The After Dark festival marks the spring equinox in style, plus the best of classical concerts in March
After Dark, Sage Gateshead ★★★★☆
After Dark started at sunset and ended with sunrise – and because this festival, organized by BBC Radio 3, fell on the vernal equinox, this period of darkness lasted exactly twelve hours . What better way to celebrate this mysterious turn of the year than an all-night phantasmagoria of eerie sounds erupting from every corner of Gateshead’s arts hub, The Sage, some booming and hypnotic, others shrill and ethereal like angelic voices, even more infused with eerie rustles and hoots, like a nocturnal forest.
Isn’t Radio 3 supposed to be devoted to classical music, you might ask? Well yes, but classical music is a predominantly daytime form, whereas it’s the late-night sounds of the network’s late-night schedule that are increasingly in tune with the times. This form of “immersive” music is outside of any genre. It is usually composed of electronic sounds, often with a hint of distant and seductive culture, sometimes with a hypnotic rhythm, sometimes drifting without discernible pulse. You are not listening to immersive music, but allowing it to transport you to another level of consciousness.
After Dark audiences went back and forth between the Sage’s all-night bar and the various sets played in the three auditoriums. Instead of the usual tight rows of seats in the main concert hall, there were beanbags to gratefully sink into with a beer in hand (or herbal tea in my case) while listening to music. .
It must be said that Radio 3 has brought together a very impressive line-up of artists within this strange twilight musical universe: turntables rub shoulders with saxophonists and music makers using field recordings. So in the overall oceanic and immersive feeling, there was a certain variety of tones. Electronic duo Darkstar felt suitably dark and menacing, while The Sleeping Forecast was a charming and innocently repetitive musical background to a recitation of the expedition forecast, delivered live by Viji Alles. And there were times when the night went ‘classic’, especially in the Royal Northern Sinfonia set. This included an engaging double bass concerto by American composer Missy Mazzoli, a fascinating essay on the layered waves of string and harp sounds by John Luther Adams, and the now classic Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet by Gavin Bryars, based on the recorded tremulous voice of a homeless man singing a hymn.
Everything was intriguing in its own way and brilliantly staged. There was even a welcome bit of humor in the entertaining ‘poetry cabaret’, featuring readings from mainly Newcastle-based poets. For me, the most poignant moment of the evening came when acclaimed electronic composer Christian Löffler presented his reworkings of Beethoven’s famous symphonic recordings. The electronic sounds were mingled with snippets of Beethoven’s symphonies, played by a string quartet on stage. These gave an invigorating burst of lucidity, reminding us of the world of daylight. At the end of the festival, as dawn broke over the Tyne and sitar player Jasdeep Singh Degun played an early morning raga to greet the new day, it was a relief to welcome this world back. HI
Highlights of the After Dark Festival will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 until March 27, live and on BBC Sounds
BBC Philharmonic/Davis, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester ★★★★★
Three weeks ago, the first of six concerts shared by the Halle Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, offered two of his sweetest symphonies and a tenderly pastoral song cycle. The second in the series was in many ways its polar opposite.
Dating back to the days of the Sea Symphony and sharing the visionary tone of its finale, Toward the Unknown Region is a fervent 12-minute arrangement of Walt Whitman’s verse. It’s been said that the title could be the motto of Vaughan Williams’ lifetime’s work, and while that might be a tough claim for any performance to live up to, the Hallé Choir and BBC Philharmonic seemed determined to prove it. that is not exaggerated. . Provisional anticipation gradually gives way to fervent affirmation, at each stage under consummate artistic control. By comparison, Scriabin’s poem of ecstasy – a near-contemporary with an equally life-defining title – looks like a mere bogus exercise in self-serving bombast.
The acoustics of Bridgewater Hall are perfectly suited to the splendor of Vaughan Williams’ conclusion. Whether this suits the restrained textures of his Fourth Symphony is less clear. It is by far the composer’s most abrasive score, and above all it needs clarity and bite. But if the atmosphere attenuated the ferocity a little, the dynamism and the energy of the game were not lacking. Sir Andrew Davis knows his Vaughan Williams as well as any living conductor, and he expertly steered the performance around the many perils and pitfalls.
The composer himself repudiated attempts to explain the harshness of the Fourth Symphony in terms of the state of Europe under the rising dictatorships of the 1930s. But composers cannot dictate what audiences get out of their music, whether at the time of composition or later. So if anyone heard foreshadowings of current atrocities in the heartbreaking violence of the Fourth Symphony, it spoke to its larger message of embattled humanism. William Walton may have gone too far when he called this the “greatest symphony since Beethoven”, but he was on safe ground in venturing into the comparison.
Nor will anything less than top accolades suffice for Job: A Masque for Dancing, Vaughan Williams’ ballet from the late 1920s. The script is broadly faithful to the biblical narrative. But the power of the music is transcendent, especially when played as thrillingly as it was here. The composer himself may not have been a fan of servile religiosity, but he could certainly recognize an archetype when he saw it. Not only did he hit the nail on the head with such things as his depiction of Job’s false comforters through a wailing alto saxophone, but he knew exactly how to enshrine images of adversity, healing and blessing in words that still speak volumes. long nearly a century later.
There are two people I wish I could have heard this spiritually nourishing concert. One is the late Michael Kennedy, Vaughan Williams’ personally chosen biographer. How moved he would have been. The other is Richard Taruskin, American author of a beautiful multi-volume History of Western Music, who omitted Vaughan Williams from its pages entirely, save for a half-muted apology for doing so. How repentant he should have been.