Brian Eno, known for his infrequent concert performances, recently held his first solo live show in seven years. As an expert in venue selection, Eno did not disappoint with his choice of location – the lavish opera house in Venice, adorned with intricate gold and stucco designs. The audience at tonight’s show added to the surreal atmosphere, with some dressed for the opera and others dressed for a rock concert. The eclectic mix of guests included men in tuxedos and sequined gowns sitting alongside rugged rock stars with ponytails and leather jackets. A notable observation is that a significant number of Eno’s Venetian fans bear a striking resemblance to the man himself.
At first, you may question whether Brian Eno is present among the performers on stage. However, as his 2016 piece, The Ship, softly starts, he is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the stage is filled with members of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic Orchestra, slowly playing their instruments while strolling through clouds of dry ice. It is reminiscent of David Byrne’s acclaimed American Utopia live shows, but with a larger and calmer atmosphere. Their conductor, Kristjan Järvi, also seems unrestrained as he often directs the musicians by energetically approaching them. At times, he even turns towards the audience, making him appear less like a traditional conductor and more like a man engaged in passionate interpretive dance. Later in the performance, as the orchestra’s sound intensifies, Eno quietly joins them and begins to sing with a surprisingly deep voice that is enhanced by an electronic harmonizer.
The Ship is an interesting composition that attempts to merge two different styles of Brian Eno’s music – songs and ambient pieces. While it may be impressive, listening to it can also be quite challenging, making it more of a piece that you appreciate rather than love. One contradiction in performing Eno’s ambient music in a theatre is that it is meant to be “ignorable yet interesting”, but this can be difficult when it is played loudly right in front of you. The orchestration adds drama to the 20-minute long drone, accompanied by creaking sound effects and a mostly unintelligible female voice. Surprisingly, Eno’s vocals have a folk-like quality, which is not a usual characteristic of his music. The melody and repetition give off a traditional ballad vibe. The overall gloomy tone of The Ship makes the following track, Fickle Sun, seem lighter in comparison. It includes moments of near silence and a strained vocal that is reminiscent of Scott Walker’s later work. The addition of a heartfelt but computer-generated narration about war by Peter Serafinowicz, who also provides backing vocals, adds an unexpected element. The album ends with a cover of The Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free, which confused many critics despite Eno’s explanation. Its presence may seem out of place among the experimental pieces that aim to break the norms of structure and progression. However, the orchestrated version is so beautiful that any doubts are swept away. It is a pleasure to listen to, even if it contradicts The Ship’s central idea. In fact, it could be seen as a strong argument for keeping the traditional elements of a song intact.
The few songs that end the performance primarily focus on Eno’s modern collection – “And Then So Clear” from the 2005 album “Another Day on Earth” and three tracks from last year’s environmentally-themed “ForeverAndEverNoMore.” However, the standout moment is the 1977 song “By This River.” It features one of the most beautiful melodies Eno has ever written and the orchestral version, with harp instead of piano, brings a subtle change to the original’s sleepy summer night vibe, evoking a warm autumn feel.
According to his own statement, he is only participating in the performance with an orchestra because it was a condition of winning the Gold Lion award at the Venice Biennale di Musica. Despite this, the show has been expanded into a short tour following its premiere. Surrounded by members of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Eno does not appear to be forced into anything against his wishes. As the audience rises in a standing ovation, consisting of both formally dressed individuals, seasoned rock musicians, and those resembling Brian Eno, conductor Kristjan Järvi must use his skills to calm the applause. Eno himself looks quite pleased.