Theatre Director Melly Still on the fourth evening of #BRISTOLPROMS:
A packed but comfortably cool dark studio was the venue for Thursday’s opening Proms experience. Jonathan James oozing warmth and generosity, opened a door into the life and times of Schubert as he explored the twists and turns, secrets and surprises of Schubert’s last major work: his almost unbearably beautiful Quintet in C Major. Though little is known of Schubert – he left no diaries and letters – a sense of the man and his experience, indeed a trace of him, remained with us as we meandered our way to the main stage to hear the Sacconi Quartet bring the music alive. Or so I thought.
Sacconi Quartet and Guy Johnston, photography by SWNS
Instead Tom Morris came on stage with cello soloist Guy Johnston and the quartet popped up in the audience grinning diffidently and knowingly. This small act, simple and yet unexpected produced a frisson of delight through the auditorium. Tom asked us all to close our eyes and before long Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic director/mesmerist had transported us to a time and place of significant change in our lives either real or imagined. The player nearest to us was asked to start playing. If the tone and phrase supported or reflected our memory, we were to say ‘Yes’. Joe the smiling Viola player was the memory communicator for our bank of seating: dark major chords seared the stalls and we giggled at a collective sense of being exposed. The musicians returned to the stage and having gathered a sense of … a sense of what… a sense of untold stories, of humanness, they improvised with the material our ‘yeses’ had generated. This simple but mysterious collaboration between several hundred individuals and five musicians was profoundly unifying.
After the interval, a few members of the audience were invited or volunteered to watch from on stage to further the collaboration between audience and performer. This time a third collaborator, Icon Films, were to capture audience expressions as the Quintet was played. To enable this both auditorium and the stage were cast in light with cameras pointed more or less everywhere. My daughter Iris and I were two of a group of around twelve on stage with a camera barely 2 feet from us. In the interval we had fun imagining some ‘what if’ scenarios, what if I fell asleep being the worst and most likely. At one point during the Quintet I closed my eyes, all the better to listen with, and Iris who was I think rendered a little uncomfortably self conscious by the experience pressed me sharply in the ribs. It was an endearing and absurd moment. I wonder if it was captured. There was a screen behind us but I’m not sure if the the audience were relayed live throughout. The programme says the performance will be edited into a film giving a unique perspective on the interaction between audience and musicians. Are our expressions different under the cover of dark I wonder? I know I’m not a very still listener and I think I did curb my reactions on this occasion.
But oh the playing of the Quintet – well it really was almost unbearably beautiful. The experience was enhanced immeasurably by three things: firstly Jonathan James’ insights I’m sure intensified an awareness of the phrasing in constant flux; secondly the special relationship sweetly crafted by Tom Morris between player and punter; and thirdly the proximity to the players. It was a privilege to observe the communication between the players, the tiny glances, the breath and the consummate, visceral involvement of body and instrument. The quintet’s bond, their connectedness was both fragile and ineluctable. There was an almost manic tension but at the same time, a flow, a release. I guess this is what James was talking about when he spoke of contrasts: space and density, light and dark, conflict and harmony. These contrasts are as much in the music, as they are felt in the playing and subsequently experienced by the listener. Are we reliving, or rather are we all being Franz Schubert a tiny bit? There was something magical happening. Some alchemy in the air that night.
Melly’s daughter, twelve-year-old Iris Supple-Still on Schubert’s Quintet in C:
Sacconi Quartet, photography by SWNS
I thought this was absolutely wonderful.
We started off with Jon James giving a great, humorous talk on Schubert’s secrets. He kept you intrigued and his friendly, relaxed approach encouraged people to be engaged and want to know more. It was particularly interesting for me as I didn’t know anything about Schubert beforehand and I felt I learned it in a really great way.
Following from that was a spectacular performance of the String Quintet. In the first half was something extremely unique which I just loved. All five of them were jotted around the theatre – all far away from each other – while we had to think of a memory when a big change occurred in our lives.
The musician closest to you improvised music according to the expression on your faces and your memory. If you thought the music matched the memory you had to say ‘yes’. I really loved that because it made me a part of the music and I felt like I was communicating with it.
After that they all went on stage and did some beautiful improvisation.
In the second half my mum, me and many others got to sit on the stage and be filmed behind the musicians as they performed wonderful music written by Schubert. It was rich, lively, pure, exciting, relaxing, absorbing and just wonderful.
I was quite self conscious by being filmed with a camera directly in front of my face – but I relaxed further into the music.
These musicians are extremely talented and I was entranced by their acoustic skills.
Thank you and congratulations to all the musicians and of course Schubert.
Megan Brand’s thoughts on Day 5:
Sacconi Quartet and Tom Morris, photography by SWNS
“Close your eyes and remember a time when your life was about to change”,
The audience followed Tom Morris’ instructions, and I found myself thinking about the moment I was offered a job in Bristol and decided to move 150 miles in order to accept it. We were invited to say “yes” if the musician nearest to us was accurately representing how we had felt at this transitional moment. Guy Johnston improvised based on what he could read in our faces, and members of the Sacconi Quartet were placed around the auditorium interacting with different sections of the audience.
This experiment was a brilliant way of focusing on the performance ahead, by tuning into an individual melody and internalising it in a way that made it emotionally relevant to each and every person. The first half of the concert finished with a phenomenally accomplished improvisation that built on the various melodies and sounds that had been developed.
The second half was Schubert’s Quintet in C, a piece with which I was very familiar but that I heard in a completely new way: Jon James’ talk had put the quintet into context with some insights into Schubert the man, Tom Morris’ experimental improvisation had attuned my listening, and being inches away from a live performance by the Sacconi Quartet forced me to put the trivialities of life on hold. Perhaps this was to become another transitional moment.