Olafur Arnalds: and they have escaped the weight of darkness. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. 1st July 2010
This was not the ordinary kind of gig that gets reviewed on RWL. Icelandic pianist and composer of delicate, haunting soundscapes, Olafur Arnalds, was in Manchester to play a new, orchestral re-working of his latest album, ...and they have escaped the weight of darkness. This was to be my first classical concert, as the bill also included a Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame) composition, a new piece by Avner Dorman, a contemporary classical composer of whom I had never heard, and a performance of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The conductor for the evening was Andre de Ridder.
The Bridgewater Hall is a surprisingly friendly venue, spacious, with comfortable seats and nice toilets. Okay, architectural review over. After a selection of Radiohead songs reworked by the Loudon Piano Quintet in the lobby, which I did not catch, the evening opened with Popcorn Superhet Receiver, a 2005 piece by Jonny Greenwood. Jonny himself did not perform; I'm not sure if he was even present. Popcorn is inspired by white noise and the interplay between car engine noises and tape players on long journeys in Jonny's childhood. It is a wavering, sliding, quite subtle piece, performed by a string ensemble. The ranks of violins meshing over the top of one another creates a convincing, yet musical impression of white noise, and the piece builds to a pleasant crescendo.
The second performance was Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, a new work by Avner Dorman for orchestra and percussion, in three parts. It is said to be inspired by the three titular substances, and influenced by the sounds and rhythms of the Near and Middle East.The percussion was provided by the DYAD Percussion Duo, who both moved between marimba, drums and orchestral percussion throughout the piece. Each movement became more dramatic and frenetic, culminating in a huge, cacophonous climax. The Eastern rhythms were hypnotic and the contribution of the marimbas put me in mind of more organic electronica I've listened to before, like Four Tet. The percussion duo were really rather special, and were excellent performers as well as wonderfully intense musicians. They rightly received massive applause.
After an interval, the orchestra reformed for Rite of Spring, a composition considered so shocking on its debut in 1913 that concert-goers walked out in fear and disgust. Telling the story of a pagan sacrifice, a young girl forced to dance herself to death for the gods, it still retains some of its ability to shock now. From innocent, pastoral beginnings, it soon becomes one of the most brutal classical works I have heard, all stabbing violins, lamenting woodwind and thunderous percussion. The RNCM Symphony Orchestra more than did it justice.
After another interval, during which the Bits&Pieces Big Band played some more loose-limbed free-jazz Radiohead covers, Olafur Arnalds took the stage. Looking somewhat nervous in jeans and a bow tie, he took his place at the piano and softly launched in to Thu ert solin. To begin with, it was hard to adjust to Olafur's spare, delicate piano playing after such dramatic precursors, but the ear sooned re-tuned. The first song combined wistful piano with melancholy strings, underpinned by subtle electronic pulses. The second song, Thu ert jordin, continued in the same vein, with rain effects washing over the end giving a pastoral feel. By the third song, Tunglith, the rest of the orchestra joined in, filling out the spaces in the original with warm brass and dabs of percussion. As befitting an album tracing a journey from the sadness of Olafur's debut to a more uplifting place, the pace and volume, although never more than gentle, increased as the set went on. Towards the middle, the orchestra was joined by synthesized beats and more atmospheric weather effects, which made it impossible not to think of Olafur's homeland with its elemental climate. The stand-out song for me was Gleypa okkur, which begins as melancholy and brightens towards the end, playing piano off subtle strings and the mellow sound of a bass clarinet. The final song, whose title I will not even try to type using this non-Nordic interface, ended in a beautiful, warm crescendo of percussion and brass, a truly uplifting place to end the journey. Both Olafur and the conductor, as well as the orchestra, received multiple rounds of applause.
This was the only date in the UK on this tour, and the only one with this combination of people and music, and I feel privileged to have been there.