Theatre Director and Bristol Old Vic Associate Melly Still shares with us her thoughts on The Fitzhardinge Consort’s Singing in the Dark, the opening performance of #BRISTOLPROMS:
Well there isn’t a broom cupboard not available to performer and audience at Bristol Old Vic. Trust Tom and Emma to create this fiesta. I have never witnessed the Old Vic so available and generous and packed beyond packed. As if notice of a student party had gone viral. It was lovely, thrilling, frantic and Tom Morrisish. I was made giddy by the atmosphere. Still am. A bit nervous about thick, black darkness to begin with but perhaps only because I allowed myself – for fun – to succumb to the hype preceding the event (Like velvet. Like chocolate. Like deep dark water.) “Well its not total blackness”, Adrian (Sutton, dear friend composer of the beatific curtain call) corrected me. I was a bit disappointed by the thought – I’d imagined the thrill of chocolate darkness and silence broken by an exquisite surrounding sound. In the event, I happily yielded to the candle glow offered by the singers as they entered from off. Not a fruity cathedral sound, but an intimate voice, a sense of no way out, you’re here for the duration. Imperceptibly (almost) bone vibrating, a feeling that the insides – organ and soul – were getting a workout, a sort of scraping clean. So much so that I was glad of the darkness to free up the odd tear.
What were the highlights? Well after a few minutes there was proper can’t see your hand in front of your face darkness and Tom Williams conducting, admitted he continued to conduct though no one could see him. He was brilliant. His occasional comedic anecdotes, both self effacing and enlightening, added context and a thoughtful interruption. Gesualdo, composer of Tristis set Anima Mea, he told us, murdered his wife, her lover and his son. This insight seemed to add a macabre focus to the song, as phrases erupted madly and then froze like a sharp intake of breath. Later, a teeny ghostly glow seeped out of the darkness to reveal, centre stage, a ghostly floating score and the flesh of Williams’ disembodied forearms and wispy fingers dancing in space, as if they were flicking notes magically into the arena. It was really rather beautiful. The total blackness does offer intensified receptivity and as a result relaxation: in time I abandoned myself to the total privacy of the experience and opened my eyes to find myself slumped like a drunk over my knees but feeling suddenly exposed – tricked almost – by the sudden appearance of a glitter ball. Interesting choice, odd I think. Sleep by Whitacre (composer attending) is an anthem for insomniacs, a joy, a relief, a witty song to keep away demons, a song that challenges death, rather furiously. And then yields. Incredible. As was the aforementioned curtain call: Sutton’s specially commissioned anthem for Bristol Old Vic. Until Sutton’s piece, I was wondering, with a degree of atheist self pity and regret… does it really take overwhelming faith in god to produce such sublime music? In a timely repost, Sutton’s anthem closed with the reassuring words “we live in your imagination and dance in your dreams.”
Melly Still is a Theatre Director and associate of Bristol Old Vic. This week she is collaborating with playwright Fin Kennedy and Bristol Old Vic Young Company with a view to developing ‘The Raft of Medusa’ by Georg Kaiser for Bristol Old Vic. In October Melly will begin rehearsals for ‘From Morning to Midnight’, also by Georg Kaiser (1912), and adapted by Dennis Kelly at the National Theatre (opens November 2013 Lyttleton Stage)
Melly’s daughter Iris Supple-Still, shares with us her insight:
My name is Iris Supple-Still and I am twelve years old. I am staying in Bristol for a week doing a workshop, along with other children, on The Raft of The Medusa – led by my mum Melly Still.
Tonight she took me to see Singing in the Dark in Bristol Old Vic Studio. To me, this piece was a collaboration of beautiful harmonies, extraordinary vocals and moving classical music. It was brilliant. As the clear a capella went on, I felt I could close my eyes and absorb every note – although closing my eyes wasn’t needed in most cases! It sent me into my thoughts but stayed a part of me as well.
The singer’s were extremely impressive, along with the conductor and composers of the pieces – who created such beautiful sounds and layers of music that just vacuumed the audience up in its excellence. The conductor’s actions were very powerful and clear – it kind of felt as if he was conducting me with the such fluent, yet chunky, movements. On top of that his humour brought a great feel to the show, contrasting well with the dark songs.
