Rachel Podger and VOCES8 at Kings Place review ****


Rachel Podger, VOCES8 – A Guardian Angel

Kings Place, 28th March 2018

  • Orlando Gibbons – Drop, drop slow tears
  • Plainchant – Pater Noster
  • Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – Rosary Sonata No 16 Passacaglia “A Guardian Angel”
  • Jonathan Dove – into thy hands
  • Nicola Matteis – Passaggio rotto, Fantasia, Movimento incognito (from Other Ayrs, Preludes, Allemandes, Sarabandes
  • Mendelssohn – Denn er hat seinen engeln befohlen uber dir
  • Rachmaninov – Bogoroditse Dyevo
  • Tallis – O nata lux
  • James Macmillan – Domine non secundum peccata nostra
  • Thomas Tomkins – When David heard
  • Bach – Partita for flute in A minor BWV 1013
  • Monteverdi – Adoramus te. Christe
  • Orlando Gibbons – Hosanna to the Son of David
  • Giovanni Gabrielli – Angelus Domini descendit
  • Owain Park – Antiphon for the Angels

Blimey. It took almost as long to write out the programme as to listen to some of these pieces.

What do we have here then? Well the undisputed queen of the Baroque violin, (OK maybe not given Isabelle Faust, Monica Huggett, Elizabeth Wallfisch and no doubt a few more I don’t know), has teamed up with the English vocal group VOCES8 to create a programme of violin and vocal works from across the ages all themed around “A Guardian Angel”. Some of these pieces appear on Ms Podger’s 2013 CD of the same name. Rachel Podger creates a big, clear sound with vigorous rhythm which makes it a joy to follow the line of the music. Yet when virtuosity is required, (not so much on this evening), she doesn’t hold back.

Angels being angels in Christian religion they turn up a fair bit in music notably Renaissance, Baroque and the modern composers who seek inspiration from their forbears. Here we have pieces for solo violin, (or flute transposed for violin in the case of the Bach sonata which formed the backbone to the second half), for choir alone and for a combination of the two. Angels watching over you is obviously anathema to my carefully constructed rationalist self-image though maybe all this music and my penchant for early Renaissance art and architecture might cumulatively start to rub off. I was reminded of the world (other-world?) that Annie Baker explored in her latest play John (John at the National Theatre review *****).

The plainchant with the choir perched in the balcony was as meditative as you like and was followed by the Baroque violinists party piece de jour from Biber which seems to be following me around everywhere. It’s title provided the stepping off point for Ms Podger. If you don’t know it, and the genuinely ground-breaking Sonatas that precede it you should. It still sounds cutting edge today. It doesn’t skimp on the bass notes which is probably when it floats my boat. Ms Podger’s recording is the best place to start.

I can take or leave the Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Dove pieces though VOCES8 were more convincing than I expected, the Matteis violin extracts were immediately invigorating in that typical Italian baroque way and the MacMillan piece was as spare (echoes of Part) as you might expect from this committed composer. The Tallis was my favourite with Ms Podger’s violin taking the highest line as the Jesus to the choir’s Elijah and Moses and alongside Andrea Halsey’s spellbinding soprano. Her voice is about as good as you will ever hear (says some-one who knows absolutely nothing about singing!!).

The biggest surprise of all was the Thomas Tomkins. New to me, I will need to seek this out. The Bach was obviously wonderful, Ms Podger has made this her own and proved that it could as easily been scored for violin as flute. The Monteverdi, Gibbons and Gabrielli pieces were relatively short but very welcome. Owain Park’s new work was commissioned especially for this collaboration and amalgamates texts by St Ambrose and Hildegard von Bingen sticking to the angel theme. Like so many commissions for choirs it is immediately attractive, it is a real thrill hearing accessible music for the fisr time.

Throughout the concert we had well constructed antiphonal exchanges between violinist and pure toned choir which brought out the best of the exceptional acoustic at Hall One of Kings Place. No clapping between the pieces, a rapt audience, (no phone glows as far as I could see), and discreet but appropriate lighting all combined to maintain the magic.

I can’t pretend I understand the music that was put in front of me. I can’t read music and I am steadfastly failing to learn its language. If you are like me, and I reckon there are a lot of you who are, (obviously I say this in full knowledge of the fact that no-one reads this), then I cannot recommend the combination of Early and/or Baroque music and voices highly enough. Food for brain, heart and soul (not that there is one, but like I say earlier, faith may yet surprise me).



