Saturday, 7 September 2013

A bold experiment - Sinfonia Cymru Unbuttoned

Sinfonia Cymru Unbuttoned
The Chapter Arts Centre is a lively venue to the west of central Cardiff, it has a programme of film and theatre, a bar serving a wide range of beer and a great cafe, both of which were very busy when I visited on Friday 6 September 2013. What the centre does not have was a regular classical music programme. Until now. The centre is the venue for Unbuttoned presented by Sinfonia Cymru.

The idea of attracting new audiences to classical music is one that appeals to many different classical groups and there are numerous attempts to re-invent the classical concert such as Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Late Shift and City of London Sinfonia's CLoSer. For their new venture, Unbuttoned, Sinfonia Cymru has taken a very serious approach to the problem, effectively taking the concerts their target audience. Unbuttoned at the Chapter Arts Centre is not aimed at convinced classical music lovers like myself (Sinfonia Cymru performs for this target audience at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama), but for the people congregating in the buzzy bar at Chapter Arts Centre, who would not normally thing about going to a classical concert.

Unbuttoned, events rather than concerts, is presented in collaboration with a DJ (though Tom Raybould is far more than that, writing his own scores) and visuals in collaboration with Arc Vertiac, Roughcollie and Chameleonic Design, all concerned extremely well thought of in their own fields but now well known for their classical links.

They and the orchestra approached the creation of the event with utmost seriousness but from an entirely different standpoint to the usual music-historical point of view. Music was chosen, from a playlist of suggestions, on the basis of the sound of the music and whether audio designer Tom and visuals designer Nick felt they could work with it. This mean that the players performed a series of movements from works which might have been frustrating from a music-historical point of view but which the creators of the event felt worked.

The theatre at the Chapter Arts Centre is a relatively small space, a black-box studio theatre. We entered to find the musicians in place on a pair of platforms in the middle of the space - three violins, viola and two cellos, with the audience allowed to flow freely around sitting on the floor or standing at will. Lighting was dramatic and electronic 'ambient' music was playing in the background. Like most of the audience I ignored it, treating it as elevator music, though in fact the music had been as carefully crafted by Tom as the rest of the programme.

The light went down and four of the musicians launched into the second movement of Ravel's string quartet - a tricky movement to start with and one which to my ears seemed to land the listener right in the middle of something. On two huge screens were projected Nick's visuals; here I felt that the creators had not been daring enough and that the experience was not quite immersive enough and over spotlit the musicians.

Talking to the creators afterwards it became clear that they were very aware of any limitations of the event and viewed it as simply a start. There are two further Unbuttoned events at Chapter Arts Centre this year, in November and December, when the format will be modified, developed and improved.

The musicians played the 2nd, 3rd and 4th movements of Ravel's quartet, then the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, the first movement of Mendelssohn's F minor quartet and part of Barber's Adagio for Strings.

Between each of the works, Tom's interstitial 'ambient' music returned, but it was the Barber which raised the most discussion afterwards for here Tom applied an extra electronic layer to the live music. This was also the moment when the musicians played something that the non-musicians in the audience might recognise. And a straw poll afterwards indicated that the non-musicians (the target audience) had loved it, whereas the convinced classical music lovers had varied from indifference to positive hatred of what had been done to Barber's original.

Tom explained afterwards that he had written the music for the Barber first, and that all the earlier interstitial music was based on this; an example of the serious of the enterprise, though coming from a different viewpoint. Nick's visuals were just as carefully thought out though an initial exchange of questions after the event showed that he and I approached the music from very different standpoints. I had asked whether the visuals responded to the structure of the music. I had been thinking of the visuals created for Matthew Barley's performances of Britten's Third Cello Suite, which elucidated the music's structure. But for Nick, the word structure meant something else. He wasn't responding to the music-historical analysis (first subject, second subject, development etc) but to the sound of the music itself. He had visuals keyed to the high, medium and low frequencies and then mixed them manually during the performance, with all the visuals based on natural phenomena, albeit abstracted.

The audience took some time to relax, standing around stiffly for much of the Ravel and only gradually sitting down, relaxing and wandering around. The format has not yet quite been perfected and there was still something of the reverence of the classical concert about the event, with the audience applauding after each movement.

The creators are very aware that the event is an experiment with more work needed, but they were admirably serious in their desire to take risks. The Q and A session afterwards, arranged so that we journalists and bloggers could get more background on the event, turned into a lively feedback session in which ideas behind the event were discussed freely and in a very animated fashion.

Was it a success? Well, the straw poll suggested so. Most people involved in Sinfonia Cymru had non-musical friends there and all were enthusiastic. The event was a sell out and afterwards the audience did not seem to want to leave. The post-convert buzz from the conversation in the foyer was amazing.

It would be fatally easy for a regular concert-goer like myself to deride what Sinfonia Cymru is doing. They are clearly in earnest and not simply trying to be trendy, and, as I have said, I am not the target audience. By working with seminal figures in the music business and in visuals, and engaging with all seriousness with popular culture, Sinfonia Cymru have created an event which demands to be appreciated on its own terms.

I look forward to further Unbuttoned events and hope that the target audience is as excited about it.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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