Combining projections with a live performance is hardly a new idea. But the images involved rarely have the power and vividness of the monochrome photographs of the Amazonian rainforest and its indigenous peoples by Sebastião Salgado that were coupled with a suite from Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Floresta do Amazonas in the Britten Sinfonia’s concert with conductor Simone Menezes.
Villa-Lobos’s score is a curious hybrid, part symphony, part cantata. It had been salvaged from the music Villa-Lobos wrote in 1959 for the movie Green Mansions, which was based on the “romance of the tropical forest” by the naturalist WH Hudson. MGM used only a few fragments of what he’d composed, so the rest was recycled in a sprawling, 80-minute concert work in 23 movements, of which 11 made up this suite, in an arrangement for chamber orchestra. There are certainly brash, Hollywood moments, alongside passages of striking beauty, gentle evocation and romantic lushness, sometimes coloured by a wordless soprano, (Camila Titinger Qui) who also gets to sing a ravishing love song to a Portuguese text.
Salgado and Menezes worked closely to marry the images and the music as precisely as possible. Aerial shots of the vast expanses of the rainforest, and the Amazon and its tributaries snaking through it, underpinned the opening movement, The Forest; Nature’s Dance accompanies portraits of the women of various tribes, while Conspiracy and War Dance is paired with pictures of the men. For the penultimate movement, Forest Fire, Salgado had opted for images of the spectacularly violent rainstorms that so regularly strafe the forest, perché, as he said in his moving introduction to the performance, he wanted to portray living landscapes not dead ones.
More music with Amazonian connections – the Metamorphosis movement from Philip Glass’s ballet Aguas da Amazonia – and more Villa-Lobos, the prelude from the third of his Bachianas Brasileiras, had begun the concert; both received typically vivid, tight performances from Menezes and the Britten Sinfonia. But it was Salgado’s fabulous images and Villa-Lobos’s freewheeling suite that provided the indelible memories.