Prelude to Akhnaten
The Rite of Spring
Julia Mach (dancer)
Klaus Obermaier (digital artist)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff
Reviewed: 27 June, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Hmmm. It says here in my programme that “the discrepancy between subjective perception and seemingly objective perception produced by stereoscopic camera systems … constitutes the basis of [Klaus Obermaier’s] staging of The Rite of Spring. And of course it will raise some questions about our modern lives and the authenticity of experience in the light of the ongoing virtualisation of our habitats.” Well, naturally.
For those amongst you who do not speak the language of self-styled “digital artist” Obermaier, here’s a rough translation. A dancer, performing with the London Philharmonic, is projected in real-time onto a giant cinema screen above the orchestra where – through a great deal of computer trickery – she is transformed, replicated, pulled apart, spun around, and occasionally beset by abstract red shapes. Oh yes, and through the magic of those aforementioned stereoscopic camera systems (and a pair of 3D glasses!), she occasionally appears to reach beyond the screen and out over the audience.
It’s a neat effect, though not one, I have to say, that had me questioning the ongoing virtualisation of my habitat. I did however question the use of the Matrix-like green numbers that streamed towards dancer Julia Mach during the ‘Danse Sacrale’, just as I questioned the purpose of the grid Obermaier used to demarcate his virtual world. The digital manipulations were imaginative, to be sure – the best moment being when Mach’s arms were shown mirrored from the elbow up and multiplied to look like some otherworldly beast stalking around – but it all seemed a little gimmicky, the effects distracting more often than not from the music’s inherent drama. In Part One, the visuals seemed to have been dreamt up without any reference to the music, and the contrast between Mach’s sensual dance and Stravinsky’s riotous music was jarring for all the wrong reasons. Part Two was more successful because the music’s demeanour more closely fitted Obermaier’s choreography, rather than the other way around.
This was a laudable experiment in mixed media presentation, and if it was ultimately a failure it was because Obermaier put too much faith in his technology and not enough in the music it was allegedly there to elevate. The self-consciously pretentious rent-a-philosophy quoted above didn’t contribute much either. But Mach was outstanding, and the audience, representing a far broader spectrum of listeners than the usual classical crowd, seemed to enjoy the spectacle well enough.
A choreographed Rite of Spring often falls short of expectation, but it didn’t help that the first half contained a piece expressly designed to outdo it. This was Edgard Varèse’s Arcana, an aural assault course featuring a massively swollen orchestra and a battery of twelve – yes, twelve – percussionists. Broken melodies and discombobulated marches floated atop a junkyard of strange musical objects, many of them dangerous and piercingly sharp. But conductor Marin Alsop did a lot to make the music accessible – introducing it with entertaining commentary and well-chosen musical examples such as her mentor Leonard Bernstein might have done – and it resulted in an audience fully engaged with what might otherwise be deemed a “difficult” piece.
What the point of Philip Glass’s Prelude to “Akhnaten” was I couldn’t say. Vacuous arpeggios and pop-music chord progressions, no matter how well played, are simply insufficient to sustain interest for twelve minutes. Perhaps it would have benefited from some stereoscopic virtualisation; as it was, it bored me silly.
- Also performed on 26 June