Saturday 23 March 2013

Peter Oundjian and the RSNO present Má vlast

While I've long been familiar with Smetana's Má vlast, it is only comparatively recently that I came to love it. That was as a result of a glitteringly persuasive account from Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC SO at the Proms two years ago, so fine it swept me away completely even without being in the hall. Alas it has not been issued on disc.

A slight problem with having an experience like that is that nothing that follows quite seems to recapture it. This was the first time I've heard the piece in the flesh and so the fact that while I found the performance good, it didn't sweep me away, may owe something to that context.

Generally the playing was of a good calibre. The strings shone particularly, especially in some of the fierce chords found in Tábor. Oundjian's interpretation was rather what I have come to expect from him: solid, and often at his best in the realisation of some of the big climaxes. And yet, at the same time missing that extra x factor. In the smaller moments particularly he didn't let the score bloom and open up as it can. Interestingly, since it was the movement he chose to describe in his talk, for me Šárka fell flattest of all. He had said all the right things, but somehow he didn't bring them out.

The most interesting aspect of this performance was not, however, in the music, but rather in two key choices, one of which I applaud, the other I have reservations about. I think it was excellent to present it alone in a programme. Weighing in at close to eighty minutes it is of a similar length to other works that routinely get such a treatment. I like having just one work in a programme as it allows you to focus on it much better (and while arguably this is more a suite of six works, they fit together so well as one). Oundjian and the RSNO are also to be applauded for not doing something silly like having an interval and ruining the flow.

The decision that worked less well was to accompany the performance with video projections. In fairness, I can see the reasoning behind this and it must also be noted that it worked rather better than his last such attempt, attaching a volume related dimmer to the lights for Shostakovich's 11th symphony. Má vlast is an inherently visual work, depicting Smetana's Czech homeland, so why not help it along? Also, I tend to be a fan of art forms that blend media, such as comic books or opera.

That the projections didn't work for me, or to be more fair didn't always work, can be most neatly summed up by noting that there are excellent reasons why the 12:3 aspect ratio does not enjoy widespread popularity and over the better part of an hour and a half photochoreographers James Westwater and Nicholas Bardonnay showcased them extensively. The setup was three screens joined together in a row. These were of the 4:3 ratio (that of TVs before the days of widescreen). Together, this made for a sort of ultra-widescreen when they chose to show one photograph across them all. Which they did, a lot. A problem arises because the sort of shapes that most cameras work to are an awful lot closer to your old school TV than the screen on offer, so to fit such a photo on you basically have to crop off the top third and the bottom third. Imagine going through your photo albums and doing that and then think about how many of the results you'd want to keep. Most of the resulting wide shots looked badly over-cropped and any good composition that might have existed had been lost. Having said that, even when they showed shots on a single screen, these photographs were generally not anything to write home about. I can see why they chose this format: three small screens are likely cheaper than one big one and certainly cheaper than the four, six or nine small ones needed for a more conventional arrangement. However, this was the technological equivalent of starting off by tying their hands behind their backs. Occasionally they tried to escape the knot by joining pictures together, much like the panorama mode one commonly finds on cameras these days. However, this results in some rather odd angles and perspectives which I never find terribly pleasing.

Unfortunately such technical gripes are not my only objection to the projections. Too often, they bore little relation to the music. Now, it's true that, as Oundjian noted in his opening speech, they were not trying to depict the action exactly, but they still could have fitted the tone much better. Simply having a photograph of the Czech countryside or of some town doesn't automatically mean it will fit into Má vlast. At other times, the timing was just a bit off, so a big crescendo came in the famous Vltava and the screens went blank. Then, a few bars later, we saw some jaw dropping scenery which then lingered a little too long after the music had faded again.

That's not to say they never worked. At times they did, such as the photos of people shooting the rapids, again in Vltava, or the rock formations at the start of Z českých luhů a hájů. Elsewhere, the images of conflict which were set against Tábor were also effective, though I'm not sure we needed the swastika and then the hammer and sickle to tell us we were getting first the Nazis and then the Prague Spring.

So perhaps with better projections the idea could work well. Then again, the mixed art forms I like tend to have been created with this in mind. Smetana probably wasn't planning on this and so had to make sure it was all in the music. And so it is. At times I closed my eyes and enjoyed the picture painted by my imagination.

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