Playing Stravinsky with a full orchestra

[From The Financial Times]

Playing Stravinsky with a full orchestra

By Hannah Nepil
Published: November 6 2009 22:50

I brandish a stick and wallop a bass-drum 11 times in quick succession. “Very good,” remarks David Corkhill, principal percussionist of the Philharmonia. This would be encouraging, were my mentor not merely a recorded image on a flat screen.

Re-Rite: Be the Orchestra, an installation-cum-exhibition that opened last Tuesday, offers the chance, according to its creator Esa-Pekka Salonen, “to understand the physical reality of being inside an orchestra”. Since becoming principal conductor of the Philharmonia in September 2008, the Finnish maestro has barely paused for breath. Vienna, City of Dreams – his exploration of the early 20th- century cultural upheaval in the Austrian capital – concluded in October with a semi-staged production of Berg´s Wozzeck.

Re-Rite, conceived with the help of Richard Slaney, the Philharmonia´s head of digital projects, and the backing of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, makes for an ambitious follow-up. Spread across four storeys of the Bargehouse, a warehouse on London´s South Bank, the installation is free to the public. Viewers wander through the rooms, while close-range footage of the Philharmonia performing Stravinsky´s The Rite of Spring is projected on to the walls. Twenty-nine cameras were used to film the performance and, accordingly, the musicians are shown from a huge range of angles. Some even played with cameras strapped to their heads in order to capture their perspective.

And as the project´s title suggests, there are provisions for audience participation. Spectators can join in by “sitting” among the horn players (a camera slots you into the appropriate seat on one of the screens) or by mixing the sound in the capacity of “conductor”. Those with musical instruments are invited to bring them and play along, while beginners can take a percussion tutorial with the digitalised Corkhill.

“It´s like a gigantic toy,” says Salonen, who seems particularly proud of the installation´s most futuristic feature: a hologram screen of himself conducting Stravinsky´s violent score. “When holograms were new, I thought that it would be the funniest thing to have a little Karajan conducting in your living room.” He pauses. “Now it´s me.”

Virtual reality may have been thoroughly colonised by computer games industry, but it still offers vast unharnessed potential to the classical music world. There have been other attempts to apply the concept to orchestral performance. Vienna´s Haus der Musik, for example, provides an opportunity to “conduct” the Vienna Philharmonic from a virtual podium, but Re-Rite explores the possibilities through the entire orchestral body. Consequently, it helps to illuminate and, as Salonen puts it, “enhance” the concert experience.

Unlike a live performance, Re-Rite lays out the nuts and bolts of the orchestral machine for public scrutiny: each room emphasises the sounds of different instruments, while recorded commentaries by members of the Philharmonia, including Salonen and principal bassoonist Robin O´ Neill, shed light on the psychology of orchestral performance.

“People might think that performing is a tremendous intellectual exercise,” says Salonen, “but the installation shows that it´s mostly physical reflexes.” The Rite of Spring encapsulates this physicality, which is partly why, in Salonen´s view, it´s an appropriate piece for the project. “If you have a body, you understand The Rite of Spring, i.e. everybody does.”

Inclusiveness is central to the concept of Re-Rite. Although it is intended for music-lovers and even professional musicians, newcomers to classical music are among the target audience. “If you´ve never heard a symphony orchestra before, or you´ve never heard of The Rite of Spring, then this is the perfect way to get in because you can stay for five minutes, five hours or a month,” says Salonen.

The relaxed environment undoubtedly encourages a more in-depth exploration of Stravinsky´s masterpiece than a concert affords. But whether complete novices will be enticed to attend a live performance of the work after listening to its components in isolation remains to be seen. This is particularly true of a piece as complex as The Rite of Spring, whose 1913 premiere in Paris famously provoked bafflement – not to mention rioting – among its unaccustomed audience. As it stands, therefore, perhaps the installation serves as a supplement rather than an introduction to the concert experience.

The idea is, however, still in fledgling form and Salonen is keen to develop it. “I´m not trying to replace the concert experience but I see no harm in expanding it with technology. We´ll learn from this project and keep researching the possibilities.” The next step is to take the scheme on the road: Re-Rite hits Leicester in March 2010, and there are plans to tour to other parts of Europe.

Whatever its long-term implications, the installation provides a fascinating distraction for those who happen to pass by the Bargehouse. Maybe the next time they go to an orchestral concert and, as Salonen self-deprecatingly jokes, “see this strange man waving a chopstick around, they´ll understand more about why we´re carrying on the way that we are”.

`Re-Rite: Be the Orchestra´ runs until November 15 at the Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, London. Tel: 0800 652 6717

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