Pros: Bold music that grabs you by the throat as the Marsyas Trio and the Smoking Apple puppeteers create an exceptional experience of sound and sight.
Cons: Being able to see the shadow puppeteers moving between screens took away some of the magic of their performance.
The Marsyas Trio is behind this unique audio-visual experience: Australian flautist Helen Vidovich, New Zealander pianist Fei Ren, and Canadian cellist Valerie Welbanks all graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, right here in London. They have been traveling and sharing their musical visions since 2009.
The first half of the concert was dedicated to sound. Pre-history, the formation of the earth was represented by ghastly, ethereal and insubstantial notes seemingly played at random. These crashed together in a cacophony of noise that was startling and exciting.
Opening with flautist Vidovich, we heard Canto Del Alba, a haunting flute solo. Watching her play was hypnotic; Vidovich was able to create mesmerizing multiphonic notes that seemed to hang in the air above the audience. The piece fabricated images of being the only living thing in a wide and empty space. The music seemed to echo all around the theatre. This piece was supposed to represent the void before the universe and Vidovich conjured that feeling superbly.
The canto gave way to an improvised piece between piano and cello. The chaotic sounds elicited discomfort and even dread. Both Welbanks and Ren started improving not only the music, but also how they played their instruments. Welbanks used every part of her cello, right down to where the strings connected at the bottom of the instrument. Ren plucked and strummed her piano as well as laid various metal bars across the strings. These would rattle and vibrate sympathetically with whatever she played. I can’t say it was a beautiful racket, but it effectively created the pandemonium of the Big Bang.
Gradually all this crazy ear-splitting noise fell into a harmony that the ears immediately and gratefully latched on to. Vidovich came back in with George Crumb’s arrhythmic and compelling Vox Balaenae, apparently inspired by the singing of humpback whales.
It was during the second half of the concert that the shadow puppeteers, the Smoking Apples, came on. Moved by the notes of the Marsyas Trio, we were introduced to the Ages of Man, beginning with his awakening. We saw how humans lived a simple existence, but this was disrupted when conflict rose. War, bloodshed and eventually cooperation—and subjugation—led to civilisation. In a rush the story arrived at the Modern Age with its industry, factories and eventually technology.
The music moved the story as the musicians screamed and hummed in sympathy with the scenes. The harmony started to form and then began to unravel. By the end, there was chaos again—but this time with a distinctive digital vibe.
One by one the musicians got distracted by their phones and left the stage. Welbanks was left alone with her cello. Seemingly uninterested, she texted and even took a selfie. It was a stark reminder of how we have become cut off from our natural roots.
This show was daring and for those of you who like something different, then you will not be disappointed. If anything took away from the performance it might have been the fact that I could see the puppeteers moving from one screen to another. Personally, I would have preferred not to see them, but this did not distract too much from the overall concert.
Shadows of Time was performed at the Arcola Theatre and is part of the Grimeborn Festival that is dedicated to presenting new and innovative adaptations of opera. The festival continues until September 7th.
Producer: Marsyas Trio
Associate Producer & Musical Director: Tom Green
Puppeteers: Smoking Apples
Booking Until: This production has now finished.