Conductor: Arvo Volmer.
Video projections: Tim Gruchy.
Adelaide Festival Theatre
vision of Leningrad
symphony can be more bound up in the political events of its time
than Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad. Written during
the Nazi siege of that city, Shostakovich dedicated it "to our
struggle against fascism" and intended its four movements to
bear the titles War, Memories, The Vast Homeland and Victory. He later
scrapped this idea, saying that he was trying to capture an emotional
image of war, not depict war in a literal sense.
So there are dangers in trying to give the symphony a visual interpretation.
Last year, Russian director Georgi Paradzhanov made a film to accompany
a performance of it by the St Petersburg Academic Symphonic Orchestra
but was criticised for using documentary war footage and reducing
the symphony to a film score.
Just as well video artist Tim Gruchy has not gone down the same road.
His intention in creating a visual accompaniment to the symphony,
he says, is to amplify it emotionally without introducing any narrative
layer and so avoid turning the music into a soundtrack.
Whatever doubts one may have about the possibilities of achieving
this, Gruchy has met the challenge well. It really is a case of less
being more. Subtly coloured, evolving textures of rolling sea and
brooding clouds move from left to right across three giant screens
behind the orchestra, at a slow pace that finely matches the epic
quality of Shostakovich's score. The beauty of the imagery, and the
way emotional contours of the music are mirrored in careful gradations
of colouration and density, is outstanding.
Inevitably, real images of war have to make an appearance. The relentless,
stentorian march that thrusts its way through the first movement,
often known as the "invasion episode", can hardly be depicted
as a stroll in the park. Gruchy supplies the obligatory visuals: Stalin
fixedly gazing over his comrades, Nazi troops bearing flags with swastikas.
It's fine because it is not overdone. But imagery in other movements,
of aerial photos of St Petersburg and a bumblebee visiting red poppies,
Conductor Arvo Volmer's interpretation is spacious and makes the Leningrad
a more ruminating, less bombastic work than it can be. The playing
from a greatly expanded Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is magnificent.
This, for me, is the musical highlight of the festival.
OF THE ARTS
The Leningrad Symphony
The Art of the Visual Musician
08 February 2006
If someone had given Tim Gruchy the opportunity to rock the conservative
end of the classical music boat 20 years ago, it’s unlikely
he would have passed on the opportunity. So when Adelaide Bank Festival
of Arts director Brett Sheehy approached him with a commission for
this year’s festival – what is to be an ambitious live
visual accompaniment to the ASO’s performance of Shostakovich’s
famous Leningrad Symphony, well, it must have been tempting? “20
years ago I almost certainly would have tried!” Gruchy laughs,
“but these days I’m much more about trying to evolve the
form… and to bring more of an emotional resonance to the work”.
__Not strictly a musician, nor a visual artist in any conventional
sense, Gruchy’s arts practice, which spans an impressive 30-plus
years, has been steadily driven by his notion of the ‘visual
musician’. __“A lot of my work has been about exploring
and gently picking away at the boundaries between these arts”,
he says and with the increasing popularity for hybrid forms of theatre,
film, contemporary music, dance and interactive media, it’s
only natural that classical music should start to open itself up and
become part of the broader cultural and techno-cultural evolution.
__Which is why Sheehy’s vision for the closing night of the
festival proved too tempting a project to pass on. On stage with the
orchestra, Gruchy will be mixing and improvising a series of pre-produced,
live and still images – both abstract and historically sourced
– working to his own ‘visual score’ in time with
the music.__Classical conservatives need not worry. “First and
foremost this is a musical performance,” says Gruchy, “The
vision follows the conductor” and he is adamant that it wouldn’t
work any other way. In developing the project, neither Sheehy nor
Gruchy wanted to create a linear, narrative or obvious visual representation
of the Nazi invasion of Leningrad – and the music was never
going to be the soundtrack to some ‘bigger’ spectacle.
__It’s a complex, heavily nuanced, meticulously researched project
that is driven fundamentally by the music. Acknowledging the work’s
complex histories and narratives, Gruchy’s primary intent visually
is to explore what Shostakovich in fact hoped to achieve when he sat
down to write his Seventh Symphony. __According to his memoirs, the
Leningrad Symphony was never intended as a narrative of the invasion
nor was it meant as propaganda. Rather, it was a portrait of opposition
to totalitarianism – about humanity and the human emotions of
war. “It’s a very timeless – and now, particularly
– a very timely message” says Gruchy. And his job, as
he sees it, is to ensure that people come away from the performance
moved. They don’t have to like it – but if it makes them
think and it challenges them – then that’s ok too. __Gruchy
believes that part of the function of these sorts of projects –
and indeed these big festivals – is to introduce new ideas and
to extend people’s notion of what’s possible – and
not just in classical music – in all the arts. __He may no longer
want to rock the classical boat but he’s not averse to raising
a new sail. And the journey Tim Gruchy hopes his audience will take
will be anywhere but ordinary.
- Jo Higgins