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Darkness and Light: transition_projects, Kings Place, London, 9.12.2009 (GDn)

John Dowland: In Darkness Let me Dwell
Igor Stravinsky: Recollections of My Childhood
Stephen Wallace – countertenor
Andrew Maginley – lute
Lucy Schaufer – soprano
Tom Hankey – violin
Netia Jones - director


John Dowland for the multi-media age – the concept evidently has potential. Like his contemporary Shakespeare, Dowland has survived into the modern day as a distinctive, yet adaptable voice. His music, especially for voice, has a latent dramatic potential, but this needs patient nurturing to become evident from beneath its veneer of courtly civility.

transition_projects, who are a music and multi-media collective, take an existentialist angle. The songs of Dowland (and a few of his contemporaries: Ennemond Gaultier, Robert Hales, Philip Rosseter) are performed in the setting of an office, deserted but for our countertenor protagonist, who delivers Dowland’s melancholic verses sitting at his cluttered desk. Movement is kept to a minimum – rearranging the files, for example, or putting his ready meal in the microwave, but this is commensurate to the microscopic scale of Dowland’s short, personal dramas. At the back of the stage, a large screen is divided into six unevenly sized rectangles, initially an allusion to the glass facades of modern office buildings, but later an opportunity for split-screen montage, mixing still photography (mostly of offices and of the singer) with images of the stage action, manipulated in real time. The low key concept always functions on the same personal scale as the music, allowing seamless interaction of music and context. But what kind of interaction is it? The existential angst of the lone office worker’s self-pity colours Dowland’s purer melancholy. It humanises it too, but the overall impression of a claustrophobia, Dowland’s noble sentiments confined within a wilfully narrow concept. The singer, Stephen Wallace, coped well with some of the contorted poses he was required to hold while singing. He has a charismatic and unusually distinctive countertenor voice, which served the concept well. His intonation was occasionally shaky though, and his diction lost some of its clarity in the lower register. His lutenist, Andrew Maginley, impressively juggled the roles of accompanist and duet partner, his tone soft always finely balanced with the voice.

The company’s treatment of Stravinsky was more confrontational. Or rather, their interpretation of Stravinsky’s music was at odds with anything that Stravinsky might have said about it himself. He was notoriously reluctant to acknowledge the significance of his Russian childhood on his adult persona. But, as was demonstrated in the second part of the evening’s performance ‘Recollections of my Childhood’, a number of his songs from the years immediately following the Rite of Spring play out themes of childhood and nostalgia in a musical world infused with Russian imagery and folklore. The setting moved from the office to the home, the dramatis personae a mother and her three children in a domestic environment strewn with piles of washing and toys. Most of the songs were presented as the mother (the soprano Lucy Schaufer) reading stories to the children. The video projection was put to creative use as a view inside her story book, incorporating not only the English translations of the texts, but also video images of the children interacting with the various animals and birds of the stories. The songs were accompanied from the piano by Christopher Glynn and interspersed with violin and piano arrangements of Stravinsky’s contemporaneous orchestral works, played with Tom Hankey on the violin. Lucy Schaufer sang magnificently, capturing both the tone and the phonetic contour of the Russian. The violin and piano were also played with precision and (perhaps more importantly for this project) to wonderfully atmospheric effect. The Owl and the Pussycat was a curious inclusion. This song dates from the late 60s and was the last original work the composer completed. Its skeletal serialist aesthetic was an eerie change of mood in a performance otherwise devoted to the composer’s Russian era.

As with the Dowland staging, a deliberate tension was set up here between the stage concept and the composer’s own aesthetic values. It worked to the extent that it forced Stravinsky’s music to acknowledge its deep connections with unsophisticated childhood perceptions. And the video-projected story book was a nice touch, an elegant, and indeed state-of-the-art, frame for Stravinsky’s miniature mythical worlds.

Gavin Dixon

The transition_projects season continues at Kings Place until Saturday 12th December.

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