back forward

Leningrad Symphony

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra               Conductor: Arvo Volmer. Video : Tim Gruchy.

Adelaide Festival

Commisioned br Brett Sheehy

Mar 19 2006 

Liberated vision of Leningrad Graham Strahle The Australian 21mar06

No 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, loses coherence. 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. 


STATE 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





Leningrad Symphony - ASO with Tim Gruchy


Photos by Craig Williams Multivision