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The Wilderness - review

Jul 11, 2014 Music

The Wilderness
Blackbird Ensemble

Q Theatre Loft
July 10, 2014

Who doesn’t love a good faerie grotto? Set designers Celery Productions have decked out the Q Theatre Loft for the Blackbird Ensemble as a wintery bower, with lichen dripping from spindly trees and the sense of snow all around, and you enter to discover the stage filled with a chamber orchestra, all got up in grey gauzy flamboyance, playing ethereally on violins, cellos, harpsichord – there’s even a tabla player up the back. It’s enchanting.

The main attraction of the first part of the show is British composer Max Richter’s contemporary “recomposed” version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, played with spirit and featuring violinist Amalia Hall. Much of it retains that mood of enchantment, and there are many surprises and clever turns in the composition.

But it’s not exactly a revelation. Could it ever be? The Four Seasons is problematic. Nigel Kennedy already gave it a great shake up, twice (in 1989 and 2003), and by the time he finished with it, those four concertos felt pretty much exhausted. But The Four Seasons are like Queenstown: while their very popularity sours the appeal, underneath the tired old formulas you appreciate they are popular for a reason. There is beauty to behold.

Richter didn’t include everything in his recomposition, which allowed him to avoid some of the dullest or most clichéd passages – but not all. That bit from the old National Bank ad is there, unfortunately. Strangely, though, he didn’t really do what Kennedy did, which is seize the thing by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shaking up.

The original Vivaldi has some lovely passages evoking the dying fall of autumn and the wastes of winter, and manages some of the glory of spring and summer too, but the work, on the whole, is not nature-filled. Not Rousseauesque. There are no wild storms, blasted heaths, desert heat. It’s decorous: art demonstrating its control of nature. Richter’s interpretation didn’t address this: it’s a contemporary work in the sense that he wrote it recently, but its sensibility remains stuck in the baroque.

That suits the Blackbird Ensemble very well, it should be said. In both their own playing of the music, and in their set and costumes, theirs is a nature – a “wilderness” – in which Mr Tumnus would be right at home. It’s pretty, it’s often lovely, but you don’t expect any wild animals or stormy forces to turn up. Wilderness as a sheltered, overgrown garden.

The rest of the evening features three eclectically selected songs. There’s Bjork’s “Hyperballad” which, while intriguing and entertaining, lacks a vocalist of the unsettling range and power of Bjork herself and therefore feels rooted in that same garden. There’s “Wilderness”, a composition by Blackbird Ensemble leader Clare Cowan that, like the Bjork, is full of charm and musical intrigue. And there’s the centrepiece, Joanna Newsom’s roaming, engrossing, beautiful piece “Cosmia”.

The great strength of all these pieces is the interplay among the instruments, which reaches its height during a long passage late in the Newsom when harp hands off to electric guitar, to harpsichord, to accordion, to violins, to cello, to tabla… You don’t get that kind of instrumental mash up very often, and it’s terrific. I specially liked Grace Francis on harpsichord and Manjit Singh on table, who do much to keep the show janglingly, and percussively, alive.

The Wilderness runs until July 13 at Q Theatre Loft.


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