In this latest performance, called INTIMATE LETTERS, the ACO combined with the Bell Shakespeare Company have somewhat abandoned the usual established concert format. Under the direction of special guest London Symphony Orchestra concert master Gordan Nikolic and theatre directors Peter Evans and Susanna Dowling , INTIMATE LETTERS is a unique blend of theatre and music.
Actors Ella Scott Lynch and Marshall Napier from Bell Shakespeare read excerpts from the letters of Janáček, Mozart and Smetana linked to the ACO’s performance of the related musical works of the three composers .
Mozart’s ‘Divertimento in F’, the first work on the program, was perhaps slightly out of place in when considered alongside the later anguished works of the two Czech composers that follow.
The sunny ‘ Divertimento ‘ one of three composed by the sixteen-year-old Mozart in 1772, is a brief, charming Italianate piece in three sprightly movements. The second, middle movement is the saddest and most lyrical in feel.
The first letter of the evening was a 1772 letter written by a young Mozart to his sister, Maria Anna. Ella Scott Lynch , in a beautiful, long blue flowing tie dyed dress, obtained some laughter from the crowd before the ACO started performing with her delicious reading of the composer’s goofy, rather oddball remarks and use of repetition. The exquisite tone of the ACO’s playing was showcased particularly in the second Adante movement and their playing in the first movement was glorious with sustained, precise balance.
The other two works performed were in starks contrast .
Entitled ‘Z mého života’, or ‘From my Life’, Smetana planned his work to be a snapshot of his life, starting from his youth and his initial interest in the arts to his permanent deafness, with which he was diagnosed at the age of 50.
The piece was deemed ‘too orchestral’ for a quartet, and Smetana’s work was given its first performance by a larger body of strings (including, notably, a young viola player named Antonin Dvořák), which, sadly, he was completely unable to hear.
The first movement begins explosively, subsiding to an eerie theme in the viola section. Smetana entitled this the “Call of Destiny” theme, a ominous foretelling of his future misfortunes. Having lost his hearing, Smetana was still bothered by constant buzzing, shriekings and high-pitched whistles, which he found so disturbing that they often hindered him from composing.
The first movement was powerful and passionate, evoking Smetana’s interest in Romanticism and its ideals. The second movement was brighter, and shows Smetana’s love of dance and the pride he took in his achievements as a composer.
The second movement was played with great control by the ACO giving it a sense of proud Slavic nationalism instead of joy, which is appropriate for the work.
In the third movement, Nikolic and the first violins were glorious in haunting,sad violin swells of interlocking rhythms and layers of melody.
There were soaring tears of solo sections, and the group took full advantage of the rich, luscious harmonies. The fourth (final) movement begins happily ,but is interrupted by the occurrence of a high ‘E ‘over a tumultuous body of strings, which represents Smetana’s deafness, and the A-flat Major 6th chord he reported hearing daily between the hours of 6 and 7.
As the movement drew to a close, the phrases end more abruptly, indicating the disintegration of Smetana’s hearing. Napier, dapper in an elegant grey business suit gave exquisitely eloquent readings of Smetana’s letters, and at one point says ‘ Therefore the ‘E’ must be played fortissimo throughout’ and emphatically directs the ACO to do just that . There is also use of atmospheric golden lighting .
Principal cellist Timo-Veikko Valve has been responsible for arranging Leon Janáček’s ‘ String Quartet No 2 ‘– known also as the ‘Intimate Letters ‘- the title piece- for string orchestra. Janáček wrote these letters over the last decade of his life to Kamila Stösslová, a young woman he was passionately devoted to.
Janáček and Kamila exchanged over 700 letters, in which she was rather primly aloof, and he was clearly smitten. Their correspondence created extra tension between Janáček and his already estranged wife Zdenka, but didn’t appear to concern Kamila’s husband, who was probably consoled by the age gap between the two of nearly 40 years (when they first met Kamila was 25, Janáček was 63). The actors draw out the crackling tension in magnificent performances.
The work begins spikily but there are swirling, lilting tender sections too, Some segments are to be played on the bridge in the viola and cello parts. Principal viola Christopher Moore’s superb performing deserves a particular mention. Sometimes the music is achingly sad, at other times tremulous, spiky or searing .There was fine, vibrant playing by the ACO and all involved gave an impassioned performance .
An unusual , emotionally gripping and exciting performance . Running time two hours (approx) with one interval.
INTIMATE LETTERS was on national tour between the 18th August to the 2nd September.