Monday 21 June 2010

Aldeburgh 2010 in brief - Music and the Brain & Festival Directors III

You can easily do too much in a festival, case in point, today sees Where's Runnicles attending a documentary film double bill at Aldeburgh cinema, a piano and violin recital of music by Britten and Knussen, and then later this evening a concert from Leon Fleisher and the Signum Quartet at the Maltings.  As such, in a slight break with the Where's Runnicles house style of long and rambling, we're going to try something different: a brief review (well, three brief reviews, taken together it's not all that brief).


Ravel's Brain

The first of a double bill, and part of the Music and the Brain series that runs through this year's festival, no doubt inspired by Fleisher's residency (indeed, the one film of the festival that I really wanted to see, concerning his return to two handed performance, was last week), Ravel's Brain was both disappointing and a missed opportunity.  From the outset, and the deliberately wobbly and out of focus passage through a cloister, it was clear that director Larry Weinstein rather fancied himself as more than a maker of documentaries.  So it was that we were treated to having Ravel's doctor sing to us about his symptoms.  There was also a lot of reconstruction.  This is not necessarily so bad in and of itself, especially if there is no real footage, however there was something dishonest about the way Weinstein put it together.  Some scenes were in colour, but others in grainy black and white so it appeared as though it was genuine footage of the composer.  However, once the same actors appeared in the colour footage the game was up.  The problem is that doing that then made one question whether what appeared to be letters from his friends, or other narration, might not be made up too.

The sad part was that the question of what exactly had been wrong with Ravel was clearly a fascinating one (to which we will likely never have the full answer).  What is more, a lot of the actual interviews, both with people who knew Ravel and with two neurosurgeons, were fascinating.  There is clearly room for an excellent documentary here but unfortunately Ravel's Brain isn't it.

Imagine - Oliver Sacks: Tales of Music and the Brain

The second documentary, taken from the BBC's Imagine series, was much more successful.  It looked a several people whose brains behaved in strange and interesting musical ways: there was the blind and severely autistic man who could play the piano and reproduce any tune heard once; there was the man with Tourette Syndrome who managed his condition through playing the drums (or the fence, or whatever was to hand); the woman who was unable to appreciate music; a man who developed an obsession for piano music after being struck by lightning.  They were the case studies of professor of neurology Oliver Sacks and were extremely interesting and often touching.  Sacks too was insightful, though time and again the viewer was reminded how much about the brain is not fully understood.

However, it too was not perfect.  In the first place, there were often moments where a little more detail or background in the science would have been nice and the contributions from Sacks were a little too few and far between.  The main problem was the documentary's presenter, Alan Yentob, who kept getting in the way.  Did we really need so many shots of him walking down corridors or into people's houses and driving his car?  Did we really need to see him nodding sagely at what Sacks was saying?  The scene where he had his brain examined by MRI while listening to music was interesting, but since the people who were doing that experiment had done no other similar one the results were scientifically meaningless (or, at least, served mainly to suggest that there was a gap in their research).  There were big questions to ask at this point, but Yentob seemed to be too busy enjoying the idea that his brain was uniquely special.

Festival Directors III

Festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard is know not to be the biggest fan of Britten.  However, an Aldeburgh festival without him would be odd to say the least (and given the funding that they get from the Britten-Pears Foundation, doubtless rather problematic).  The solution has been a series of Festival Directors concerts, featuring the compositions of past directors.  Sadly, I missed those from the Hebrides Ensemble, and looking at the programme, the final instalment seems a poor third.  Not bad, per se, but the early Britten pieces (mostly without opus), such as Night Piece or Reveille cannot be said to rank among his finest.  Something similar could be said about the works of Knussen that complimented them.  They were not all early, indeed Orphelia's Last Dance was receiving its European premiere (having been finished after the programme went to press), but none of them impressed nearly as much as some of his orchestral compositions have.

Performance wise, young violinists Sophie Mather and Aisha Orazbayeva were joined by pianist Huw Watkins.  Their playing was certainly good, but there was nothing breathtaking or outstanding.  Overall the second half was significantly better than the first, with Knussen's Secret Psalm and finishing with Britten's Suite for Violin and Piano, op.6 (the afternoon's only opus numbered Britten piece).   In this last, Orazbayeva gave a nicely energetic performance featuring some fine pizzicato playing.

I'm not against minor works getting an outing, but I think a whole programme is a mistake - better to balance them out with greater pieces.  Otherwise, as this concert shows, the result is rather bland.  Interesting to note that the stage in Orford Church was laid out the opposite way round compared with how it is normally.

Not the greatest day so far, then, but Fleisher tonight should change all that.  His recording of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze is close to being a desert island disc, so I can't wait to hear him do it live.

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