A performance from the heart

Helen Wallace experiences a recital with a difference from the Sacconi Quartet

A performance from the heart
Sacconi Quartet

The heart of a violinist is jumping on my lap. OK, there’s no gaping aorta gushing out the red stuff. It’s a robotic copy connected by wi-fi to the heart of violinist, Ben Hancox, hidden in a pleasing wooden box which, I’m informed, is a chestahedron.

My neighbour is cradling the violist’s heart, which ticks away out of sync. I’m trying to think Beethoven, but as a sequence of hanging lights flash on and off and four different heart beats start racing against each other, I feel like I’ve walked into an early phasing experiment by Steve Reich. It’s distracting, to say the least.

This, at the Spitalfields Festival, is Heartfelt, the Sacconi Quartet’s latest project with roboticist Silas Adekunle and producer Ana Tiquia. It was inspired by the idea that by viscerally involving the audience in a performance of Beethoven’s Op.132 Quartet, its transformative power would be felt more intensely. After all, the piece was itself interrupted by the composer’s gastric illness. Talk about body art.

Did they risk exposing nerves? Would there be a sudden spike before a tricky solo? A flurry of irritation at a coughing fit? Not likely. These are seasoned professionals prepared to within an inch of their lives not to have palpitations. It may have been my imagination, but did I detect a slight jump in the pace just before they began the sombre Assai sostenuto? After this, it remained steady, though the box grew so hot I half expected to find my trousers melted through.

In the complex, disrupted first movement, the Sacconis found an airborne logic, though there were some rough, nervy moments, as there were in the later Marcia. Better was the obsessive Allegro ma non troppo, where they hit a playful, earthy stride, as Beethoven tests every combination and facet of its sparse material, making music with almost no music at all.

Suddenly I became aware the beating had stopped. Was Ben slumped over his music stand? No. What could this signify? Had it picked up my inattention? (One can never underestimate robots these days.) A vigorous shake coaxed it back to life (sorry, Ben).

The melancholy finale didn’t quite achieve that sultry, folksy groove that can make for such an intoxicating release; only in the glorious central hymn of thanksgiving, when the lights mercifully stopped their inane flashing, did the Sacconis achieve a sublime distillation. Here was impressive focus, beautifully built and sustained, with cellist Pierre Doumenge providing a warmly burnished underpinning, and leading a powerful sense of homecoming at its end.

Disappointingly (for this project, anyway), the human heart is a miraculously engineered pump which, in healthy young string players, keeps an unerring beat. Watching an ECG trace or attaching electrodes to Hancox’s brain might have been marginally more interesting. But one is faced with the same bald fact: physiological mechanics offer an opaque window on to the mysteries of art.

Still, if robotic hearts can attract new listeners to an extraordinary piece of music, it’s worth it. The quartet faced each other, surround by an audience of every age standing, sitting and sprawled on the floor. As the music soared into the stratosphere, its suspensions weaving a celestial domes above us, I was reminded of the late violinist Peter Cropper and his creation of music ‘in the round’: just a load of people sharing chamber music in the dark. Magic. No wi-fi required.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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