Britten Sinfonia with photographer Sebastião Salgado – Villa-Lobos and Philip Glass conducted by Simone Menezes

Bachianas Brasileiras No.4 – Prelúdio

Philip Glass
Águas da Amazônia – Metamorphosis [arr. Charles Coleman]

Floresta do Amazonas – Suite [arr. Abel Rocha; U.K. premiere of chamber version]

Sebastião Salgado (photographer & speaker) & Camila Titinger (soprano)

Britten Sinfonia
Simone Menezes

Reviewed by: Brian Barford

Reviewed: 14 October, 2021
Venue: The Hall, Barbican Centre, London

The Britten Sinfonia’s celebration of photographer Sebastião Salgado drew an enthusiastic crowd for an event that mixed images and music in memorable fashion. A succession of over 200 of Salgado’s haunting black and white images of the Amazonian rainforests projected above the stage were accompanied by Villa Lobos’s Floresta do Amazonas suite. Simone Menezes conducted and had played a major role in putting the work together along with Salgado who introduced the performance. Salgado was the subject of a documentary film The Salt of the Earth (2014) by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano Roberto Salgado, which won a prize at the Cannes film festival. His work has focussed on conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda as well as famine in Ethiopia and changing patterns of migration. A recurring theme in a nearly fifty-year career has been the exploitation of humans and the environment in the global economic market. His latest work has been an eight-year project to document the landscape and people of the Amazon rainforest in his native Brazil which has been captured in a hefty photographic tome as well as an exhibition at the Science Museum (October this year to March 2022). Whilst he has been celebrated as a social documentarian and photojournalist, his reality seems a heavily worked reality. His landscape pictures have an almost Biblical quality that conjures up the paintings of John Martin with their vast landscapes cut by shafts of light. His use of black and white photography in uniquely colourful locations is designed so that the imagination can colour in the different tones of grey. Foregrounds draw the viewer in but backgrounds often supply the telling detail. Above all, his tactful portraits show a humane eye for people.

Villa Lobos originally composed the music for MGM’s film Green Mansions (1958) with Audrey Hepburn. His music was rejected and he re-used much of it for Floresta do Amazonas, his final work, a large- scale symphonic work but the Britten Sinfonia gave the UK premiere of the Suite arranged by Abel Rocha for forty-four players. It is both lush and sparse with a soprano at crucial points and is music that invites visual representation. Salgado has grouped his photographs thematically around subjects to correspond to the movements, Generally, this works well and the photographs seem designed to give a sense of dynamic flow that matches the music. The performance got off to an inauspicious start as there was a projection failure immediately the music began. Five minutes later, when normal service was resumed, sublime images of limitless forests were matched to soaring music. Only in the ‘War Dance’ did the shocking images of hunters and dead animals overawe the music. Elsewhere, there was much pleasure in the photographs and music and it was evident that both composer and photographer were celebrating not just the magnificence of the rainforest but also the lives within it. Heavy percussion closed the work conclusively, and Camila Titinger’s operatic soprano was a major asset throughout.

The first part of the evening featured Villa-Lobos and Philip Glass. The Prelude to Bachianas Brasileira No.4 was nicely paced by Menezes and the gentle J. S. Bach elements were touched in with some fine playing from the strings. Glass’s ‘Metamorphosis’ from his Águas da Amazônia was originally composed for the Brazilian dance theatre Grupo Corpo and has been arranged for orchestra by Charles Colman. It is more than just a gentle poodle through the rainforest with mind-numbing repetitions. From its throbbing opening, it turned out to be mesmeric with restless rippling surfaces and moments of slower reflection that held the attention for its thirteen minutes.

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