Monday, 28 July 2014

Bristol Proms: Bach In The Dark

Bach In The Dark – that sounds good whatever way you look at it. It’s nice alliteration, it’s a pleasing pun and it’s extremely intelligent music. Bingo.

For the launch night of the second annual Bristol Proms, held at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic, there are just four rules. Firstly, you may clap when you want. Secondly, you should take photos and tweet them during the performance. Thirdly, bring your drinks in to the theatre. And fourthly, do not shush those around you. So if you follow those rules, all will be well.

Having heard tales from last year’s inaugural Bristol Proms of academics being booted out for crowd surfing, I had high hopes that merry hell would break out in the cavernous – and devilishly warm – underground Studio at the King Street theatre. No such luck! Instead, the packed out audience was beautifully well behaved, with narry a cough or a sneeze to disrupt the peace.

After wowing the Bristol Proms audiences last year, conductor Tom Williams returned to Bristol this evening for Bach In The Dark, which, as the name suggests, was a performance of acoustic choral pieces sung almost entirely in pitch black – although, as Tom Morris indicated in his introduction, Williams has begun experimenting with the radical idea of low levels of lighting.

Joined by the Erebus Ensemble, Williams took the audience on a journey that flitted between heavily muted lighting to pitch darkness throughout the hour or so that we were under his spell. And with a walking choir of ten singers moving throughout the Studio, Williams led them – and us – through 12th Century choral pieces culminating in Bach’s Jesu Meine Freude, which lent a whole new meaning to the term ‘surround sound’.

The experience of listing to music in the absolute darkness is to take the music out of its original context and place the focus purely on the sound produced by the performers, and the result is a truly extra sensory experience. Initially, the darkness seemed disorientating and in a way distracting – I found myself wondering what was that, was that a movement, was that an infamous Old Vic ghost? And then I relaxed into it. 

I forgot I was sitting in a hot underground room mostly surrounded by strangers, and became truly enveloped in the beautiful and ethereal sound being created just metres in front of me. My attention became focused and my mind stopped wandering, and I became completely absorbed in the music. So much so that when the lights were slightly raised for subsequent pieces, I actually found it much more difficult to concentrate than I had in the darkness.

Bach In The Dark was just one of a string of performances on the opening night of the Bristol Proms 2014, and it’s safe to assume that if all subsequent performances follow the same pattern then Bristol is set for a sterling week of musical adventures.

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