Review: Shiva Feshareki’s Unknown, Remembered

Shiva Feshareki’s ‘Unknown, Remembered …’ brought together the seemingly unrelatable Handel La Lucrezia with the story and lyrics from Ian Curtis’ Joy Division oeuvre in a mix of live baroque instrumentation and electronic soundworlds.

The creation was pure Andre de Ridder (Spitalfields Festival Artistic Curator), bringing differing stories, locations and sounds together in a mix of opera, theatre, and art installation, leaving the audience to create their own art.

As I recall from an interview with de Ridder, last year’s Spitalfields commission Schumann Street set out to achieve a similar goal. It was a great success. It went on to secure an RPS win in May 2018. A crowning achievement for de Ridder in his first year as artistic lead.

This year’s big festival statement didn’t resonate in quite the same way for me.

The elements were there. A dramatic location – a difficult to find empty warehouse space – in which theatrical performances told stories in multiple artforms sited in two rooms separated by a narrow corridor.

Soprano Kathryn Manley cut and lonely and sometimes crazed figure in amongst the audience that wandered around during the performance. The combination of Liam Byrne (viola de gamba) and Marianna Henriksson (harpsichord) set apart by Haroon Mirza’s art installation gave each instrument suitable prominence, exposing textures and allowing an unusually close relationship with each instrumentalist.

The storytelling was more immediate in the second room during the considerably more theatrical tape recorder sequence. There was a chilling kind of solitude as the audience watched Krapp (Richard Strange?) pore over his many tapes, listening to soundbites generated by Feshareki at the mixing desk.

The concluding sequence was mildly disturbing. Making use of the vacant office space in Studio 9294, Lucretia appeared trapped in a sealed room whilst dry ice swirled all around us.

But arresting and well-produced as these were in the moment, there was something lacking. I felt as though I was observing something I couldn’t quite make out. I didn’t feel able to rise to the artistic aspirations because the intention wasn’t immediately obvious without reaching for the accompanying programme notes. This was one of those rare occasions when the art itself didn’t immediately speak to me, meaning I struggled to create the art myself.

It might be fair to include some caveats here. First (and this might at first seem irrelevant), I arrived at the venue annoyed. I’d walked from Stratford International across Queen Elizabeth Park to Hackney Wick at a fair pace, but struggled (even with Google Maps) to find the venue, only finding a Spitalfields banner after I’d stumbled into another audience member experiencing similar levels of difficulty.

In addition, I struggled to read some of the programme notes – white text on a black background, in particular,are phenomenally inaccessible in a dimly lit room. I get that edginess is central to the brand, but simple accessibility measures like readability and venue signage remain important.

So, I could have been irritated before proceedings got underway. My focus could well have been some place else.

Having said all of that, what Spitalfields do well is piquing interest. The programme book for example is written in such a way that it yields information about past events even if you haven’t attended them.

Unknown, Remembered … succeeded in stoking the curiosity in three different works I had previously never even considered exploring. That ability to create content that lasts beyond a live performance event is Spitalfields’ USP.

Spitalfields Festival is a content producer’s dream. I’m not entirely sure whether they realise that.

Perpetuating Annoyances

If there is to be a revolution in classical music journalism, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

The ecosystem remains still fairly firmly in place.

Mainstream media is still regarded by the management of boutique festivals as the ultimate goal. Highly-prized. Badges of honour. Euch.

I shouldn’t complain too much. Spitalfields posted a link to a blog post I wrote about one of their events last week. I appreciated that.

Sure, one shouldn’t really bite the hand that feeds you. But, discovering a tweet trumpeting five star reviews from the Telegraph and the Guardian left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. The implicit message was ‘Aren’t we amazing … the Guardian and the Telegraph said so. Look.’

Don’t get me wrong. I get why mainstream media coverage is an achievement. It’s kudos. Such brands are valuable – potent illustrations of success.

But be careful. Spitalfields’ distinctiveness is at odds with the mainstream – that’s exactly the Festival’s appeal.

If you court the niche but amplify the mainstream, then you’re aligning yourself with the latter whilst alienating the former. A cynical strategy.

Maybe that was always the intention.

A word in your ear if that is the case. If you remained true to your core proposition then reviews from the mainstream press wouldn’t matter. Stars wouldn’t matter.

Disappointingly, it appears they do.

Review: Late Night Bach \ James McVinnie \ Spitalfields Festival

James McVinnie’s 45 minutes of Bach as part of the Spitalfields Festival this week was a sensitively curated selection from Books 1 and 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier presented as a complete sequence without interruption.

In the dimly-lit Shoreditch Church interior (complete with its own resident cat), Vinnie’s prompt and energetic interpretation of Bach’s seminal work created a nourishing and reinvigorating experience.

Moving too. This in part down to the meditative qualities of Bach’s composition, but also to the energy that had been present in the church during the earlier event.

Here was an aspect of Spitalfields’ distinctive approach reinforced: a serendipitous personal experience borne out of one concert following another – a sort of meta-experience. Read my previous review for a bit of background.

