You know a performance has hit the right note when a 10-year-old spontaneously throws his hands in the air in time with the performers and says: “That looks fun!” And it is.
Even if you can’t immediately put a name to the tune, you will likely recognise the popular score of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and this interpretation from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance is immersive in transporting us through the turning cycle of the year.
The staging of the concert, in the atrium of the Stoller Hall, provides an intimate setting – so close it feels like we are sat in an orchestra pit. But again, it is not your usual orchestra pit, because the performers move around, bringing a fluidity, freedom, and narrative to the performance.
This liberation of the musicians from their music stands and scores is emphasised in the costumes. Most are barefoot and there is a playfulness in creating characters through something as simple, yet evocative, as wearing a headband with two dangling socks for ears and painting a black dot on the end of the nose to become a sheepdog.
The four 18th century concerti are shaped by explanatory sonnets, which precede each movement. These are read by Nic Pendlebury (curator of the evening), who acts as both conductor and narrator. Each line of text is cross-referenced to a specific musical phrase and here the story element is given vivid expression through movement of the musicians, a trio of dancers and the addition of natural soundscapes.
It is an absorbing experience and a terrific showcase for the young talent, with a different soloist taking centre stage for each movement of each concerto. How they manage to keep playing so perfectly and passionately while riding on a dancer’s shoulders or having huge fans blow music scores all around them is a wonder.
After a break, the mood shifts for the second piece which is a new work from one of the Conservatoire’s alumni, Hollie Harding. Melting, Shifting, Liquid World, written for electric viola soloist, Nic Pendlebury and the Trinity Laban String Ensemble, was produced as part of Harding’s PhD practice and first performed in 2019 on the Great Map at the National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich.
This second piece stays on the same natural world theme, but here we’re invited to imagine what the seasons could become if we don’t do more to tackle the pressing issues of plastic pollution and climate change. Harding’s is an experimental, multi-layered, boundary-pushing piece which draws on the emotional power of music to elicit a political response.
Pendlebury, on electric viola, leads the performance from a small podium at the centre, with the ensemble of musicians surrounding, spread through the building’s atrium space. The immersion of the first half goes deeper in this piece with the audience invited to move around the musicians during the performance. And there is a further layer of complexity with each audience member wearing bone-conducting headphones, which allows a pre-recorded soundscape including field recordings of Arctic Sea ice to be played, while simultaneously allowing ears to be open to the sounds of the music playing in the hall.
The theme of climate change is one all ages can relate to, and the same 10-year-old who responded joyously to the first part, is intrigued by the second – noticing how the step-ladder bird perches of the first have become ice-bergs; the costumes trail with ripped plastic packaging, and each instrument brings its unique sound to the whole.
There’s a lot going on and it is interesting to watch the various audience responses with some choosing to continuously move around the performance space, others looking in from just outside it, and others standing inside the ring of musicians but remaining in one spot with their eyes closed to get the full impact of the music. The result is very much an experience as opposed to a performance, which echoes the central message of the piece that we are all part of and have a responsibility for our environment. A thought-provoking evening that reminds us of the power of music to inspire change.
The next event in the season is on April 7 and is an evening of folk music and film inspired by the ghost owl.