#BRISTOLPROMS: Day 5, Part 1 – Emma Rice, Jonathan James, Melly Still

Emma Rice shares her thoughts on Nicola Benedetti and In A Town, performing on the fifth evening of #BRISTOLPROMS:

Nicola Benedetti, photography by SWNS

‘The planet is still vibrating from the Big Bang’ we were told before the music began. Now, there’s a thought! I have always avoided musings on such an epic level, finding domestic comfort in the contours of a face rather than gazing out to the vastness of the unknown. Yet, in this evening with Nicola Benedetti, we were treated to both the vastness of the universe and the intimacy of what it is to be human. As Nicola played, swarms of energy fields were projected; bees and frogspawn, stars and sperm were all suggested as her vibrations reached beyond her body and made her almost merge with the planet. But the real ‘big bang’ was yet to come…. The Tchaikovsky Trio sent me spinning through time, space and emotion. One of the most moving and intense pieces ever to tumble from the human spirit was smack bang there in front of me, around me and in me. At the front of the mosh pit, gazing up at the faces of the players, I vibrated with the emotion of these incredible performers. The grief of Tchaikovsky channelled through the incredible 17th century instruments, resonated deep and strong. I forgot that my legs ached. I remembered friends and loves that I have lost and felt the hands of others reach through the centuries and say ‘you are not alone’. Bang. Big time.

The evening continued with In A Town. What a surprising, British, melancholy and affecting experience. A song cycle, inhabited and owned by a stage of the most gloriously unaffected performers I have seen. Simple, true and defiant, they sang of simple hopes and fears and wove visual and musical magic with meaning. A high point was when the torches, rather like tiny light houses, flashed at us. As the company hummed and surrounded us, the torches seemed to be saying something…. ‘Join in’ they were inscribing in the air. I did. We did. Gentle and unforced. A community was born.

Emma Rice is Joint Artistic Director of Kneehigh Theatre Company. http://www.kneehigh.co.uk/

Jonathan James’ thoughts on Nicola Benedetti, the morning after:

Nicola Benedetti, Leonard Elschenbroich and Alexei Grynyuk, photography by SWNS

And then his string broke.

The cellist’s that is, right before launching into the final throes of Tchaikovsky’s piano trio.  Normally this would spell a tense moment, a ripple of hushed nervous chatter in the audience as everybody hopes there is a spare string that can be fitted and tuned quickly.  For Bristol Old Vic’s audience last night, however, it was a welcome opportunity to chat with Nicola Benedetti about her violin.  She obliged with a smile and was utterly charming before disappearing off stage to check on the cellist. The pianist shifted uncomfortably on his chair.  Should he fill the gap with a party piece on the piano? No, as it turned out. With an apologetic half-smile, he too shuffled off.  Which left the page turner blinking in the limelight.  Faced with an expectant audience he hesitated and then, with perfect comic timing, sat down at the piano, managing to squeeze in the first four bars of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata before being ushered back into place by the trio. We all loved it. This was pure theatre, spontaneous and delightful, and a perfect testimony to the relaxed relationship between performers and audience that has characterised this special week so far.

Earlier in the first half, another glitch had set off a similar happy sequence of events. The houselights had come up and everybody duly started the interval dash to the bar. Only there was another piece yet to go, so a rather bemused Benedetti came on, pleading with much good humour for people to return to their seats. It allowed for another connection with her, a different conversation to the well-worn lecture format. 

I’ve just come back from a very stimulating panel discussion on the relationship between the Dance Spectroscopy visuals and the music in that programme. The conclusion was that there was some beautiful artistry on display, but that a lot more time in preparation would have been needed to bring out a more meaningful, interactive relationship between performer and screen. When the music spoke of dance, the visuals seemed most in harmony, a firework display to augment the virtuoso pirotechnics on the violin. The brooding, melancholic Tchaikovsky did not make the right partner, however, with psychedelic lava-lamp effects curiously at odds with music that often spoke of darkness and tragedy. Imagine here Freud in a tutu, cigar in one hand and a box of smarties in the other. With more conversation and different programming, this could be the stand-out technological partnering in years to come. The seeds yesterday were definitely there, but the evening’s magic and our connection to the performers came – as it happened – through random mishap and snapped strings rather than by design. And of course, through their terrific, passionate playing.

