Meltdown Pärt and Gorecki

Tabula Rasa *
Symphony No.3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs **

Janice Graham (violin) & Paul Silverthorne (viola) *

Yvonne Kenny (soprano) **

London Sinfonietta
Rumon Gamba

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 June, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

With Morrissey departed for Glastonbury (his set was shown live on the ballroom floor after this concert) the closing night of his “Meltdown” festival was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Rumon Gamba. The original idea for “Meltdown” – to melt the divisions between musical, or even artistic, genres – seems to have pretty much gone by the board. Yes David Bowie programmed Philip Glass’s symphony based on his music and Gorecki was back for the second time, but a real classical contemporary slice of the repertoire hasn’t been heard since Magnus Lindberg’s “Meltdown” in 1996.

The marketing is interesting. With an audience displaying a much higher quotient of tattoos and body-piercing than one would normally expect to see at the Royal Festival Hall for a ‘classical’ concert, this was undoubtedly bringing a new audience for the genre to the South Bank. Indeed, I overheard one young man, sporting shorts and sneakers, saying how amazed he was by the hall itself (especially the distinctive boxes) as he had never been to the Festival Hall before. Intriguingly I also overheard the same guy saying how much he had disliked the “American” who had introduced the concert. True, the South Bank’s director of contemporary culture Glen Max had committed the cardinal sin of not announcing who he was when he picked up the microphone. Also his words were so laid back as to be glib and worthless; adjectives many critics have used about the Gorecki.

Also from the marketing perspective, if you’d looked for this concert in Time Out’s Classical & Opera section, you would have found no mention of it at all. Looking in the (much larger) Music section you would find it under ‘Rock’. In one sense the South Bank could claim this was crossover at its most successful, and – as I’ve said – the concert attracted a non-classical audience, but surely it should also have been listed in the Classical listings as well.

What intrigues me is how non-classical audiences hold this pseudo spiritual-minimalist music in such awe. It is indicative that it is the ‘easily assimilated’ music that has appealed to “Meltdown” directors from the ‘pop’ world, if indeed any has appealed to them. And there has been no attempt to break the ghetto, or at least not since Glen Max took over from David Sefton, who was always more proactive in getting “Meltdown” directors to view the potential performances with more of a creative eye. Why can’t ‘classical’ and ‘pop/rock’ be put side by side in the same bill, to eke out similarities or, indeed, contrasts?

Of course, one of the problems is that the concert-going ethos is so different. Rock gigs are rammed for the main act, but usually sparsely attended for the earlier support, whereas ‘classical’ concerts are regarded as more holistic – you don’t just go for the Beethoven after the interval, but you make sure you’re there for the Schumann overture and the Rachmaninov concerto in the first half.

So to the music itself, in a concert that Max reported was a “near sell out” – albeit with half the boxes and annexes empty, as well as the choir-seats. Both Eastern European, both spiritual and tonal, Pärt and Gorecki make understandable bedfellows, although contrast may have made for a better mix. While Estonian Arvo Pärt has escaped the barrage of criticism usually showered by the classical critics on minimalist or spiritualist music (perhaps because his assumption of tonality and his tintinnabulation is so individual), Gorecki with even fewer works before the public has been lambasted as ‘simplistic’.

Yet – unlike Tavener and Glass, whose prolific outputs smack of cynical commercialism (Tavener should be up on charges for abuse of D major) – Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a heartfelt work. Like other creations criticised for being too popular, Gorecki’s symphony should not be faulted because a recording catapulted it into cult-status some years ago. Nonesuch’s London Sinfonietta release, under David Zinman and with Dawn Upshaw, obviously struck a chord. There is no doubting the cumulative power of Gorecki’s slow – often very slow – unfolding of string layers in the symphony’s three movements, each of which set harrowing verses of the loss of life, from the point of view of a mother losing her son.

Yes it may be glib for Glen Max to mumble something about the current horror of war in Iraq, but that doesn’t negate the mood of suffering that Gorecki’s score adumbrates. His three slow movements – very sparsely using large orchestral forces (indeed the trombones quickly left at the end of the first movement), and omitting oboes entirely – allow us time to think. The usual comments of it being too tonal and simple are as ridiculous as they are fatuous; saying more about the conceited self-esteem of the commentator than the music. Simplicity is the point; grief is about as simple an emotion as humans can have, and the time it takes Gorecki to set his texts allow us respite and, ultimately, comfort in adversity.

I wish there were more performances – and ones not ghettoised into contemporary corners. Pairing it with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony may make some sense. In a festival it could be placed near Mahler’s Resurrection, and indeed some of the great Mass settings to make its point. Being written in 1976, it could even be programmed with late Shostakovich, equally concerned with the horror of death and persecution or Tavener’s one undeniable masterpiece, Akhmatova: Requiem.

As it happened on this occasion, the audience literally showed its hand too early and too insistently with applause between each movement of the two works. The lapse in contemplation went against the enlarged Sinfonietta’s best efforts and Rumon Gamba’s direct conducting.

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