The AGO has a new initiative; AGO Friday Nights. For the price of admission to the gallery one also gets to hear a one hour concert of music programmed by Tapestry’s Michael Mori to reflect something going on at the the gallery. Right now the big exhibition is JMW Turner: Painting Set Free. It’s a decent sized exhibition of works mainly drawn from the later stages of Turner’s career and it’s well worth seeing. The music; half piano, half works for mezzo and piano reflects aspects of the exhibition.
There’s a lot to take in the exhibition. There are watercolour sketches as well as exhibitable oils. The pictures are mostly from the period when he had almost abandoned representational form for studies of light and colour yet even in the most “abstract” pieces there is often an astonishing attention to detail. It’s curious that while prefiguring impressionism and expressionism and maybe more, this attention to representational detail remains. I mostly found myself needing to look at canvasses from several feet away, then get right close up, as in three or four inches, and then back off again.
The music was presented in Walker Court. Looking at the space I was skeptical. I thought the acoustics would be appalling but they were actually not bad at all. Not concert hall detailed for sure but perfectly acceptable for an informal concert.
Adam Sherkin on piano played a series of atmospheric piano pieces with great verve. There was John Adams and Beethoven and Liszt and, most interestingly of all, Sherkin’s own dramatic and percussive piece Draco “The Fire Maker” which lay in much the same emotional space as Turner’s various storm at sea scenes.
After a short break Adam was joined by mezzo Marion Newman for a varied program of songs and arias. The piano part of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade provided an impressionistic counterpoint to the vocal story telling neatly reflecting the Turner approach of a big, impressionistic background backed up by exquisite attention to detail. The Habanera from Carmen looked at what happens when one frees one’s approach to colour from conventional constraints. When I am laid in earth from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was perhaps an obvious choice but utterly apt. The three extant Carthage paintings (from Turner’s original four; one now lost) were among the highlights of the exhibition and the music is so English. As English as Turner. And, yes, it is the piece that Timothy Spall approximates in the movie. Equally English, and reflecting Turner’s fascination with the sea, was Elgar’s Where Corals Lie. Finally there was Sherkin’s new piece commissioned by the AGO and setting texts by Turner himself. Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour are short and evocative of the rather extraordinary pictures; two of the most interesting in the exhibition that inspired them.
The performances of the pieces were appropriately varied too. Newman has a range of colours at her disposal and is a good vocal actress. Predictably the house reacted most enthusiastically to her cheeky and dramatic Habanera but I was more taken by the sincerity of the Purcell and the Elgar as well as the virtuosity shown in the Sherkin commission. Good stuff which maintained the interest of an audience that didn’t look like it spent a lot of time in opera houses.
There is one more chance to catch this program; next Friday. I’m curious to see how Friday Nights at the AGO develops.