Laser Pianist, Benedetti Aid New Fest at Oldest Theater

England’s oldest working theater presents the newest classical music festival. It’s a winning combination.

The Theatre Royal, Bristol -- also known as the Bristol Old Vic after the theater company based there -- was built in 1766.

Entering the gold and velvet horse-shoe auditorium is like taking a magical trip back to the time of periwigs and frock-coats. Then you clock the big screen, lasers and digital cameras set up for pianist Jan Lisiecki’s performance of Chopin’s Etudes, and you’re jolted firmly back into the 21st century.

Artistic director Tom Morris, best known for his globe-conquering piece “War Horse,” has now established the Bristol Old Vic Proms to give classical music a gentle shakedown.

The passionate and thoughtful violinist Nicola Benedetti is playing Bach and Paganini while simulated images of her movements are projected in 3D. Her exciting colleague Daniel Hope is performing Vivaldi as reconstituted by composer Max Richter.

I caught two performances. The first was “Singing in the Dark” with the local Fitzhardinge Consort, an acapella choir. They sang familiar works by Tallis, Stanford and Holst in the theater’s studio space. Sometimes there were candles, and sometimes it was as dark as safety regulations allowed.

Interesting experiment, ropey results. The choir wasn’t up to much in terms of accuracy or blend, and the dry acoustic and gloom didn’t help. A little glitter ball spinning during Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli was joyously and deliriously terrible. Conductor Tom Williams said it was all work in progress, which was fair enough. Rating: **.

Chopin Fire

Then I heard sensational 18-year-old Polish-Canadian pianist Lisiecki on the main stage tackling Chopin’s two books of Etudes. Despite having to work with an instrument which went progressively more out of tune, his playing was full of fire and wonder. In terms of technique, he has nothing more to learn. In terms of musical poetry, he has a spark of true greatness to be nurtured. No wonder Deutsche Grammophon has snapped him up.

While he was playing, images of his hands were projected on a screen above him. Sometimes his movements were transformed into geometrical shapes. Blue lasers beamed through the auditorium above his head.

The hand shots were out of sync, and the lasers repeated the same few movements ad nauseam. Do audiences really get more from Chopin with such wonky bells and whistles?

Festival Applause

Still, it’s in the nature of the festival to try these things out, and good luck to it. Rating: ***.

Before the recital, Morris told us all to clap whenever we felt like it, and never say “shush” to anyone near us. No old-fashioned stuffiness here, no sir.

When Culture Minister Ed Vaizey blathered his way through a vague pre-concert speech, Morris had an amusing change of heart. He told us that we hadn’t applauded the waffling minister loudly enough, and ordered us all to do it again. I had to admire his chutzpah.

The whole venture is supported by Max Hole, the Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group International Ltd (which owns the classical labels Deutsche Grammophon and Decca), and the personable fellow was on hand to meet and greet, and wish everyone well.

I’ll second that.

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Muse highlights include Jorg von Uthmann on Paris culture, Hephzibah Anderson on books, Greg Evans on U.S. TV and John Mariani on wine.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        So-so
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)