Earthcycle: Orchestra of the Swan

Earthcycle: Orchestra of the Swan
Earthcycle: Orchestra of the Swan

The Stratford-upon-Avon based ensemble Orchestra of the Swan is one of the most inventive groups around in the UK today – this extends from their programming to their use of multimedia to the subjects they take on. Their performances tend towards the mesmeric; their videos are phenomenally inventive.

In February 2023, I saw this programme at he Stratford Playhouse in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Earthcycle tackles climate change. David Le Page, Artistic Director of the Orchestra of the Swan writes about a freak weather incident in his home Lincolnshire village, leading to a broader consideration of how climate change impacts the Earth and its natural rhythms. The coinciding of this with the 300th anniversary of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is timely, therefore, and Baroque/jazz musician and member of the Orchestra of the Swan, David Gordon, has prepared a new arrangement for this event. Each concerto was prefaced by astonishingly powerful performances of traditional songs by folk singer Jackie Oates and by a piece by Gordon. Both lighting and film in addition to performance conspire towards a heightened awareness of the issues at hand without the shock tactics employed by newspaper headlines

The films we saw in the concert performance were each inspired by the relevant season – ultra-frozen winters, summer bush fires and so on, plus reminders of man’s machinery and power. But juxtaposed with these frightening events are reminders of the beauty – and, indeed, power – of Gaia. As Le Page says,

It is the role of art, I believe, to express hope, to challenge complacency, to educate, to dream, to convey the beauty of what we already have and, above all, to urge us not to take anything for granted.

Beautifully put, and it is clear just as much thought has gone into the Earthcycle experience. Performers were occasionally spotlit on the screen, against these visuals or in isolation; a shot of the Earth from space, blue and beautiful, acted as a reminder of our planet’s intrinsic majesty.

To supplement the ideas behind the event, there are two podcasts with The Guardian environmental journalist George Monbiot and Madeleine Finlay (links below review). Monbiot is the most eloquent of speakers; Finlay offers guided meditations, another ‘way in’ to the subject, in a podcast aimed at children of primary school age (with their adults in attendance).

The programme unfolds in four triplicities (esoteric numerologists would have a field day – I wonder if it was deliberate?). Each three began with absolutely spellbinding performances of David Le Page’s stunning arrangements of traditional songs, each relevant to the season at hand.

Jackie Oates has the most mesmeric and remarkably expressive voice (as one can hear, also, from her albums). Le Page’s arrangement of The Birds in the Spring references Vivaldi neatly, before settling into the folk idiom before David Gordon’s fabulously inventive Windigo (with its jazz harpsichord elements) led to the first of the four Vivaldi concertos.

David Gordon is a fascinating artist. In this one concert, he effortlessly moved from piano to harpsichord, from jazz harpsichord to the most inventive continuo playing within a Baroque context I have ever heard. Just a few days pervious to the live event, Christophe Rousset realised figured basses in impeccable Baroque style at the Wigmore Hall; here was a very different, freer take on the role of the harpsichord (at times, in the Vivaldi, almost a co-soloist – certainly an instrument in dialogue with Le Page’s violin). How bright after that sounded the first movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’, its gestures chopped, almost modern. Violins chirruped like Jackie Oates’s birds. There was no doubting Le Page’s virtuosity, either, his sound bright, focused, every note in place. That modernity of Vivaldi’s writing came to the fore in the punctuating violas of the central Largo e pianissimo sempre, Le Page’s violin singing above in a seamless line; it was left to the finale to bring us back into full vernal daylight, a sprightly Allegro pastorale. Here’s the first movement on the disc:

Moving to summer, the bright folksong The Lark in the Morning (nothing to do with Vaughan Williams) contained not only remarkable vocalisation but some equally remarkable scoring, too (staccato violins against voice particularly effective). For summer, Gordon’s own piece was much more contemporary in feel to his spring offering. The Elephant and the Moth was all scurrying strings, sudden juxtapositions of calm, then lounge jazz: a remarkable conflation of idioms in a small space. Visually, both in the folksong and in Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ we saw blue, projected water – but was it a swimming pool, water in man-made captivity? Against this, beautiful shots of Nature herself, juxtaposed with scorched earth.

How Le Page and his players emphasised the modernity of Vivaldi’s writing in the ‘Summer’ concerto (L’estate), separating the phrases of the initial Allegro non molto, taking us into a gestural space before the vigour of the Allegro, and the sudden return of the opening. Here, Gordon’s harpsichord contributions seemed to reach a peak of imaginative play. The contrasts inherent in the music (the second movement, too moves between juxtaposed adagios and prestos). Le Page’s violin sang sweetly against gently moving strings underneath, halted by sudden tremolandi. How fierce the energy of the finale, too: the bright, hot light of the sun, perhaps. Demands on the soloist are fierce in this movement, and Le Page triumphed, his energy and dynamism all-consuming.

Autumn is a time for change, and perhaps introspection after the blazing light of summer. Cold, too, as in Feelin’ the Chill:

… open intervals on strings seemed to usher in perhaps a sense of some emptiness, of loss for the brightness of summer. Gordon’s Feeling the Chill (certainly seasonally relevant in title) sought to bring together jazz and Vivaldian gesture, doing so brilliantly. Yellow/orange lighting in the live performance ushered the audience into the year’s slow darkening. The Vivaldi was spellbinding, the clear climax of this triplicity, Gordon’s harpsichord solo of the second movement wonderful, a halo of strings unforgettable. The tight rhythms of the first movement were complemented by the bounce of ‘La caccia’ (The Hunt); here the harpsichord offered an independent voice working with the soloist. Chamber music of the highest calibre.

There is the bright glare of autumnal sun on the icy staccato that opens the “L’autumno” Concerto. LePage and his ensemble’s awareness of gesture (Baroque Affektenlehre) is superb:


And so, to winter and The Robin’s Petition. A solo cello’s sustained note heard against Vivaldian gestures in the violin; scoring was brilliantly imagined here, two solo violas against the voice. The piece ends without resolution before Gordon’s The Water’s Tears offered huge, open registral space between violin and low double bass (representing the barrenness of winter, I imagine). A variety of gestures, some modernist, some referring back to Vivaldi. Piano with frozen string textures against a backdrop of the Earth made for real emotional clout and the perfect encapsulation of the season at hand. Finally, ‘Linverno’ (Winter), its opening arresting, strings deliberately scratchy, Vivaldi at his most modern, Le Page’s violin almost improvising before the discipline of the rhythms of the faster music came in. Le Page’s control over his instrument is astonishing, as we heard in the soloistic outbursts in this first movement; he is capable of great, and sudden, lyricism, too. How fascinating to have a piano subverting the slow movement as we saw footage of ice caps melting. Improvisation found its way into the finale, Le Page absolutely mesmeric at the opening before the music simply took off – yet the Orchestra of the Swan maintained its sense of taut ensemble.

Here’s how David Gordon’s The Water’s Tears morphs into the opening of the final Vivaldi concerto:

An unforgettable experience. Music can bring awareness to the issues of our time in a profound way, far deeper than screaming headlines – one needs think only of Stephen Langridge’s Gothenburg eco-Ring and its message of rebirth amongst devastation.


Podcast individual links: George Monbiot click here and Madeleine Finlay click here. The paperback of George Monbiot’s book, REGENESIS: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet is available at reduced price from Amazon here.

At the time of writing, Earthcycle is offered at a substantial discount (27%: £12.93 instead of £17.71) at Amazon here.


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