London born but Bristolian at heart with a unhealthy music addiction.
First night of the Bristol Proms
Embracing social media and proudly rewriting the rules of audience conduct, the Bristol Proms has returned for its second year of making classical music accessible. Whilst Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris and this year’s performers have opted for various means of achieving this, they share a common ethos: it’s all about the music. The first evening of this year’s festival elicited three different approaches, each of which was compelling.
Largely dedicated to Johann Sebastian Bach – and following a rousing afternoon performance from the great Bryn Terfel – the evening kicked off with the Erebus Ensemble’s Bach in the Dark. Led by the newly-appointed Choral Director of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Tom Williams, the ensemble sought to isolate the music and to allow the audience to experience it in a pure, or at least a new way. Even before Williams had marked the halfway point of the performance with an explanatory speech, the basic elements were clear: indestructible, glorious choral music performed in low (sometimes no) light. The recital began with a 12th century plainsong as the ensemble walked three sides of the studio and the lights gradually dimmed- a gentle audio-visual enveloping of the audience which eventually allowed the music to stand alone. The beauty of Bach’s ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ and Tallis’ ‘If ye love me’ heard in darkness and performed by a choir of this calibre is beyond astonishing, and a genuinely overwhelming experience. In these moments Williams’ concept of musical enhancement through sensory deprivation succeeded utterly, and the audience was left with no option but to confront the full power of the music – moments that were almost as unnerving as they were uplifting. Williams went on to explain that he had deliberately chosen a programme without an obvious theme, with ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ the only recurring piece. This furthering of the contextual removal was buttressed by the Ensemble performing each piece in different positions and lighting conditions in the theatre, giving each work its own identity and keeping listeners on their toes.
Lisa Batiashvili and her orchestra’s approach to breaking down traditional barriers was to dress down. Well, sort of. Sequins and velvet and jeans (not all on the same person, I should add) count as dressing down in classical music. The violinist’s velvet-clad, charismatic oboist husband Francois Leleux was no mere sideman, and his sympathetic sound proved a perfect foil for his wife’s clean yet expressive performance. The orchestra was small and consciously pared down to suit the Georgian, and the resultant balance was ideal, as the supporting instrumentalists’ excellent if unspectacular playing provided the necessary foundation for Batiashvili and Leleux’s sparkling performances. Comparing her ensemble of a dozen or so musicians with the enormous collective which backed her first concert appearance (at the age of ten!), Batiashvili opined that Bach sounded better with fewer musicians. The subsequent performance provided a compelling argument in her favour, which continued right through to the bow-shredding finale of Piazzolla’s ‘Spring’ from his Four Seasons. The marvellously conversational performances from Batiashvili and Leleux in Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin and a stunning arrangement of ‘Erbarme dich’ from the St Matthew Passion were unquestionable highlights, yet the overriding, warmly lingering sense was that the audience had witnessed a couple of kindred musical spirits who happen to be married to each other.
After Tom Morris’ declaration that “there are no rules” in the late night Proms, Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble took barrier-breaking to the next level. There’s no messing about with a swaggering synth version of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is there? There was quite a bit of welcome messing about with the introductions to the band members and their instruments though, and the sheer contempt with which the usual programming standards were dispensed was fantastic. There was Bach (with more than a nod to Switched-On Bach), there was John Carpenter’s Escape from New York theme, there were two sharply contrasting compositions from the band itself and there was a beautiful arrangement of Bacharach’s (geddit?) South American Getaway. It was all, to quote a fellow Prombassador, “weird, so f***ing weird. AWESOME!”