Classical: The rough with the smooth
Tuesday 09 February 1999
RFH, SBC, LONDON
ROOTS OF all kinds sprang healthily to life at the South Bank on Saturday afternoon when the London Philharmonic's admirable "Roots - Classical Fusions" launched ritual-inspired events covering Caribbean, European, Celtic, Aboriginal, Islamic, Asian and Mediterranean cultures, then capped the lot with related Copland, Machaut and Stravinsky.
I joined the proceedings at 6pm when the venue shifted from the Hall's foyers to the auditorium, and Polyphony Ekonda brought us a hot-blooded sequence of music from the African equatorial rainforest. Spotlights shed a glimmer of light as voices chattered or yelped off-stage and a colourfully daubed troupe of grass-skirted girls shuffled into view. We heard the rhythmic itching of rattles, scrapers and wooden slit drums; there were invocations, proverbs and moral dilemmas; social and familial issues - all shouted, stamped or danced with such ferocious energy that the hall soon filled with a pungent, sweaty odour. The thumping climax saw the lead girl smile a gleaming set of teeth, splay her thighs wide and press a hand hard against her crotch. This was ritual in the raw, but the real rub came when you panned from stage to audience, and pitted the heated and blatant against the formal and goggle-eyed. By rights, we should all have been shouting, swaying, laughing and stamping our feet - not sitting there like white-coated spectators behind glass doors.
When Polyphony Ekonda took their last bow and we towelled off after a brief interval, Kent Nagano and the London Philharmonic brought us a rather more "polite" musical commentary on community relations: Aaron Copland's orderly celebration of a 19th-century Pennsylvanian country wedding. The juxtaposition between Polyphony Ekonda's ecstatic pulsing and the neat sound-frame of Copland's tuneful Appalachian Spring ballet suite spoke volumes, though Nagano's performance really came into its own only when the mood relaxed and the players had enough room to breathe. Better by far were the Hilliard Ensemble in collaboration with Kudsi Erguner on Turkish flute, where threads of music from the Mevlevi Sufi tradition were woven among (but never within) the individual movements of Guillaume de Machaut's glorious Mass for Our Lady.
After a second interval, Nagano and the Philharmonic returned in force for the evening's dramatic denouement and Stravinsky's "scenes from Pagan Russia", his ballet The Rite of Spring. The first few minutes were untidy and unrepresentative, but the further we ventured into "The Adoration of the Earth", the faster and tighter it became. "The Sacrifice" was better still, especially the humid introduction and the frenetic final dance. Parallels with Polyphony Ekonda, with tribal stamping rhythms and an implied eroticism, were less obvious than the contrast between tribal joy and hand-crafted revolution. In 1913, The Rite caused a riot, though nowadays its violent gestures seem small beer in comparison with some of the works that came after it. Maybe that's because, ultimately, revolutions mean far less than roots.
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