The Square film review *****

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The Square, 27th March 2018

Ruben Ostlund’s last feature, Force Majeure, is one of my favourite films of the last few years. Now we have The Square to set alongside it. Longer, more ambitious, a bit baggier in places, it once again deals with the nature of embarrassment. This time though there is a healthy dose of satire laid on top. initially at the pretension and contradictions of contemporary art, with Mr Ostlund subsequently taking aim at a lot more targets along the way. It is excruciatingly funny.

The blurbs make a lot of noise about the participation of Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West. Ms Moss, who I only really know from the TV adaptation of the Handmaid’s Tale, has a job to do playing American journalist with whom the lead character, Christian, has a one-night stand. And she is very good in the role. (As an aside my advice to those who want to sample the pungent and vital voice of Margaret Attwood, probably the greatest living English language novelist, should stick to reading her books. I know she gets involved with the TV adaptations but for me they do go on a bit. There. I’ve said it). Dominic West also chips in with some low grade scenery chewing but it’s really just a cameo.

Nope. this film is really about two people. The wonderful Danish actor Claes Bang in front of the camera and our Ruben behind it. It has already garnered a hatful of awards, should have won the Foreign Language Oscar, and will be seen a a classic in decades to come.

Christian is the suave curator of the X-Royal gallery in Stockholm (the real Nationalmuseum, currently being refurbished, offering up its elegant services for the exterior shots). Anne poses some naive questions which flummox him. He is robbed when intervening to help a woman on the street. He and his assistant track his phone and hatch an ill-advised plan to letterbox mildly threatening leaflets to the apartments in the block where his phone apparently lurks. Plot A goes downhill from there. In Plot B the distracted Christian ends up sanctioning a viral campaign to promote the gallery’s latest exhibition. That also ends really badly. Throughout we see Christian’s self-image of progressive liberalism unravel to reveal darker class, intellectual, racial and sexual prejudices. He is a pretty selfish man. A modern, privileged, anxious Everyman.

Ostlund is motivated to explore all those situations where we confront when we should walk away or ignore when we should intervene. There is a sharp dissonance between the way the characters feel they should behave, in polite, liberal society, and the way they actually want to, and do, behave. Consequences flow from banal and absurd decisions. The animal instincts beneath the veneer of sophisticated humanity are revealed, literally in one memorable scene from actor Terry Notary. Ostlund carefully juxtaposes the wealth and lifestyle of the metropolitan elite in Stockholm, the apotheosis of “equality”, with want, in the form of beggars. Civilisation, whether in the form of art, technology, commerce, behaviour, is fragile.

Ostlund claims that some of the episodes are drawn from his own experiences. He and producer Kalle Boman devised an installation, called the Square of course, for an exhibition in 2014. Like its fictional counterpart ,”the Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” The installation in the X-Royal gallery bears a striking resemblance to the work of Robert Smithson. The scene where a man with Tourette’s Syndrome interrupts a press conference happened at a Swedish theatre and Ostlund claims he was mugged in the rather ostentatious way in the film’s opening. Ukrainian-Russian artist Oleg Kulik who performs as a dog is the inspiration for one of the scenes.

Now you might reasonably say the film is a little long, but there isn’t one of the carefully crafted scenes that I would remove. You might also say that its doesn’t really go anywhere, and the narrative is unstructured, but that is the point. Characters jump into the plots unannounced heightening the discomfort. There is a surreal quality to the film, but that reflects more the images which Ostlund selects and the way he shoots his scenes, and the breaks between them, rather than any specific quality of ‘unreality”. There is also a link to the best of sit-com for me where the hapless hero, in an attempt to avoid embarrassment digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole. As in Force Majeure Ostlund has an ear for musical motifs which enhance the spectacle. I recognise the Bach setting and the Bobby Ferrin/Yo Yo Ma mash up; you hipsters will be alert to the more modern grooves.

In a failing bid to keep up with BD’s chosen academic specialism, and because it is so interesting, I have found myself delving into idiot’s guides to social psychology. Ruben Ostlund’s extraordinary work seems to mine hte same vital territory. I am going to watch this film again and again.