Dr Johnson’s dictionary has no entry for synaesthesia: I don’t suppose it figured much in 18th-century consciousness, and if it had, he wouldn’t have believed in it. But the enchanting Georgian town of Lichfield, the doctor’s birthplace and home to his gouty-looking statue in the main square, took the idea seriously during its annual festival last week. Lichfield Festival’s composer-in-residence, Deborah Pritchard, creates music that is largely governed by the relationship she perceives between sound and colour.
It’s not so rare as you might think: other composers, Messiaen and Szymanowski, for example, have been self-acknowledged synaesthetes. But that tends to mean that they hear, for example, B flat as yellow or G sharp as blue. In Pritchard’s case it’s not the note that makes the colour – but the interval between two notes – some intervals presenting warm, with reds or oranges, and others cold, with blues and greens.
It’s complicated, which is why she has an Oxford doctorate in the subject. But it made for an assertively attractive new orchestral piece that premiered in Lichfield Festival’s concluding concert, given in the cathedral by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Martyn Brabbins. Called The Angel Standing in the Sun, it musicalised the burning-hot colours in JMW Turner’s painting of the same name, exploding with a fiery richness in the big but not distortive resonance of the cathedral nave. Pritchard is working at this moment on a new concerto with the painter Maggi Hambling. It will be a premiere worth listening out for.
Other things at Lichfield were an equivocally successful piece for voices and orchestra by Colin Matthews called No Man’s Land (a dramatic scene in which two dead soldiers in a World War I trench ponder life and loss) and a strangely unclassifiable event by Barokksolistene: a pukka period performance band from Norway playing Purcell but on terms you might not have expected. Focusing on Purcell’s bawdy alehouse music, they performed with the additional authenticity of flowing alcohol and laid-back, regular-guy manners of a pub band in our own time – edging off-script into broader folk dance numbers, Spanish gigs and boozy monologues. Resistant to begin with, I was totally won over by the end, thanks to their charm, exuberance and (not least) virtuosity.
Even better, though, I liked a children’s opera playing at the Lichfield Guildhall. Called The Rattler, it was put together by Mahogany Opera with relentless vigour and a viscerally unpleasant puppet (the eponymous Rattler) that would certainly have terrified me had I been a small child in the front row. That the young of Lichfield took it without blinking says a lot about the world experience of six-year-olds today.
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