Orchestra of the Swan: Earthcycle, and Echoes preview

Orchestra of the Swan: Earthcycle, and Echoes preview

Earthcycle. Orchestra of the Swan / David Le Page (violin) with Jackie Oates (folk singer). Stratford Playhouse, Stratford-upon-Avon, 07.02.2023

Trad., arr. Le Page  The Birds in Spring

David Gordon      Windigo

Vivaldi (arr. Gordon)  La Primavera (Spring), RV 269

Trad., arr. Le Page  The Lark in the Morning

David Gordon    The Elephant and the Moth

Vivaldi (arr. Gordon)   L'estate (Summer), RV 315

Trad., arr. Le Page    Bright Phoebus

David Gordon    Feeling the Chill

Vivaldi (arr. Gordon)  L’autumno (Autumn), RV 293

Trad., arr. Le Page  The Robin’s Petition

David Gordon    The Winter's Tears

Vivaldi (arr. Gordon)  L'invernoa (Winter), RV 297

The Stratford-upon-Avon based ensemble Orchestra of the Swan is one of the most inventive groups around in the UK today – this extends from their programming to their use of multimedia to the subjects they take on. Their performances tend towards the mesmeric; their videos are phenomenally inventive.

Earthcycle tackles climate change. David Le Page, Artistic Director of the Orchestra of the Swan writes about a freak weather incident in his home Lincolnshire village, leading to a broader consideration of how climate change impacts the Earth and its natural rhythms. The coinciding of this with the 300th anniversary of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is timely, therefore, and the Baroque/jazz musician and member of the Orchestra of the Swan David Gordon has prepared a new arrangement for this event. Each concerto was prefaced by astonishingly powerful performances of traditional songs by folk singer Jackie Oates and by a piece y Gordon. Both lighting and film in addition to performance conspire towards a heightened awareness of the issues at hand without the shock tactics employed by newspaper headlines.

Flk Singer Jackie Oakes

The films we see are each inspired by the relevant season – ultra-frozen Winters, Summer bush fires and so on, plus reminders of man’s machinery and power. But juxtaposed with these frightening events are reminders of the beauty – and, indeed, power – of Gaia. As Le Page says,

It is the role of art, I believe, to express hope, to challenge complacency, to educate, to dream, to convey the beauty of what we already have and, above all, to urge us not to take anything for granted.

Beautifully put, and it is clear just as much thought has gone into the Earthcycle experience. Performers were occasionally spotlit on the screen, against these visuals or in isolation; a shot of the Earth from space, blue and beautiful, acted as a reminder of our planet’s intrinsic majesty.

To supplement the ideas behind the event, there are two podcasts with Guardian environmental journalist George Monbiot and Madeleine Finlay (links below review). Monbiot is the most eloquent of speakers; Finlay offers splendid guided meditations, another ‘way in’ to the subject, in a podcast aimed at children of primary school age (with their adults in attendance).

As one can see from the programme listing above, the evening unfolded in four triplicities (esoteric numerologists would have a field day – I wonder if it was deliberate?). Each three began with absolutely spellbinding performances of David Le Page’s stunning arrangements of traditional songs, each relevant to the season at hand. Jackie Oates has the most mesmeric voice (as one can hear, also, from her albums).

Jackie Oates has the most remarkably expressive voice; Le Page’s arrangement of The Birds in the Spring references Vivaldi neatly, before settling into the folk idiom before David Gordon’s fabulously inventive Windigo (with its jazz harpsichord elements) led to the first of the four Vivaldi concertos.

David Gordon is a fascinating artist. In this one concert, he effortlessly moved from piano to harpsichord, from jazz harpsichord to the most inventive continuo playing within a Baroque context I have ever heard. Just a few days earlier we heard Christophe Rousset realising figured basses in impeccable Baroque style at the Wigmore Hall; here was a very different, freer take on the role of the harpsichord (at times, in the Vivaldi, almost a co-soloist – certainly an instrument in dialogue with Le Page’s violin). How bright after that sounded the first movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’, its gestures chopped, almost modern. Violins chirruped like Jackie Oates’ birds. There was no doubting Le Page’s virtuosity, either, his sound bright, focused, every note in place. That modernity of Vivaldi’s writing came to the fore in the punctuating violas of the central Largo e pianissimo sempre, Le Page’s violin singing above in a seamless line; it was left to the finale to bring us back into full vernal daylight, a sprightly allegro.

