Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Maw, McNeff and Debussy, Crush Room, ROH

I attended a lunchtime recital at the Royal Opera's Crush Bar yesterday. I'd like to tell you about Nicholas Maw's seductive setting of Robert Browning's Two in the Campagna, with it's latter-half unendlische melodie like the contours of a Tuscan hillside. Or Suzanne Wilson-Kawalec's delicate but highly controlled reading of Debussy's Arabesque No.1 in a room of volatile acoustic attributes.

Above all I'd like to be able to tell you more about Stephen McNeff's A Voice Of One Delight, a spare, Romantic setting of narrative by Percy Shelley (and interpolated spoken verses) which played to the strengths of the assembled voices, and operated with a lyric cleanliness and rhetoric that Maw's lush orchestration could not. I suppose I just did tell you that.

Alas, I found myself corralled in a corner next to a latecoming family who created low-level distraction throughout the concert and, simply, came between me and a direct experience of the performance.

I'm not going to moan about what was going on. Grounds for complaint are equivocal anyway; the family were clearly trying to engage with the performance themselves. The girl immediately to my right was even taking notes on the music.

In fact, I found the episode interesting in the light of the failed but worthy campaign to get John Cage's 4'33" to the top of the British singles chart last week.

The family demonstrated that the state of the culture is one in which the mediated appreciation of a performance is the norm. In a world in which we listen to the radio whilst driving, watch concerts on television or attend gigs amplified to high volume, then fiddling with a mobile phone, the pages of a programme or simply discussing the performance is natural. Mediated appreciation = the practical application of the fourth wall.

4'33" is not a piece that works as a mediated performance, the unremarked upon but principal irony of recording the work for the Cage Against The Machine campaign. Performance of the work incorporates the ambient acoustic sound in the performance space. It demands that the audience recognise the acoustic worth of the performers by their abstinence and the no less important, contiguous acoustic properties of the space and their co-existence in it. There is no distinction, no cut-off. No fourth wall. The performance and the experience of that performance is unmediated.

My experience of this lunchtime recital was essentially rather frustrating - the acoustic equivalent of trying to trying to look at a view in an auto-focus camera whose resolution persistently defaults to a foreground figure just in the corner of the frame (a bad analogy given my point about unmediated experience, but it makes the point). However, I cannot feel too badly about the children brought to the concert whose understanding of the possibilities of experience is clearly still narrow.

The fact remains that my experience was mediated by the benighted actions of the family. At a stretch I can pass comment on the bloom and flare of Clare McCaldin's opulent mezzo-soprano and the fine-tuned ensemble of the disparate chamber instruments but not on my experience of the music, because I didn't.

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