Three Stimulating Works and Performances from the LSO and François-Xavier Roth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lang, Manoury, Shin, and Scriabin: London Symphony Chorus, LSO Community Choir, 500 Voices Participants (Simon Halsey [chorus director]) / Esmerelda Conde-Ruiz, Emily Dickens, Lucy Griffiths, David Lawrence, Jack Apperley (conductors), London Symphony Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Barbican foyers and Barbican Hall, London, 24.3.2019. (MB)

David Lang – the public domain (UK premiere)
Philippe Manoury – Ring (UK premiere)
Donghoon Shin – Kafka’s Dream (world premiere)
Scriabin – The Poem of Ecstasy Op.54

An excellent concert from the LSO and François-Xavier Roth, prefaced by a more aesthetically dubious enterprise: the UK premiere of David Lang’s the public domain. Let us get that out of the way first. The work, if we can call it that, is designed, according to the composer, ‘for the entire community we live in, so it doesn’t require music professionals, although they are welcome. Performers and audience should be indistinguishable from each other.’ And so on and so forth. Immersive music theatre, however, this was not. What ensued consisted of choruses stationed across the Barbican foyers, shouting and sometimes singing platitudes to music that was, if anything, still more banal. Lang ‘crowdsourced the texts’; they are ‘internet search engine auto-completions of the sentence, “One thing we all have is our…”.’ Alas, he did not use all of them, removing ‘those that referred to specific people, that insulted or praised a person or group, that said anything – good or bad – about a particular religion or nationality or gender … that were pornographic.’ So pretty much anything that might have been of interest, then. Still, even ‘our design/our need/our capacity to choose how we will view the world around us,’ etc., etc., etc. seemed like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit when compared to the banal chords of Lang’s score. One might point to a spatial element, I suppose, but that would be rather like saying Stockhausen’s Gruppen is like a car park, because people park their cars in different places in that car park. Perhaps there is something more to be said of it, but I shall leave it there. I am sure many of those involved in singing enjoyed the three-quarters of an hour or so it took to get through the twelve parts of whatever it was that was alleged to be going on, and that that was doubtless much of the point. For the audience, though, the motivation to ‘be indistinguishable from each other’ could hardly have stood further from realisation. At least there was opportunity to repair to the bar and continue to try to make something of it with a gin and tonic in hand.

What a relief, then, to enter the Barbican Hall, suitably refreshed, and to hear a performance underway: a performance underway that may or may not have been a ‘real’ performance, depending on one’s standpoint. Here, in another UK premiere, that of Philippe Manoury’s 2013 Ring, there was genuine play both with space and with the bounds of a work and performance, genuine play within a work that enticed and, in an intriguing sense, left one wondering whether this, despite its scale, had been a mere fragment of a greater whole. Music, whatever we mean by that, had certainly begun when we entered the hall. The idea of a notated tuning-up is not new, but what is? This welcomed us not only into the hall, but into the work and its realisation, musicians encircling the audience, forming that ‘ring’ of the title, music coalescing as it had never done in the previous work. When the conductor arrived and began, there was no discernible difference to start with, but rather a visual staging post in still liminal transition, in which occasional strands sounded not unlike snatches of Boulez’s Répons, without ever being reduced to them or displaying undue – or even due – ‘influence’. Was spatial differentiation in itself a form of melody, analogous to timbre in Klangfarbenmelodie? It seemed to be; or rather, might well have been understood as such. Listening and interpretation were open, without being arbitrary. Sounds – music – swirled around us, leading to climaxes as one might traditionally have understood them, and indeed as we should later hear in Scriabin. Material was ever transforming, though never, so it seemed, complete as the aspirant ‘ring’. Sometimes one, or at least I, heard the same figure as more concerned with its repeated pitch, sometimes with rhythm, sometimes with timbre – whilst still, apparently, being the same. Structure was abundantly clear, again not entirely unlike a symphonic work, yet dynamic as form, not entirely unlike a comprehending performance of a symphonic work. For this was a performance from the LSO and Roth in a strong sense. Whatever the theatre, this was music ultimately concerned with ‘itself’.

The world premiere of Donghoon Shin’s Kafka’s Dream followed, its inspiration Jorge Luis Borge’s 1975 poem, Ein Traum, providing a clue even in its title of dreamlike blurring of lines between the imaginary and reality: in itself a connection of sorts between Manoury and Scriabin. For there was a nice doubling of tripartite structure, the two previous parts combined in unexpected, surprising ways, a dream within a dream. Throughout, we heard a keen air for orchestration and for memory, lively rhythms, for instance, ‘remembered’, yet not quite. Thematic development, or something akin to it, was, again as in both preceding and succeeding works, both clearly and dramatically communicated, a solitary unease at its heart, without that necessarily being its point. Shin clearly enjoyed writing for a large orchestra; I enjoyed hearing him do so.

Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy benefited from admirable clarity and a fine balance between the vertical and horizontal. That balance, after all, is surely integral to the work itself; it does not necessarily follow, however, that that is how we always hear it. As in the preceding orchestral works, Roth and the LSO realised structure dynamically as form, here perhaps informed by a Debussyan ear, not least for Allemondian malevolence. A performance that evaded the hothouse entirely would miss the point. This certainly did not, yet there was far more to it than that: a variegation one may well have considered botanical. Climaxes drew lines together: Strauss or Mahler, rather than a Bruckner monolith. I am not a synaesthete, but I fancied that I moved a little closer here, however illusory that sentiment.

Mark Berry

1 thought on “Three Stimulating Works and Performances from the LSO and François-Xavier Roth”

  1. Someone got out of the wrong side of the bed…or perhaps he didn’t get any sleep the night before…My friends and many new acquaintances made that night, were full of admiration for such a moving, passionate, hopeful piece by the LSO/David Lang Collaboration…and yes we also went to the bar after but that was only so we could share the excitement of something so magical at a time in all our lives we all need hope for the ‘Future(s)’!
    [edited comment]


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