As part of the ongoing Out to Lunch Festival in Belfast, tonight sees Dublin’s 12-piece ensemble Glasshouse make the journey north to perform their current project, a collection of chamber orchestra interpolations of music from David Bowie’s fabled Berlin trilogy.
The Black Box is a Friday night sellout, a sign not just of the enduring mythology of the Leper Messiah, but also of the reputation that Glasshouse has quietly been building across Ireland. Previous visits to this city have seen them perform the music of Sufjan Stevens in a church across town and their return visit has the room abuzz.
One might assume that Glasshouse’s lineup – four strings, four brass, electric bass, drums, two keys/synths – would gravitate naturally toward the Brian Eno-indebted ambient instrumentals that populate the second halves of Low and Heroes, and indeed proceedings tonight open with the astounding ‘Warszawa’. Violins take up the lead melody, accentuating the soft, plaintive melancholy that characterises the track, adding an organic, human-fingerprinted dimension that contrasts with the hostile, alien landscape of the studio recording.
A stunning start and as the audience leans back into their seats, ready for a set of sublime, Krautrock-influenced proto-ambient masterworks, Glasshouse pulls a surprise. The opening strains of ‘What in the World’ permeate the air and it becomes clear that in fact, the ensemble intends to draw from all corners of the Berlin trilogy. As great as the instrumentals are, the first halves of Low and Heroes are vastly underrated too – collections of two or three-minute shards of glam rock, sharp pearlescent jewels, many of which never had their true moment in the sun.
In truth, Glasshouse struggle to recreate the visceral energy of the tracks. Where the originals draw their thrust and adrenaline from the volume that electric guitars and high-end production allow for, Glasshouse look to find beauty from within, drawing from melodies merely suggested in the writing but never fully explored. None are more successfully mined than ‘Sound + Vision’, one of the greatest songs ever written; in Glasshouse’s hands it is stately, the strings bearing the load, the depth of feeling fleshed out by the trumpet and horn, it is just one of an infinite possible brilliant interpretations of perhaps Bowie’s finest moment.
The night is split into two suites, separated by an intermission. When they return, they launch into a version of Philip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion, a known key influence on Bowie and Eno, before further exploring the Berlin ambient cuts ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’ and ‘Weeping Wall’, the latter of which is received with a loud ovation. They cannot resist finishing the main set with ‘Heroes’, which is, in fact, a sharp departure in energy and after a relatively subdued second set, the energy does not quite translate into the room. One final hurrah comes in the form of ‘Let’s Dance’, and whilst the audience are warm and jovial, they fail to take up the title’s entreaty on this occasion.
There is no question that Glasshouse brings a vast amount of talent, both in performance and in their adaptation of this classic material. And whilst the rock-out moments fail to take off, the more introspective, delicate music is sumptuously delivered. Glasshouse will, no doubt, be back on the road with a new project in the near future and Belfast will be ready to hear it.