Feature Review – Encounters: The Early Music Weekend

Written by: Edward Lewis

Edward Lewis encounters more than he bargained for at the Southbank Centre’s Early Music Weekend for 2007…

Introductory Talk
Tess Knighton (Friday 14 September 2007, 6.45 p.m.)
Fallen: A Fantasy in Music, Drama & Film
Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens (14 September, 7.30 p.m.)
The Full Monteverdi: Film Screening
I Fagiolini (14 September, 9.15 p.m.)
Baroque Concert in the Forbidden City
XVIII-21 Le Baroque Nomade & Fleur de Prunus (Saturday 15 September, 3 p.m.)
Encounters between Musical Cultures (15 September, 4.30 p.m.)
Los Impossibles: Songs and Dance from the Old and New Worlds
L’Arpeggiata, The King’s Singers (15 September, 7 p.m.)
Catherine Bott (15 September, 9.30 p.m.)
When Schütz met Gabrieli
The King’s Singers, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts (16 September, 2 p.m.)
Illustrated Talk: Handel and the Castrato
Nicholas Clapton (16 September, 3.30 p.m.)
When Handel met Farinelli
Film screening of “Farinelli” (16 September, 4.30 p.m.)
When Bach met Buxtehude
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge & Fretwork (16 September, 7.30 p.m.)

Friday-Sunday, 14-16 September 2007 at Southbank Centre, London including Queen Elizabeth Hall & Purcell Room

In her opening remarks, Tess Knighton explained that, this year, she had constructed a weekend of events exploring the importance of an array of musical encounters on the development of Early Music and its modern performance. The encounters we would “witness” would include personal meetings between composers, cultural collisions and their impact, and awkwardly named “performative” encounters – those involving the never-ending story of performance issues. This is, obviously, a very intellectually interesting and productive area, but one that results in a musically discontinuous selection of concerts. But, with eleven events over three days, variety is no bad thing.

The weekend certainly focussed on the promised musical encounters, although many proved little more than an academic excuse for bringing out some less-known music. But what was, perhaps, more interesting were the unmentioned, unplanned encounters that this engendered.

The first of these set of unofficial encounters, or more accurately, contrasts, lay between two different attempts to bring early music to new (for which we can read ‘younger’) audiences. In Fallen, Musica Secreta and the invitingly-named Celestial Sirens attempted to bring the music of a 17th-century convent to life by hanging it on the genuine story of a woman preparing to become a nun, mistakenly believing that because a technological medium is available, it should be utilised. This took the form of a rather amateur-looking film projected on to a gauze cloth, behind which the performers worked their somewhat tiresome way through the service of Compline.

A noble, well-meaning attempt to drag today’s youth into a new genre of music. But, sadly, today’s youth, and most other people, are not easily conned. The film proved poorly edited, shakily shot with a trembling hand-held camera, badly dubbed, and self-absorbed enough to loose our interest until the inexplicable moment when the ghost of Lucrezia Borgia (of course), seeing the protagonists engaged in the act of sex, attempts to insert her walking stick into the gentleman. Thankfully, perhaps, shortly after this the picture vanished altogether. The impression we were left with was not so much an astute examination of the position of women in 17th-century Italy, but more of a lumbering portrayal of a woman with severe mental problems, who any half-decent psychiatrist would have slapped a label of Borderline Personality Disorder on, emptied a pharmacy down her throat, and had her committed to a clinic, not a convent. Without the live singing, it is a film that would have suited a depressingly long, and thematically unusual, school assembly.

Sadly, without the film, the singing would have found its natural place there too. Yes, the music is lovely and deserves to be heard more frequently. But the performance was highly variable, with some moments that can best be described as ‘authentic’. As for the concept, try as I might, I found it hard to get away from the sneaking suspicion we were involved in thinly disguised feminism – phrases such as ‘Women are fugitives from the world’, ‘the love of a man is transient’ and the mighty ‘sex is as far away from God as it is possible to get, yet also as close’ did nothing to help. As the female protagonist completed her lengthy journey to climax, the on-stage nuns launched into another Agnus Dei. Subtlety itself slinked out of the room, ashamed.

