Varèse, Ligeti, Stravinsky: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor), Julia Mach (dancer), Klaus Obermaier (concept, artistic direction, choreography) Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.4.2011 (CG)
Varèse : Tuning Up (1946)
Ligeti : Lontano (1967)
Stravinsky : The Rite of Spring (1913)
This short concert commenced with the seldom heard Tuning Up by Edgar Varèse, a five- minute essay originally composed for a film produced by Boris Morros, Carnegie Hall. The original commission was apparently for a two-minute piece featuring an orchestra tuning up before a concert, but Varèse took things more seriously and his piece grew in length and scale beyond the requested parameters. Morros rejected the piece so it was never used and a furious Varèse left only two fragments, which Chou Wen-Chung has joined together and expanded. There are quotations from various other works by Varèse and a reference to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The music commences with a reiterated A from the oboe, and returns periodically to the crucial note, sometimes played by the very large orchestra. In between there are characteristically dissonant episodes, reflecting the interesting chaos which precedes every orchestral concert, as well as the sirens from Ionisation and other works.
If Tuning Up is no more than a curiosity, Ligeti’s Lontano is a considerably more serious work. Ligeti was especially productive in the 1960’s, and some other influential works from these years include Atmospheres (1961), the Cello Concerto (1966), and the Requiem (1963-65). Some became extremely well known because of their use in Stanley Kubrick’s films; 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, but in any case Ligeti soon became a darling of the avant-guard. Because of its quiet dynamics and subtly shifting tone colours, Lontano demands extreme sensitivity from orchestra and conductor, qualities much in evidence tonight. The way in which the quietly shimmering colours mutated among the players was exemplary; time almost stands still in this work and Volkov and the CBSO understood its nature completely. It was a shame that noise from the air conditioning (I assume that’s what it was) meant that we could not listen to this music against a background of silence.
Of course, the main attraction tonight was a performance of The Rite of Spring performed by a single dancer (Julia Mach) positioned to the right hand side of the orchestra, her images, often broken-up and distorted, projected on to a massive screen behind the orchestra and mingled with computer-generated images designed by Klaus Obermaier in 3D. The audience was supplied with small plastic glasses for this portion of the programme.
The various attempts at staging The Rite have always proved controversial; it could be that Stravinsky’s ground-breaking music, which remains as vital today as when first composed almost a hundred years ago, simply renders all visual accompaniments somehow superfluous. Nijinsky’s original choreography caused an outrage, and Walt Disney’s use of the music in Fantasia caused Stravinsky some heartaches, especially when Disney announced that the music would be rearranged, but that he shouldn’t worry because his boys would “fix it”! Nevertheless, some of us warmed to the poor old dinosaurs plodding across the desert to their death, and at least Disney echoed the primitive aspects of The Rite. Obermaier, however, has abandoned any references to the original scenario. Instead, we have a series of abstract images, sometimes quite effectively matching the moods and patterns of the music, but unfortunately often not, and it was not long before I had grown impatient with the whole premise behind this production. I’m sure it’s all very clever, and a programme note does explain that everything is generated live during each performance, but is this how any of us ever remotely imagined The Rite should be? I don’t think so. It’s a cruel distortion of anything Stravinsky ever intended and for me it even threatened to demean the work. My growing impatience turned to real annoyance towards the end, when the visual elements completely failed to match the music’s orgiastic power and scale. Computer patterns and the disembodied arms and legs of the dancer just do not do the music justice. It would have been better to close your eyes and simply listen to the score, especially as it was given a brilliant performance by the CBSO, Volkov conducting with the utmost precision and plenty of spirit.
That the concept did not work is certainly not the fault of Julia Mach, who does a heroic job as the dancer, and taken on its own the choreography is often rather beautiful and expressive. And it was well worth hearing the CBSO in splendid form.