everything had been super-subtle, from the gradual erosion of the pastoral calm of the opening, to the elegiac mockery of the funeral march. Thereafter, visceral emotion predominated until we reached the exhilarating conclusion. Not the most coherent interpretation, perhaps, but unquestionably hair-raising.
Royal Festival Hall, LondonVadim Repin's performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was relaxed, if a little loose, while the orchestra shone in Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony
Part of the exchange programme UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014, this Southbank appearance by the long-established Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio under its artistic director for four decades, Vladimir Fedoseyev, brought together works by two giants of Russian music.
Tchaikovsky's popular Violin Concerto formed the first half, featuring soloist Vadim Repin. He gave a relaxed account of the piece, though one that was less than impeccable: some of the passagework needed tighter rhythmic control and there were moments of suspect intonation. Overall, it felt as if this interpretation had seen better days, even if the spirit of the piece came across – the languid melancholy of the slow movement, for instance, or the open-air ebullience of the finale. Fedoseyev proved a supportive accompanist in an account that benefited from a warm palette of orchestral colours.
Even so, the performance of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony in the second half was in a different league. The piece is conceived on a Mahlerian scale of epic tragedy, shot through – again in a way that inescapably brings the great Austrian symphonist to mind – with the grotesque and the darkly humorous. Here the playing possessed depth and weight, bringing an appropriate grandeur to one of the composer's most ambitious structures that was maintained throughout its hour-long span. Ranging from the baleful to the bizarre via the bold and the brazen, the orchestra's characteristic Russian tone colours were extraordinarily apt.
By way of an encore, Fedoseyev and his musicians offered a favourite moment from an English classic: Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations. It was scarcely the most idiomatic account, but it was touchingly delivered and went down extremely well with the audience.
Don't consign Saint-Saëns's organ symphony to the orchestral glue-factory for knackered thoroughbreds. This was a cutting-edge - and gloriously tuneful - work.• All articles in this series
"I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Thus spake Camille Saint-Saëns about his C minor Symphony, "avec orgue" (with organ), the third and last of his symphonies, and one of the crowning glories of his prodigious life in music. This week, I make a plea that we take the Organ Symphony seriously as one of the late 19th century's most significant and technically sophisticated orchestral works. And also of course that we enjoy its remarkable concatenation of tunes, colours, and kaleidoscopic thematic invention that have made the symphony so popular ever since its premiere in London's St James's Hall in 1886, when Saint-Saëns himself conducted the orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society, who had commissioned the piece.
It's all too easy to think of the Organ Symphony as a perennial symphonic pot-boiler, one of those knackered ex-thoroughbred warhorses of the repertoire whose every appearance on concert programmes is another stage in its consignment to the orchestral glue-factory. It doesn't help that the Big Tune of the last movement is one of the most used and abused motifs of classical music history, in everything from Disney's Babe movies to it being adopted as the national anthem of the micro-nation of Atlantium, a postage-stamp-sized potential principality in Eastern Australia. Its over-familiarity means it's hard to recognise the real achievement of this symphony which fused what were genuinely cutting-edge innovations with Saint-Saëns's inherently classical, conventional (with a small "c") instincts. So forget what you might think you know about this symphony, and prepare to re-hear the rafinesse, joie de vivre, and technical coup-d'orchestre of arguably Saint-Saëns's greatest single composition.
First off, what we're dealing with here is something almost without precedent in 19th century symphonic practice: a piece cast in two movements. OK, the work also encloses the archetypes of a classic four-movement pattern within its two halves, but in the first half Saint-Saëns elides the end of the C minor Allegro moderato with the slow movement that follows, a Poco Adagio in a thrillingly unconventional D flat major, a startling semitonal shift away from the home key. And, in the second half, he changes gear from the scherzo-like music that opens this section to the massive, shocking intervention of the introduction to the chorale-like Big Tune itself at the start of the final movement.
Saint-Saëns further reconfigured the basic outlines of the 19th century's symphonic masterplan with his use of keyboards as part of the orchestral panoply. And he didn't just use an organ - which makes its quietly dramatic entrance at the start of the slow movement - but a piano as well, which needs two players to get to grips with the virtuosic figuration Saint-Saëns composed for it: listen to the glittering carillon of sound these four pianistic hands conjure around the main theme of the finale, one of the most satisfying moments in the whole symphony. But as well as the by turns gigantic and intimate soundworlds Saint-Saëns makes his orchestra produce (compare the organ's first entry to the thrilling, bombastic sonic coronation it gives to the symphony's final bars), you need to listen out for the way the whole piece prepares and prefigures that (in)famous melody, and what Saint-Saëns then does with it.
