Tuesday, 19 October 2010


16/10/10, Barbican

I was too tired for this, really. I found it hard to engage, and the quieter, more rhythmic passages sent me to sleep.

A concert of two distinct halves by the Houston Symphony, conducted by Hans Graf (who he?).

The first half was conventional. We had Samuel Barber's Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, originally written in 1945 as a Martha Graham ballet score, reworked in 1947 as a suite for full orchestra, re-reworked in 1955 into a single, shorter piece for an even larger orchestra. And then we had Stravinsky's Le chant du rossignol (le rossignol, of course, being a nightingale), which started life in 1914 as an opera premiered by Diaghilev's company in Paris and was then reworked in 1916 as a ballet score-cum-work for the concert hall.

The orchestra was big, almost 90-strong for the Barber, crammed onto the Barbican stage. Medea started very slowly and softly to the accompaniment of a great deal of coughing but got much noisier: the climax was pretty crashing. I listened attentively and made several mental notes, which I'd entirely forgotten (along with every note of the piece) by the interval. I do remember the percussionists, of whom there were five, who assisted one another in a way I've not seen before (for instance by nipping over to dampen the sound of the neighbouring player's cymbals after he'd banged 'em together). The Stravinsky I preferred (though the others seemed to take the opposite view). Basically I thought it was fun, with lots of rhythmic passages and snatches of what sounded like syncopation; the nightingale's song made a number of appearances on piccolo, flute and solo violin. There was also a solo trumpet but I'm not sure it was playing the same melody. But once again I have forgotten much more about it than I have remembered.

The second half was a performance of Holst's The Planets accompanied by digital images of the planets themselves projected onto a vast screen above the stage. The orchestra was even bigger (the brass and winds in particular were augmented, though there were once again five percussionists) and the playing authoritative.

Being a person with a visual rather than musical imagination I enjoyed this much more, though putting visuals to music always seems to devalue or diminish it (though adding live orchestral music to, say, a silent film has quite the opposite effect) and even this couldn't keep me from nodding off now and then.

The music was robustly familiar and played robustly too. Though in fact it's not as familiar as I thought: after Mars, the opening movement, which is very noisy, the audience applauded; they then applauded after every other movement; I sat disdainfully on my hands having been brought up to believe that you don't clap until the very end; so I didn't put my hands together until Jupiter. At which point it occurred to me that there still seemed to be an awful lot of music left in front of the players, and they duly went on to play two more movements (Neptune and Uranus) which I had no idea existed.

The problem with the visuals was twofold. Firstly, we know a great deal more about the nearer planets and so there's a correspondingly greater array of imagery available of Mars (on which rovers have landed... we saw Nasa's animation of one on the surface, as well as some of the pictures it took) and Venus (through whose atmosphere craft have apparently flown sufficiently close to the surface to build up detailed images of the planets' volcanoes). The outer planets by contrast are scarcely known at all: they're just spheres, with or without rings, though their rocky, pockmarked moons are perversely much better imaged because the spacecraft flew much closer to them. All this meant there was a lot less visual interest towards the end of the piece than at the start.

Second problem: the editing. Perhaps because they simply had too much stuff to choose from, the film-makers habitually cut out of pans and zooms and travelling shots before they'd settled, often into the middle of another zoom or pan; one of the first things you learn from TV video editors is that this is unsettling for the viewer and should be avoided, or at least softened with dissolves between shots. There was also a certain amount of split-screen, which I didn't like, rendering the images entirely abstract. The film-maker, Duncan Copp, a Brit who started life as an academic geologist/space scientist working on the volcanic activity on Venus and became a TV programme producer, came on and took a bow at the end.

I'd like to say I'm a purist who prefers my music neat and unaccompanied by visual stimuli. This isn't actually true. Neat and unaccompanied music which is unfamiliar I find very difficult to get a handle on. Which may be why I like opera a lot. But adding pictures to an orchestral concert seems like cheating.

We had two encores. Something German and noisy which Mr Graf announced from the podium (I couldn't hear). And something quiet and tuneful which he didn't announce but which I think was Mozart.

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