Bristol Proms:Jan Lisiecki, A View from all Angles

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Pianist Jan Lisiecki performs Chopin and Bach ‘from every angle’ in Bristol’s Georgian theatre

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While I was sitting in a packed Royal Albert Hall to hear the last part of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the weekend, I wondered why the classical music world ties itself in such knots worrying about dwindling audience.

What had brought this to the forefront of my mind was the advent of the Bristol Proms, a new festival curated by Bristol Old Vic, the Watershed and Universal Music (home of Decca, DG and other record labels), that sets out to make classical music more accessible and shake up stuffy concert conventions. So the season – the first of its kind – includes a choral concert in the dark, a performance by violinist Daniel Hope with specially designed visual and – on the opening night – a recital from pianist Jan Lisiecki simultaneously filmed from an array of angles and broadcast to the Watershed cinema.

A brand new classical music festival is brilliant news and Tom Morris, director of the Old Vic, and Clare Reddington at the Watershed are to be applauded for their courage and invention. Because the Bristol Proms programme not only includes some of the world’s best artists – violinist Nicola Benedetti and cellist Guy Johnston appear – there’s also a healthy vein of innovation running through the season too.

But in their efforts to tear up the rulebook, I wonder whether the Bristol Proms have forgotten why people go to a concert in the first place, whatever kind of music’s on offer: to listen.

I have never, for example, listened to Chopin’s Etudes and thought ‘what this is missing is a laser display and some dry ice’. But that is precisely what we got during Jan Lisiecki’s recital.

Lisiecki is a fire-cracker of a performer – technically meticulous but with a dusting of showmanship which perfectly suited both the theatrical setting and Chopin’s heart-on-sleeve Romanticism. The audience lapped it up. And for all Morris’s assurances that this was an informal concert, the audience were one of the quietest I’ve ever been a part of. I think I heard two people cough. Once each. And, thanks to the fact that we were welcome to applaud anywhere, we politely applauded after everything.

The programme for the evening was JS Bach’s Partita No. 1 followed by Chopin’s 12 Etudes Op 10, Messiaen’s La Colombe and Chopin’s 12 Etudes, Op. 25 (plus Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. Posth as an encore). Lisiecki was phenomenal in every piece (even battling with a surprisingly out-of-tune piano) – his touch in the Bach was breathtaking, his shaping of in every Etude was masterful and there were touches of humour and, especially in the later Etudes of Op. 25, plenty of fireworks.

While all this was going on, there was a modest laser display taking place in front of Lisiecki, over the audience, and a large screen behind him showing close-up shots of him playing, the piano hammers striking the strings and computer-generated simplified graphics of his movements. The close-ups of him playing and the shots of the piano mechanism were fun and interesting; the laser display distracting and superfluous. His playing was more than enough to keep this audience enrapt.

I am a cheerleader for anything that welcomes more people into classical concerts, but I’ve yet to be convinced that lasers are key. 

The Bristol Proms continues until Saturday 3 August. For more information, visit the Bristol Old Vic website. To read more about the Bristol Proms opening night, click here