That's how the piece achieves its real ambition, which is to employ the progressive ideas of thematic transformation that Liszt had pioneered earlier in the century (the piece was subsequently dedicated to Liszt, who died a couple of months after the premiere), and makes them work not as part of a programmatic narrative, but as the engine of an abstract, symphonic discourse. The strings' tremulous and ominous figuration at the start of the allegro, after the symphony's short, mysterious introduction (itself full of symphonic premonitions, only realised much later in the piece), becomes a teasing ear-worm the first time you hear it. Expressively speaking, in terms of how Saint-Saëns dramatises and orchestrates them, they're at the opposite end of the expressive spectrum, and in different modalities too, but if you compare the outline of this tune to the Grande Mélodie, you can't fail to spot the connection.
There's more symbiosis between the scherzo's main melody and the crowning chorale. The scherzo section is a kind of gigantic upbeat to the finale - fragments of its melody are disguised, transformed, and finally revealed. The slow movement's Poco adagio does, crucially, introduce the gentle, lowering presence of the organ as a key character in the work's drama, and it also acts as a moment of visionary repose in the middle of the sounds and furies around it.
There's something else, too. In the finale's coda, after a showily effective fugue - Saint-Saëns manages to do something in the symphony that it would take Sibelius to top. He warps time and space - the Theme of Themes is sped up so much that time seems to slow down. Capped by the organ's thunderous bass-line - playing notes that the human ear can only just "hear", but which you should feel in the hall as more like primordial vibrations - the effect is both a masterstroke of time-melting symphonism, and an irresistibly joyous coda to the technical glories of this piece.
I have the image, at the end of the symphony, of the concert hall being miraculously lifted off the ground and held aloft by the combined efforts of all those pipes and all that air; all that counterpoint and all that time-stretching speeding up and slowing down; all that scraping and blowing, and all those keyboards. The whole work is a magnificent and fantastical symphonic machine that's an apotheosis of the orchestral technology of the late 19th century. In other words: the Organ Symphony is the definitive steampunk symphony.
All stentorian yet sensual performances of Saint-Saëns's masterpiece; I've always had a soft spot for Myung-Whun Chung's elegantly earth-shaking performance, but find out which you prefer!
Orchestre de l'Opéra Bastille/Myung-Whun Chung
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/James Levine
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
Concert pianist who, with her son, survived two years in Terezín concentration camp
Alice Herz-Sommer, who has died aged 110, was a concert pianist of distinction whose career was blighted by nazism. In 1943 she was imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp, near Prague, with her six-year-old son, Raphael, and was one of the very few survivors – in part because she was a musician. What she did in the camp and subsequently, recorded in a book and in two films I made with her, We Want the Light (2004) and Everything is a Present (2010), made her famous in many parts of the world and won her a treasured place in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people.
She was born in Prague, one of five children, including a twin sister, of Friedrich and Sofie Herz, and was known as Gigi (hard "gs") from the age of five – for reasons which she could not remember. She liked the name and it seemed to generate affection for her wherever she went. At the age of six she began learning the piano, and by her teens was teaching and performing as a pianist. Her father owned a factory for producing weights and scales but lost everything in the first world war. The family consequently suffered the most severe deprivation – "and so we realised, as little children, what is war."
In 1931 Alice married Leopold Sommer, an amateur violinist. She said that she was bowled over by his compendious knowledge of art and music. Their marriage was a happy one and they had a son whom they called Stephan, later changed to Raphael. "But I was always ugly," she said. "My twin sister was very beautiful. We understood each other perfectly and we loved each other very much but she was a pessimist and so she died at 74. If you are a pessimist the whole organism is in a tension all the time."
Alice was separated from her husband in Terezín and he later died of typhus in Dachau concentration camp, Germany, six weeks before the end of the war. A friend kept his spoon and later gave it to Alice. She cherished it until her last day.
In Terezín, she played more than 100 concerts and wondered perpetually at the power of music in those unimaginable circumstances – something truly extraordinary that brought both performers and listeners a sense of being close to the divine – and something that she had not experienced before. After the liberation of the camp, Alice emigrated to Israel, where she built a happy career performing in concerts, teaching and giving radio recitals.
A fair percentage of her pupils remained in affectionate contact with her until the end of her life.
Raphael became a virtuoso cellist and, in 1986, Alice moved to London to be with her son who, in addition to his solo career, held teaching posts in London and Manchester. He died in 2001 at the age of 64. One wonders what impact having so little to eat during his sixth and seventh years might have had on his health. One of her techniques for coming to terms with the loss was to thank nature for sparing her son the pain of declining years as a cellist.
Her book, Ein Garten Eden inmitten der Hölle (A Garden of Eden in Hell, 2006), based on her experiences, written with Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki following hundreds of hours of interviews and phone conversations, has been published in seven languages.
