Reviewed: LPO and The Fauré Project

A shadow play of colours.

LPO, Jurowski; The Fauré Project
Royal Festival Hall; Wigmore Hall

Classical music can seem monolithic at times and yet it is subject to the same whims and fads of fashion as the other arts. In pre-war years the Proms would devote whole evenings to Beethoven and Wagner, a practice now replaced by witty juxtapositions of contrasting composers. But there’s been something retro in the air recently, with two very different concerts taking us back to those single-minded musical encounters.

At the Southbank Centre, the Rest Is Noise festival reached its gritty core in the dark times of 1930s Germany – a period in which politics gripped culture more tightly than ever before. Introducing a concert of music by Berg, Webern, Martinu and Bartók, the conductor Vladimir Jurowski warned his audience that this was “probably the most challenging programme of the year”. He was right. We’ve become so used to treating difficult and contemporary works – not always, but lazily often, synonymous – as a dose that must be swallowed along with our symphonic spoonful of sugar that we’re not prepared for the mental effort involved.

For those who took up Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s challenge, the evening offered exhilaration as well as exhaustion. We opened with Webern’s Variations for Orchestra – one of the most inscrutable works of the almost-repertoire. By encouraging us to treat it as an evolving sequence of colouristic sound-pictures, Jurowski freed the work’s suppressed lyric qualities. Moments of musical abstraction gained emotional weight as part of a narrative. Sometimes a solo violin phrase is just that, but sometimes – and this was one of those rare times – it is everything.

With the aid of the soprano Barbara Hannigan, Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from Lulu brought us back to the literal. A hazy, sleazy blend of string chords dared us to look away from the tragedy that unfolds in vivid tableaux in this orchestral digestion of Berg’s opera. Piano and muted brass cut through any consolation we might have found in the jazzinflected Ostinato that soundtracks Lulu’s trial and imprisonment, and Jurowski’s driving speeds barely paused as we hurtled on to Lulu’s death at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

A different world greeted us after the interval, pairing Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with Martinu’s Double Concert for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. Composed for the same unusual forces, Bartók’s work is a classic while Martinu’s has been unaccountably neglected. The less ascetic of the two, it might lack the intellectual heft of the Bartók, but Jurowski made a compelling case for its athletic appeal. And while the Bartók exposed some issues of ensemble within the orchestra, Martinu’s more generous writing saw the LPO united in a frenzied celebration of all that is extrovert and joyous in 20th-century music.

The softer, domestic face of the early 20th century was on show at the Wigmore Hall in the first of a sequence of three concerts – the Fauré Project – devoted to the music of Gabriel Fauré. Although best-known for his Requiem, it is in his chamber works for strings that the composer’s ear for timbre and textural effect is most striking. Anticipating the later innovations of Debussy and Ravel, Faure’s conservative image is very much at odds with the impressionistic soundscapes of his Cello Sonata in D minor and his Piano Trio in D minor – late works that might still inhabit the fading world of the salon, but fling its door wide to chromatic uncertainties and shifting alliances of harmony and counterpoint.

In many ways the Capuçon brothers (violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier) are themselves a bit of a throwback. They perform with unashamedly thick vibrato and have the lush style born of a former era of string virtuosi. It’s an approach that sits better on Gautier, with his closer attention to the detail of phrasing and intonation. The Cello Sonata with the excellent Michel Dalberto at the piano) was a shadow-play of muted colours, almost having the feel of a lieder for the dialogue of the Allegro comodo, and spinning the flimsiest of cantilenas in the slow movement.

The Violin Sonata No 2 in E minor, by contrast, was all primary colours and punch. Renaud Capuçon’s energy is intoxicating but in flinging his talent so vehemently at his audience he denies Fauré’s ebbing lines the retreat and release they need to heighten their climaxes. Coming together for the Piano Trio and earlier Piano Quartet No 1 in C minor, the brothers still maintained their differing approaches, with Gautier pulling back to allow the piano its melodic moment, or duet delicately with the viola. Renaud, meanwhile, remained ever the soloist, seizing ear and attention with every broad gesture of his bow.

The conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.

Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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