The power of words in Philip Venables

Concerts 21.10.2021

Words exchanged, text said and sung and good humour on the stage. This is the theatrical as well as the participative aspect of the portrait concert devoted to the British composer Philip Venables at the Musica festival in Strasbourg.

He likes to describe himself as a 'collaborative' composer, loving words and theatre as much as music. These two operas have been performed in France, but little is known about the works oriented towards musical theatre to which the evening's programme is attached. Invited to the Cité de la Musique stage are the lovemusic collective , a versatile ensemble from Strasbourg (the flutist and clarinettist are also narrators) and Danish accordionist Andreas Borregaard, all of whom are keen to break down the boundaries between genres and artistic disciplines.

Without warning, the musicians on stage begin the first movement of Beethoven's Trio "Les Esprits", a "curtain raiser" that makes one's ears perk up (the excerpt is short) before the master of ceremonies, Romain Pageard, hoisted on his white heeled boots, makes the introductions. The bench and chair are in the courtyard, to receive the artists (composers and performers) and to dialogue with them, in English or French, as the case may be.
The exception that confirms the rule, Klaviertrio im Geist, an already old piece (2010) is strictly instrumental, a rereading/epure of Beethoven's Piano Trio op.70 No. 1 by Beethoven, of which Venables wanted to capture the spirit (der Geist) if not the letter: only three movements (adagio, scherzo and rondo) and as many Beethovenian "gestures" (declamation, introversion, obstinacy) rendered with an extreme economy of means. More recently, My Favorite Piece is the Goldberg variations (2021) for accordion looks towards storytelling, the idea of telling stories through text and music. In fact, Andreas Borregaard speaks as much as he plays, weaving words and music in a very fusional relationship and an emotion on the lips because it is of his father that he speaks to us through the words of his mother. "This piece belongs to me", says the performer, who also sings with a naturalness and talent that are astonishing. The English text - by Ted Huffman, full of finesse and humour - is projected on the back wall in its French translation. As for the Goldberg Variations - the composer's subjective part - they gradually infiltrate the musical texture until the theme is quoted in full at the end.

Even before Frederic Rzewski 's death last June, Venables had included the American composer's Coming Together in tonight's programme. Rzewski uses the text of Sam Melville, a prisoner in Attica who dies at the hands of the police during a mutiny of which he was the main instigator. The work leaves the choice of instrumentation to the performers and also engages improvisation within a 'semi-open' score. All the violence is contained in the lightly processed voice of the narrator (the implacable Emiliano Gavito), echoed or doubled by that of the performers. The text is unfolded in snatches of sentences, distributed over music with repetitive allure and powerful rhythmic veins, whose process of amplification brings the tension to a climax. 

Philip Venables is planning to set to music the 100 stanzas (divided into groups of five) of the long experimental poem by the Englishman Simon Hawards, so inspired is he by the direct, sensitive and powerful language. The themes addressed are those of time, memory, political discourse and love. For the time being, two new blocks of five verses, Numbers 81-85 and Numbers 96-100, are being given their world premiere, in which the composer returns to the sung voice. Grace Durham 's voice is invocative, mysterious, rebellious or nonchalant in the first block, supported by highly refined instrumental textures. The stanza 96-100 is more homogeneous, inscribed in the very stretched temporality of a collective meditation. From cry to murmur, the powerful yet velvety voice of the English mezzo-soprano proceeds in snatches of phrases and silent spacing over the circular and bewitching movement of the instruments. Equally striking is block 91-95 (2011), which requires the talents of lovemusic's two narrators, Emiliano Gravito and Adam Starkie. Voice-overs from cassette players intermittently open up other sonic perspectives, while the text provides explosive passages of screamed vocals, instrumental shrillness and aggressive piano, exposing the listener to unprecedentedly violent hot-cold moments.

The voice and performance of David Hoyle, who appears on screen as a drag queen in the closing video Illusions , for which Philip Venables created the music and images, is defiant, provocative, angry and outspoken. The work celebrated the 50th anniversary of the recognition of homosexuality in England in 2015. Democracy, gender, sodomy, war, revolution, etc. are all hard-hitting chapters (and themes dear to the composer's heart) tackled head-on by David Hoyle (whose voice and image Venables gives a patina to) while maintaining elegance and distance, frivolity and humour through irresistible editing. One almost forgets the hyperactive participation of the lovemusic performers, whose quality and commitment to the game are commendable.

The show, a Musica, lovemusic and Festival d'Automne co-production, will be in Paris on 26 October at the Théâtre de la Ville-Espace Cardin. 

Michèle Tosi

Photo © Didier Jacquot
Photo © Monica De Alwis


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