NOTE - STAR RATING SYSTEM NOT USED ON THIS REVIEW
Scottish Ensemble are currently touring and performing a new commission by Venezuelan pianist and composer Gabriela Montero – Babel (their second work together), and tonight at The Queen’s Hall was the chance for Edinburgh audiences to experience this work. I say “experience” because this new work is, with its moving on-stage screens and projection visuals and images, perhaps a bit more theatrical than some Scottish Ensemble audiences are used to. This extra theatrical dynamic in no way though distracts from the experience of the music, and is very much part of it.
Normally, I often try to avoid global politics in any review, but that is impossible to do here, and if I did try to do such a thing here then I would be completely undermining and de-valuing the work of Gabriela Montero, because as well as being a very gifted musician, Gabriela is also a very active and outspoken human rights activist. “Babel” is not simply a work of musicianship, it is a very powerful statement about many divergent voices (and often languages) coming together to speak in harmony as one for the common good of everyone. At the heart of this is Gabriela’s outspoken commentary on the many human rights violations that have taken place in her home country of Venezuela since Hugo Chavez's election in 1999. We are of course now, somehow, in the 21st century (when such things should not be happening) dealing with a country with an economy that has been destroyed by hyper-inflation and the collapse of many of the social structures (health-care and educational systems to name but only two) that we take for granted here in the UK. With Babel, Gabriela Montero is using music to give a voice to the many who cannot speak out for themselves.
Taking the concept of Babel and the dynamics of the many contrasts in accord, discord, harmony, melody, timing and phrasing that music can offer, whilst still allowing room for improvisation, a carefully selected programme has been selected to be placed around Gabriela Montero’s “Babel”. Sometimes this music has been chosen for the struggles that the composer faced in their own life, so the inclusion of Dmitri Shostakovich is very apt here. Work by one of my favourite contemporary composers, Philip Glass, also fits in perfectly here with his “Echorus” for two violins performed beautifully by Jonathan Morton (SE’s artistic director and leader) and Tristan Gurney.
With musicians of the quality of The Scottish Ensemble working together to provide such harmony, “Babel” may seem to some an odd title for such a work, but try and catch this performance somewhere on its current tour and you will understand immediately why it all works so well when performed. I have to admit though, a little irony that music, one of the great universal languages of the world should be the vehicle by which to perfectly describe the concept of “Babel”.
Normally we use a star review system here, but I am not doing that this time as this work has a very important message and Gabriela Montero has a voice that needs to be heard above all the “political Babel” in this world. To try and give any star rating to a performance that is raising awareness of a country destroyed by two opposing political ideologies seems totally inappropriate. If Venezuela proves one thing though it is that neither Socialism nor Capitalism has the mechanisms to deal with the needs of what we as people require in the 21st century. Perhaps both ideologies are simply now a left over from another century with a new model being required for the good of us all as human beings.
Gabriela Montero Babel
Dmitri Shostakovich Chamber Symphony Op. 118a
Olivier Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time (movement 8)
Peteris Vasks Viatore
Philip Glass Echorus
Review by Tom King