Sunday, 20 January 2019

REVIEW: Symphonic Cinema - The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

The BBC Philharmonic performed a one-night only concert at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, in which two popular ballets from the infamous Ballets Russes – Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe (suites 1 and 2) were performed alongside a live editing of purpose made film.

In this history of film and music, the film and images typically come first. There are technical as well as creative reasons for this – music has a great capacity to inform the viewer on how to feel and thus is very effective at assisting the moving image. It is also easier to manipulate music to match moving image rather than the other way about. Contrastingly, in works of ballet the music is typically composed first and then action – the choreography – is created to fit in with it. Of course, there will be conversations between artistic directors, composers and choreographers to make sure that the combination of art forms works well. With this in mind, the work of Lucas Van Woerkum as film director and live editor presented a very interesting scenario. As to be expected, he had directed two short films to accompany the music.

In The Firebird, Van Woerkum presented a fairly abstract retelling of the original story. The narrative was intentionally obscure but gathered coherency over time. While presenting mostly original ideas, there were many nods to the original fairy-tale, from the golden apples to the precious egg and the original narrative could be found to a degree. There were also nods to the infernal dance scene from the original ballet, although it was performed as contemporary and expressive dance rather than in the modern style of the Ballets Russes. Being familiar with the original story in detail would really help when watching this film and live performance, although it is clearly not an exact retelling. Indeed, in my opinion, Van Woerkum enhanced the story and while there was some acceptable narrative ambiguity, there was also a clever second layer added in which we may think that something very different is happening. The Firebird was presented here as the daughter of the evil Kashchey and we were shown that he has rejected her as his beloved wife had died while giving birth to the daughter. This was a very simple story of sadness, rejection and possibly reconciliation, which was subtly added to the original story. The film had all the elements of a dream – realism and surrealism mix together telling a story that had gaps and open to interpretation. I think it is fair to comment that the original story isn’t very gripping and Van Woerkum did well to give it some depth. This was very clever of Van Woerkum who clearly understands Stravinsky’s music and neo-classical score by visually combining traditional storytelling with 20th century modernism yet all appearing quite contemporary to the audience.

After the interval, the two balletic suites from Daphnis and Chloe were presented. Now, I suppose that after having just watched Van Woerkum’s The Firebird film, you would be tempted to believe that you would know what to expect in his version of Daphnis and Chloe, but while there was a definite signature, there were many subtle differences between the two works, showing Van Woerkum to be a detailed and imaginative film maker. There was a clearer narrative to this film and strong, obvious contrasts in style.

Again, the original story is not terribly interesting – at a basic level, Daphnis and Chloe are a young goatherd and shepherdess in ancient Greece who begin to fall in love with each other, with some temerity. Chloe is kidnapped by pirates and Daphnis despairs and curses the gods who did not protect his love. Chloe, meanwhile, is ordered to dance for the leader of the pirates. Strange beasts suddenly appear and chaos ensues with a vision of the god Pan eventually prompting everyone to run off in fear. Chloe makes her way back to Daphnis – the gods have heard his supplication and have saved her. 

Van Woerkum is much more direct in following this narrative although he again placed it in a contemporary setting. Our eponymous lovers were seen at different dance clubs, obviously not talking to each other and flirting with other people, possibly to make each other jealous. There was a rift between them, perhaps theirs was a relationship gone sour or indeed over. It was obvious, nevertheless, that they were drawn to each other. There is not much more of a pretext to the main story here, however, but Van Woerkum added in much emotional imagery. In some instances he again used contemporary and expressionist dance, set in surreal imagery. This contrasted sharply with the slick, rich world in which the protagonists lived and in hindsight, was reflective of the turmoil and emotions that Chloe was going through. Van Woerkum used symbols very well – Chloe saw herself in a few instances with ram’s horns. This is a clear nod to the Greek god Pan from the original story, who is often portrayed as a satyr, but was also a representation of her mental state, representing mental illness as an inner demon. This idea was woven fantastically throughout this film and again added great depth. There were two extremely touching moments which were beautifully matched by Ravel’s impressionist music – music that is so intimately connected to emotion and atmosphere over storytelling and clear narrative. The first moment was when Chloe’s mother reached to her across the table and touched her hand tenderly, the second – shortly after – was when Chloe is in the garden and suddenly screamed silently.

These images were moments when the live editing element really showed its effectiveness. Van Woerkum was present on stage right beside the conductor. He had a touchscreen device and subtly manipulated the video to enhance the live music. In this regard, the video was adapted to the conductor’s whim and interpretation of the music rather than the conductor having to work meticulously according to a click-track or time-line to suit an inflexible film. This had the sole purpose of giving freedom to the conductor for artistic rather than technical reasons. The effect on the audience was possibly noted more in the music rather than the video – the manipulations of the video intended to tie the video to the sound in the moment. This produced a secondary effect in that an emotional impact was sometimes added, but not always (it wasn’t necessarily the intention to do so). The editing required Van Woerkum to slow down or speed up moments, adding a rubato of sorts to the images at times. This was not intrusive and seemed quite natural for the style of imagery. It added a real connection to the music.

I mentioned two scenes where this had great effect – they both occured immediately after a scene in which Chloe’s mother found her floating face down in the swimming pool of their home. This was a distressing moment – did Chloe try to kill herself because of her deep sorrow around her lost love? In the scenes before this, we were taken to an abstract dance scene in which Chloe was attacked in a watery environment. This may correspond to the pirates in the original, and maybe to her demons in this version. The music swelled and the video slowed meaningfully, highlighting the tenderness of her mother’s touch, later slowing to emphasise the anguish of Chloe’s scream, reflecting her emotional state.

The BBC Philharmonic, led by Ben Gernon, one of the youngest to have conducted the orchestra, played superbly. There was a wide range of instruments as needed by the neo-classical and impressionist music styles. Every soloist played superbly, and while the audience was focused firmly on the film – which was very clearly projected on a large screen above the orchestra – it was also interesting to steal glimpses of the orchestra performing. Every detail of the score was presented with the nuances necessary for the early 20th century modernist style but given the nature of this project, I wondered if it was a little safe and at times mechanical – the music was still second to the images.

This was an intriguing event that on face value worked well without knowing much about the live video element and the relationship between the music and image. It also sparked some thought about the traditions of this relationship – in ballet, the dancers respond to the music constantly. In the video tonight, there were similar moments of response, but not every second of film was affected. Many in the audience will be able to simply see this as a couple of art films with live music and nothing more –albeit with a superb orchestra, a superb score and an intriguing film.

The programme states that the film is an extra voice in the orchestra, and to an extent this is true, but not fully. Van Woerkum is an artist and I am sure that his ideas and experiments will develop and gain value.I left with many questions about different aspects of the performance– but this was not a bad thing.


There was much more to this performance than met the eye and I am curious to what will come nextfrom Van Woerkem.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey

on - 19/1/19


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