Unfortunately for Fallen, it encountered The Full Monteverdi, which followed it. This astonishing film, here screened in public for the first time, is based on John La Bouchardière’s collaboration with I Fagiolini, and charts the emotional progress of six failing couples through the deeply moving music of Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals. This remarkable, intricately constructed film is aesthetically beautiful in every aspect: masterfully shot, sensitively arranged images, utterly glorious singing, impressive operatic acting, and a terrifyingly involving narrative flow. This encounter between yesterday’s music and today’s medium can’t help but deliver Monteverdi’s masterpieces to a new and deeply appreciative audience in a thoroughly spectacular fashion.

A contrast of another sort presented itself with the innovative and intriguing performance of Baroque Music in the Forbidden City, under the understated direction of Jean-Christophe Frisch and with the curiously titled Fleur de Prunus. Bringing almost universally unknown oriental musical styles to a Western audience, the performance served to highlight the distinction between our concept of Oriental music, born of the superficial, mass-produced soundtrack, and this true meeting of East and West, gently offering up a deep, symbiotic beauty. This was real, raw music, genuinely and impressively presented.

Then there was the target-audience encounter, which could be called ‘When the Gentle, Highly Specialised L’Arpeggiata Met the Hugely Commercial and Popularist King’s Singers.’ Don’t get me wrong – the combination worked fantastically, with an obvious musical interdependence between the two groups. But compare the unassuming opening work by L’Arpeggiata with the rather pretentious entry of the blue-velvet-jacketed, practically preening King’s Singers. One wondered if, perhaps, the group’s entire attire was all-in-one, held on by Velcro, and hiding only a small, blue velvet thong…but there was absolutely no faulting this technically superbly accomplished, obscenely good-looking ensemble. Its sheer natural, and more importantly unified, musicality, and its ability to entertain in every aspect of its performance, shone with a brightness to rival the twinkle in the Singers’ eyes. But L’Arpeggiata, also, proved it has the addictive ability to entrance an audience, compelling it through the emotional gamut, galvanised by an electrifying zest and an innate, assured virtuosity.

At the close of the festival, we have the encounter between the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and Fretwork over the music of Bach and Buxtehude. The aura of impressive technical training was evident in the choir’s solid performance of these works, and the soloists demonstrated a delicate tonal blend, some sensitive phrasing and a certain poise. But what was lacking was that which is born of experience and, unfortunately, age. Except in a few rare circumstances, a choir of undergraduate voices is going to sound unsteady, undeveloped and unmatched, and, without the experience of countless public outings, in performing challenging works is going to focus on the notes and not the music. But this does not make for an intrinsically bad performance, and Fretwork brought an added element of excitement to an enjoyable rendition of these choral masterpieces.

Finally, there was no escaping a larger-scale encounter. In a stroke of interesting planning, the weekend was scheduled alongside the vibrant Festival of the Thames, which sees the entire South Bank transformed from picturesque riverside enclave to something resembling the opening of a new Ikea. Throughout the weekend, the habitat of the Early Music enthusiast was invaded by crowds of screaming children, semi-naked adults complete with can of Strongbow, and sunburnt families regrouping before wasting some more cash on a piece of plastic that lights up and a bit of wood that sounds like a skylark on acid. This encounter was perhaps the most curious and real.

Both these occasions attract those who require the camouflage of a large crowd of people to avoid being detained under either the Mental Health Act, or the law against Cruel and Unusual Punishments. For example, wandering into the foyer on Saturday evening, I encountered a group of people, probably describing themselves as a Collective, wearing tablecloths and setting up an unofficial camp in the café area. They were engaged in singing what sounded like a cross between folk music and a medical experiment. The words were somewhat indistinct, but I strongly suspect they involved moonbeams and southerly winds. Ten foot away from them, the evening’s concert-goers sipped their dry white wines. I know what they were thinking – Why are you here? What, out of interest, do you think Northumbria is for?

So it’s only proper music if it’s on a stage, and you’ve paid to see it? Most of the high-quality music of the weekend had come from non-concert roots, and some of the best concerts nodded a careful head in this informal direction. Maybe musicians dealing with the Early could learn from our Foyer Collective, and make a few tender steps out of a strict concert hall environment towards their Holy Grail of New Audiences. In return, they could perhaps demonstrate the Collective how to use a razor.

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