Thursday, March 18, 2010

London Sinfonietta play Barry & Ayres, QEH

You'd think that as I'm on the South Bank Centre's mailing list I'd have heard about this gig from them. As it was an email limped into my inbox a few days after the man in Harold Moore's told me about it. He was particularly excited about the prospect of a Gerald Barry premiere; it was the Richard Ayres piece that dragged me along.

It's quite a while since I've been to a proper Sinfonietta-type "contemporary music" gig, so it was reassuring that the crowd seemed to be largely the familiar mix of composers, journos and the nearly-dead. It was also a relief not to have to avoid anyone I've offended over the years. It was the kind of audience full of people who recognised each other, some of whom I recognised, none of whom recognised me. Reassuring but also depressing, because this music ought to be getting a much wider audience than the same old clique.

A lot of this must be down to a failure of advertising. Arts venues generally seem incredibly complacent about their audiences, not really making much effort to reach beyond the audience they already have, and then wondering why they're going down the dumper. It's not really good enough, and the likes of the South Bank really ought to be taking a long hard look at what they do rather than sitting back and feeling smug because they had that Jarvis Cocker doing Meltdown a couple of years ago.

On the other hand, kudos is due for allowing punters to take their drinks into the hall, which I think is an entirely civilised thing to be able to do, and stuff anyone who says different.

But I digress. What of these two fine pieces I heard?

First up was Gerald Barry's Beethoven. This is a setting to music of Ludwig van's famous letter to the Immortal Beloved, in which the great man takes time out from metaphorically bashing us over the head with his cock to go all Emo on us. As Barry says in his programme note, it's a very odd love letter: a combination of declarations of undying love with declarations that it'll never work. If you're feeling sympathetic it's a desperate cry from the heart; if you're not it's some self-flagellating whiny shit.

I can't make up my mind about Barry's music. I like the idea of it,but somehow the reality of it never seems quite as exciting. On the other hand, this particular piece didn't seem too long to me, as a lot of what I've heard of his has. Singer Stephen Richardson negotiated the extremes of his vocal register with wonderful aplomb, and the final section that appropriated the very famous hymn tune that embarrassingly I can't remember what it is now is rather lovely.

I hope the man from Harold Moore liked it. For me though, Richard Ayres' No.42 (In the Alps) was the real deal. Ayres is a comparative rarity in these circles: he has an ability to combine full on, often very silly, humour with moments of genuine profundity, without becoming either superficial or pretentious. He makes it seem entirely reasonable that the band should all come on wearing woolly hats, while conductor Martyn Brabbins is dressed for a good long hike, backpack included.

The use of projected captions (in the manner of a silent movie) is an inspired way to convey the story being depicted in the ensemble, as well as providing some brilliantly timed jokes The female protagonist's raising by very maternal mountain goats raises a chuckle, as does the nicking of bits of Strauss to evoke the Alps (although that's not as funny as the woman next to me thought it was). this also fits in with the silent movie references, as that sort of lifting of well known music is a standard trick of the cinematic accompanist.

Barbara Hannigan (dressed like a post-punk Brunhilde) gives an astonishing performance, in which she's required to impersonate goats, hogs, cicadas and eagles (and probably some other things I've forgotten about), and does so brilliantly. The use of animal noises is a wonderful example of Ayres's way with a joke: it begins as something funny, but evolves into something strange, wonderful and affecting. Likewise Alistair Mackie (fetching in lederhosen) shows that the gag of a hero who can speak only through his bugle can be something much more than slapstick. The tale of unrequited love between these two characters ought to be just silly, but Ayres magically spins something moving out of it.

Two interludes and a postlude reflect on how animals with different heartbeats perceive time. As with so much of this piece, this began as comedy, but by the conclusion was transformed into something altogether more thought-provoking.

