Nono: Prometeo (London Sinfonietta/Masson/Bailey/Richard) - Royal Festival Hall, 9 May 2008
Before this concert started, I had the sneaking suspicion it would turn out to be either (a) one of the musical events of the year or (b) like being chained to a rock having my liver pecked out by vultures. After all, it comes with the unsolicited baggage of labels like 'one of the best works of the last century' and 'the grand statement around which all Luigi Nono's other music orbits'.
It was almost a disappointment that it fell so roundly between the two extremes. No earth-shattering experience, but (nearly always) engaging. The 2+ non-stop hours passed without dragging, but without revelation either. The idea of leaving didn't cross my mind, though I noticed quite a few other audience members disappearing discreetly now and then. Incidentally, although the Royal Festival Hall's contemporary music events usually tend to draw a youngish audience, this was certainly not the case tonight - average age 60 at a guess, and very few under 40's, let alone young people.
And the audience was purposely a small one. To perform the work as closely as possible to Nono's original specifications, the customers were corralled into the front stalls (about 1/3 of the total space) with the many musicians, singers and speakers spread around - on the stage, in the side stalls, and tucked away on the balcony, with even a few in the stage side boxes.
Speakers were used, more to relocate the sound than to amplify it, with some skilful placement and mixing by André Richard separating the sound from its means of production. The music passed around the space from group to group, and matching the drifting pockets of sound to their visual source became near impossible.
With the gentle, ethereal choral singing rarely defined by anything as concrete as a word, and only occasionally broken by rude parps of brass or the mosquito whine of stratospheric violins, it was like a less comfortable and less fragrant version of a relaxing aromatherapy massage.
Perhaps it all seemed more revolutionary and exciting at its first performance in 1984, but that's a generation ago. I focussed in on the sound, as Nono intended, but then, like most regular concertgoers, I don't find it that hard to concentrate on music anyway. Deprived of the option to look at the performers or to understand how the sound was being produced, obliged to sit still for over 2 hours and hemmed in on all sides by sound, I found it hard also to understand how the work exemplified democracy or freedom. Perhaps it's simply a case of unreasonably raised expectations, but it all seemed like just another pleasant Friday night out.
Some programme notes.
III.b - Hölderlin from Prometeo
This (^) is a recording (not the performance I attended) of what is possibly the most 'accessible' part of the work.