LSO / John Adams / Jeremy Denk and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot - Barbican, 11 March 2010
A noted conductor recently shared with me the secret of steering a top-notch orchestra through the standards. And here it is.
"I stand in front of them and try not to disturb them too much". (Yup, srsly.)
That appears to be the John Adams approach too. His beat is neat, his boogie footwork perhaps a little disconcerting, but his presence barely seemed to register. The LSO played professionally and accurately, but Adams was too willing for the bouchées of Thursday night's intelligently-crafted first half to speak for themselves, and results were mixed.
Colin Matthews's imaginative orchestrations of a couple of Debussy Préludes (Le vent dans la plaine and Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest), revel in emphatically unpianistic sounds - a whooshing portamento here, an endless violin sostenuto there. Adams's hands-off approach lent clarity to the kaleidscopic coloration. Sadly, Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales were anything but. And despite the efficiency of the LSO, only the forthright perspective of piano soloist Jeremy Denk salvaged Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments from blandness.
I couldn't face the second half, Adams's own City Noir - cruelly but accurately dubbed 'a soundtrack in search of a film' after its recent LA premiere. Though I did manage a minute or two on the monitor outside after escaping:
Instead I paid a visit to the outrageously successful Céleste Boursier-Mougenot exhibition in the Barbican's Curve Gallery. Only two weeks in, and already the quota of 25 visitors at a time is resulting in massive queues most of the time:
But at 9pm on a Thursday, it was near empty and we strolled right in through the chain mail curtains.
The semicircular gallery wraps around the back of the Barbican Hall, and the distant sounds of John Adams and the LSO were just audible as we walked through the darkened corridor to the makeshift aviary at the end. There, electric guitars, cymbals and mic stands planted in sand pits at table height form perches for a flock of zebra finches. As the birds hop and shuffle around, the spare, random tunes they unwittingly create twang out from the amplifiers ranged around the walls.
We were hypnotised for half an hour watching them go about their birdie business, taking seed and water from the cymbals, settling snugly to roost on the pickups.
When the birds arrived in the Barbican, they were, we were told, a single flock. But they've now paired off, and each couple jealously guards its little patch of guitar or mic stand (or, in one case, fire extinguisher), seeing off unwanted visitors with a peck. More persistent invaders are repelled in aerial battle, fluttering and chattering as they clash beaks. It's compulsive viewing.
It's debatable whether the birds comprehend the sounds they're making in the spookily prescient way Nora the Piano Cat™ and her fellow feline prodigies seem too. The amplifiers are so far away from the instruments it's hard even for a human to relate the sound to its source. Like many birds, the finches may not even be able to hear the lower-pitched sounds anyway. And of course their brains are quite literally pea sized. Now maybe if they'd been given violas instead of guitars.....
Here's the essential video: