#BRISTOLPROMS: Day 1, Part 2 – Sam Kenyon, Dave Yapp, Megan Brand and Heidi Hinder

Composer Sam Kenyon shares with us his thought on the opening night of #BRISTOLPROMS, from Singing in the Dark, to Jan Lisiecki, and finally Hauschka with Rod Maclachlan:

As a teenager I’d lie in bed at night, turn the light off and listen to music. This gig was heaven to me. Momentarily disappointed when the Consort appeared with jars like fireflies, my heart lifted when, after the opening numbers, they blew them out and all of us shared the same space. An experiment in shades of darkness, the low lighting level removed the distance between performers and audience, leaving us listening in a way all too rare outside adolescents’ bedrooms. The silence before the first applause wasn’t about politesse of hesitation; we relished the quality of the silent dark, the space: this was a moment to honour. Palestrina with a glitterball played a sweet trick – we were put in mind of a disco in a moment of gorgeous antiquity. The Consort moved around and behind, turning away or to face us, shifting our aural perspectives, affecting the way in which we listen: a flexible Consort in the flexible Studio space. Their director, Tom Williams, modestly announced that, when the lights were off, he was of no use. On the contrary: what that man can do with a single intake of breath is worth a masterclass of its own. The absolute ‘highdark’ for me was Stanford’s Sleep: delivered in pitch darkness, the ensemble necessarily word- and pitch-perfect, it was as though they’d all turned up to lullaby, entrance, cajole and, ultimately, soothe the insomniac adolescent in us all.

Just when I thought the evening couldn’t get any better, Jan Lisiecki walked on stage and delivered a performance so nuanced and delicate they ought to rename the instrument the Pianissimo-Fortissimo in his honour. The Bach Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major was like a filigree embroidery – fine, florid, and delivered with exquisite taste. There’s a moment in the second half of the final movement – the Giga – when the melody meanders down the keyboard and then back up from the bass like a lover’s fingers dancing up your spine, leaving us no doubt as to why Bach had so many children: this is music to fall in love to. Tom Morris’s three rules of #BRISTOLPROMS – applaud when you like; bring a drink in, and don’t tell anyone to shush – released us all from needing to behave in a certain way, and Lisiecki was evidently delighted when we applauded the first of Chopin’s Etudes Op. 10. To be honest, it was impossible not to. His bravura technique, coupled with this gorgeous habit of bringing the volume way down, or, equally, way up, depending on his whim, left us reeling with astonishment and delight. Lisiecki – may I call him Jan? – enthusiastically brought out the dance elements of the Etudes – Polonaise; Mazurka; Waltz – even adding a couple of impassioned footstamps along the way, and made me think, out of the blue, that Scott Joplin must have been a Chopin fan. The live-action relay projections, inevitably fractionally behind the beat, behaved like a visual echo, enhancing the space and making me thrilled it’s not only Madonna who gets all the bells and whistles. Two unscheduled pieces parathesised the Etudes Op. 25 – Messiaen’s La Colombe and Chopin’s Nocturne posthumous opus in C# Minor – and with the latter this generous teenage genius bid us goodnight. May he live a long and happy life.

Talking of bells and whistles, Hauschka prepared his piano with – amongst other things – tin foil, ping pong balls, gaffer tape, lenses, ball bearings, cellophane, chopsticks, and a child’s tambourine and toy drum. Like a vocalist, this musician creates his instrument each time he performs, and the opening bars of each improvisation are therefore in some sense *about* the live adjustments he makes, as he gets to know the machine he’s constructed. I was utterly mesmerised by the sounds he created – a pizzicato string orchestra emerged from amongst the rattles and whispers, accompanied by a drum kit; his encore for piano with gaffer tape felt like a distant, melancholic Ragtime refrain. Rod Machlachlan’s video rendering of the preparation and performance felt like a deep-sea dive: rendering the technique comprehensible in no way meddled with the magic of the construction. Aleatoric music, it struck me, is about acceptance: living with – and appreciating – what is. The noise of the rotating lens of one of Maclachlan’s cameras, for example, became part of the gig. Hauschka extracted such diverse and imaginative sounds from the instrument that when, in a coup de theatre, he began to ‘deprepare’ the piano, piece of tin foil by piece of gaffer tape, I found it quite heartbreaking. It was as though he was dramatising the grief of the end of any live performance, like an actor removing his costume and makeup, becoming everyday once more. That the instrument with which we were left was the self-same one on which Lisiecki had delighted us moments before made Hauschka’s musical theatre all the more extraordinary, and all the more exquisitely ephemeral.

