Monday, 21 February 2011

Neither Speech Nor Language

  It is Friday. Although words are being sung by the female vocal quartet Synergy in London Sinfonietta’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall, no one can tell what they are because no text is provided. The work is Steve Reich’s Tehillim (Psalms) and the text is Hebrew, which few understand. A King James translation might have been fun as well as pertinent. The omission spoils the show because the audience loses interest and the performers, sensing this, become unfocused. In fact some of the words are from Psalm 19, which, as a chorister, I happen to know. Verse 3 is ‘There is neither speech nor language’, ironically.

Verse 1 reads ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’. A soprano and two percussionists smartly pick up the quick beat as if stepping on to a travelator together. The jagged, irregular rhythms dance like Salome under the soprano’s ostinati. The repeated motifs of Reich’s invented minimalism, layered and increased by a note at a time, sound more like the routine of worship than theological ecstasy. It’s a music with clean lines and dispassionate expression as comprehensible as Warhol’s soup can. The entry of cello drone and upper strings is an exciting moment, like switching on a motor. The long-bowed notes course with energy. The voices continue through the three-movement, half-hour work without a break, often doubled by wind instruments, which know no consonants. The second movement is slow, the percussionists are now marimba players, and the supplications less urgent but more intense. The third returns to the mood of the first, which exacerbates our waning interest, although we can at least now make out the oft repeated final word ‘Hallelu!’.

The black-shirt modernists of London Sinfonietta do a reasonable job filling the 2000-seater hall. Thomas Ades is conducting: his notoriety over a certain rude opera attracts the curious. His body jerks with the dance, but it isn’t always clear whether he is leading or being led. He urges Reich’s unclimactic music towards a crest with a clumsy crescendo and the end is unconvincing, the applause reluctant and hard-won. The other work on the bill is Ades’s Piano Concerto ‘In Seven Days’ which has a programme based on the Creation myth and video interest devised by artist Tal Rosner.

Ades writes regular rhythms, which are easier to conduct than Reich’s. The work begins in busy six-eight with violins chattering beautifully as God sorts out chaos, then, with a bright, decisive flute solo, light from darkness. Rosner flashes white and black shapes onto the screens and Ades wears earphones to keep him in touch with the geometric visuals. The piano, played by contemporary specialist Nicolas Hodges, enters dramatically with the appearance of a stunning, bright disc, but he has to fight hard for attention against the distracting images. If anyone’s the soloist here, it’s Rosner. Hodges comes to the fore only occasionally, hitting bass notes while the depths are created, wide-stepping strides through the jungle, descending scales as the sixth day slides towards rest. The Bible has two versions of the creation, one in which Man is the focus, but a later one in which he is only one of the many creatures of the land. The lack of prominence given to the pianist seems to suggest this is Ades’ model.

The seventh day contemplation is too brief and one senses an exhaustion of ideas from the creator. The work suffers too from its bipolarity: it is almost as if it started as one piece, a piano concerto say, and became another, a ‘video ballet’, en route. Or vice versa.  The three men – a Trinity – bowed equally at the end.