London Philharmonic/Marin Alsop

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Royal Festival Hall, 27 June 2007 3 stars


The title of this Signature concert may have been Rites, but, as conductor Marin Alsop pointed out, it was also a concert concerned with innovation, featuring three composers who changed the way in which we perceive music: Philip Glass, Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky.

It may be more cynical to proclaim that the ambitious programming of this concert, which also featured Klaus Obermaier ('digital artist, choreographer, artistic director') and Ars Electronica Futurelab, was an astute decision by Southbank Centre to detract attention from the debate over acoustics in the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall, than to consider it as a metaphor for the venue, fusing the old with the new. In this concert with the London Philharmonic, music based on ancient rituals combined with interactive light and design technology.

The concert opened with the Prelude from Akhnaten, the third in a trilogy of 'character operas' by Philip Glass, the second of which, Satyagraha, enjoyed a recent successful production by ENO in the London Coliseum. While the Prelude may prove effective in the context of creating an atmospheric soundscape for the ensuing tragic opera, the performance seemed a rather futile endeavour in isolation. For all of Alsop's efforts to infuse Glass' typically hypnotic style with an energetic pulse, the orchestra looked and sounded disengaged to the point of ennui.

The second item on the programme was Varèse's Arcana, written in 1925-27, a decade after the French-born composer arrived in New York. Although his compositional output is somewhat limited, Varèse was a visionary composer with radical ideas, a pioneer in his exploration of the role of science and engineering in music, and he developed the concept of music as an 'art-science'.

Prior to the performance, Marin Alsop gave a short introduction to the piece, identifying the recurring motif of the work and illustrating her points with sections played by the orchestra. Whether this was to make the occasional performances of Varèse's music more accessible to the less musically-informed members of the audience, or just a warning that twelve percussion players makes for a loud performance, her comments were well received.

Like the preceding Glass piece, the structure of Arcana does not follow any linear development. Obviously influenced by Stravinsky, containing references not only to The Rite of Spring but also The Firebird, Arcana juxtaposes blocks of sound and drives forward by the use of repetition. Nonetheless, the coherence that the recurring motif should have provided was lost in this disjointed performance; there were disappointing inconsistencies in string bowing and a lack of synchronisation, and the orchestral balance lacked finesse.

After the interval, the audience was provided with 3-D glasses for what was undoubtedly the main attraction of the evening: Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, complete with stereoscopic projection by Klaus Obermaier. A defining work of the twentieth century, and still provocative almost a century later, one wonders if there is any there is any other piece that lends itself to such treatment as The Rite of Spring. Dancer Julia Mach performed live on stage against a black background and was simultaneously projected in three-dimensional form onto a screen that towered above the orchestra, overlaid with real-time generated images, such as multiplied forms of the dancer's limbs, or interacting with waves of binary code. It was certainly a unique and interesting experience, but not necessarily as provoking as the infamous 1913 premiere of The Rite.

Musically, whilst Marin Alsop gave a committed effort, the performance was lacklustre and problems of intonation that plagued the entire evening's performance became increasingly apparent. Although the bassoon player rose admirably to the challenge of the instrument's opening spotlight and Alsop strived for some ambitious tempi, the performance desperately yearned for the earthy determination and raw energy associated with its primeval roots.

By Úna-Frances Clarke