Sam Kenyon is a composer and theatre practitioner. www.samuelkenyon.co.uk, twitter: @ogleforth

Composer, sound designer and #BRISTOLPROMS ambassador, Dave Yapp, continues on from his Anticipation blog, to reveal all about Day 1:

It has begun. And what a beginning.

The first night of Bristol Proms was in incredible set of concerts that explored the relationship between sight and sound in a live music situation.

The Box Office was buzzing from quite early on last night and as we all took our seats for the opening concert (The Fitzhardinge Consort) there was an atmosphere that suggested something amazing could happen soon. And it did.

As the choir made their candle-lit procession into the pitch-black Studio, singing the aptly titled plainsong ‘Lumen ad Revelationem’, you felt that maybe you weren’t in the Studio in Bristol in 2013, but rather in a tiny chapel at midnight in 1613. You had limited sensory evidence to prove anything else. They then blew out the candles and sang Palestrina in complete and utter black darkness. If I’d been transported before the darkness, now I felt like I was nowhere. And there was no time. I was immersed in the music. I felt immeasurably more moved by the music in darkness than i would have been in light. Its just a unique experience.

That’s not to say that the choir wouldn’t have affected me anyway. Everything was beautifully sung. The Josquin and Whitacre pieces were particularly fine interpretations. But the darkness (or near darkness for some numbers) made the concert so incredibly uplifting and moving for me. I particularly enjoyed the moments when only conductor Tom Williams was lit. Not only is he a fantastically expressive conductor, but it was like watching a beautiful solo contemporary dance routine. The low light meant that, at times, the image was extremely blurry (which only added to it’s dreamlike or even underwater atmosphere) but it was refreshing for me to hear music that’s normally lost in huge acoustics, performed with crystal clear clarity.

Next, we moved to the glorious Theatre for the awe-inspiring Jan Lisiecki. With lasers. I was standing in the newly uncovered pit right next to the stage and my first thought was, ‘When am I ever going to get the chance to watch this incredible pianist from this close ever again?’ Let’s face it, unless he comes back here, it’s unlikely.

Of course, I wasn’t just up close physically. I was close virtually as well, as the brilliant John Durrant and his BDH team were projecting close-up images behind Jan. I feel that this was probably invaluable for the people in seats but we were so close in the pit that i spent more time looking directly at Jan than at the screen. However, after the interval, the screen images picked up a new pace and I found myself enjoying the celestial beauty of manipulated wire-frame versions of Jan captured with the Kinect apparatus. Interestingly, I thought that the close-up detail of Jan’s fingers would catch my attention more but I found the close-ups of his face much more stunning. This is someone who immerses himself in the music completely and you could see that clearly from the pit.

Chopin is emotionally draining. Fortunately, Jan obviously eats, sleeps and breathes Chopin. Beautiful playing. The Bach and Messiaen were perfect complimentary pieces.

Well that would normally be enough for one night but the Bristol Proms gives you more and the late prom was still to come. I think Hauschka has got quite a following in Bristol. I was lucky enough to see him at the Bristol Jam last year and bought a couple of albums from him in the foyer subsequently. So I knew I was going to like it.

I was not prepared however for the whole new level of visual beauty that was Rod Maclachlan’s genius camera set up. Using his robot arm to get the camera extremely inside Hauschka’s extremely prepared piano we were treated to a beautiful surreal landscape of assorted bits and pieces. I felt like I was travelling through a Dadaist world designed by Duchamp. And it fitted Hauschka’s ‘altered’ piano music perfectly. But Hauschka is not filling his piano with stuff to hide its identity. He’s showing us the potential possibilities for sonic exploration with the most traditional of musical instruments.

