Live Music + Gig Reviews

Brian Eno & Baltic Sea Philharmonic @ Royal Festival Hall, London

30 October 2023

Ambient pioneer plays 2016 album The Ship in full with orchestral backing to offer a transporting, meditative and pulsating experience

Brian Eno & Baltic Sea Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 30th October 2023 (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

Brian Eno & Baltic Sea Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 30th October 2023 (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

The worlds of ambient and classical music have long shared similar aesthetics and outlooks, intersecting and intertwining in various ways over the years, so when it was announced that ambient music pioneer, Brian Eno, would be performing his 2016 album The Ship alongside the progressive Baltic Sea Philharmonic in a series of concerts it seemed a natural coming together.

While Eno’s musical lineage goes back decades, the orchestra he appears alongside tonight is an altogether more contemporary outfit, having only come into existence in 2008 under the tutelage of musical director and founding conductor Kristjan Järvi. They’re formed from ten central and eastern European countries and on initial impressions share common ground with ensembles like Aurora Orchestra in their modernist outlook. On their website they promise to “take audiences on unforgettable journeys” and tonight’s show was to prove a suitably transporting experience.

Looking back on The Ship, while still a striking piece, it now feels more curious and even a little more lopsided than it did on release seven years ago. It’s testament to tonight’s performers therefore that the various musical components were integrated so successfully into one cohesive whole.

Members of the orchestra enter from each side of the stage, there being almost a contemporary dance element to how they slowly disperse and settle, uninhibited by usual orchestral fixtures like chairs and music stands. Eno then appears in a bright pink shirt to assume a central, heightened position among the orchestra, a pop of colour amid a foreboding sea of black, a wise old sage among younger colleagues. Kristjan Järvi adopts a looser approach to his role as conductor, tonight more about managing the flow of energy and providing galvanising motivational lifts to the players rather than traditional concerns of timekeeping.

Brian Eno & Baltic Sea Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 30th October 2023 (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

Brian Eno & Baltic Sea Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 30th October 2023 (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

The first movement features minimalist passages, the orchestra moving through foggy landscapes at a glacial pace with Eno’s vocals registering in grave, authoritative fashion. The musical temperature is quickly set to subzero and the slow, as the ebb and flow begins, the orchestra creaking through the metaphorical blocks of sea ice. Fickle Sun (i) then sees the dynamic thrillingly thrust upwards, brass and percussion imposing themselves to create the undoubted of the evening, a primal and pulsating spectacle. It’s moments like these that prove how The Ship works even better in a live setting than on record.

Actor and comedian Peter Serafinowicz then reprises his role as narrator on Fickle Sun (ii) The Hour Is Thin, shifting the mood again towards something far more meditative and mystical. Certain players from the orchestra quietly exit the stage, leaving those playing the harp and flute to assume greater prominence. Eno is subsumed into the darkness, discreetly exchanging his pink shirt for a more blended black t-shirt.

Fickle Sun (iii) I’m Set Free, the final piece from The Ship, is a cover of the song of the same name by The Velvet Underground, arguably the track that is most divorced from the overall mood of the album, and strikes a more pastoral note as serene, calm seas displace the earlier choppy waters. Once finished Eno acknowledges his fellow performers, singling out Jaarvi as “a wonderful, if demented, conductor” and “the captain of the ship”.

The remaining part of the evening sees various Eno songs incorporated into the broader orchestral soundworld. By This River, from his 1977 Before And After Science album, is the furthest back he revisits, a gentle and soft excursion which finds respectful orchestral backing. The other tracks in this section are more modern, three from last year’s Forever And Ever No More and 2005’s Another Day On Earth. Who Gives A Thought is more rhythmic and with a fuller sound and sees a discernible sense of momentum return. Towards the end of the show Eno can’t resist addressing the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza, coming out firmly in support of Palestine, encouraging the audience to take part in future pro-Palestine demonstrations and revealing that some of the profits from tonight’s concert will go to the charity Medical Aid For Palestinians. Attention is soon returned to the music and Making Gardens Out of Silence and There Were Bells, also from Forever And Ever No More, close out the show in resonant style, confirming it to be a special event where musical worlds were brought together with synergy and power.

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