Photo by Maria Jefferis/Redferns
There was a distinctly cosmic sheen to proceedings at the sold-out Queen Elizabeth Hall last Saturday evening. The Southbank Sinfonia sidled on stage bedecked in all manner of silvery raiment. On the screen up above, Ewen Jones Morrison’s zeitgeisty visuals of cats and dogs, statues, fossils, and distorted mythical beasts spiralled through a never-ending galaxy. Things were taken to a new level, however, when Anna Meredith walked on stage in a bespoke silver cape.
Meredith and her own band were positioned to the right of the stage, but were very much embraced by the orchestra, to form a ‘big, giant, pimped-up, super monster band’ (as Meredith put it in one of her spoken introductions). Together with conductor Simon Dobson, Meredith lead from the front, as she hopped from keyboard to clarinet to glockenspiel to side drum, the latter being attacked with exuberant savagery in ‘R-Type’.
Tempering raw electronic surges with classical techniques, Meredith is the master of the build up. Using a fairly formulaic design—adding instruments and dividing notes for more densely populated phrases teeming with cross-rhythms—it regardless yields staggering climaxes every time, which then come to such an abrupt end one is left feeling quite dumbfounded.
At moments it was difficult to tell what was backing track and what was live, but that’s no dig: the young players of the Southbank Sinfonia played with mechanical precision, and a tautness that pushed the jarring, polymetric climaxes to breaking point. At other times, they played with effortless grace; of particular note were the virtuosic woodwind players in ‘Taken’, who skilfully navigated some treacherous lines with finesse.
As she put it in her performance, Meredith has ‘the voice of a five year old boy’. But it is also disarmingly beautiful as we heard in ‘Ribbons’, hearing a voice so natural and unaffected in contrast to the souped-up electronic power pulsating beneath much of her music.
The orchestral arrangements were made by her multitalented band members, who also juggled instruments and joined in on the vocals. Particular praise must go to drummer Sam Wilson, whose balmy tenor came to the fore in ‘Dowager’. ‘Honeyed Words’ was beautifully heightened in this orchestral arrangement, the gooey strings providing languorous glissandi to the lingering cello solo.
Following the order of Varmints, the set finished not with a barnstormer, but with the wistful ‘Blackfriars’, with the violins creating raindrops by bouncing pencils on their strings, that drizzled over Maddie Cutler’s spotless cello playing.
It’s clear to see that Meredith is on stage because she’s simply having a wail of a time. And it is infectious: countless times I scanned the orchestra to see beaming smiles. Likewise with her band, with whom Meredith has been touring for the last couple of years; they interact like five really good friends.
It was an exhilarating performance, as the standing ovations testified. Luckily it’s not a one-off collaboration: it will appear again at ‘Light on the Shore’ at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. Tickets go on sale today – don’t miss out.