Apollo Resurrected

Reviewer's Rating

Both United Strings of Europe and Gandini Juggling have developed strong reputations in recent years for original and innovative programming, the former in extending the repertory for chamber string orchestra and the latter for combining a broad spectrum of juggling skills with an unexpected range of musical and dramatic settings. Here they join forces for an evening centred around Stravinsky’s ballet ‘Apollon Musagète’, framed by two modern works by Osvaldo Golijov and Joanna Marsh.

Musical values are very strong throughout the sequence of works performed. We begin with Golijov’s ‘Tenebrae’ for string quartet, a meditative work that takes themes from Couperin’s work of the same name and applies some musical shapeshifting without ever losing touch entirely with the original Baroque forms. This was performed simply by the players and served as a reminder of how well suited to small-scale instrumental music this hall is – the sharp, precise acoustic focuses and enhances the sound to suggest larger forces than are present. It can also amplify any errors, but this band of players need not worry on that score.

Julian Azkoul, leader of ‘United Strings of Europe’, is adept at arranging string works that were originally intended for larger or smaller forces for his own ensemble. This is no mean feat of balancing parts and calculating textures and timbres. He does it to excellent effect in the Stravinsky which adjusted well to the players available without losing any of its cheeky wit and boldly noble, hieratic stateliness. However, the match with the narrative devised for the jugglers was uneasily achieved and less successful than the musical values on offer.
‘Apollon Musagète’, or Apollo and the Muses is a ballet of the composer’s Neo-Classical period that was choreographed originally by Balanchine with costumes by Chanel. It is cool, chic, elegant and calculated, offering fine opportunities for dancers to depict Apollo’s birth, connections with three female Muses, and ultimate apotheosis. Above it all hovers a philosophical message at the heart of the composer’s credo about the need to order artistic creativity with professional craft.

While there were moments at which the juggling moves generated a suitably sly comic charm and the gymnastic movements impressed, the scenario devised seemed undernourished, adding little to what was already made manifest in the music. In part this must be because the performers were constrained by the limited size of the stage in Hall One which restricted their freedom of expression. But there is also an inherent problem in matching up a gravely imagined ritualistic world of gods and goddesses to an ethos more closely with the world of clowns and the circus. The story of an artist down on his luck revived by new sources of inspiration remained more of a concept than a fully realised experience.

Synergy was more attractively achieved in the final work, ‘Another Eden’, a new commission from Joanna Marsh. Here the cumulative build of the music starting from a repeating ground bass matched the way in which the jugglers patiently assembled structures of balanced bodies among each other, and then perched, slid and tossed large blue spheres from one limb to another. Form and rhythm, dynamics and flow, were all working together in harmony, with each informing the other to create a proper stage experience over and above the merely musical one.
So all in all this was a mixed evening. The potential for collaboration was successfully suggested and the excellence of the two groups of performers was demonstrated once more. However, the central work did not quite land as it should have and failed to persuade me that this piece should be performed other than as a ballet even though it is more of an abstract than a narrative piece. However, there is another chance to make up your own mind at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, the home of Northern Ballet in Leeds, 3 Nov, 7:30pm.