Nottingham Chamber Music Festival was founded in 2018 by its director, viola-player Carmen Flores. With no live performances possible this year, Flores teamed up with local film-maker Tim Bassford, to create Nottingham Stories: Separation and Serenade. The project consists of six separate videos, between about five and six minutes each, in which she plays J S Bach's Cello Suite No 3 in C, BWV 1009 (in an uncredited transcription), the six movements in six different Nottingham locations that have hosted NCMF events in previous years.
Each video opens with a short slow-motion clip of Flores walking towards the venue concerned - by the time I got to No 6, I had started to find this rather tiresome - accompanied, incongruously, by the sound of a string orchestra tuning. In a short introduction, someone connected with each venue describes its connection with the festival, and the effect of COVID-19 on its work, before Flores plays the movement in question. As she plays, the camera cuts, from time to time, to brief shots of the interior – and, occasionally, exterior – of the building.
Bizarrely, the movements are presented not in their correct sequence, but in an apparently random order; we are not told the reason for this. So we begin, not with the Prelude - that comes fifth! - but with the second movement, the Allemande. Flores plays this on the main interior staircase of Nottingham's Council House, following an introduction from Nigel Hawkins, the City Council's Head of Culture and Libraries.
We are introduced to St Mary's Church in Nottingham's Lace Market, where Flores plays the Sarabande, by its Director of Music, John Keys. For the Courante we move to Delilah Fine Foods, a 'high-end delicatessen', in the words of operations director Nik Tooley, and an established favourite with festival audiences. The Bourrée was filmed at Nottingham High School (where Christopher Hogwood was a pupil), with an introduction from Daniel Gill, Operations Officer cover. The main outside staircase, of course, presents a complete change of acoustic from the interior locations.
The Prelude sees Flores on stage in an otherwise empty Royal Concert Hall, whose Music Programme Manager, Neil Bennison, comments that it is 'nice to feel connected to the other venues that are taking part in this project as well'. Finally comes the Gigue, in Nottingham Contemporary, an art gallery that, as it happens, is a near neighbour of St Mary's. Andy Batson, Head of Audiences and Partnerships, voices a thought that the other contributors will also, no doubt, have had at the backs of their minds: 'what it means to be a public space where the public can't visit'.
Flores' performances are engagingly vigorous, with structural clarity in the Prelude, sprightly in the faster dances, and while I would have preferred the Sarabande just a notch quicker, we don't lose touch with the dance impulse.
Her viola was closely recorded, with a (visible) microphone fastened on the shoulder of the instrument (and suitably windscreened for the Bourrée). The rather fierce sound that results, coupled with the very resonant acoustic of most of the venues, doesn't always make for comfortable listening; in the Royal Concert Hall, in particular, it has very much larger-than-life quality. But it does allow for clear textures, and relishes in particular the husky sound of the instrument's bottom string.
According to the NCMF website, 'each movement of the suite has been selected to complement the venue it is performed in'. It would have been interesting to have been told something about the thinking behind the different pairings.
The videos are free to watch on demand. And you can always choose to run them in the correct musical sequence.
Copyright © 1 October 2020