Extending on the vocals, I was blown away by the ability of range, power and purity the singers had in their voices. If the notes were animated I could just imagine pristine, sparkling lines completely straight, coming from everywhere, pelting around the room.
However I felt that the pieces lacked originality. They were all incredible, but I didn’t get a sense of uniqueness. Everything sounded fairly similar and for me that didn’t keep me as interested and absorbed as I wound have liked to be. Other than that it was brilliant.
My favourite piece was the piece at the very end. For me it was most unpredictable and exciting. It was unique with humour in the lyrics as well, yet keeping the classical music a main part of it. Something new was always occurring and it had different parts and layers that complimented really well. It was bubbly, absorbing and really had its own character. It was last – but definitely not least!
Overall I thought the show was superb. Thank you so much for the show and congratulations to all the composers, singers and the conductor – you are all extremely talented!!!
Conductor Jonathon James on the excitement of #BRISTOLPROMS opening night:
What a great way to start a hi-tech, multi-media week: plunge your audience into darkness and tease the ears with the naked voice. No hidden cameras, no special effects, just some Renaissance polyphony in beautiful deep blackness. It was such a treat to engage with the sound intimately in this way, and the simple choreography of voices moving in and out of the shadows worked so well. Tom Williams and his choir, the Fitzhardinge Consirt, are to be congratulated on pulling off a singularly difficult feat of ensemble singing blind, relying on a breath for cues, and blending their voices to fit each new acoustic configuration. as bass Ed Davies remarked afterwards: “I’m exhausted. That has to be the hardest gig I’ve ever done!” The choir took on a challenging survey of a capella music from the late 1500s to the present day, including modern classics by Eric Whitacre (his ‘Sleep’ being so effective in the moody half-light) and finishing with the flowing lines and lush harmonies of Adrian Sutton’s piece, commissioned especially for Bristol Old Vic’s newly furbished theatre.
Standing in the pit of the Theatre before the 7.30pm show there was a real buzz in the air, with excited chat and beers clutched protectively to the chest as laser lines cut the space above our heads into neat triangles. Would there be fireworks? A Jean Michel Jarre bonanza, with strobes and psychedelic rainbows? The grand piano was surrounded by gadgets and strange cameras, as of it were about to be operated on. When Jan Lisiecki strode onto the stage to enthusiastic whoops from the audience, he looked every bit the young prodigy, with a hairstyle that suggested he could easily launch into a set of best hits by One Direction. He chose Bach, thankfully. His youthfulness carried in to the Partita, bringing out its playfulness and lightness of step. It was a sparkling appetiser for the fuller course of Chopin to come: twenty-four highly technical signature studies, each dispatched with verve and thrilling attack when required. He seemed amazingly unperturbed by the extra scrutiny of the cameras, spectral images and live cinema feed. The lasers were unleashed in the Chopin again, but with restraint. This was not going to be a gaudy son-et-lumiere, but something altogether more respectful, where both the music and the performer got the limelight. The only thing that spangles on stage were Jan’s spotted socks.
Glancing round the audience there was a pleasing mix of young and old, of suits and hoodies. A couple of students in the pit were bopping gently to a Chopin etude; some stared at the floor, lost in the music, and others were transfixed by the monochrome graphics on screen. It was an exciting start to a week that could make a huge impact on Bristol for summers to come.
Jonathan James is a music educator, conductor and writer. www.jonathanpjames.com
Bristol Old Vic’s ‘Made in Bristol’ graduate Alistair Debling offers his view on the late night shows:
My experience of #BRISTOLPROMS began with A View From All Angles – a concert which brought together two technical challenges. The first of these challenges was offered by an intricate and complex programme of piano music. The Bach Paritia and Chopin Etudes were both designed to provide the most gifted and enthusiastic pianists with a test of their skill and dexterity. The young musician, Jan Lisiecki, certainly stepped up to the task in hand – his tremendous virtuosity lit up the auditorium as he played through each with care and charisma. The next technical trial was dealt with by BDH, who created equally complex and impressive visuals to accompany Lisiecki’s performance. With multiple cameras the team captured the pianist from every angle, multiplying him on a projected screen as well as streaming the performance live to the Watershed cinema. Coolly coloured lasers shone from the back of the theatre, reaching into the audience along with the elegant cadences of Bach and Chopin. Lisiecki concluded the concert with a simply spellbinding encore as he sent us back out into the evening with a Nocturne from Chopin.
