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Published on Saturday 11 November 2017
Written by David Smythe

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The innovative Scottish Ensemble, just off the plane from Shanghai after performing their Goldberg Variations with Andersson Dance, continues to push boundaries. Almost a year ago to the day we were mesmerised by Anno, an extraordinary collaboration with Anna Meredith. Glasgow based theatre company Vanishing Point is also renowned for inventive productions, most recently on its work with Scottish Opera’s double bill of The 8th Door and Bluebeard’s Castle. With both pioneering organisations based in the same city, it was surely only matter of time before artistic minds collided, the Ensemble revisiting Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa after a number of years, and Vanishing Point’s Artistic Director Matthew Lenton exploring why Pärt’s beautiful and strange ‘angel music’ has been sought after as a comfort by the dying.

A story of a woman, arriving home after a holiday, still in her flip-flops, to discover her friend Peter has died of a tumour and that his funeral is that afternoon made a dramatic starting point. Interspersed by Pärt’s music, the compelling monologue, co-written by Lennon and performer Pauline Goldsmith, took us on a journey through an embarrassingly bungled funeral, but then back in time to when Peter was ill in hospital, uncharacteristically and increasingly cantankerous and now deaf, perhaps the cruellest end for a music lover.

Pärt’s music to accompany the story used his trademark tintinnabulation approach, simple sounding but with a mysterious depth. Pianist Sophia Rahman performed the ghostly and sparse Fűr Alina on an upright instrument later joined by violinist Daniel Pioro pacing the stage in a dramatic and beautiful Fratres played while Peter’s coffin loomed out of the darkness, his hat perched atop the lid, the rest of the Ensemble appearing as shadowy mourners. As the scene behind shifted to a hospital bed with a brightly lit white mannequin head and a figure in attendance, Goldsmith’s wry monologue spoke of awkward conversations with the terminally ill who also have no control over who will be the last person to be with them when the time comes. Jonathan Morton joined Rahman in a restrained, almost gossamer performance of the well-known Spiegel Im Spiegel, Rahman playing the continuous slow broken triads in the right hand, her left finding chords below and above, a study in tintinnabulation. In the background, the Ensemble in assorted hospital uniforms walked towards us (on the spot) through the mist, eerily and beautifully lit by Kai Fischer in a wash of blues and oranges.

Goldsmith, striking in her simple bright red dress on the black box set, darkened the monologue with the unpleasantness of death, and a story of crass insensitivity followed by a moment of tender kindness by medical staff. Time then for Tabula Rasa for the full Ensemble, with Jonathan Morton and Clio Gould playing the two solo violins and Rahman switching to a prepared piano of chiming sounds. In two parts, Ludus was an ethereal walking theme interspersed with silences, the piano occasionally grumbling under the soaring violin solos, mesmeric and captivating and reaching a shattering dramatic climax, Gould and Morton facing each other off. Silentium was quieter and more reflective, pairs of instruments working almost mathematically against occasional chiming tumbling arpeggios from the piano each underpinned by the double bass. In an hypnotic performance, the Ensemble seemed entirely lost in the deep mysticism of the music. A brightly lit white backdrop appeared behind the players, rendering them in silhouette, almost spectral in the haze, the light diminishing as section by section they faded out, leaving the deep double bass to end followed by the unusual and unexpected comfort of extended and beautiful silence.

The ambitious combination of Vanishing Points’s challenging words and the Scottish Ensemble’s sensitive interpretation of the music was profound and moving with touches of black humour. Light and delicate amplification successfully overcame the studio theatre’s dry acoustic. Generally, the music enhanced the words although they went different ways at times, but combining with the visuals produced a thoughtful and poignant performance, greater than the sum of its parts.

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