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Don’t evoke me…

Eshantha Peiris, piano, Lionel Wendt Theatre

A piano, a pianist, and a soft white light. Good, I think. Good. Neat. Clean. Then I see the banner projected onto the backcloth. It is 15ft by 6, at least. It says ‘EVOCATIVE’. 

The pianist begins to play. The banner remains. Sort of. Now it plays a slide-show of scenes from Italian cities – a dusty turreted horizon here, a homoerotic statue there – the postcard shots zooming in and out like very slow MTV, and all to the melodious strains of Bach’s Italian Concerto. I glance around nervously, in case Dr Lecter is sitting nearby.

To be clear: Peiris’ playing is excellent. Phenomonal, in parts. And his programme involved a courageous and daunting array of (lesser-known) pieces. The Bach – practically an exercise in not being a virtuoso – was played with measured precision, quicksy-tricksy without being robotic, just enough rise and swell to make Bach himself sound vaguely human (not the easiest feat). The first movt. was crisp and clinical; the ‘Andante’ beautifully taut; the ‘Presto’ keenly busy.

Likewise, Debussy’s Images (book 1) – the impressionist nature of the three pieces drawing on the performer’s every resource in terms of both emotional colour and technical skill – and Manuel de Falla’s Fantasia Baetica, a work of often fiendish activity.

But here’s the demur. Evocation is a show-don’t-tell kind of business. If the music is (so) evocative – ‘evoke, v. tr.: to produce or suggest through artistry and imagination a vivid impression of reality’ – then the images (or Images) are, by definition, unnecessary (yes, I also think it’s cheating to name impressionist works). And even if one isn’t taking QUITE such an ascetic stance, surely it is in the nature of musical interpretation that the punters be permitted to generate their own visuals? The artistry may be the composer’s; but the imagination, at least in part, must reside in the listener. The slide-show seemed like an assault on the freedom of the audience. Even if it doesn’t suggest that the performer doesn’t trust the crowd as far as he can spit [and there’s a perfectly good argument for that, if you’re bold enough to make it], between the Monets and the mood-lighting the work’s all been done for us.

A second problem. Debussy’s neo-tonal structures and refusal to settle make his music ideal for ‘depicting’ water, certainly (item one, duly: ‘Reflets dans l’eau’). But, sooner or later, everything ends up sounding like the one babbling brook. And there’s only so much water you can take on before you need the bathroom. [Debussy’s own view? “I am trying to do ‘something different’ – in a way reality – what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’ is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics.” So.]

Same goes for the de Falla – because it goes the same: a rather inevitable hazard if you programme a concert full of pieces designed to have the same effect. The result was at least 20 minutes of cadenza without a satisfying cadence. The disappointed auditory expectation grew tiring, and suddenly the graphics were not distracting enough for the endless swell and crash and drift. It was getting like Lord of the Rings 3. Nearly there. Oh, hang on, one more sub-plot. Ah, this is it. Oop, no, bloody hell, there’s more.

Interval. (Did I say 20 minutes?) Colour Study in Rupaktaal, by Dinuk Wijeratne – and still nothing verging on the cadential. Slowly but surely, the shuffling, throat-clearing and sweet-eating began. Needless to say (well, no; but I feel I should reiterate…) Rupaktaal was expertly played, and Peiris kept it alive with dynamic range and audible transfer of action from the bass/rhythm line to the melody – often with a ‘middle’ line, too. But. This was hardly the Bolero, the local flavour just wasn’t getting through, and you don’t get that sense of drive and power when you’ve already begun to wonder if the piece will ever end.

Things picked up smartly with Astor Piazzolla’s L’Histoire du Tango (arr. for piano by Kyoto Yamamoto). With its flickering fin de siecle footage of chorus girls and romancing couples the whole AV business acquired some workable zest just when the music became interesting enough not to need it. But here, at least, the effect worked, in a nostalgic, flea-pit cinema kind of way. Even Peiris’ red shirt made sense. (It’s hard for concert pianists to exude much stage-presence without turning into Liberace. But Peiris wasn’t exactly push the boat out.) The second movement, with its light and gloom, both on stage and in the music, was actually quite… evocative.

My heart sank, I confess, when I saw The Nokia Variations on the menu. But Rohan de Livera’s ringtone-poem was a smart commission, and the more credible, essentially, for not being a musical prank. (So much not, in fact, that several people grumbled they couldn’t pick out their favourite jingles.) I’d quibble that it was none too easy to distinguish the ‘Rag’, ‘Fanfare’, ‘Mauricesque’ (?) and other movements – honestly, that aspect of things all seemed a bit spreading and splashing and Debussyesque again. Still, no trivial performance, this: akin to Christopher O’Riley’s hyper-specific Radiohead reductions, and markedly the most interesting piece of the evening.

But the most adroit move was saved for last: Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata. The still, small voice of calm. The ultimate evocation. Which I maintain we’d have figured out for ourselves without the moon on the OHP.

From the Sunday Times (SL)

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