The inspired appointment of Joanna MacGregor as Bath Festival's new Artistic Director has already created a transformation. But here was the first grand project: a site-specific collaboration between pianist/auteur MacGregor (below) and composer/knob-twiddler Brian Eno, using the architecture of the abbey and the superb choir of Bath Camerata in a programme of ambient music ancient and modern.
Wednesday's two sold-out performances testified to the pulling-power of the dream team. But what would the enigmatic Eno actually do? As it turned out, he did loads. Seated at a desk (looking rather like a newsreader in his grey suit and specs, Apple Powerbook open in front of him), Eno made announcements, intoned poetry in his impressive, actor-ish voice, and even sang along with the choir. By twiddling a little console connected to the computer, he also "treated" MacGregor's Steinway and the voices of the choir with the sonic shivers and shimmers - a kind of audio-ectoplasm - that characterise his famous ambient works.
In the most compelling sequence of a wonderfully varied programme, MacGregor's Eno-ised version of Dowland's "Lachrymae" - slowed-down into ambient-tempo - was followed by selections from Eno's own Music For Airports. With the members of the choir now dotted about the abbey (a feature of the performance), their wordless vocals, combined with Eno's effects and the airy acoustic of the building - plus subtle lighting and fan-vaulting a go-go - created a powerful, indeed unforgettable, impression.
There were also two Eno premieres, brief yet striking settings of poems by Rick Holland and Isaac Rosenberg. The choir, directed by Nigel Perrin, sang Byrd, Part, and James Macmillan's "O Bone Jesu" (the one piece in a long programme I could have done without), while a male sub-section delivered a moving arrangement by MacGregor of a Golden Gate Quartet spiritual, "Listen to the Lambs". In the last piece, the incredible 40-voice, 8-choir motet of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, the entire building appeared to pulse with good vibrations. Look out for the broadcast on Radio 3, who commissioned the event.