mon 24/06/2024

London Contemporary Orchestra, Hugh Brunt, Aldwych Station | reviews, news & interviews

London Contemporary Orchestra, Hugh Brunt, Aldwych Station

London Contemporary Orchestra, Hugh Brunt, Aldwych Station

Immersive music-making goes underground and comes of age with this cleverly programmed evening of new music

Jonathan Harvey's The Angels: 'a glimpse of heaven in a train tunnel'

Three hundred years ago we danced and ate to art music. Before that we worshipped to it. In the 19th century we began to sit and stare at it. The immersive music movement of the past decade has moved things along again. Today we are encouraged to swim through performances, sniffing the music out, hunting it down. The latest ensemble to free themselves from the sit-and-stare model are the enterprising outfit, the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO).

For their concert on Friday we had to go down 200-odd steps into the labyrinths of the disused station at Aldwych. It was well worth the effort.

What has historically undermined the immersivists has been a gimmicky fetishisation of spaces at the expense of quality music programming and playing. The LCO didn’t fall into this trap. In every programming choice there was no question of why or what’s the point. This was a tightly crafted, cleverly curated and beautifully delivered evening of music.

The night was built around the last work that the ill-fated Canadian composer Claude Vivier wrote, a short and unfinished opera, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele ("Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?"). Written in the early 1980s, the piece is one of those strange occasions in art where fiction disconcertingly presages fact. While the composer was fantasising about a stranger murdering his protagonist on a subway, the composer himself was stabbed to death by a rent boy at his home.

The days of sitting and staring are over. Long live the musical hunt

As a fragment, the opera demands a completion of some sort. On Friday this came in the form of a musical rumination through diverse contemporary repertoire, the performances scattered across the tunnels of Aldwych Station. Much of this music channelled the uncanny tragedy of Vivier’s story. But some of it took its cue from the shyness and isolation that this neglected space evokes.

A veil descended quickly upon us with the short hypnotic opener by Morton Feldman, The Viola in My Life 3, played with calm focus by Robert Ames and Antoine Francoise. This was followed by Francoise's intense performance of Thomas Ades’s atmospheric threnody for solo piano, Darknesse Visible. Alternating a stuttering melody with hefty, wide octaves, it was as if the Poor Jew and Rich Jew from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition were having another uncomfortable encounter.

From here we descended the stairwell and boarded a train, pausing for a few minutes to hear a new work for tubular bells and cello by Gregor Riddell. Cage’s chilly Imaginary Landscape No 1 met us on the platform, piped out of speakers and accompanied by a detached film about the underground that added to the sense of urban anomie. “I’d say talk among yourselves but you’re not really allowed to do that on the undergound are you?” said the pony-tailed percussionist as we waited for the electronics to be wired up.

We couldn’t talk, but the music on the train could (pictured right). This hugely attractive chamber work from Oyvind Torvund, Neon Forest Space, chatted away with impunity, at first within, then without, a groove, exploring, feeling about, bouncing around generously through an enticing array of textural worlds. You could hear the influence of Simon Steen-Anderson in the expanded sonic palette – which included the subtle interaction between spray can, mini fan and a half-empty plastic bottle of water.

Next came a glimpse of heaven in a train tunnel. This was the real glory of the evening. Lamps strapped to their heads, the choir bobbed about in the dark, conductor Hugh Brunt and the tunnel’s miraculous acoustics helping to create a seraphic glow in this exquisite performance of Harvey’s marvellous choral piece The Angels. Is this tunnel not perhaps the best concert hall in London?

It was a nicely spectral prelude to the Vivier, which took place on a second platform further through the labyrinth, with the orchestra and choir sat between the tracks. I’ve written before about how much I want to like Vivier but rarely do. With Glaubst, again, I felt slightly shortchanged. This time Vivier had a very good excuse for not quite getting things up to scratch. No doubt if he hadn't been murdered, he might have clarified the textures, which seemed a little smudged. Although maybe this was the acoustic. Brunt, the orchestra and singers did a fine job with what they had, capturing the strangeness of the work well, especially the Manichaean vocal battle between the Commendatore-like bass and the haunted, half-speaking, half-singing main protagonist.

Site-specific concerts can be like a form of living poetry. The fraternisation that is encouraged - between architecture, music and performance - has the ability to catalyse completely new intellectual and emotional connections in the brain. Friday night was a perfect example. It was the LCO and immersivism at its very best. The days of sitting and staring are over. Long live the musical hunt.


You make this sound wonderful. But why does it have to be a case of 'either'/'or'? In concert halls, we don't sit and stare, we sit and listen. There aren't that many site-specific venues that would really suit a large symphony orchestra. So let's carry on having the best of both worlds.

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