In The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Walter Pater famously stated, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” It’s one of those quotes that everyone knows what it means, yet no one really knows what it means. At least, not if you try to pin them down for an exact answer. In part because of the overlapping of when Pater was writing and when the artists of the Victorian Aesthetic movement were painting, the quote is sometimes used to describe the languid attitude of the non-narrative images produced at the time. But specifically because the artworks described are inherently vague – indeed, it’s their very vagueness that is being addressed by referencing the above quote – it always feels suspiciously like an exercise in eloquently talking around the idea.
With Concert Theatre, founded by director An-Ting Chang, the cross-pollination between different art forms is addressed from a different angle to Pater. Since 2012 the company have been performing works that combine classical music with theatre. Written down, that doesn’t sound particularly remarkable – we are used to music being a part of performance, particularly with dance where the music is integral to the piece – but the way Concert Theatre combine the two is intriguing.
To explain this, it’s probably best to provide an example. The show I saw was a version of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. An abridged version of Anne Brontë’s text is acted out by two performers, Emily Smith May as Helen, and Martin Bonger as Gilbert and Arthur. Accompanying them is Diana Brekalo on the piano playing Scriabin’s Preludes, Op. 11, No. 1-11, 13-17, 20-22; Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in B-Flat Major. K. 378, and Brahms’ Rhapsody in G Minor, Op. 79, No. 2 and Balladen und Romanzen Edward, Op. 75, No. 1.
There is no overt reason for the choice of music, but the idea is that they are there as more than a soundtrack. Simultaneously the text and visuals are not subservient to the music. The purpose instead is that all the pieces work in tandem, with the music complementing the narrative and bringing an additional layer of meaning to it. Analysing the choice of music provides insight into Brontë’s story and – possibly more so – the director’s vision; the music is really there to tell us how Chang wants us to understand the characters and their lives.
If this all sounds a bit relentlessly highbrow – a classical pianist accompanying a staging of a canonical novel – then it’s worth noting that the execution of the piece is actually very light-hearted. The modern qualities of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, particularly the depiction of Helen as an artist, are emphasised. Played out under rows and rows of aristocratic portraiture in Kings Weston House, the exchanges between the two characters reveal the pretentions of both the story’s setting and the country pile it is being performed in.
As the rakish Arthur, Bonger is transparently ridiculous in billowing sleeves and a silver waistcoat. I think I can see the puffed-out chest of the painted Cavalier-haired man above him start to deflate as the performance continues. There’s something less impressive about these swaggering men on the walls when the real one below them is quickly unravelling. May as Helen, meanwhile, starts the performance with Gainsboroughed pink cheeks and golden locks peeking out from under a wide brim. Her early appearance and dress is also set in contrast to her personality and identity. At one point she unbuttons the cropped jacket of her outfit and transforms the empire line frock into something closer to an artist’s smock.
It’s this evolution from traditional, meek female into practicing artists that is key to Chang’s production. The director’s notes explain that the pianist at the centre of the piece represents the modern female artist. By placing music, text, performance and costume side by side, Concert Theatre aspires to the condition of the artist, meaning the creative expression of ideas through any art form. The emphasis is not on Helen as a proto-feminist escaping a marriage, but on Helen as an artist who is taken seriously. Which when you stop to think about it, is actually the most feminist reading of the story there is.
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