Images Distract in Má Vlast Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Smetana: Má Vlast: James Westwater & Nicholas Bardonnay (photochoreographers), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.03.2013 (SRT)

Photochoreographers? No, you did not misread this. James Westwater and Nicholas Bardonnay have made a name for themselves with this new art, which effectively consists of choosing pictures to go with music, and tonight the RSNO played the complete Má Vlast under three enormous screens as a series of photographs appeared to accompany Smetana’s wonderful music.

This was one of the concerts that I had been most looking forward to this season. A complete performance of Má Vlast is rare enough in this country, let alone one accompanied with specially commissioned visuals. In the event, though, it was a mixed success, mainly because a lot of the time the relationship between what you heard and what you saw was so tenuous that, rather than one enriching the enjoyment of the other, more often than not I found myself distracted and dissatisfied.

Undeniably, Westwater and Bardonnay’s photographs are very beautiful, and their high resolution pictures would not look out of place in any gallery, not least because of the intensity of their colours and the intelligence of their composition. But the first problem was that there were just far too many of them! Most images didn’t stay on the screen for any longer than about 5 seconds at the most, and if one particularly interesting image appeared then there wasn’t enough time to contemplate it before it would disappear and be replaced by something else. Furthermore, the discrepancy between image and sound was often jarring. The turmoil that opened Šárka, for example, was accompanied by an austerely beautiful image of St Vitus’ cathedral that was entirely inappropriate for the music, and the majesty of Vyšehrad was joined by some pretty but inapt pictures of Czech village squares (and not a single appearance of Vyšehrad itself). For me, the discrepancy came dangerously close to poor taste when the opening bars of Tábor were accompanied by some raw images of Terezín, the Nazi-run Ghetto outside Prague, and this was only just redeemed when those pictures were followed by images of unrest throughout Czech history, not least from the Thirty Years’ War, making the whole movement about the theme of conflict.

Some movements worked fairly well. Vltava did indeed trace the course of the river with some lovely images (and some rather comical ones of friendly Czech fishermen), and I liked the rural imagery of From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, but the biggest problem of the evening was that I often found myself distracted from the playing which, I had to keep reminding myself, was very good indeed. The internal textures of the strings shone with great clarity during Vltava and the sheen of the brass fanfares was impressive in the last two movements. Oundjian’s vision of each movement was impressive too, building each one in an arch-like form to its climax. However, my main memory of tonight will be of an opportunity missed, a collaboration that should have been enlightening and exciting, but ended up being a bit like a high-class Wish You Were Here.

The RSNO have just announced details of their 2013-14 season. For full details click here.

Simon Thompson