Moving to Summer, the bright folksong The Lark in the Morning (nothing to do with Vaughan Williams) contained not only remarkable vocalisation but some remarkable scoring, too (staccato violins against voice particularly effective). For Summer, Gordon’s own piece was much more contemporary in feel to his Summer offering: The Elephant and the Moth. Scurrying strings, sudden juxtapositions of calm, then lounge jazz. A remarkable conflation of idioms in a small space. Visually, both in the folksong and in Vivaldi’s Summer we saw blue, projected water – but was it a swimming pool, water in man-made captivity? Against this, beautiful shots of Nature Herself, juxtaposed with scorched earth.  How Le Page and his players emphasised the modernity of Vivaldi’s writing in the ‘Summer’ concerto, separating the phrases of the initial Allegro non molto, taking us into a gestural space before the vigour of the Allegro; and the sudden return of the opening. Here, Gordon’s harpsichord contributions seemed to reach a peak of imaginative play. The contracts inherent in the music (the second movement, too moves between contrasted Adagios and Prestos). Le Page’s violin sang sweetly against gently moving strings underneath, halted by sudden tremolandi. How fierce the energy of the finale, too: the bright, hot light of the sun, perhaps. Demands on the soloist are fierce in this movement, and Le Page triumphed, his energy and dynamism all-consuming.

Autumn is a time for change, and perhaps introspection after the blazing light of summer. Open intervals on strings seemed to usher in perhaps a sense of some emptiness, of loss for the brightness of Summer. David Gordon’s Feeling the Chill (certainly seasonally relevant in title) sought to bring together jazz and Vivaldian gesture, doing so brilliantly. Yellow / orange lighting ushered us into the year’s slow darkening. The Vivaldi was spellbinding, the clear climax of this triplicity, Gordon’s harpsichord solo of the second movement wonderful, a halo of strings unforgettable. The tight rhythms of the first movement were complemented by the bounce of ‘La caccia’; here the harpsichord offered an independent voice working with the soloist. Chamber music of the highest calibre.

And so, to Winter and The Robin’s Petition. A solo cello’s sustained note heard against Vivaldian gestures in the violin; scoring was brilliantly imagined here, two solo violas against the voice. The piece ends without resolution before David Gordon’s The Water’s Tears offered huge, open registral space between violin and low double-bass (representing the barrenness of Winter, I imagine). A variety of gestures, some modernist, some referring back to Vivaldi. Piano with frozen string textures against a backdrop of the Earth made for real emotional clout and the perfect encapsulation of the Season at hand. Finally, ‘Linverno’ (Winter), its opening arresting, strings deliberately scratchy, Vivaldi at his most modern, Le page’s violin almost improvising before the discipline of the rhythms of the faster music came in. Le Page’s control over his instrument is astonishing, as we heard in the soloistic outbursts in this first movement; he is capable of great, and sudden, lyricism, too. How fascinating to have a piano subverting the slow movement as we saw footage of ice caps melting. Improvisation found its way into the finale, Le Page absolutely mesmeric at the opening before the music simply took off – yet the Orchestra of the Swan maintained its sense of taut ensemble.

An unforgettable experience. Music can bring awareness to the issues of our time in a profound way, far deeper than screaming headlines – one needs think only of Stephen Langridge’s eco-Gothenburg Ring and its message of rebirth amongst devastation.

The Orchestra of the Swan’s next album, Echoes, will be released in May. However, a single (Bach Prelude in B minor, BWV. 855, arr. Siloti/Le Page) will be available from next Wednesday, February 15.


Individual links:

George Monbiot: https://orchestraoftheswan.org/earthcycle/george-monbiot/

Madeleine Finlay: https://orchestraoftheswan.org/earthcycle/madeleine-finlay/

The paperback of George Moniot’s book, REGENESIS: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet will be released by Penguin on Thursday, May 25; the hardback is currently available.

Please note that the link for Timelapse below is for a discounted price (10% reduction, £9.41).

A single from the Orchestra of the Swan’s forthoming album Echoes will be released at 10 am on the morning of this post (Wednesday, February 15, 2023) and we will tweet a link out on Classical Explorer’s twitter feed (if you haven’t found us already in the Twittersphere, we’re @ClassicalExplo1).

Update:  the link is https://lnk.to/OOTSEchoes

All photos © Eugene McLaughlin.