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Antony & The Johnsons
Hermitage Garden 
By Martin Richardson
Antony Hegarty, the flamboyant frontman of Antony & the Johnsons, is not the first foreigner to admit to finding Moscow a bit of a mystery. But during his headline slot at the recent Ahmad Tea festival in Hermitage Garden he inadvertently stumbled on one of the quirks which makes life in Russia’s capital so captivating – if also so challenging at times. After all, as he mused from the stage, it’s a fast-paced, rough and ready city where ‘crazy things are happening behind every door’. And yet, in this apparently unpromising soil, something is nurturing the ‘angels’ who turn up to concerts like this – a rather camp, uncompromisingly highbrow brand of baroque pop, performed in dismal weather with the accompaniment of a full symphony orchestra. Compared with the brain dead output of mainstream Russian music, this is another world. On the face of it, there really shouldn’t be an audience for this at all in a country which seems to be in thrall to banshee-wailing balladeers and perky girl bands, or at best, which thrills to the visits of international touring acts who are already some way past their sell-by dates.

And yet, clearly, just as a country where a monolithic, self-perpetuating state apparatus cannot stifle the willingness of tens of thousands of nay-sayers to take to the streets in freezing winter temperatures to raise an objection which even many of those participating regard as somewhat futile, the dead hand of corporately approved pap – deftly steered by the deus ex machine figures responsible for Channel 1’s so-called “entertainment” schedules – cannot stifle public enthusiasm for music that goes a bit deeper than the obvious inane crowd-pleasers and ring-tone fodder churned out by Europa +.

Antony & The Johnsons perform a curious brand of music, one which in some respects contains as much duality as Moscow’s stratified cultural life. Drawing on Hegarty’s birthplace in Chichester, England, it sometimes seems to draw into the narrative ballad tradition – now half forgotten – of English folk music (or perhaps more accurately, the music of England’s urban communities, rather than the quirky morris-dancing gubbins). But if that seems to place the band alongside the likes of Billy Bragg and the socially-motivated music-making of the industrial underclasses, think again. It doesn’t even quite inherit the fragile world of Nick Drake, gently musing on a world which is despairingly far from reach before slipping into its own ethereal void. Instead, the second profound influence is Hegarty’s second life in New York, where he lives and where his musical, cultural journey led him to creative adulthood. In that melting pot of high art and low culture, where the spirit of Tin Pan Alley tries to turn every song into a show, that narrative tradition takes on a distinct new turn – stagier, more dramatic, yet somehow without slumping into casual showiness. It’s a kind of pop chamber music in its native state – but it comes with a voice straight off the Broadway stage.

Meanwhile, the show which came to Moscow took that chamber music and orchestrated it, transformed it from lieder to opera by ramping up the scale and hiring the stage band from Novaya Opera to accompany the show. All too often this kind of thing means gimmicks: lazy arrangers rely on kitsch, the strings take on a Hollywood vibrato and everything is lost in a vast vat of musical treacle. But not here. This time the arrangements are astute; woodwinds serve as more than mere piquant seasoning to the slush, brass adds texture rather than brute force. The intro to “The Cripple and the Starfish” might have a cinematic feel, but it’s the score to a film you’d want to watch more than one rather than the parping rumble of a brain-in-neutral blockbuster. But this ties in with the ethos observed by other musicians: in Hegarty’s music the commitment is always to the integrity of the song. As Adrian McNally, whose folk band The Unthanks peformed a set built around these songs a couple of years ago, observes: “There is never a spare not played or one struck to impress. They appear entirely consumed with the search for beauty and truth.”

It’s high praise, and helps build that high-brow wall around Hegarty and his colleagues. But, as always, it’s only part of the story. The performance, battling against unhelpful weather for an outdoor festival, was no Symphony Hall recital. The setting may appear stuffily operatic, but the singer himself remains rooted in Broadway rather than the Met. It’s a rendition of big-hearted torch songs typified by the likes of “You are my sister” and “For today I am a boy” rather than shallow, calculating show stoppers. Some questions remained – it was a surprise to hear him stumble on more than one occasion over the lyrics, relying on a measure of charm to get out of a hole without trying the fans’ patience. But on the whole, it was a triumphant performance.

Sadly, the rest of the festival struggled to keep up. A bizarre scheduling decision saw the intriguing I am Kloot appear first. As a result the inventive pop orchestra was all but finished as the venue was still filling up. And that disappointment was compounded by the unimpressive contribution of Farfallo, an aging English singer-songwriter with limited appeal which left the crowd getting increasingly damp despite the hasty distribution of complementary raincoats for all. That sudden uniform – shapeless white robes and pointy hoods – gave proceedings a somewhat surreal feeling. Depending on your point of view it might call to mind either the notorious ‘sperm’ scene from Woody Allen’s “All you ever wanted to know about sex”, or a bizarre parody of a Ku Klux Klan gathering. For Hegarty, however, a sea of soggy white plastic was “like singing to a cloud” comprised of the “angels of Moscow”.

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