It helped that James had been explicit at the top of the programme, asking us to resist applauding. An intensely intimate feeling inside the church resulted, bringing us closer to performer in the process.

What transpired for me was a rather dark series of realisations, the top line being that I have ben living day-to-day for the past five months with a low-level but constant sense of anger.

Some of that anger is evident (to me at least) in the subject matter which has inspired some of the posts on Thoroughly Good in recent weeks.

But going further (during the Prelude & Fugue in B minor BWV 869) was a really unexpected insight – the anger was borne out of fear.

And when I started to ask myself what exactly I thought I was fearful of, so the list started to populate itself with all manner of things, some consequences of a dramatic shift in my personal circumstances, others more global, universal and distinctly out of my control.

That a performance of something as so exquisite as music by Bach brought this about will come as no surprise at all to most. That’s what Bach’s music does. It’s not so much something you stick on in the background, as something you submit to on the basis that you’ll make something done to you.

To experience it in such an intimate setting where the connection is made not just with the performer but other members of the audience too made this a very special experience.

Late Night Bach was part of Spitalfields Music Festival 2017. It runs until 10 December.

Review: There will be two wars / Spitalfields Festival

‘There will be 2 wars’ was a treat. Part performance, part panel discussion, part art installation tour. All of it inspired by or grown from the sound of post-Punk bank Fugazi.

Composer Greg Saunier’s compositions used material from one of the band’s albums – The Screw – giving us rich reimaginings to absorb ourselves in. These engaging works celebrated incessant infectious rhythms and angry sounds. Quite a remarkable achievement.

Each of the four solo works – scored for organ, violin, bass clarinet and viola da gamba – possessed an unexpectedly captivating beauty. The intimate studies were performed twice throughout the two hour exploration, first as individual guerilla-like performances interspersed in discussion and talks. The second as a complete suite of works concluding the concert. In both iterations the gritty interior helped underpinned the urgency in Saunier’s often demanding writing – the whole effect was a sort of deconstructed Fugazi reconstituted with solo lines, art, architecture and conversation.

Where this event undoubtedly triumphed was in the care and love taken in curating and structuring the content. Music, conversation and art reinforced one another – an act that deftly removed silos and gave us cheerleaders of the genre a little bit of hope. This music is art and art is enriching.

It was though we were the audience in a late night live TV broadcast just minus any cameras. The vibe was laid back, accommodating and inclusive. Heart rates lowered, attention focussed on what really mattered.

I could see how Spitalfields could, with nerve, capitalise on their style by live streaming events on YouTube. They have the location and they have the artistic drive too.

More than any other event I’ve attended this year I found myself feeling moved. Here I felt as though I had found a new home as an audience member. No one pandered to the desperate need to contextualise the experience. The event followed the natural energies in the space.

Spitalfields Music welcome you with a warm smile whenever you step in a festival venue. Tonight’s event had been given the space to exist and develop and the audience played an equal part in that.

There was a feeling too as though we were all sharing in the joy experienced by the curator Andre de Ridder, artist Mark Titchener, and performers.

All of the usual conventions and preoccupations with staging live performance had been left outside on Shoreditch High Street. The usual clutter had been cleared away, leaving us able to focus on the art.

That this was by design and not by accident meant I felt I connected with the organisers. Thats a highly-prized audience experience.

This is where live performance is at: innovative; fresh; authentic.

Q&A with Spitalfields Festival 2017 curator Andre de Ridder

Conductor and producer Andre de Ridder is curating the 2017 Spitalfields Festival (Saturday 2 December – Sunday 10 December).

In this Q&A he explains how football helps him escape from the day job, his musical roots, and the approach he’s taken to bringing together unusual musical genres in this year’s Spitalfields Festival. 

Jon: Tell me two surprising things about you

Andre: [laughs] I’ve met quite a few conductors now who as much into football as I am. There are a group of conductors who exchange views on all sorts of goings-on in championship football. We sometimes collectively damn our schedules when there are Saturday concerts or even night Wednesday night rehearsals, especially when there are important matches on.

Football helps me puts my conducting life into a sort of context. Conductors lives are quite intense – mine especially between performing and curating. Your brain never stops. If you have an idea in the middle of the night you don’t want to let that idea go. I’ts not like a 9 to 5 job where you might be able to leave the work behind. It’s great then to have something to really switch off from. It can either be watching football or more recently watching Stranger Things on Netflix. A guilty pleasure.

J: I’m hardline on the opening question. What’s surprising thing number two?

A: Ah. OK.

It’s maybe boring to get back to the music but it does connect to the Spitalfields Festival.

I’m a huge fan of what you could describe as post-punk hardcore seminal called Fugazi. In some form or another features in the festival and I guess for people who know me as a conductor of classical and contemporary music would not necessarily connect me with that genre.

J: I haven’t heard of Fugazi. When I hear their music for the first time what do you think I’ll hear?

It may depend which song you listen to because their music can sometimes have a sort of edge to it that can be associated with anger.

