MusicNorth WestPreview

A Change of Season (Trinity Laban String Ensemble)- The Stoller Hall, Manchester

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

Composers: Antonio Vivaldi and Hollie Harding

Devisor: Nic Pendlebury

Immersive theatre, where the audience becomes part of the play and may even interact with the cast, is now an established part of the genre. An interactive concert is, however, a new idea.

The double bill A Change of Season opens with a hybrid performance as the Trinity Laban String Ensemble, under the direction of Professor Nic Pendlebury, Head of Strings, perform and, to an extent, interpret visually Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

It is apparent upon entering Manchester’s Stoller Hall this is not to be a conventional concert. It is staged, not in the Hall but the Atrium where a trio of violinists, in traditional country yokel costumes (white top, too-short pants and no shoes) are perched bird-like atop step ladders. The DIY cockscombs on their heads confirm they are intended to be fowls as does the appearance of other members of the Ensemble, dressed similarly and behaving like bird-spotters.

The tone of the opening is decidedly lo-fi. The costumes are bits and pieces taken from a jumble sale – donkey’s ears are simulated by a pair of socks hanging off a performer’s head. There is the sense of having stumbled into a county fair where everyone has a go at performing- members of the ensemble step forward to act out a scene or take a solo. Even while seated the members participate – feigning sleep or brushing away flies. Director Pendlebury precedes each of the movements with a short reading on country matters and there is the occasional sound effect with rumbling thunder.

A trio of dancers move from traditional country jigs to interpretive dancing and add to the atmosphere -tearing music sheets from their stands and flinging them around as a high wind builds. Whilst the score is played expertly there is a sense the Ensemble are not taking themselves too seriously. Some of the interpretative movements – particularly simulating gliding across ice by pushing players around on office chairs- are hardly dignified.

Audiences who prefer to close their eyes and appreciate the music might struggle with A Change of Season. Yet the Ensemble treat Vivaldi’s score with respect while allowing an irreverent but fond approach to its visual interpretation to make for a lively and cheerful version of a classic.

The second half of the bill is a full interactive experience. The audience is equipped with hi-tech headphones which allow sounds to be heard through cheekbones, so the ears are free to listen to the live music. As the title suggests Hollie Harding’sMelting, Shifting, Liquid Worldconcerns environmental issues- melting ice caps and the pollution of the sea. The stage is transformed with the step ladders and chairs covered in net curtains to resemble icebergs and the Ensemble wearing blue overalls decorated with bits of beach debris.

A rule with immersive theatre is one only gets out what one is prepared to put in. With Melting, Shifting, Liquid World, however, potential audience involvement is limited. We are encouraged to wander around the Ensemble as they play, but it adds little to the experience as the headphones keep us in the centre of the action.

The sounds in the headphones occasionally supplement the live music- echoing notes played and there is a sense of bookending the music. The headphones open with discrete pattering noises like dripping water and towards the climax the live music becomes furious plucked strings sounding like cracking ice. However, the score for Melting, Shifting, Liquid World is close to experimental jazz which for many listeners is an acquired taste. Bearing in mind the subject matter it is appropriate the score is discordant even chaotic, but it remains a challenging experience.

A Change of Season combines a warm interpretation of a classic score with a challenging hi-tech modern conclusion to make for a memorable if unusual evening.

Reviewed on 23 March 2022

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