So when they both started stripping all of the additional items from the piano, to finish his last piece on an unprepared piano, it felt like they were acknowledging the simple beauty that had inspired all of this innovation. And it was incredibly moving.

Megan Brand offers her viewpoint on opening night, from her unique position as Marketing’s Classical Music champion:

What struck me most during the opening night of Bristol Proms was the absolute reverence shown to the music that was being performed and created. The pitch-darkness during the Fitzhardinge Consort’s performance offered a sense of stillness; everything stopped and there was no choice but to listen to – and feel – the music. The camaraderie that developed between audience and singers was evident, as I found myself willing the singers to overcome the challenges of having their sense of sight completely removed. The Whitacre was an absolute high point, with the sheer volume of sound taking me back to the ringing of Great George earlier in the day, and the drama of watching Tom Williams conduct in dim light gave the performance the necessary theatricality to make it a fitting opening to #BRISTOLPROMS.

Next stop, the Standing Pit in the Theatre. Gazing up at the full auditorium wasn’t quite like looking up at an audience in the Albert Hall: rather than being overwhelmed by sheer quantity of people, I was aware of the fact that I was about to share something amazing in a perfectly intimate space. Welcoming the startlingly young, fresh-faced Jan Lisiecki onto the stage was electric – entirely apart from the digital visualisations that provided a backdrop to the concert – and the exquisitely executed opening notes of Bach’s Partita No. 1 set the tone. Once again, the sense of reverence was humbling, as Lisiecki gave the familiar sounds of Bach and Chopin time to breathe, or, where appropriate, committed his every energy into reaching deep into the resonance of every note, every chord.

Finally, after a quick falafel dash, we returned to a slightly less civilised Standing Pit for a concert which, I’ll be honest, I thought would make me angry. Prepared piano is something that I have always seen as unnecessary (why tamper with the most beautiful musical instrument every created?) but this evening I was wholeheartedly converted. Hauschka made sounds on the graciously submissive Yahama grand that made the universe feel just a little bit more vast. The visuals projected by Rob Maclachan laid bare the completely random selection of materials that had been strategically placed on the strings, which, as well as being fascinating to watch, was oddly humorous when tiny silver bells began bouncing around on the inner workings of this beautiful instrument. After marvelling at the programming genius of a classically trained pianist followed by this extraordinary innovator, I realised that what I would have previously seen as sacrilegious was perhaps the most heartfelt tribute to piano-playing imaginable. As Hauschka gently stripped down the piano’s strings to reveal it’s unadulterated sound, its beauty was more evident than ever.

Heidi Hinder shares her take on Jan Lisiecki, from the live screening at Watershed:

Whichever way you looked at it, it was genius – quite literally, from every angle.  Part of the first ever #BRISTOLPROMS, this first night event, was also a series of ‘firsts’ for everyone involved. And it was the first time a live cinema screening has left me speechless with admiration and wonder.

As the Polish-Canadian prodigy, Jan Lisiecki, played a grand piano on stage at Bristol Old Vic to a packed Theatre with a cheering audience, across the harbour in Watershed’s cinema, the performance was streamed live, in black and white footage from multiple camera angles, each one intensely close up. Simultaneously, we watched Jan’s fingers on the keys, his feet on the pedals, the deep concentration on his face. Sometimes the camera view jumped and rocked from inside the piano as Chopin’s Etudes reached a frenzied crescendo; sometimes beads of sweat dripped onto the floor. On-screen, and in the background, dynamic graphics edged the cinematic version of Jan’s performance, occasionally mapping the motion of the pianist’s body in a 3D polygon pattern, as he swayed to the music he created. The digital geniuses at BDH had collaborated with Lisiecki’s musical genius, to produce something truly phenomenal.

To find out more about #BRISTOLPROMS, click here.

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