The inaugural Bristol Proms are nearly over. Indeed, if you’re reading this any later than Saturday evening, they’ve been and gone. The festival, run by the Bristol Old Vic, has deliberately been unlike its London namesake. It has been on a much smaller scale and much more self-consciously edgy yet accessible (even if the Twitter-friendly hashtag the organisers insist on adding to the title is a bit much). The stage on the penultimate night was graced by Nicola Benedetti, in a concert that was as much about showmanship and an all-round creative experience as about music.

Nicola Benedetti © Rhys Frampton
Nicola Benedetti
© Rhys Frampton

The theatre’s artistic director Tom Morris made a point of personally welcoming the audience and telling us we could have drinks and clap whenever we fancied. But there was very little applause during the music. This was because what was on stage was riveting. For starters, the first half was show-stopping. And secondly, before Benedetti appeared, a University of Bristol scientist was on hand to give us a lesson on vibration, from string theory to the motions of the universe. There were some curious pieces of equipment standing on the stage. They were the instruments of “danceroom Spectroscopy”, a technique created by one Dr David Glowacki, that splashes moving patterns onto a screen in response to performers’ movements. This was effectively choreographed and very entertaining. To a generation used to watching music videos in particular, an accompanying visualisation seems the most natural thing in the world. There will be those who call it a distraction, of course, and with a lesser player than Nicola Benedetti, it might be. But she was still the most impressive part of the evening.

Benedetti took time for a different sort of string theory, introducing what she was playing. It can be awkward when performers do this, but not in her case. Alone on stage, she seemed to enjoy the Spectroscopy show behind her instead of competing with it. Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita no. 2 in D minor was predictably arresting. This largest section of the second Partita is generally agreed to be a brilliant piece of composition that’s become a concert standalone in its own right. From the opening chords, Benedetti’s was a concentrated performance – not yet seeming comfortable, but no-one can blame her given the piece’s notorious difficulty. Her tone had a meaty edge, which warmed a bit in the instantly recognisable Paganini Caprice. Benedetti obviously knows this inside out and started to sneak glances to the projections behind her. Still, it was a pretty convincing performance. The audience nearly left by accident before Eugène Ysaÿe’s 1923 Sonata no. 5 in G major. A good thing they didn’t. From the simultaneous bowing and plucking near the start to the brisk double stops and runs of the ending, the two movements (“L’Auror” and “Danse rustique”) were sensitively brought to life.

The Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor was a revelation, and a complete change of tone. Consisting of an elegiac first movement and a second of eleven variations, then finale and funeral march, it’s a dark and deep work. Violin and cello share some pleasant interplay in the variations, while the piano – solidly played by Alexei Grynyuk – is frequently given space to make its own grand statements. There was humour too in the interpretation; Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich displaying the chemistry that you would expect from a long-term couple playing a familiar favourite. Nothing demonstrated their synchronicity more than when the strings played perfectly in unison. The dynamics and drama of the whole trio were instinctive.

But then Elschenbroich‘s A-string snapped during the finale. He sheepishly went off to fit a new one. Benedetti’s theory about that string was that she’d prevented him changing it earlier, which caused a lot of laughter – which increased when the whole trio went backstage and the page-turner stole his ten seconds of fame with some sketchy bars of Chopin on the piano. The trio then returned to boldly play on through the finale and the last section – which didn’t feel terrible funereal, rather grimly content. From the pit the grand piano was a bit overwhelming, but the trio’s obvious passion for the piece was enough that we nearly forgot the Spectroscopy.

This solo violin and chamber music programme music worked at the Bristol Old Vic – even if the acoustics aren’t quite up to St George’s just up the road. Those standing in the pit experienced a pub-gig level of intimacy that would never be possible in a bigger space. I still find it cloying to be told to relax, clap and drink during the performance; there’s something ironic about the formality of the instruction. The unstilted interaction tonight’s performers had with their audience, the virtuosity on show and the original idea of including Spectroscopy were the real memorable elements. Maybe we’ll even get a music critic clapping between movements or mid-partita next time. Maybe.

****1