The japes of Roth: ‘Glass / Handel’ Prom, Printworks, London

The Proms have come to symbolise a lot of different things, some of which are seemingly contradictory. Famously inclusive in terms of relaxed approach and atmosphere, but potentially exclusive to anyone who isn’t alive to the odd arcane tradition or two. Brand new works rub shoulders with reliable old ‘warhorses’. And outreach: more and more, the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) – part old-school luxury and splendour, part self-sufficient tropical weather system – shares the glory with concerts in other venues and, laudably, other regions in this latest season. This is a really welcome development when one considers how spoilt we are already for musical choice in the capital.

The roving Prom experiment has worked successfully before with, for example, the Bold Tendencies venue in Peckham. Now, enter Printworks in Rotherhithe, a few minutes’ walk from the Underground station Canada Water. You won’t be surprised to learn that this vast nightclub was formerly a printworks, and as such is a cavernous, industrial, steampunk-evoking space that looks more like a film set for a dystopian fantasy. (Or reality, for some: this event seems to have polarised critics and punters alike. Excellent result.)

Even on arrival in the area, the experience took on a faintly deranged air. To get to Printworks itself, you are guided through a labyrinth of hoardings with trees each side disguising any proper view of where you’re about to arrive. I wondered if this was in fact the first Prom to take place in Narnia. Once in the door, you enter a vast hall and simply walk across it. Then another, where the lockers are; and another, where the bar is. At last, you climb some steps into the auditorium itself which is still huge, don’t get me wrong, but long and narrow in comparison to the spaces we’d trudged through to get there.

Instantly – and I think this is partly why I enjoyed myself so much – my brain switched from ‘classical concert’ to ‘rock gig’. I completely re-calibrated my expectations in those first few steps towards the central stage. I had been here many, many times before. I knew I would get a bit jostled, as people walked past with drinks. I was ready for the tall chaps who would inevitably stand in front of me. It was very difficult at first to actually make anything, or anyone, out. I entered the venue having bumped into a few friends – two paces in, never laid eyes on them again. That hadn’t happened to me since seeing Pixies at Brixton Academy when I was a mere [imaginary number] years old.

To an extent, this gig is designed to ‘tour an album’, much like rock bands do all the time. Anthony Roth Costanzo released the superb ‘Glass / Handel’ disc back in 2018, and much of that record’s track listing survives into today’s concert. While it’s no surprise that Baroque and minimalist musical patterns can make attractive, easy bedfellows, the elegant flow of the disc’s programming felt inspired. Live, there was an even simpler structure – ten choices listed in the digital programme, alternating strictly between the two composers.

The band took the stage ahead of the ‘frontman’. Not just any band, but English National Opera (ENO)’s Orchestra, conducted here by Karen Kamensek – one of the world’s foremost Glass interpreters and collaborators. (She has been at the helm for most of my treasured live Glass experiences: not only performances of ‘Akhnaten’ and ‘Satyagraha’ at ENO, but also the tremendous Prom where Anoushka Shankar and colleagues recreated her father Ravi’s co-composition with Glass, ‘Passages’.) In terms of repertoire and performance, I thought the music was impeccable. There was no attempt to blur the styles and Handel-ise Glass (or Glass-ify Handel) – but they were treated as equals, one’s lithe sway balancing the other’s brittle agility, each given the same attention to detail. Costanzo’s pristine voice brought unity to the whole.

Costanzo, who worked with a team of fellow artists to create the Prom, conceived it as much performance art or installation as musical event. As such, everything else about the experience was made up of ‘moving parts’. The countertenor himself was on the move almost throughout the entire concert – singing while walking to the orchestral stage, then starting a tour of the venue floor (flanked and guided by ushers with neon strip lights), pausing at other smaller stage areas at various points. As the concert ended, he finally returned to take his place front and centre by Kamensek. Along the way, he shed layers of clothing – relax! – each vast robe gave way to a slightly smaller one beneath.

We were also directed to look elsewhere at other participants. Chief among these was the troupe of dancers, who to me demonstrated how much emotion there really is in rhythm, that even the most metronomic pulse can give rise to myriad different interpretations. Somewhere in the building, a live drawing was being made. And Costanzo had also commissioned videos by different directors to accompany some of the arias. These ranged from wistful melancholia, through SF action to fetishistic ribaldry, and this isn’t a sentence I’d ever envisaged myself typing. Everything was projected up onto the walls so you could see Constanzo gliding through the crowd, or track the drawing’s progress, more or less by staying where you were. 

