Bristol Proms: the final three concerts

Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Handel round off the first season

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Breaking down the barriers (whether wrongly or rightly perceived) to enjoying classical music was one of the aims of the first Bristol Proms. And, sometimes in rather unexpected ways, it proved to be a thread that ran through the final three concerts of the series.

In an unadvertised prelude to the Sacconi Quartet and Guy Johnston’s performance of Schubert’s String Quintet, Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris joined the musicians on stage to embark on a ‘listening improvisation’. Perhaps taking a cue from Derren Brown or a stage hypnotist, Morris invited us to close our eyes and imagine a time in our life when we were on the threshold of change. Based on our facial expressions and verbal responses, the musicians tested out musical ideas to then use in a short improvisation. On hearing the results, I think I can reasonably say it’s not how Schubert went about creating his String Quintet masterpiece.

The 1828 chamber work filled the second half of the concert, with cameras filming the facial expressions of the audience – some of whom were on stage with the musicians, with two people even sitting in the middle of the group. It’ll all be made into a film. I’ve no idea what we looked like listening to Schubert, but if it’s anything like the fascinating 'listening portraits' seen in John Bridcut’s Elgar documentary The Man Behind the Mask it might well be worth a watch. All sorts of thoughts (inspired and otherwise) came to mind – Can it really be that comfortable for the audience sitting on the floor of the stage? It’s hard to beat Schubert for a sublime melody that goes straight to the heart; Don’t the musicians look exhausted now, and so on – but I imagine feelings are what register on our faces rather than thoughts. And there are plenty of those to be evoked by this work. The Sacconis and guest cellist Guy Johnston gave an utterly committed, gutsy performance, though perhaps the sense of battle (with the dry acoustic?) was more Beethovenian than Schubertian. But there was tenderness and poignancy too, and it touched on the profundity of this ineffable music. It wasn’t hard to mistake the audience’s reaction from the lengthy applause at the end.

The audience involvement in Friday’s concert, titled ‘Vibrations’, wasn’t planned. Nicola Benedetti and her trio – cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk – were most of the way through a heart-on-sleeve performance of Tchaikovksy’s Piano Trio in A minor when Elschenbroich’s A string snapped. Nipping off stage to change it, he left Benedetti to entertain the audience, chatting to us about the music and answering questions from the Prommers in the pit about her violin (a 1717 Stradivarius). She soon headed off stage with the pianist to find out what was happening with the cello, leaving the page-turner in the spotlight. As the audience chuckled, he shimmied over to the piano and began a witty rendition of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Would it happen at the Wigmore? The lighthearted and chatty atmosphere was working its magic.

The digital twist for this concert was ‘danceroom Spectroscopy’, a means of translating the movement of the musicians into ‘an atomic simulation’. A large screen at the back of the stage danced with images, from monochrome tadpole-like figures in Benedetti’s solo Bach to blood-red spots at the end of the Tchaikovsky. Even after an explanation from its engaging creator Dr David Glowacki, it was hard to know what we were looking at, but they were distracting and mesmerising too. After a slightly skittish, rushed feel in her Bach D minor Chaconne, Benedetti seemed spurred on by the flashier fireworks of Paganini’s Caprices No. 16 and No. 24, and reached a more settled place for the solo Ysaÿe Sonata No. 5.  And, in the second half, the Tchaikovsky Trio in A minor, Benedetti seemed most at home. Her trio makes a rich, warm sound, with arresting playing from Grynyuk and Elschenbroich that relished both the intensity and delicacy of the music. Perhaps more obvious communication between the string players and pianist might have lifted it to another level.

A ‘semi-staged’ or, as Morris explained, ‘stage-managed’ version of Handel’s Messiah was the culmination of the Bristol Proms, the first time the work had been performed at the Bristol Old Vic since 1782. Performed with cuts, Morris asked the audience to ‘pretend they had nodded off’ if they had been hoping to hear a complete performance. Musically it was a mixed bag: while the Southbank Sinfonia seemed scrappy, even more so than the orchestra being divided across the stage should warrant, the year-old Erebus Ensemble’s fulsome and fresh voices brought polished fervor to Handel. Of the soloists, bass Neal Davies stole the stage, particularly thrilling in his aria 'The Trumpet Shall Sound', making tenor Andrew Tortise and soprano Caroline MacPhie seem rather pale in comparison, and alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers rather too bold in her acting at times, for instance in her air 'He is despised'.

Prepared, after Morris’s comments, for a work-in-progress feel to the staging and perhaps mishaps, the theatrical element was a welcome surprise. An actor, Tristan Sturrock, playing Christ, but described as 'The Teacher' in the programme, was present on stage from the start: we saw him dead, alive, washing feet, whipped, crucified, all brought off with a dramatic lightness of touch that nevertheless never underplayed the shocking nature of the story. The musicians essentially acting their roles, and singing from memory, seemed to add a level of directness to the story, reminding me of Peter Sellars’s intensely moving ‘ritualisation’ of Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic. Perhaps this indeed was a work-in-progress: it would be interesting to see what Morris would do with the Berlin band. And the theatre was used to full effect, the choir standing right at the front of the stage to sing the Hallelujah Chorus, for instance, while boy soprano Toby Yapp made his entrance in the middle of the theatre and was carried through the pit to the stage.

The pit was the scene for one of the concert's stranger moments. An enthusiastic audience member took Morris's rules to heart, and was clearly enjoying the Hallelujah Chorus – arms in the air, clapping and whooping. People seemed to be smiling at him until he was escorted out, not by members of staff, but by two other Prommers in the pit, begging the question, who is it that enforces the so-called conventions of classical concerts? The venues or the concert-goers? It'll be interesting to see how this thought-provoking and ultimately hugely enjoyable festival answers that question next year.

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