On Friday, April 15 and Saturday, April 16, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra struck out in a new direction by performing its centerpiece composition with artwork thrown onto a projector screen behind the orchestra. The program consisted of three pieces, the first and third of which were by Italian-born French composer Luigi Cherubini, with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — one of the most famous pieces of music in the world — sandwiched in between them.
The ASO commissioned Jean-Jacques Gaudel, a multimedia artist based in Birmingham, to create the artwork, which essentially consisted of a continuous 3D animation with a small amount of text for context. Gaudel is a native of France, but through a long and somewhat improbable process, he met the woman who would be his wife as he was road-tripping through the United States with a friend, on their way from New York City to South America in a Volkswagen camper bus. Eventually, after his road trip was over, he returned to Birmingham with his wife, to whom he has been married now for 42 years.
Gaudel said he was approached at a party about a year or so ago by Pierre Ruhe, the ASO’s Director of Artistic Planning, to see if he would be interested in doing a project of this kind; he agreed that he would. This agreement was reached before the ASO’s still slightly new Music Director Carlos Izcaray actually moved to town, which was in the fall of 2015. According to Gaudel, it was Izcaray who decided on Cherubini’s Requiem in C Minor as the piece to which Gaudel’s graphic work would be set.
The first composition was Cherubini’s Concert Overture in G, one of the composer’s less-known works. Despite this, however, it was a perhaps unexpectedly lively piece, and, with its modulating tempo, tonality and intensity, was the sort of thing the ASO does very well under Izcaray. It opened with a graceful G major passage that soon began to churn and, quickly enough, twisted into G minor as the pace picked up and grew fiery. It performed a couple more swings like this — taking the foot on and off the gas pedal, so to speak — and it ended with a dramatic crescendo, galloping through the finish with a certain tone of triumph that Izcaray really knows how to get out of his musicians. These dramatic tempo and tonal swings and big flourishes at the ends of pieces are things that the ASO under Izcaray does noticeably well.
From this relatively obscure work by a relatively obscure composer, the program progressed to one of the most universally known works by one of the most conspicuous composers in all of classical music: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which has perhaps the most instantly recognizable first four notes of any piece of music. It is classic Beethoven: dark and stormy (that German phrase, sturm und drang)
Izcaray, as usual, was animated and lively, moving around a lot on the podium, managing to pull a lot of sound and a lot of nuance out of the orchestra. The performance was pitch-perfect, and the audience gave a roaring standing ovation.
The final piece of music, the Requiem in C Minor, was the one that got the visual art treatment. It clocks in at close to an hour in total length, so the amount of work required to create the requisite artwork was “very, very heavy and stressful,” Gaudel said. “The last 50 days before the show I put in like ten hours a day, every day, at least. I would get up at 5 a.m. every day and go until 7 p.m., with stops just for lunch and dinner.”
A requiem is, by definition, a Mass for the souls of the dead, but Gaudel wanted the work to be something more like “a joyous celebration of the lives of the deceased.” The deceased, in this case, were Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette, who had been killed on the guillotine during the French Revolution. In fact, the composition premiered in the crypt at the church in Saint Denis (roughly six miles northeast of Paris) where the two “martyrs” were being buried after the restoration of the French monarchy, following the downfall of Napoleon.
Various Enlightenment philosophers appear in the animation work, but so do figures from the monarchy — including ornate scenes of parties at Versailles (which is a central motif of the animation work) with Marie Antoinette and Louis hosting. In fact, in those very same scenes, the walls are hung with portraits of the likes of Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Descartes, among others, so it is a very direct and clever juxtaposition. Gaudel’s artwork is a sort of celebration of these kinds of differences, even including some material about the American Revolution at the end — after all, the American Revolution could not have come off as well as it did, if at all, without the help of the French revolutionaries.
“Even though I am philosophically in favor of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Revolution and not in favor of the royalty, still I do recognize the fact that because we had that royalty, we have Versailles and all those beautiful paintings and so on,” Gaudel said. “You know, the museums would be pretty empty if it wasn’t for the church and the royalty, so there’s two sides to these things, basically.”
As for the requiem, it was a rich, moving choral work, as good requiems are, and the performance given last weekend (with the ASO Chorus providing the vocals) was very strong. Its ups and downs went well with those of its accompanying artwork, and the show, all in all, was a successful new venture for the ASO.
As this sort of visual work appears to be somewhat the wave of the future, particularly, Gaudel believes, if young people are to be brought into concert halls, the ASO’s fans can only hope that this sort of collaboration and experimentation — which are, after all, the hallmarks of this city’s orchestra — will continue apace.