The Cheltenham Music Festival was once as majestic as the town it takes place in, but these days it strikes a deft balance between hip and mainstream. The two meetings on Sunday illustrated the range well, with a recital by the Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter followed by a multimedia meditation on our addiction to the plane, by the highly publicized young composer Laura Bowler. Thank goodness there was a four hour gap between them, because they were like chalk and cheese.
One of the little mysteries of the classical music scene is why Fliter isn’t as well known as other young stars like Igor Levit, Daniil Trifonov or Yuja Wang. Then again, this may not be a mystery at all. She’s a wonderfully expressive and intelligent player, but there’s an aloof quality to her. A quick, slightly goofy flash of a smile is all we get, before she dives into the music.
She began Haydn’s 34th Piano Sonata in a way that actually emphasized its dry surface, but only so it could reveal the complications lurking beneath. As with everything she’s performed, Fliter showed how different realms of feelings can be entangled at the same time. The gap between pompous surprise and veiled pathos was narrowed to a hair’s breadth, and sometimes not even that.
In Beethoven’s 18th Piano Sonata she made the overture seem vast like a starry sky. As for Schumann’s Symphonic Variations, she captured its combination of epic scale, neo-baroque grandeur and tender intimacy, and in Chopin’s two encores found a mysteriously distant color we hadn’t heard before. In short, a marvel.
After this focus on an individual at the piano came something opposite of multimedia complication. Distance, a Cheltenham Festival co-commission, brought together recorded meditations on air travel drawn from passenger interviews, an extraordinary performance of sarcasm and near-hysteria from singer Juliet Fraser who commented on and echoed these interviews, and fragmentary musical interjections from the five players of the New York-based Talea Ensemble, broadcast live to the room to evoke the alienating effect of video streaming – an evocation that succeeded all too well.
Just in case that wasn’t complex enough, audiences were invited to answer questions about their attitudes towards air travel, streamed to their smartphones during the performance. Occasionally, our responses would appear on the screen in the form of potted statistics, such as how often we had admitted to flying in a year. If nothing else, the room certainly reflected the distracting sensory overpower of modern life.
Program notes told us that the idea was to draw parallels between video streaming and air travel, but what emerged was distaste for the mundaneness of flight and the absurdity of passengers guarding their small spaces. in which they are trapped. Fraser did a wonderfully lively impersonation. of a passenger grimacing in disgust as his imaginary neighbor invaded his space with his newspaper. Hints in interviews that for some people the flight retains its magic were completely ignored – which was a shame, as it felt hectoring and one-dimensional. It’s no news that flying is boring and disappointing.
Yet people persist in doing so. Exploring the complexity of people’s motivations would have produced something truly provocative and emotionally complex; As it stands, the piece looked like a rather smug environmental homily disguised as a work of art. The sour mood briefly dissipated when our answers to the question “Would you stop flying to help the environment?” were summarized on screen. An overwhelming majority answered “no”. It was the most entertaining and truthful moment in the play.
The Cheltenham Music Festival continues until July 16; www.cheltenhamfestivals.com
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