Wednesday 17 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Warning: those in the front row may get wet as Wang Beibei, Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal play with water

The torrential downpour that I, and doubtless many others, endured en route to the Usher Hall last night was in a way apt. After all, if Kent Nagano's first concert with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal had a theme it was water, and at its centre was the Water Concerto of Tan Dun.

The setup required for the piece was a little atypical. At this point a picture would be worth a thousand words, but sadly from the upper circle my phone's camera was inadequate to the task. Hopefully the festival themselves didn't miss the opportunity for some cracking publicity shots (Edit - and here they are on Flickr). In the meantime, we'll have to make do with words. Several transparant water filled bowls on pedestals were arrayed along the front of the stage. However, it was not at one of these that soloist Wang Beibei began, rather she emerged out of the audience, bowing an instrument unfamiliar too me. It was the first of many unfamiliar things in Tan Dun's engaging soundscape. It was also the first indication that this was in some ways as much performance art as it was music.

Tan Dun showed a rich imagination for what could be done with water, which Wang Beibei then skilfully executed, be it splashing her hands, stirring, dripping water down, placing gongs in the water and moving them so as to attenuated the sound, sticking a tube half into the water and beating down on it, using glasses to strike the water, drumming on upended wooden bowls, and so on. Two other percussionists provided further support and texture from two bowls to either side. To ensure such sounds were audible, amplification was employed, but subtly and effectively. The orchestra got to have some fun too, contributing to this very different sound world; thus the brass players slapped their mouthpieces or the winds used what looked like bird whistles. It was all great fun, even, I hope, for the few people in the front row who got splashed a little (if it's any consolation, I suspect I was still wetter from my walk). However, enjoyable though it was, it did feel slightly gimmicky, and as it drew on it did seem the only reason was to try another effect. There didn't seem to be a huge amount of emotional substance beneath.

I also wonder whether a visual trick might have been missed. I vividly recall the effectiveness with which Kronos employed light at last year's festival and found myself wondering what a magical effect might have been achieved by lighting the bowls from beneath so that patterns played across the ceiling as Wang Beibei made music. The other slight puzzle is that the festival hasn't chosen to feature the other two works in the series: Tan Dun's Paper and Earth concertos (the latter featuring stone and ceramic instruments). It was, however, nice to see the hall so full for some new music, especially after Saturday, but then sandwiching it between two bankable warhorses is a fairly reliable trick. Interestingly, the first piece of Saturday's Harvey triptych also featured percussionists splashing their hands in buckets of water. Another connection in this year's programme which the audience was left to make for themselves.

The concert had opened with another, albeit very different, water themed work: Debussy's La mer. It is not one of my favourites, generally leaving me somewhat unsatisfied as I find it does not call the sea to mind. Yet as the first movement drew to a close, Nagano and the orchestra won me over with some particularly moving playing. Other highlights included shimmering strings of the second movement and the thrilling finale.

The major disappointment came after the interval as they tackled Beethoven's 6th symphony. This too fits the water theme, with the babbling brook of the second movement and the turbulent storm of the fourth. Yet before they got there, we had to contend with a string sound that was harsh and tinny and not especially pleasant to listen to. Worse was to come in the third movement, which features some astonishingly beautiful wind writing. Alas, as at other similar moments elsewhere in the symphony, the orchestra's wind section did not seem equal to it. Perhaps we are simply spoilt by our fine local bands in this regard, but I found myself pining for the SCO or the RSNO's Katherine Bryan, or even something in a neighbouring league. The upshot of this was that they failed to deliver scenes of idyllic beauty. Nagano also failed to elicit any drama. This was especially true in the storm, which seemed even less severe than the front row's encounter with a few drops of water in the Tan Dun, rather than terrifying thunder and the driving wind and rain that the best interpreters can realise. Indeed, the biggest shock was when the opening bars of the finale came, as it didn't seem right that we could have arrived there without more drama. Here there was some of the loosest ensemble playing of the night. It was, in short, not a Pastoral to remember.

They went on to play a rather surprising encore. Surprising in that an encore tends to be either something to show off with or have some fun with. I'm genuinely mystified as to why Nagano chose a brief exert from Schubert's Rosamunde. Moments later, though, they were playing another, from Bizet's L'Arlésienne. This, surely, is the stuff encores are made off, and they delivered it with plenty of energy and panache. Would that they had located some of it for the Beethoven.

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