Jonathan James is a music educator, conductor and writer. www.jonathanpjames.com

Melly Still’s thoughts on Day 5:

Nicola Benedetti, photography by SWNS

Tom’s introduction, now familiar to most I guess, elicited an almost bawdy response from the Friday night crowd. Everyone was relaxed and up for it. Whatever the ‘it’ was going to be. Physicist David Glowacki strolled on as louche and un British as you like to explain today’s collaboration between dance room Spectroscopy and virtuosic violinist Nicola Benedetti. By the fourth sentence I was hearing *&!@^*&%£+****_> (no reflection on Glowacki who was excellent) and I’d drifted into reading body language which was easier but, as it turned out, this was in fact the focus of the collaboration. Benedetti’s movements, while playing, were to be captured using real time 3D imaging techniques, fed into a computer, transformed into energy fields and used to guide an atomic simulation visualised on screen for the audience (I just read the programme notes). I find the detail of this, which I’d only fail to outline now, both fascinating and unfathomable. I intend to spend some time at www.danceroom-spec.com. It was brilliant because the visual output was determined by the presence, the very being of the remarkable Benedetti. I overheard so many whispers of her beauty and joy and down to earthness. Whatever the technology (utterly remarkable in itself) was doing, it had the effect of somehow sketching her soul onto the screen. The first piece by Bach generated tiny shooting stars morphing into ants, ink blots, jelly fish, tadpoles that swam sometimes with purpose and at other times drifted or disintegrated. Tiny arrows seemed to soften or bend and tie themselves in knots that morphed into a scribbled sense of her form. In the second pieces by Paganini her big godlike shadow had tiny amoebas dancing to her tune and in the third piece by Ysaÿe she was visualised as a forest ghost forming and evaporating like flocks of starlings as she plucked and picked furiously at the strings. Sometimes the speed of her playing would freeze on the screen and be smothered by millions of stars. It was as if the mysterious unseen (but felt) impact of her virtuosity on the universe was being represented. Well maybe there is no ‘as if’.

In the second half she was joined by her close friends and fellow musicians Leonard Elsenbroich (cello) and Alexei Grynyuk (piano) for three movements of Tchaikovsky’s piano Trio in A minor. The imagery began discreetly as if distant cells were intrigued by the moving and plaintive opening passages. Gradually the cells expanded in colour and size, becoming increasingly psychedelic, like a Brigid Riley painting stuck in a bubble. Sometimes the players were transformed intojelly like forms or splinters of ice. Never still, never resolved. It was endlessly fascinating and amorphous. It sounds invasive but I’m not sure that it was. I find myself writing more about it than the music because it was so striking in its endeavour. In the event I found that I could easily zone out or allow the imagery to recede, perhaps because it was a record of energy abstracted directly from the energy on the stage.

Part way into the finale, one of the cellist’s string snapped. Everyone loves a drama. As Elsenbroich left the stage to restring, the ever warm and upbeat Benedetti started chatting to the audience about her violin, a Stradivarius made in 1717. The audience gasped. It was on loan to her as there was no way she could afford one. The cello apparently was 70 years older than her violin. How could this be? Another spontaneous audience gasp. Its quite a thing that: several hundred people gasping as one. Benedetti confessed that she had refused to allow the cellist to change string A when they were rehearsing earlier, so feeling responsible she left the stage to see what was happening. The pianist followed, leaving the page turner alone and exposed on stage. Something about the innocence of his face and his playfully pained expression acknowledging the incongruity of the situation, had the audience in stitches. With a spontaneity clowns dream of he diffidently looked about him and then back at the audience, in other words, shall I have a pop? Is this my big moment? Cheers and roars from the crowds. Sadly he only managed a few chords. It was as good as any Morcambe and Wise sketch, only unrehearsed. A gem of a moment. The musicians returned to resume the finale, a piece almost like a serenade to begin with. I listened to it with eyes closed as the serenade twisted into struggle and grief. The end was almost a relief, such was the tension of the piece. It was stunning.

Melly Still is a Theatre Director and Associate of Bristol Old Vic.

For more information about #BRISTOLPROMS, click here.


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