Written by David Smythe
Published on Saturday 21 November 2015
It might be every musician’s nightmare, but when classical players are called upon to be characters as part of the action, results can be surprising. An extraordinary performance of The Soldier’s Tale seen a few years ago is still etched in the memory as the barefooted musicians hotfooted it off the stage in silhouette, a case in point. Placing a chamber orchestra onstage for an opera can add frisson to the work, but most musician crossovers into characters are limited simply by the need for the players to perform the music without too much distraction. The Scottish Ensemble took Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and pushed way past conventional boundaries as five lively dancers from the Swedish Andersson Dance joined the Ensemble in a performance where players interwove with dancers, spinning the well-known variations into an exciting blend of movement and music.
Entering the hall, the “Aria” was being played offstage in the wings as the dancers did warm-up stretches and arranged props against a white backdrop, including stylish tablet music stands (push the button for the next page) and a large spotlight on what looked like a porter’s trolley. For players normally in smart modern orchestral black, it was a big change to see them emerge dressed in casual loose-fitting clothes in a grey and white palette, and mingle with the dancers in brighter casual wear, playing the first variation spread out randomly through the dancers, right across the platform with even the cellists standing (they got to sit later). The Scottish Ensemble is a group that positively thrives on playing in a tight semicircle allowing cues to be given and taken, their interaction providing extra enjoyment in live performance, so this was a brave venture indeed as player communication must have been as big a challenge as having to be choreographed and dance themselves.
Bach’s music, with its surprisingly jazzy harmonies, is wonderfully danceable, from lively gigues to stately gavottes and sarabands, and the Andersson team gave us a modern take, sometimes in a disco frenzy, infecting the players to move, or in unison set pieces and more abstract moments. Sometimes the dancers were defeated: “The Sixth variation is a canon: I can’t dance to it!” declared a dancer as the Ensemble was allowed a brief moment to shine on its own. The most successful piece by far was a hauntingly beautiful, slow-moving human ball of the five dancers in the solemn Variation 15, a dynamic mesmerising intertwining of bodies being passed over and under each other, heightened by the subtle but dramatic light changes by SUTODA with the Ensemble spread right across the back of the stage, taking the music back to its bare bones.
With all the stage business going on, including when the players laid down their instruments and embarked on their own individual dance routines, some rolling about with claps and thumps based on musical patterns, the music was understandably not always quite as refined as a formal concert setting. But that would have been to miss the point of this exercise taking musicians (and dancers) well out of their comfort zones and exposing their vulnerability.
While the alchemy mostly worked, there were moments of longeur in Örjan Andersson’s choreography, and some baffling though ultimately playful uses of props like cereal bowls and a drainpipe. There was a sinister duet as two dancers donned threatening black face masks, and a frenzied thrilling solo from Danielle de Vries in Variation 25, reflecting the different moods of Bach’s music. The work finished, not with the aria restated, but with the final variation, leaving Diane Clark alone on stage, plucking her double bass.
The Scottish Ensemble is a very lively physical group of musicians, and the addition of dance interpretation and edgy challenge raised the energy levels to give a performance of the Goldberg Variations that was very different, interesting and surprisingly enjoyable. While I was convinced all the artists genuinely relished the process and challenges of working on this piece, some of the players looked rather vulnerable, so I really can’t make my mind up if the actual performances were as enjoyable as the creation, which is probably the whole point. Earlier this year, the Ensemble played in a derelict concrete Glasgow shopping centre to a hip crowd, and after this cross-arts collaboration, in a welcome dynamic and exciting approach, we are promised further innovations in the future.