ANNO: Anna Meredith & Scottish Ensemble @ Pleasance at EICC, Edinburgh, 18 Aug
Anna Meredith teams up with Scottish Ensemble for ANNO, which marries Vivaldi's The Four Seasons with Meredith's new electronic-tinged compositions, complete with playful visuals from Eleanor Meredith
Anna Meredith is the irrefutable queen of this year’s Edinburgh Festival. The composer has returned to the city in which she was raised this month with a trio of works. She helped open the festival in spectacular style with Five Telegrams, her collaboration with 59 Productions in which she provided a score on the theme of wartime communication that was both urgent and poignant. She also cropped up at Leith Theatre as part of EIF’s glittering Light on the Shore programme for a reportedly thrilling rendition of her award-winning pop album Varmints, performed with her band and the Southbank Sinfonia. Meredith’s third Festival piece is a live performance of her most recent album ANNO, a daring collaboration with the Scottish Ensemble that sees her splice her own compositions with Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
Vivaldi purists can lower their hackles. This isn’t some reimagining of those iconic 18th-century violin concertos, more Meredith having a conversation with the Italian composer’s work across the centuries. The most famous of The Four Seasons compositions – the joyful tones of Spring's first movement, the baroque strings of Summer’s third – are practically untouched and sound as spritely as ever in the hands of the Scottish Ensemble, who are clearly having a whale of a time breathing life into these perennial favourites. These are pieces so familiar they’ve become clichés, but something wonderful happens when they’re interspersed with Meredith’s own electronic-tinged compositions: they instantly sound mint fresh. It’s the equivalent of a DJ dropping a classic tune next to a contemporary track: the new context gives everything the scent of newly laundered sheets.
The kicker is ANNO’s staging. The show opens with Meredith alone on a wide, curved stage backed by eight large screens, the audience spread out on stools before her. We hear the Scottish Ensemble (lead by violinist Jonathan Morton) before we see them. They walk out playing ANNO’s haunting opener Solstice – Light In and arrange themselves in a row on the left-hand side of the stage. As the 13 musicians move through ANNO’s 16 movements, from the twinkling Birds (which incorporates actual birdsong) to the frantic Stoop to the dappled synth thriller that is Bloom, the musicians quietly rearrange themselves across the stage, moving from left to right as we move through the calendar year. The subtle surround-sound shift is startlingly effective. You find yourself spinning on your stool, following the sounds, much like the Earth’s gentle axis tilt that creates the changing seasons that so inspired Vivaldi in the first place.
We should mention this is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. Meredith’s artist sister, Eleanor Meredith, has provided lively animations for each movement, which play across the screens that curve around the performers and the audience. At times they resemble live watercolour sketches as gentle brush strokes of colour wash over the screens; at others, they’re like angry Rothkos come menacingly to life. We even get the odd character, a scratchy fish that swims left to right or a slow-moving figure with a rotund frame who walks in the same direction.
By disrupting Vivaldi’s familiar music with her own, Meredith has done something rather risky, but you’d have to be churlish not to fall for the exuberant results. This is a classical piece bursting with life and movement, presented and performed with all the effervescent fizz of a pop concert. The Four Seasons hasn’t felt this fresh since the Enlightenment.