It's a terrible shame that the Queen Elizabeth Hall was half-empty. Both these pieces combine immediate appeal with a genuine depth that would repay repeated hearings. Both deserve to, and I'm convinced can find a much wider audience than that tiny in-crowd that turns up to this sort of show. So when are the organisations in question going to make a serious effort to find it?


peter.woolf1 said...

Excellent review of an important concert - agree that Ayres is special;
see my reviews on MUSICAL POINTERS of the concert and of his NMC CD
Peter - (one of your "nearly-dead")é.html#ayres

petemaskreplica said...

Oh, I'm just as nearly-dead as anyone, Peter. You could probably draw an interesting Venn diagram if you had the inclination.

I really wanted to defy the no-photos rule, but I was sat near an usher, and despite my internet bravado, in real life I'm a chicken-shit conformist, unfortunately.

The CD is indeed excellent, and well worth hunting down, or downloading here, if you're modern. They also have a music map on the site which is fun to play with.

Of course, it was Oh Come All Ye Faithful in the Barry! You'd think I could have held that in my head overnight, at least.

Erin said...

Errr actually I think art venues aren't particularly complacent about their audiences, I know SBC isn't for sure. And the advertising is not always necessarily where things have fallen down - something can be programmed late leaving no time for promotion, too much of that composer has been performed lately (unlikely in this case!), there was a festival/other gig that has essentially the same audience a week ago and no one wants to buy tickets for something else so soon...

The reality with the promotion of the event is the budgets are small and the number of gigs is huge, you do what you can with what you've got. SBC in particular does try very hard to reach new audiences. If you have any suggestions for how they could get beyond the trad contemporary classical audience, by all means let me know and I'll pass it on.

petemaskreplica said...

Well one thing there really ought to be is something obvious on the front page of the website saying what's on this week. It looks terribly cluttered and a slight case of information overload at the moment. Maybe I'm showing signs of ageing and descent into mental feebleness, but it looks to my eyes like they're trying to cram everything in with the result that nothing sinks in. Although of course we have an ageing population, so they need to start thinking about the poor confused middle-aged people like me who are going to be their main source of income.

I should say in fairness that the SBC's website isn't the worst arts web presence by a long shot.

I'm not sure I buy the argument that if there's something similar a week sooner no-one will go to both (the orchestras don't seem to think that applies for Gustav sodding Mahler, anyway). Not without firm data/evidence, anyhow. But if that is the case doesn't it show that the promoters need to look beyond the existing audience? My point is that someone like Ayres would have an appeal beyond the typical "contemporary classical" crowd. When was the last time SBC advertised in a tabloid? Probably a crazy idea?

Erin said...

Actually, there is a lot of evidence in the ticket buying of people getting fatigue for one composer or performer or another. The big clash diaries try and prevent the worst of it in the programming ahead of time, but sometimes it doesn't work.

You're funny, do you know how much it costs to advertise in a tabloid? About the entire marketing budget for a bigish contemporary classical event, and then you've got zero budget to even tell the regular audience it's on. It's not an ideal situation, but the first spend has to be people who might go, not people who probably won't go. Also what would you put in an ad in a tabloid - for people who don't know who Ayres is? How would you explain what the concert was? It would have to be a totally different approach, which would require time from three different departments to develop... etc etc etc. You see the problem.

Besides all this, we've done a load of research and people don't book much for classical events (including contemporary classical) from press adverts. Direct mail, flyers from other concerts, emails - but not ads.

In terms of the website, I agree it's cluttered. There's too much to communicate I think because there's so much on.

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is it's a popular refrain to say there wasn't enough advertising, but that doesn't fix the problem as much as you'd think.

petemaskreplica said...

Blimey, I though I was supposed to be the defeatist round here ;)

Of course there aren't easy answers or quick fixes to any of this (certainly nothing I'm going to think of at this time in the morning when I've got a load of shit to get done and I really just want to be in bed)and no-one's got any money. And the same applies to every venue and band about, pretty much. And yes, it would take a lot of work and time and a complete change of approach to begin to address all this. So when are we going to start?