St Trinity Lutheran Church
In the predictable hurry from the last concert to here, a church tucked away behind Pilsudski Square, I was waylaid by a Critical Mass/Reclaim the Streets kind of protest involving several hundred (a thousand? I have know idea how to estimate these things – lots, anyway) cyclists riding en masse down Marszalkowska.
The concert is another full house. The church is circular, with a high dome, and the walls are all white marble or stone. It is lit with hundreds of candles (fewer than the cyclists though), and blue and pink spotlights. A fan at the entrance is blowing dry ice into the space, and everything is glowing. We’re going to be treated to a light show, for which I’m relieved since two pieces on the programme are tape works, and there’s nothing more awkward than sitting in a concert staring at a pair of speakers on stage.
First piece up though isn’t electro-acoustic at all, but is very happy in such a religious performing space. John Tavener’s The Bridegroom is written for four female singers and a string quartet, with the two groups ideally placed at opposite ends of the stage, or even further apart. Typically for Tavener the symbolic roles of the performers are theological – the voices represent the people of the world longing for the love of Christ, the strings represent Christ the Bridegroom; the argument of the piece is a straightforward call and response throughout. While not presenting the most sophisticated musical argument, it is a lovely work – like most Tavener – and acoustically it was very successful in this space. Visually, however, it was a different story. For not only did we get the moody lighting as expected, but we also had visual projections on a sheet draped at the back of the stage, and these really did not work.
I have nothing against projected visuals with live concert music. I’ve seen it work very well several times, and I wish there was more of it – but not like this.
Actually, it wasn’t that bad for the Tavener, although it was a little crude on occasion – we had swirling roses, a chalice, a key, praying hands, two fish … if you didn’t realise this was a piece with a certain reliance on Christian symbolism, you did now. The thing is, Tavener’s piece is a self-contained contemplative object in its own right, it doesn’t need all this other stuff overlaid. Things got much worse with the next piece, Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos plango, vivos voco. The first of the tape pieces for the night, it is a work inspired by Harvey listening to his son singing as a chorister in Winchester, and is constructed entirely from his son’s singing, and the tones of the large bell in Winchester Cathedral. Once again, it is a simple premise – although it categorically does not embody any of Tavener’s strict ritual – and is an expert study on the evocative sounds of English cathedral music. Harvey hints at many associations without ever being prescriptive about them. Sadly, this point was overlooked by the projectionists, and we were shown a similar sequence of obvious symbols (slowly spinning into and from the distance as before). There was an obvious problem at first that the surround sound effects carefully engineered by Harvey (“The walls of the concert hall are conceived as the sides of the bell inside which is the audience” he writes in his programme note) clashed with the two-dimensional projections, but it was the wide shots of what looked like wartime children that really angered. These were superimposed with a series of crosses, and against these the sepia-toned photograph looked rather too manipulative: it was impossible not to see this as some sort of memorial gesture, which is not at all what the piece is about. Abstract imagery is one thing, but attempting to impose such a narrative sat really uncomfortably with me.
Anna Zawadzka-Golosz’s Concerto for Eight-string Guitar and Strings with Piano was next, but it didn’t really make any impact on me; I made no notes, and can’t recall much about the piece, or even the lighting. One thing that was extremely apparent by this stage however was the amount of documentation that was going on. The concert was being broadcast on Polish TV (hence the fancy lighting I guess) – and 10 cameras, including one very restless steadicam, did their best to distract. It was also being recorded for Polish Radio 2, and there were two stills photographers who clicked busily throughout. Sorry, Zawadzka-Golosz, but if your piece wasn’t really distinctive it just couldn’t compete.
I paid more attention to Vytautas Jurgutis’s Sound Masks – mainly because this was another world première. Thankfully the projections had given up by now, and we just got some moody blue lighting. Jurgutis’s piece is composed entirely with ‘old-fashioned’ electronic sounds. Not samples, but the very abstract bleeps and tones familiar from 1950s electronica. All digital now of course, and the sound was fuller than any work of Stockhausen – Jurgutis also made more fluent use of an 8 track sound system than most Stockhausen – but it still had an antiquated air about it. With an infinite palette at hia disposal, I wasn’t sure why Jurgutis elected to use such flat, cold colours.
Sofia Gubaidulina’s Seven Words finished the concert. There’s stuff written about this great piece elsewhere, so I shan’t worry too much about filling in here. But, although I feared they would return, the visuals remained thankfully absent, and contrary to Tavener’s contemplative work at the start of the concert, here you could have felt a pin drop. It’s a tremendously sparce work actually – although there is a full string orchestra on stage, it is very rarely called into action, and most of the work is done by the two instrumental soloists on bayan (accordion) and cello. The attention this draws from the audience is almost ferocious – like listening to a very long, but very powerful prayer. You daren’t move a muscle, but the power grows inside nonetheless.
For the first time in the concert, the interior lights went right down, and their place was taken by the floodlights outside the building. These shone through the stained glass of the church – unnoticed until now – creating that inner space so missed in the presentation of the Harvey. The effect was magical, and at the end the piece received the warmest reception I saw all week.
The final performance of a long day was Michael van der Aa’s chamber opera One, staged in the smaller theatre in the Palace of Culture and Science. The building is so ubiquitous something had to be in there.
Aa’s opera is for one soprano, accompanied by video and an electronic soundtrack. And, at the very beginning and end, a hand-powered torch. It is characteristic of Aa to dislocate sound and performer from one another, and the simple device of using the torch – which provided both lighting and rhythm track for the first minutes of the opera – was perfect. Gradually, from the flickers and rachet scratches, the singer intoned a single note, growing to more, until a chair and stool were lit from above, and the opera really began.
The whole set-up of Aa’s piece is of a woman (on stage) trying to piece together parts of her memory and inner consciousness (on video), interspersed with the recollections of five elderly women who each tell of an identical, bizarre event in their lives. Gradually we piece together what is happening, and their relationship with the woman on stage. The entire work is very effectively done, but the most powerful passages are when the woman is playing out an internal quickfire dialogue between her confused self and her inner demon on the video – the live and recorded voices intercut at a virtuoso rate, and both actor on stage and on screen (made up to look like one another) follow each other’s movements precisely. Keeping this up for more than an hour demands something very special from its performer: on this occasion it is Barbara Hannigan who deserves every credit.
By quite a distance this was the best work I saw in my time in Warsaw, probably the only one really worth the journey on its own. If you ever get a chance to see it, do.
Final post or two (I promise!) to follow.