Sometimes this anger speaks more through the words. The music is actually quite transparent and even harmonically ambiguous and leaves a sort of mysterious painful nostalgic aura around it.

So, you may either be immediately intrigued by it, or a little bit put off at first because it sort of it comes from a hardcore DIY aesthetic. But its actually musically quite diverse and sensitive. It may take a while to get beyond the first hurdle and the rush of noise.

J: You have broad but deep musical interests. Where does that stem from do you think?

A: I grew up as an only child in a musical household of parents who very old school classical music people. They met in an opera house. My Dad grew up with a love of great interpreters like Toscanini and Furtwangler and the repertoire associated with them. Mr Dad was a conductor, my mum was an opera singer. They were conservative in terms of their taste. They made me learn the piano and the violin.

But because I was an early child I spent quite a lot of time out of the house to play football and to socialise with my peers. Interestingly some of them were really music geeks and they were pretty much into British music and especially that new wave that came out post-punk 79/80, post Manchester scene including Joy Division and New Order and the Cure and other bands from that new wave British scene. And really that was the first cult music that I got into as far as non-classical music is concerned.

It’s interesting that only now that people have been saying recently that pop music used to be avant-garde. If you look at pop music in the 80s and 90s, they were stylistically and technically and musically there were a lot of avant-gardish things going on.

That’s not really the case any more. Pop used to be a forward looking reinventing itself medium – now its more about rehashing material. Maybe the avant-garde happens in more hybrid styles – the kind of thing I’m quite interested in nowadays – electronic music, alternative rock – music that’s off the mainstream. Those scenes they also include people who do amble between the two worlds – some are classical composers, some delve into pop. People like Anna Meredith – she’s one of a generation who grew up with an appreciation of both classical music and pop.

J: When you are crossing these genres in your work and your thinking, is there an element of wanting to rekindle the thrill you experienced when you were first introduced to them?

A: There is definitely that sense of thrill of being involved in something that feels fresh and visceral, and also something that feels like its been created by humans that I can understand. This is the element of collaboration I appreciate -the people who are really interested in collaboration rather than those locking themselves away to create some aloof masterpiece which then has to be deciphered and performed by specialist groups. Collaboration makes it possible to get away from that a little bit. For me there’s a thrill associated with collaborating like that – even if its about facilitating collaboration.

J: When are you are collaborating which is new and fresh and visceral, what is the signal that you get from the audience that says to you on whatever level, ‘this has been a success’?

A: I would say that you can definitely feel there’s a sense of tension and focus and silence in the room, even if its music that’s amplified and in part quite loud. It ebbs and flows. There’s a palpable sense of tension – a sense that people are listening in the room. If I get that sense and I see that going on, I know its working. I’ll get much more direct feedback from audiences afterwards if its a non-classical music setting. Classical music venues keep the performers set back – that makes it difficult for a performer to get any immediate feedback.

But I will always try to talk to people and a lot of people do want to talk to us and share their feelings. Sometimes when I talk to audiences who haven’t been to an orchestral concert before – I do this quite a lot – they are absolutely and really overwhelmed. It’s a really moving thing. It’s not a naive thing. It’s a very open thing. They are honest. That gives me a sense of hope when I experience that.

J: What attracted you to working with the Spitalfields Festival?

A: I go back quite a long way with the Festival. When I studied with the Royal Academy I was interested in Judith Weir’s music and performed quite a lot of her stuff. I got to know her personally at the time she was artistic director of the Spitalfields Music. I formed a contemporary ensemble when I was at the Academy and we went to Germany to perform it.

Judith invited the ensemble to perform at the Festival. We did a couple of concerts there. Through the Festival I got to know East London. I learned a lot about the history of the area. I found it fascinating. What struck me about the Festival over the years was that it always was good at combining genres. It was very proactive at integrating learning and participation projects into their programmes too. In a similar way they were good at combining old and new music. That in itself isn’t new, but it was something that appealed to me because it was a way I liked to work.

In comparison to curating a purely contemporary festival (which I do in Helsinki with the Musica Nova in Helsinki) Spitalfields gave me the opportunity to widen the scope, seeing different things next to each, combining contemporary with classic and even romantic music.

Spitalfields and the beautiful houses in the Huguenot streets around Christchurch provide a fantastic location for the music Schumann and Schubert. These are the kind of places these composers would first perform their songs in. So after that I end up thinking, ‘Who are the original great word-setters and songwriters?’ Then I ended up going back to Monteverdi, and Schumann (who basically wrote song cycles – in present-day terms the inventor of the concept pop album). That what’s it about. It’s a story about love and loss and its a person who takes on a personality. It’s a person who goes on a journey. It’s basically what David Bowie was doing in the albums he was doing. Fugazi worked in a similar vein.

For me, I found all of these beautiful connections across the ages without any of it feeling too forced. I found it was possible to connect them all up simply by allowing them too, by putting them all into the mix and seeing what emerged.

The Spitalfields Winter Festival starts on Saturday 2 December and runs until Sunday 10 December 2017. Be quick – tickets are going fast.