Max Richter – The Barbican, London

Saturday 12th May, 2018

To give this its full title, Sounds & Visions Session 4. The BBC Symphony Orchestra: Ives, Berio, Richter, Colin Curry Group: Reich. Which is a full mouthful and as the reason I was there was to see Max Richter I’ve shortened it.

He is one of my favourite modern composers and this concert was only a couple of days after my birthday, in the City of my birth and Tom was going to be here, so I had no reason not to buy a ticket.

Before we went to the concert we visited the very lovely and talented John Hobbs, to see his studio and paintings. It is such a treat to see where an artist works and talk to them about their life and inspirations. Thank you John. If you like contemporary art, why not have a look at his website here.

The last time I went to the Barbican was for my graduation ceremony, almost 18 years ago. Then I nearly fell of the stage with excitement (or because I was wearing very high shoes). I have never been to a concert there. It has been a place of cinema and art for me before, but never music. It is a concrete bunker of a place, dark and cave like, with awful acoustics in the public spaces and a terrible restaurant if you are coeliac (Benugo who have the concessions at a lot of London’s art galleries are awful). However, I do have very fond memories of Indiana Jones marathons (all 3 films in 1 day) and some brilliant photography and modern art exhibitions. It is also home to the LSO so the concert hall sound must be good. This was also a gig, in part, to celebrate my birthday and I was born to and of East London stock, so to be in my Manor seemed fitting.

The start time had been moved back by half an hour to accommodate Max Richter’s ambitious programme for this evening’s concert. He was joint curator of the Sounds & Visions festival that took place over the weekend. This was session 4 of that Festival and he was to be playing his own works with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This is the bit I was excited about.

The running time ended up being in excess of 4 hours and that was at least 1 too many for me! I wish the programme had been shorter and I think the rest of the audience did too. There were a lot of very tired people in that hall.

I enjoyed the opening piece, Steve Reich’s Tehillim played by the Colin Currie Group with Synergy Vocals. I know of Reich’s work due to Charles Hazelwood’s excellent series about minimalism on BBC4. The vocals, sung in Yiddish, with the sparse percussion and lush strings made for a moving piece about the nature of faith.

I have to apologise to the musicians who performed the next, short piece as I have forgotten it completely. I don’t think it is their fault, it was just lost in such a long evening.

After a short interval, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Roomful of Teeth unleashed music at us. I can’t describe it any other way. It was noise. A lot of disjointed and inaccessible noise with very strange vocals that I didn’t enjoy. I like experimental music, I like being challenged, I enjoy being exposed to things new and unexpected. I can almost always find something positive to say. Not for this.  The polite applause tells me and the conversations I had and overheard show me that I wasn’t alone in finding it difficult to know what to say about this piece of music. Ives The Unanswered Question and Berio’s Sinfonia if you want to hear them for yourself. It was the sort of music that, without training in classical music, or an ear for the very avant guard, you may not even like, let alone appreciate.  I think it was a mistake to include it in the programme at all.

Why I feel quite so strongly about this is that meant I was going in to the final piece bemused and tired, not how I wanted to feel at all. We were to be treated to Max Richter’s Three Worlds. Written as a ballet score in response to 3 Virginia Wolf works, it is beguiling and beautiful. I wish I had seen it as a ballet. I am sure, then, I would have been extremely moved by the power of the music and of hearing Wolf’s own voice describing Mrs Dalloway, as well as the reading of her suicide note. But I was far too tired. The auditorium was far too hot. It became difficult to keep my eyes open. It is such a shame because the middle of the worlds, the one based on Orlando, was other wordly and beautiful. There was some amazing solo cello and violin going on, balanced with understated use of brass and piano. It could have been so much more.

I had high hopes for this concert. I really love Max Richter’s work, he is clearly a very talented musician and composer. The movements I have heard of Three Worlds are so beautiful they take your breath away. Live I was expecting to be swept away with emotions. When that didn’t happen I felt let down, as if I had missed something extraordinary. Perhaps it was me, perhaps the rest of the audience loved it.

I have such an intense relationship with music, am so invested, so emotionally bound by the expereience, that when they don’t go how I want or expect, I feel a deep sense of loss.  I wish this had been a different experience.