Saturday, February 02, 2013

An orchestra - plus dancers - for all four seasons

Hang on, the OAE was meant to do "authenticity", wasn't it? Powdered wigs, prithees and gut strings? So what's all this about choreography for The Four Seasons?...ah. Well, it is authentic. Apparently Vivaldi put stage directions in his manuscript. But however many "normal" performances of the piece we hear, however many historians check the tuning (Venice, btw, went for A=440 from the start), however minute the attention to articulation detail, nobody ever does that.

So the OAE has asked choreographer Henri Oguike and his dance company to provide an interpretation for the said Vivaldi - and the players are involved. Perhaps this is how to be historical and cutting-edge contemporary at the same time. All will be revealed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the OAE's Night Shift series on 7 February and "normal" concert on 8 February. I asked Henri Oguike and the OAE's lead violinist, Kati Debretzeni, how it's going so far...

JD: First, Henri Oguike, what is it like to make an orchestra part of your choreography? What are the special challenges it presents? 

HO: I have always tried to have musicians share the performance space, when funds allow, as this adds an additional texture to the whole theatre experience. Musicians and dancers produce sound and both move, so I believe a more nuanced dialogue exists when all are present to be seen and heard.

Some challenges include staging; not all musicians are happy to be arranged in unconventional ways relative to their fellow players. I completely understand this. But opportunities can be missed in terms of alternative aesthetic not to mention the fact that some musicians can suddenly look and behave differently in these conditions - others even move with the dancers!

Working with OAE, lead by Kati Debretzeni, has thus far been a breath of fresh air. Kati invited me to take journey through the Four Seasons with her in early 2012 and told me stories, played whilst simultaneously explaining structure... it was fascinating to watch her physically express her intentions and this planted some very charged images at the back of my mind, which was a great starting point.

Most recently, musicians and dancers have shared in the creative process (in the studio), and I can't say enough about how amazing that was to observe.

JD: How are you interpreting the Vivaldi, which is such a familiar piece? Do you think you can make us hear it afresh?

HO: I have aimed for a fresh modern emphasis in this interpretation which also includes references to baroque-like postures, poses and decorative details.

As the music is so well known and loved, I hope to enable people to access the music by using the dance as a visualizer for the mode/moods that reside within the architecture of the music - see the music; hear the dance ;-)

JD: Do you think this is a one-off project or might it inspire a new wave of performances along similar lines?

HO: I would love to believe that this opportunity (personally) is a next step towards going deeper and discovering where else the partnership/relationship between music and dance can go.
There is so much more emotionally and intellectually to unravel, but the challenges lie in how to prepare and embroider qualities we all crave subconsciously - don't we?

I pray this is not a one-off, but can't really guess what may follow.
JD: Kati Debretzeni, it's normally difficult enough to play the violin without having to be part of a choreography! How does it feel? 

KD: It feels brilliant - playing the instrument is not an end in itself. How liberating! It does require a different type of concentration, whilst there is the little detail of getting the notes right and trying not to loose contact between string and bow when walking/striding/running around - but multitasking is what women are supposed to be good at (famous last words...).  

JD: What do you feel the dance project adds to our enjoyment of the Vivaldi? Does it change the way you yourself see the music?

KD: My initial idea was to see another dimension, that of movement, added to a programmatic piece I know so well. I was very surprised by how much difference seeing the dancers makes to how I feel about it. Their movements respond very immediately to the sheer emotional ebb and flow of the music, and I did adjust the way I've always played it. Seeing the second movement of 'Spring' not as a shepherd asleep with his faithful dog by his side (as in Vivaldi's own stage directions that are printed in the music) but as an unrequited love-duet between two dancers makes quite a change. 

JD: Do you think there should be more of this kind of thing? Er, next stop, Swan Lake, perhaps?

KD: Some pieces, not all, invite or rather tolerate innovation by being part of a widely known canon of our cultural heritage. I hope the layers of the public's previous experiences with them benefit from a completely different aspect - in this case, movement added to sound. Should Vasko Vasilev be on stage with dancers around him while playing the big Swan Lake solo? Hopefully the next choreographer who thinks he should will not get acid thrown into his face...

Friday, February 01, 2013

Friday not-really-historical: Zimerman in 1975

While we're indulging in a spot of Zimerphilia, here's where it all began: in Poland in 1975, the year he won the Chopin Competition. Here he is, aged 18, playing the second movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 with the Krakow University Orchestra.

Lutoslawski lives

The other night Krystian Zimerman lifted the score of Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto off the RFH Steinway and kissed it. But by then it was the London public that was really taking the piece to their hearts. It couldn't have had better advocates. Zimerman's playing offered all its characteristic meld of white-hot power and molten-gold touch - the sound for which this work was originally conceived - and Salonen, himself a composer, naturally sculpts a work's structure into clear lines, allowing it to stand out in vivid 3D.

The concerto, though, seems to operate in more than three dimensions. It's in four sections, played without a break and, throughout, Lutoslawski's control of timbre, his imagination for the most minute touches of colour - flecks between woodwind and percussion echoed high on the piano, or the terse, secretive, scurrying chaconne idea on the double basses that opens the last section - provides a unique "finish" on top of his strong architecture and the considerable flair he demands in the solo part.

Some of the magnificent piano writing resembles a giant fantasy on Scriabin or Liszt; at other times it puts one in mind of Bartok's 'Night Music', echoes of strange creatures from invisible corners. Above all, its vision has integrity, its form offers an entirely personal twist on the tradition and its voice - whooshing the concerto concept into the late 20th century, hands first - should assure it a place in the standard repertoire from now on. It's not easy listening - whoever said listening should be easy in any case? - but the better you know it, the better if gets.

As for Lutoslawski's comment that the piece is "very playable" because, as a pianist himself, he wrote it to be so...that might seem amusing to anyone peering over at the antheap of notes assigned to the soloist. But I'm reliably assured (by Zimerman) that the bits that sound difficult are not in fact the hardest to play. He is, incidentally, in marvellous form.(And no, he didn't bring his own piano this time - apparently this concerto, written to be played on a modern concert grand, doesn't need anything more.)

Where next for the contemporary piano concerto? Ligeti's is a favourite of mine - if I'd been a real pianist it would have been top of my liszt. What a pity it is that, as we hear on the grapevine, certain efforts to persuade him to write another, bigger one didn't come to fruition. James MacMillan's concerti and the two by Lowell Liebermann have both fared well, not least thanks to the ballet world - the Royal Ballet whiz-kid Liam Scarlett has now choreographed both of the latter's. But what the rapturous reception for the Lutoslawski seems to prove is that the form is far from exhausted, the notion of it anything but dead, and there's an excitement out there that's ready to celebrate exploration and adventure within a familiar genre.

The mixture of The Rest is Noise, The Minotaur, Lutoslawski's centenary and adventurous individuals advocating the new, strong and creative - notably Kasper Holten at Covent Garden - already seems to be transforming public appetite for recent music and fresh masterpieces to succeed it. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to experience an epiphany over Boulez at the Proms last summer, thanks to Barenboim. New and recent music needs great performances to win new and thriving audiences. On Wednesday night, Lutoslawski got one. Here's to many, many more.