Thursday 11 April 2013

CLoSer - Poulenc and Paris

The City of London Sinfonia's CLoSer events are intended to present music in a different, more casual environment to the usual concert hall. They are part of a wider trend for ensembles to put on what might be called classical music club nights, with the intention of attracting a newer, different audience. The City of London Sinfonia presents their CLoSer events at the Village Underground in Shoreditch, a converted Victorian warehouse space used for a variety of concerts and club nights. The CLoSer Poulenc and Paris event on 10 April 2013 was also part of the City of London Sinfonia's Poulenc Festival, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the composer's death. Stephen Layton conducted members of the City of London Sinfonia, with baritone Derek Welton and pianist Antoine Francoise, in Poulenc's Trois Mouvements perpetuels, Le bestiare, Rhapsodie negre and Le bal masque, plus Satie's Trois  Gymnopedies. Before the concert proper I attended a Q&A with City of London Sinfonia staff and players to talk about their CLoSer events.

The players were surprisingly enthusiastic about playing at the Village Underground, enthusing about the acoustics of the warehouse, the way the CLoSer events attract a different audience and how they allow the players to interact more. In fact their only complaint seemed to be that the venue was rather cold, they were all certainly heavily muffled up.

The players talked about the ambience of the concerts, that they felt more intimate with their informality giving a greater buzz from the audience. Playing in a venue like the Village Underground is different from a regular concert hall, the players are far more aware of the audience and their reactions. And the players stick around afterwards to chat to the audience. They seemed to relish this interaction, that the audience members come up to them and say things. Playing with an audience so close is potentially intimidating, though the general consensus was that having such an intimately engaged audience had the the potential to lift the players' performance.

The CLoSer events are part of a movement, like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's The Night Shift, to attract younger audiences, to tempt people who had never been to a classical concert with a casual atmosphere complete with a bar available during the performance. I have a naturally cynically view of things, but both City of London Sinfonia staff and players seemed genuinely enthused by the events and the way that they do actually attract a different audience. The hope, of course, is that audiences will be tempted into attending other classical music events. The Poulenc and Paris was the third CLoSer event that the ensemble has done this season, and they will continue next season on October 23 with a showing of the film New Babylon with Shostakovich's music.

The Poulenc and Paris event was also part of their mini Poulenc festival. On April 4 they presented a concert of Poulenc's wind music, which included the wind players from the ensemble playing the solo sonatas, then tonight (11 April) there is a concert of Poulenc's Gloria and Organ Concerto at Southwark Cathedral preceded by a debate Poulenc: Religion and Sexuality.

Seating for the event was mixed, with chairs at cafe tables, a bank of chairs arranged more formally but also bean bags just in front of the ensemble. Needless to say, when the doors opened the audience members of my own age and older appeared in order to bag the more formal seating. But by the time the concert started, it was clear that the audience was genuinely mixed; not completely young, but there was a great spread of ages, with many people being happy to come an lounge on bean bags right under the players' noses. The atmosphere, with the bar at the back, was busy and buzzy, with a feeling of organised chaos.

There were no printed programme notes, instead there were spoken introduction from Guy Dammann, music critic of the Guardian. Dammann's introductions included a remarkable amount of cultural history and scene setting, bringing in a wide variety of cultural references. Highly informative in content, extremely casual in delivery with a nice wit, my only complaint was that he rather over used the word ermm.

They opened with Poulenc's (1899 - 1963) Trois Mouvements Perpetuels, these date from 1918 in their original format for solo piano and were premiered by the composer at a series of concerts in the studio of the painter Emile Lejeune. Poulenc later orchestrated them and the nine players from the City of London Sinfonia gave a charmingly characterful performance, relishing the added piquancy Poulenc's orchestrations gave to the pieces. The audience was quiet, though there was still clinking from the bar, but this music was not written for the concert hall as such and I was taken with the way the atmosphere contributed to the performance.

Antoine Francoise played the first of Satie's Gymnopedies with limpid simplicity, before Derek Welton joined the ensemble for Le Bestiare, Poulenc's early (1917) cycle of songs based on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire.  As we had no words, and I imagine few people's French was good enough to catch every nuance of Apollinaire's verse, there was a certain 'music as found object' element to the performance, but Welton, singing from memory, brought just the right tone to the work, singing with characterful intensity and great charm. The whole catching just the right sense of delightful, elegant melancholy shot through with a piquant wit.

The second Gymnopedie was followed by Rhapsodie Negre, Poulenc's earliest surviving piece (also dating from 1917). Some bits are only just recognisable as Poulenc, but there were fascinating hints of things to come with a heavy admixture of jazz and blues, all melded into a rather entrancing mix. In the third movement, Poulenc included words (sung by Welton), nonsense syllables and random exotic words like couscous, supposedly written by Liberian poet, actually entirely made up by Poulenc.

Finally we heard the last Gymnopedie and Poulenc's Bal Masque, his cantata from 1932 setting words by Max Jacob which was premiered privately at the poet Anna de Noailles. Though still a lighter piece, it is darker, and richer than the earlier ones. Layton and players brought out this highly characterised feeling to the work, prefiguring the later more serious pieces that Poulenc would write. The vocal movements was a total tour de force from Welton, whose acting and singing (from memory) was vividly engaging.

This was a surprising concert for me; surprising because it did exactly what it said on the tin, it brought you closer to the music. I'm not sure that I'd want to hear everything in this atmosphere, but the programme of Poulenc's music, so brilliantly performed by Derek Welton, Antoine Francoise and the City of London Sinfonia under Stephen Layton, was certainly made more vivid by the atmosphere. And it really did make you think of those legendary Parisian cafe concerts.

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