When Alice was 98, she became the star of We Want the Light, produced by my company Allegro Films, which won four international prizes – in large measure because of her. We collaborated again on Everything is a Present, which also won four prizes, once again because of her wisdom, her charm, her gravitas and the depth of her perceptions. The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (2013), a documentary about her life directed by Malcolm Clarke, has been nominated in the best documentary short category in this year's Academy Awards.
Alice lived alone in a small flat in London. For years, she swam every day and attended philosophy classes three days each week – walking to both. She attributed her longevity to two things: her optimism and music. "The life of a musician is a privilege. Of this I am sure, because, from the morning to the evening and from the evening to the morning, the musician is occupied with the most beautiful thing coming from mankind – music."
Asked what she had learned in her long life, she would reply: "To know the difference between what is important and what is not important." Her optimism was tempered by only one thing: "I am an optimist in all things except one. People don't learn, they don't learn."
Alice is survived by two grandsons, David and Ariel Sommer.
• Alice Herz-Sommer, pianist, born 26 November 1903; died 23 February 2014
Cellist’s latest publicly-shared numbers reveal 92% of her income still comes from sales rather than streams. By Stuart Dredge
Assembly Rooms, BathConductor and violinist Richard Tognetti's instinct for the natural ebb and flow of works written for the Dresden court orchestra made for an outstanding performance
Under August the Strong, the court of Dresden boasted the finest orchestral ensemble in 18th-century Europe, and the music written for them is enduring testimony. The ensemble was led by the best virtuoso violinists of the age, so who better to invoke that heady aura than Richard Tognetti, whose leadership makes the Australian Chamber Orchestra the crack ensemble it is today.
Tognetti's name sits comfortably alongside the likes of Torelli, Veracini and Vivaldi, whose influence was core to the Dresden aesthetic and, in terms of technique, he is up there in the highest league. In this Bath Bachfest concert, interest also focused on his debut as guest director of the Academy of Ancient Music, baroque specialists in their own right.
The vibrantly physical dynamic of Tognetti's playing was immediately apparent in the fire and drive of the Vivaldi concerto in D major RV 562 for violin, two oboes, two horns and bassoon, where the AAM musicians were urged to bring a defining rhythmic thrust to balance the darkly chromatic figurations. In the Concerto Grosso No 1 in E flat major, by Johann Georg Pisandel – Dresden's presiding virtuoso and champion of Vivaldi – the violin's solo lines were delivered with rich flourish, which the AAM strings then emulated in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G major BWV 1048, while investing the finale with a dancing lightness. Bach's Concerto in D major for three violins after BWV 1064 again carried great intensity.
The extraordinary tonal colour of Tognetti's Guarneri del Gesù, which he played with a conventional bow, set him apart from the more subdued sound of those around him with their shorter, more curved, baroque-style bows. But the Australian's instinct for the music's natural ebb and flow found him dropping right back into the texture and drawing beautifully projected solos from his fellow musicians.
Barbican, LondonThe UK premiere of Bruno Mantovani's Concerto for Two Pianos felt overly percussive in character and amorphous in shape
Bruno Mantovani, who turns 40 this year, is the director of the Paris Conservatoire, a position that has been held by numerous notable French musicians, if not necessarily many of the country's greatest composers. A recent addition to his already sizable output, his Concerto for Two Pianos received its UK premiere in this BBC Symphony Orchestra programme under Fabien Gabel, with its original soloists François-Frédéric Guy and Varduhi Yeritsyan.
It's a substantial piece in one movement, often densely scored for large orchestra and using a dynamic range that holds regularly to the noisier end of the spectrum. Mantovani has described the appeal of using two pianos as consisting in the possibility of confronting an instrument he already sees as orchestral in scope, and which he here deploys in duplicate, with a full symphonic mass, thus offering "an infinity of sonic schemes". Yet curiously the two pianos rarely seem independent of one another in terms of their material: trills, repeated notes and jabbing gestures proliferate in both. Despite a committed performance from soloists, conductor and orchestra, the result felt overly percussive in character and amorphous in shape, the quality of its ideas scarcely matching the ambition of its structure.
Earlier, Gabel had led a shimmering account of Ernest Chausson's rarely performed symphonic poem Soir de Fête, which attempts to depict the distant sounds of a crowd against the calmness and serenity of the night. Its perspectives were beautifully realised in a performance that suggested its neglect is unjustified. Even Debussy's masterly Nocturnes, which followed after the interval, and could boast the seductive involvement of the female voices of the BBC Singers in Sirènes, failed to dislodge the positive impression it made, while Beethoven's Eighth Symphony ended the programme in an interpretation that was boisterous but never heavy-handed.
