Sir Mark Elder – London Symphony Orchestra

Thursday 5th February,
The Barbican Centre, London

A wide-ranging and thrilling program from the London Symphony Orchestra last night under the direction of Sir Mark Elder. By interval, I was convinced that mezzo-soprano Susan Graham’s performance was the night’s stand-out, only to be blown away again by Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony again in the second half.

The concert opened with a new work by Patrick Brennan as part of the LSO’s Panufnik Composers Scheme. It’s fantastic to hear newly commissioned works by up-and-coming composers on main stage programs, and orchestra gave Brennan’s work every ounce of passion and commitment as much as the other works on the program. However, in this case I was a little underwhelmed by the finished product, despite excitement after reading the program note. Ballabile was interesting in part, but seemed to lack an overall structural direction and often felt like Brennan was merely getting excited about the wealth of microtonal possibilities available to an orchestral string section.

Susan Graham was mezzo-soprano soloist in Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, and she gave a stunning, expressive performance. Despite the inherent difficulties stemming from this piece’s score calling for different voice types in each of the songs, Graham soared effortlessly above the orchestra, blending particularly smoothly with the strings. Au cimetière and L’île inconnue were particular treats, balancing warmth with daring inflections of colour.

Following the interval, the London Symphony Orchestra was let loose on the dramatic weight of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique‘ Symphony. Under Elder’s invigorating direction, the intensity of this music became a shimmering presence in the hall, as it seemed the orchestral players put every fibre into the music. Particularly striking were principal clarinetist Andrew Marriner’s daring playing in the adagio-allegro non troppo, as well as the frenzy of energy that grew from the third movement. I was clapping as hard as anyone! Though it’s a pity that the program note on the work itself wasn’t cross-checked with Tchaikovsky’s composer profile (the latter claiming he committed suicide, the former saying there is no evidence to support this), the Finale’s throbbing fate theme left all in awe.


Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – London Symphony Orchestra

Sunday 25th January,
The Barbican Centre, London

A glittering program of virtuoso performances, the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance on Sunday was quite a treat. The program opened with Blossoming II by Toshio Hosokawa – a work of shimmering simplicity and beauty. Starting with a single, sustained note, the music grew in elegant ripples inspired by the way in which lotus blossoms come into flower. The orchestra played with sophistication and poise, drawing breath as one. Here, conductor Robin Ticciani was in his element, and this performance rather stole the show for its elegance, ensemble and artistic vision.

By contrast, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major sparkled with the virtuosity of individuals. Simon Trpceski is a deft performer whose deep understanding of the music gave rise to a dancing rendition that fulling embraced the composer’s jazzy inflections. The second movement was particularly memorable – with subtly rendered phrases passed elegantly between piano and wind soloists. Though Trpceski’s rousing duet with leader Roman Simovic was undoubtedly the audience’s favourite encore, mention must also be made of the beautifully lyrical, almost understated Poulenc.

Orchestra and conductor alike seemed to enjoy Malher’s Fourth Symphony immensely, performing with energy and vigour thoughout. Woodwinds and principal horn Timothy Jones played with striking colours and seamless cohesion. While it seemed that things came momentarily unstuck at the end of the third movement, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill’s agile voice brought a new layer to the finale portraying a child’s view of heaven. Sunlight and shadows, doubt and glorious affirmation, before the final note shimmered and faded into silence.

Day 111 – January 19th – Tunes and more tunes

I haven’t left much time to write tonight’s post, and should be heading off to be ready for another trip up to London tomorrow. This time we’re off to William Bennet’s masterclass for the day, and I’m hoping to gain as much inspiration from it as I did at the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert last night!

Today’s class has a few ups and downs. A distinct down was when we were talking about practice schedules, and Trevor honed in on my playing of tunes. I’m starting every day with a tune, and no matter what he may think am working to play it expressively and with feeling and dynamics. All of a sudden in class I had to stand up and give him a demonstration. And another, and another. I think I ended up playing seven or so different tunes, most of which he seemed to quite like. It just so happened that the one I started off with he didn’t know, and then the next one that I landed on I wasn’t as sure of the notes as I wanted to be! So then he went off on a tangent about me trying too hard to play from memory! It got to the point that I felt like no matter what I did I couldn’t win, and I just wanted to sit down and let him focus on someone else for a while!

Once we got past that, I ended up playing quite well. My first B in Debussy’s En Bateau was flat, and earned a bit of a lecture, but otherwise the excerpt went quite well. I also played the second movement of Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina, in a way that earned the comment “very nice, lovely control”, which made me quite pleased.

I can’t let these rants get to me!

The Heat and the Passion of the Mediterranean – London Symphony Orchestra

Sunday 18th January,
The Barbican Centre, London

Wow! Sunday night at the Barbican Centre was one of those rare concerts where every single note was pulsating with energy and vibrancy. From the first chord of Verdi’s Force of Destiny Overture to the final flourish of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappricio Espagnol, the London Symphony Orchestra were a phenomenal musical force. The focal point of this raw passion was undoubtedly conductor Xian Zhang, whose presence on the podium seemed to constantly push the ensemble to greater heights and often tempos.

The aptly-named Force of Destiny Overture showcased an impressive blend of orchestral sound, particularly in the woodwinds. There is an elusive moment when flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon combine to give a shimmering unified colour that seems more than the sum of the parts, and the principal winds of the LSO seemed to slip in and out of this state with utter ease. The orchestral sound as a whole was crisp and sparkling, with technically difficult passages in the strings ringing out with amazing clarity.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the centrepiece of the exhilarating program, was an emotional rollercoaster. Ukranian pianist Valentina Lisitsa played with amazing dexterity and attention to detail, ensuring that even the densest passages rang out. The work was described at its premiere as one that “left its listeners frozen with fright, hair standing on end”, and this performance captured that feeling of terror bordering on fantastical. The Intermezzo – one moment eerily grotesque, the next whimsical – was a particular highlight.

Following the interval it was party time, though Zhang and the orchestra instilled both Manuel de Falla’s Three Dances from ‘The Three-Cornered Hat’ (Suite No. 2) and Cappricio Espagnol with dramatic energy rather than carefree. Christine Pendrill’s cor anglais in the de Falla was rich and round, and the orchestra’s technical precision and intense trust as an ensemble allowed the music to sparkle and dance.

Bravo LSO – the concert was deservedly packed and quite a stunner!