Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (12) – Successful collaboration between Scottish Ballet and the RSNO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Scottish Ballet’s  Mozart, Reich, Mahler: Katarina Karnéus (mezzo), Peter Wedd (tenor), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Sian Edwards (conductor). Playhouse, 26.8.2011 (SRT)

Kings 2 Ends (World premiere)
Double Sextet
Violin Concerto No. 1

Jorma Elo (choreographer)

The Song of the Earth
Das Lied von der Erde

Kenneth MacMillan (choreographer)

The year Scottish Ballet’s Festival offering joins a modern classic to a brand new work. The choice of Steve Reich and Mozart may seem an odd coupling, but Jorma Elo bound them together into a convincingly varied diptych in his Kings 2 Ends. The rhythmic jousting of Reich’s music found a mirror in sharp, angular dance movements on stage, the dancers dressed in black and set against an austere grey background. For Mozart, however, softer reds and blues took over with dancing that was altogether more fluid, suggestive even of the underwater world at times. Both ensemble and solo work complemented each other well, with a beautiful duet danced to Mozart’s slow movement. In the pit the RSNO played beautifully, even though they sounded odd in the boxed-in acoustic. Orchestral leader James Clark’s playing of the violin part was secure and agile, though his final cadenza lacked precision. Ashley Page had long wanted a piece by Jorma Elo for Scottish Ballet, and he will be pleased to have such a successful new work in the company’s repertoire.

Macmillan’s Song of the Earth, on the other hand, is an acknowledged classic. Nowadays it’s easy to forget what a visionary Macmillan was in suggesting choreography to an independently great piece of orchestral music: his idea was rejected by the Royal Opera House board twice before he finally premiered it in Stuttgart. His vision for the piece was simple: a man and a woman find each other and fall in love, but death, danced by a figure in black with a half mask, takes the man. Ultimately all three figures are reunited, acknowledging, like Mahler’s music, that death is not the end and that there are eternal possibilities in renewal.

Each song is choreographed in a way that reflects its mood without being clumsily narrative. In the opening Trinklied young men cavort around the stage while enjoying life’s earthly pleasures, while in Von der Schönheit a group of virile male dancers bound onto the stage at the point in the song where the lads appear. The young woman appears for the first time in Der Einsame in Herbst, wandering around the stage searching for a companion in her loneliness. Macmillan’s finest idea was to have the figure of death (or Der Ewige to give him his, more accurate, original title) appear in every song, a symbol of the transience of life and the intrusion of the eternal, an idea so prevalent in the texts Mahler set. The dance fits the music very well, both aspects enriching the experience of the other, though for me the climax of Der Abschied didn’t quite hit the target, the reunion feeling too similar to the moves earlier in the piece.

Sian Edwards’ direction was secure, though to my ears Der Abschied was far too fast, undoubtedly a dictate of the choreography. Peter Wedd’s voice has darkened to becoming a heavier, less lyrical-sounding instrument, and he did a good job of projecting over the impossible scoring, though he couldn’t avoid sounding under strain at times. No such concerns with Katarina Karnéus, singing with radiant beauty, her lyrical, poignant voice finding the emotional heart of these songs perfectly.

A hugely successful evening, then, and how thrilling to see such a successful collaboration between two great Scottish cultural institutions.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until 4th September in a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson