By Marguerite Wassermann
When I think of performing outdoors, I am instantly reminded of playing questionable arrangements of Pachelbel’s Canon at windy May weddings, where music is the lowest priority. Mary Bevan’s June outdoor series ‘Music at the Tower’ changed my perspective on standard concert venues and opened a wealth of possibility for performance practice.
The concert opened with BWV 202, a secular cantata thought to have been composed for a wedding, perhaps even Bach’s wedding to Anna Magdalena. The most successful movement was the final ‘Gavotte’. Top-heavy orchestration with the oboe and violin doubling the melody is a standard feature of French baroque music, with the flute, oboe and violin sharing the ‘dessus’ line. This orchestration often poses a balance problem in a standard concert venue and a unison passage is treated with trepidation, rehearsed until uniformity is achieved. St Mary’s Tower enabled the melody to ring out, undoing the standard of equally balanced parts which makes little sense for some genres.
Another impressive feature of this concert was the clarity of the bass group. Despite the physical distance between the soprano, cello and double bass, the cello solo aria ‘Phoebus eilt mit schnellen Pferden’ was beautifully together. Much like the windy outdoors, in muddy acoustic settings of the early 1700s (such as large theatres and churches) it is possible to imagine the swathes of continuo-players providing some order among the chaos.
However, we can learn from the shortcomings of this concert: specific musical effects like the delicately gradated echo in the violin solo from the aria ‘Wenn die Frühlingslüfte streichen’ were lost. It may be interesting to consider alternate, and not so literal, meanings for this dramatic echo, such as varied articulation or opposing phrase directions. Similarly, the lack of sight-line between the oboist, continuo group, and soprano meant that it was unfeasible for him to take time to breathe in ‘Sich üben im Lieben’.
The most thrilling part of the outdoor performance is the dismantling of concert laws. Despite some initial audience trepidation, a particularly long pause as the performers rearranged their complex web of clothes pegs made it clear that movements would be delineated and that clapping was welcome, if not necessary.
Musicians are often taught to control every aspect of a performance, enabled by hermetically sealed concert halls, which give a performer immense power to dictate audience experience. Videos are worse: we are warned that body language, tuning practices, the release of the instrument, walk and gaze are all important parts of music performance, and we should decide how they are incorporated in advance. Although painted as professionally polished, it feels uncomfortable and alien to emulate. Physicality and stage presence are an important part of a performer’s personality, but to think that there is an ideal performance body to copy is terrifying.
Outdoor performance spaces loosen the performer’s grip on their audience. A listener can enter a cycle of distraction, experiencing momentary drifting focus on the music. The anxiety of holding an audience’s attention can force performers into gimmicky interpretations; in this setting I felt liberated by how my surroundings structured the ebbs and flows of concentration. A particularly loud screech from a magpie or someone walking behind me created a fluctuation of thought, free of the guilt induced by a mind drifting in a space designed for focus.
Performances which admit the existence of the outside world are exhilarating; the most memorable parts of concerts I have watched or played in were when the outside intervened and changed the state of play: a lost final page descending into an improvised coda or a wayward clap in a pause bar signifying the first interaction between performer and audience. These interruptions, experienced by every musician, place the music in dialogue with its surroundings and validate the spontaneity of live performance.