I can fully appreciate that at any point in the extravaganza I describe above, certain people – especially if used to more conventional classical concerts – will have mentally got off the bus. Not in the ‘oh why don’t these dinosaurs get with the programme’ sense: that’s not what I mean at all. I simply mean it wasn’t what they came to see, or wanted to see, or both.

To be honest, I don’t blame them, as I feel the event was slightly (and, I’m sure, accidentally) mis-sold. Constanzo’s own programme notes explain how each attendee should be able to take control of their experience, and ‘prom’ around to take in the dancers and videos (and so on). As a result, on my way to the gig, I was expecting to be given maybe headphones (beaming the music to you, like a silent disco) and the opportunity to move between two or three rooms and witness several ‘happenings’. Or failing that, to be presented with some cool navigational element that would allow me to customise what I could see or hear based on where I went. So, to see so much wasted space on my arrival there took me by surprise, especially given the dimensions of the single room we all ended up in. It meant that most people (at the 3pm performance I attended; there was also an evening show) congregated near the orchestra stage and let the show come to them. (I hope my photos give you an idea of what the ‘rooted to the spot’ experience was like.)

Let’s not pretend that a more conventional Prom is in any way like a rock concert, simply because the Prommers can stand and wander around. In another contradiction, Proms audiences – given the most leeway to create noise and distraction – are famous for their rapt, silent attention. But rock bands play the RAH, along with many of our other great classical venues and church performance spaces. (One lovely recent example of the two genres in harmony was electronics band Bonobo’s invitation to top organist Anna Lapwood – after hearing her practise in the middle of the night during their residency – to play impromptu on their closing anthem the following night. Their video records the moment when, at the organ’s first chord, and to Lapwood’s astonished delight, the crowd go nuts.)

Here we have the reverse: pure classical music – no sonic embellishments at all – moving into a pop/rock space, and adopting its trappings: light show in darkness, total audience freedom (if rather impractical in the thick of things), pop video, interactivity between artist and crowd. Judging from the audience reaction to Constanzo, ENO and the dancers taking their bows, the music can definitely cut it in this environment. With an ensemble of that quality, you’d expect great things but with so many technical variables it was still a huge relief when they gave such a glorious performance.

Did the show get everything right? In my opinion, no. I think a more thorough use of the space would have lifted some people’s experience from uncomfortable to unforgettable. It might also have worked better as a Prom if the stage had not been central in front a long edge, making the viewing area for Kamensek and the orchestra more narrow than it needed to be and limiting our ability to move freely.

But equally, I hope it doesn’t become the default setting to give events that experiment in this way a kicking because they don’t provide the ‘classical’ experience – it was never going to. (I haven’t seen any professional reviews of this event by critics from the rock or dance spheres – and indeed, why would they even have been sent there? – but I think it would have been illuminating.)

Between each song, sound artist Jason Singh performed a minute or so of abstract noise, some of which he intoned vocally, with elements of beatboxing. To some, this seemed superfluous, pretentious even; but I felt the opposite. I thought that, in quite a discreet way, it increased the slightly unsettling atmosphere of the venue and in fact, paid its original incarnation homage with the industrial flavour to some of the effects. I also suspect it was a clever way to signal that no clapping was required between the main songs, the vexed nature of which can sometimes baffle even experienced audiences.

I would definitely go and see more classical music in this context, and I think the same applies to many in the crowd. It did feel good to be slightly ‘unshackled’. I might have stuck to my patch but I could move my limbs and shift bodily when I wanted to look at a different part of the auditorium. I enjoyed being able to take photos during the performance for once – and that didn’t mean abandoning all etiquette and shoving my phone in someone’s face: it just meant using it carefully and judiciously, particularly when surrounded by others doing the same.

We talk – and hear – a great deal about mashing up classical music with other genres, or widening remits of festivals like the Proms, to bring in new and, if at all possible, younger audiences. I think Costanzo’s Glass / Handel Prom is one of the boldest of these gestures yet, because – while leaving the music alone to speak, eloquently, for itself – it subjected it to full immersion in another milieu entirely, a bohemian concoction of confrontational video art, fashion and dance, in a totally alien environment. Both the works, and the context, emerged unscathed.

Hopefully, future programmers will look at this sort of thing and explore it further, getting more and more right, pleasing more and more listeners, each time. Some fine-tuning of the format, to better serve the fine tunes.


(Photos by AA)

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