Later, as I returned to the theatre for the second piano concert of the night, I knew I was in for something completely different. Although I had never heard any of Hauschka’s music, the programme entry, which promised “a fusion of the club with the concert hall”, had me very excited indeed. It turns out I was right to be. Hauschka uses a prepared piano – a piano whose strings have been laden with bottle caps, chains of beads, bubble wrap and tin foil, to name just a few of the household objects that manipulate the sound of the piano in order to create synth-like timbres and drum kit effects. This thrillingly defamiliarised instrument gives birth to minimalist rhythms, haunting chord progressions as the pianist’s dynamic improvisations unfold. Meanwhile, we are given a glimpse of the prepared piano at work thanks to Rod Maclachlan’s micro-camera, which delves into the depths of the instrument. The multiple warped lenses used create wonderfully abstracted snapshots of the seemingly chaotic, yet perfectly harmonious infrastructure that Hauschka has created and take the experience of his pulsing music to a whole new level of sensation. I am very happy to have left the theatre with one of Hauschka’s records. If there is one lesson I will take away from his masterclass in cool and Chopin’s devilish studies it is this: start practicing the piano more!
Alistair Debling is a graduate of Bristol Old Vic’s Made in Bristol programme and is currently studying at Harvard University on the USA. He was worked with the Young Company for a number of years as a freelance Musical Director and recent credits include ‘The Grandfathers’ (Bristol Old Vic, National Theatre), ‘I Would Not’ (Bristol Old Vic, National Theatre) and ‘Jason and Medea’ (Bristol Old Vic, National Student Drama Festival, International Youth Arts Festival).
Last but not least, the viewpoint of composer Adrian Sutton:
I can’t speak for every composer. But for me, one of the most exhilarating things is hearing – and seeing – something I’ve written come to life through the mind and body of a top performer in front of an audience.
And the parallels with theatre are striking: a playwright is a composer, and actors are her musicians.
So it’s no surprise that Bristol Old Vic, especially as it’s headed by Tom Morris, should choose to bring a uniquely theatrical slant on the performance of classical music in the form of #BRISTOLPROMS, which opened last night.
That theatricality was evident from the off: the Fitzhardinge Consort, a 16-strong mixed choral ensemble, gave us ‘Singing in the Dark’ – a programme of unaccompanied vocal material delivered largely in complete blackout, and often spatially dispersed around the room – no easy task for the singers or the director, who were having to perform much from memory as a result – but had the marvellous effect of bathing us in a disembodied, shifting vocal world that was moving and uplifting. The balance of material over more than an hour felt too favoured towards long sacred works such as the Palestrina Mass, which were written for reverberant churches and with little deviation from a continuous (and in this context, notably undramatic) web of smooth polyphony. But that apart – a splendid opening concert.
The astoundingly-talented Jan Lisiecki’s piano recital of Bach and Chopin was enhanced by lasers, video and computer-generated graphics driven by cameras on the pianist. These elements didn’t change or develop over the course of the recital, but it would be great to see this idea investigated further, as it has a real potential to supercharge highly-dramatic material like this – especially some of the stormier Chopin preludes that Lisiecki delivered with searing gestures and a sharpness of phrasing you could cut your fingers on.
In all – a great start to an exciting new venture, and I’m looking forward to next year already.
Adrian Sutton’s recent scores for theatre include those of ‘War Horse’, ‘Coram Boy’ and most recently ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’. He is currently working on ‘The Griffin and the Grail’, a children’s concert opera.
For more information about #BRISTOLPROMS, click here.