English National Opera hired a music video director to mastermind the filming of their first live opera broadcast. Did it work? Kate Molleson watched from Glasgow's Cineworld
"The movie starts at about twenty past," says the guy at the box office, authoritatively. "Just a bunch of adverts until then." We ascend the eight flights of escalators, stock up on pick'n'mix and arrive at Screen 8 of Cineworld Glasgow with a couple of minutes to spare before 3pm. The feed to London's Coliseum is already up and running. It's a bit glitchy: definitely live, not adverts. The cameras pan across the well-heeled audience taking their seats, the orchestra tuning up and the chorus chattering in the wings. Bang on the hour the house lights in London dim – ours take a few minutes to follow suit – and we're off, plunged into the seething tensions of 1940s small-town Suffolk. A trickle of mis-informed advert-averse viewers wander in at twenty past, the cinema is a little over half full.
English National Opera's new venture into live-screened opera has attracted industry hype for several reasons. It was less than two years ago that ENO's artistic director John Berry claimed not to be interested in such endeavours: they don't create new audiences, he said, and "putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work". The company explained their about-face in December by announcing a fresh take on screened opera, promising rock 'n' roll camera angles, HD hyper-realism and a degree of intimacy and immersion that existing screenings from, say, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne or the Met don't tend to offer.
The hype also comes down to the production itself. David Alden's rendering of Britten's Peter Grimes is among the finest productions of any opera to come out of London in recent years. Its stark emotional power is overwhelming in the theatre. Whether it can translate to the screen will be a real test of what the opera-in-cinema format can deliver.
ENO has hired Andy Morahan to mastermind the filming. The director has previously shot music videos for Guns N' Roses and Michael Jackson, and he goes in for multiple camera angles, ultra-bright lights, plenty of movement and extreme close-ups. We see every muscle movement in the singers' faces. Detailed studies of Elza van den Heever's tongue and Stuart Skelton's breathing technique will provide invaluable teaching material for young opera singers for years to come.
The cameras never sit still, always zooming this way or that. A funny thing happens when the frame flits between singers but the sound doesn't follow: we end up watching, say, Ned Keene's mouth or a close-up of the Nieces while listening to the voice of Mrs Sedley. Sometimes the cameras switch to the chorus perspective and suddenly we're looking out into the audience like a performer – to me an unwelcome reality jolt. During the orchestral interludes the frame cuts from stage to pit, revealing bassoonists' embouchures and violists' bowing arms in rare anatomical detail. Conductor Edward Gardner is subjected to a recurring close-up of the back of his hairline, clean-cut and beaded with sweat.
I can see what Morahan is going for: something vivid and dynamic that immerses you in the action with dimensions that wouldn't be possible in live theatre. There's no question that the cast can handle the close camera work, and that their facial expressions deserve the attention – the acting is outstanding down to the last chorus member. It's a treat, too, to witness the ferocious energy of the ENO orchestra during the interludes. In busy crowd scenes the camera navigates its way insightfully to pick out details we might have missed in the fray. It makes for frenetic watching: sometimes rewarding, but hard to sink into and a bit try-hard.
Early in Act I the live stream cut out and a groan goes up. "All that posh technology was never going to hold out," sighs the chap behind me. After five minutes of a blank screen we're reconnected to London (apparently this was a problem Glasgow's end, although complaints on the #ENOGrimes twitter feed reveal that other cinemas also suffered from occasional temporary technical problems - not least lack of sound and lack of subtitles) and nobody seems too bothered. Given the ticket price - £17.90 - it's a remarkably accepting audience.
By the second interval, reactions to the filming style seem to be mixed. One woman says the restless cameras are making her feel nauseous. Another says she's enjoying the close-ups of the orchestra: "it's about time opera orchestras got more credit", she says, and besides, she recognises one of the cellists. A gentleman says he'd rather not see opera singers' faces in quite so much detail – "singing does not exactly flatter the features". Several take issue with the interval feature, a frothy behind-the-scenes documentary that introduces the cast, crew, Gardner, even Gardner's toddler son. "Just because we're at the cinema, why do they think we need constant filler entertainment forced down our throats?" one man complains. "It really shattered the spell."
But by the end everyone seems agreed on the fundamentals: that the production is monumental, that Skelton is staggeringly good as Grimes and van den Heever heartbreaking as Ellen Orford. Iain Paterson gets a fond cheer for being a Glaswegian as well as a terrific Balstrode. Perhaps Morahan's cameras would do better to sit still, perhaps the glaring stage lights could be softened a little. But some of the production's power, at least, has reached this high-rise multiplex. No, it wasn't as powerful as seeing the real thing, live. But living 400-odd miles north of the Coliseum, personally I'm grateful to ENO for taking the plunge.
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