Review: Jonathan Harvey Total Immersion Concert

On January 28th, the Guildhall School of Music presented a concert at the Barbican as part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion Series.  This series spends time focusing on the work of a single contemporary composer.  Normally held on a single day, this instalment took a weekend to focus on the music of Jonathan Harvey. This concert picked up chamber/solo pieces that were concerned with memory, spirituality and death. Harvey is famous for his blending of live performance with electronics – both prerecorded and processed live, and we were treated to both here.


Before the Guildhall Chamber Orchestra took the stage, James Kreiling performed Harvey’s solo piano works Vers and Tombeau de Messiaen.  The second of these involves a prerecorded “tape” part, and included many moments where the recording preceded the pianist with either a sensuous sonority anticipating a coming chord, or activity that set the pianist off in short bursts of motion. Because the flow of information between tape and player can only ever go in one direction, pieces with prerecorded parts always feel something like a puppet a show.  This was true of Tombeau, but James also managed to dwell on the delicate and fragile moments, communicating them with fragile intimacy.

The Guildhall Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Richard Baker and led by Marcus Barcham Stevens, then treated the audience to performances of Tranquil AbidingSongs of Li Po (with soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons)and Calling Across Time.  The performances were first-rate, as Baker drew out disciplined, nuanced and engaged performances from the students.

I was particularly impressed with the dynamic range the players achieved, and the true pianissimos in Tranquil Abiding gave the work a constant sense of motion and intense honesty.  Soprano Marta Fontanals-Simon was excellent throughout the Songs of Li Po, but the entire thing might just have done with a bit of sound reinforcementas the busy string parts are often creating dense and active textures, making it difficult to hear the words (though I’m sure many would say I should have simply coughed up the £3.50 for a programme!)

Finally, we heard Calling Across Time.  The piece has an elaborate set-up, with two wind quintets sat on either side of the stage, a percussionist and trumpet player behind the audience, and a live synthesiser.  As I’m writing up my Doctorate at the moment, I’ve been particularly engaged in Denis Smalley’s concept of source-bonding which, more-or-less, had to do with our tendency to assign a source to the things we hear.  Source-bonding largely makes these connections based on the timbre of that sound.  So, if I hear a sound coming out of a speaker that sounds like a trumpet (whether it is actually a trumpet, a recording of a trumpet, or some other sound that just sounds like a trumpet to me), then that sound is source-bonded to a trumpet (and, for all intents and purposes, is a trumpet).

This performance threw up some interesting questions about this idea in electro-acoustic music, where live musicians are present.  As the sounds started to come out of the speakers, the entire audience started shifting about in their seats, trying to locate the musician creating the music (rather ironically, the synth player on the stage in front of them!).  I’m sure Elias Canetti would have some other explanations for why a crowd of people don’t like unidentified sounds coming from behind them, but in this instance it seemed to me that audiences have a genuine desire to know exactly what they are experiencing.

So, in a concert where virtually every sound had been created live (and in a concert venue where an even greater percentage of the music heard is always created live) the audience had a genuine interest in knowing who or what was making that sound.  There was also every good reason – with other live players behind us – to imagine that there were some currently unseen players creating these sounds.

I do wonder if all of this actually ends up overtaking the piece, as the process (and processing) is so obvious and forward in the texture that it quickly becomes the only thing you’re paying attention to.  One becomes acutely aware that the sound coming out of the speaker to their left, is actually quite different to the sound coming out of the trumpet behind them to the right.  Perhaps though, as the piece is states as being about resurrecting humans in history when we read their thoughts, this is exactly what Harvey was after.

I would highly recommend the two remaining Total Immersion events at the Barbican (Focused on Brett Dean and Arvo Pärt.)  A day pass (as little as £28) will actually get you into every event, and is good value for money if you can commit for the day.  This pass, and individual tickets can be booked online, by calling the Barbican Box Office (020 7638 8891) or in person.

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