Tugan Sokhiev leads the Philharmonia in Mahler and Mendelssohn

Although both works have the goal of E major in common, the final destinations of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 couldn’t be more different. The radiant, effervescent culmination of the former is far from the transcendental purity gained as the latter fades to its close. Led by Tugan Sokhiev, the Philharmonia’s performances of the two pieces were also varied. After some fairly unremarkable Mendelssohn, the Mahler saw more life from both orchestra and conductor.

Read my full review at Bachtrack.

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Murail to Mahler: A concert of firsts from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Oramo

Saturday saw the BBC Symphony Orchestra open their 2013/14 season with an evening of firsts. Not only was this Sakari Oramo’s first Barbican season concert as Chief Conductor, but the programme placed a première by leading “spectral” composer Tristan Murail alongside Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony.

See what I thought at Bachtrack.

Sinfonia d’Amici/Harry Ogg with Emily Ross at LSO St Luke’s – Twilight Works: world premiere of Josephine Stephenson’s Abend

The London-based student orchestra Sinfonia d’Amici here returned to LSO St Luke’s with a programme of “Twilight Works”: joyous pieces by composers nearing the end of their lives, offset with a premiere by Josephine Stephenson. An excellent performance of the Stephenson aside, the ensemble didn’t quite gel for much of the concert.

Read my full review at The Classical Source.

Prom 13: Shepherd, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich from Gergiev/NYO USA

BBC Proms 2013
Perhaps the most memorable Youth Orchestra appearance at the Proms was in 2007, when the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela burst onto the scene. Although the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America certainly rivalled them in the outfit stakes (the orchestra opted for a blazer and tie on top of red jeans and blue trainers covered with white stars), they failed to make the same impression as the Venezuelans.
Last night’s Prom was the final date of the NYO USA’s inaugural tour. Following an intensive two-week training programme, the orchestra plunged straight into a five-date tour taking them from the USA to London via Russia.
The NYO USA’s 2013 season was led by Valery Gergiev, and the orchestra’s programme celebrated this Russian connection. Inspired by Russian overtures, American composer Sean Shepherd’s work Magiya (BBC co-commission with the Carnegie Hall) was first on the programme. The effervescent concert-opener saw a four-note motif thrown between the different sections, demonstrating the players’ technical capacities. Although perhaps not exploring the material to its fullest potential, Shepherd’s piece allowed the NYO USA to display a wide spectrum of musical colour. Lyrical string ideas were interrupted by unapologetic brass and scuttling percussion, but the dialogue between the different sections didn’t seem to emerge into the expected climax.
Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. In such a piece a degree of rubato is to be expected, but at times Bell seemed to pull the piece about a bit too much and interrupt its flow. However, this created an air of freshness over which the virtuosic passagework gained a more expressive aspect. Even in the Royal Albert Hall’s cavernous acoustics, Bell managed to lend the Canzonetta a sense of intimacy, giving it the feel of a serenade. The speed at which the third movement was taken bordered on the precipitous, with some of Bell’s frenetic passagework suffering slightly from some extra-terrestrial bow noise. However, the combination of his swagger and the heart-in-mouth interpretation meant that this could be overlooked. The NYO USA clung on for the ride, with Bell and Gergiev driving the music on to its triumphant conclusion. Although the orchestra shone in Tchaikovsky’s big tunes, for the most part they seemed rather meek and tentative in their accompaniment. Bell’s encore of more Tchaikovsky allowed him to indulge in more soaring melodies, while giving the NYO USA strings more stage time.
The NYO USA’s hesitancy remained a problem in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 after the interval. The orchestra seemed to lack confidence, following Gergiev but not adding the extra je ne sais quoi into the music. This was understandable given the ensemble’s youth, but gave the performance a strangely functional air. The conductor encouraged syrupy, long-breathed lines from the orchestra throughout the first movement, but this often sapped the sense of direction and created a sense of sluggishness which even the fiery second movement could not dispel. Gergiev’s focus upon musical line paid off in the third movement, creating an eerily still nocturnal landscape. The strings lacked the intensity of sound required for the expectant Andante at the start of the fourth movement, although the jubilant Allegro allowed members of the NYO USA woodwind to shine. Particular mention must go to the principal clarinet, excellent throughout, and the piccolo (effortless at the end of the first movement).
Ultimately, the orchestra lacked the conviction needed to pull the Shostakovich off. As their confidence grows, they will undoubtedly supplement their strong technical foundation with more individuality.

Colourful Vivier, Debussy and Stravinsky from Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil

Sunday 17th March 2013, 19:30
Barbican

Vivier, Zipangu
Debussy, La Mer
Stravinsky, The Firebird

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s four day residency at London’s Barbican Centre came to a close last night with thunderous applause and standing ovations. Although preceding concerts had received mixed critical reviews, orchestra and conductor were certainly on form.
The clever programming drew attention to the links between these three works, with each informing the others. Vivier’s attention to colour bled into the LA Philharmonic’s performance of Debussy, whose music brought out the sensual aspect’s to Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Dudamel and the LA Phil managed to balance textural delicacy with a firmness of sound to great effect.
Claude Vivier’s Zipangu was a gripping start to the evening. Even though it was completed as recently as 1980, this piece for 13 strings still pushes instrumentalists to their limits. Vivier’s writing draws attention to the physical exertion of the players, whether through percussive pizzicato or a lone double bass straining towards the instrument’s top notes. After a slightly shaky start, the players soon gained confidence in the kaleidoscopic subtleties of Vivier’s soundworld. ‘Zipangu’ was an alternative name for Japan in the time of Marco Polo, but the LA Phil players brought out the sense of otherworldliness in Vivier’s elemental chords and ethereal harmonies.
Debussy’s La mer requires careful attention to detail, but can quite easily descend into blurry Impressionistic vagary. This was not the case here: Dudamel maintained a sense of poise throughout, restraining the force of the LA Phil for choice moments to great effect. The slow tempo of ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ worked extremely well, lending the movement expansiveness while the contoured melodic lines ensured a sense of direction. Dudamel luxuriated in the sonorities conjured by Debussy’s subtle orchestrations: a particularly memorable moment was the glowing cello chorale. The glittering ‘Jeux de vagues’ began at a leisurely pace, but Dudamel’s flexibility of tempo saw the orchestra carried along on Debussy’s surging lines. Although underpinned by a sense of foreboding, the usually tumultuous third movement here seemed to be a rather more distant storm. This meant that when the full brunt of the LA Phil (complete with enthusiastic timpani) was all the more effective once it did emerge. Dudamel’s vision for the piece was well-paced, and the players of the LA Phil responded with clarity of texture and sustained melodic lines.
Dudamel’s interpretation of The Firebird certainly emphasised the Debussian elements of Stravinsky. Once again, the LA Phil revelled in sensual textures: ‘The Princesses’ Round Dance’ was especially lush. From the veiled Introduction to the perky Pantomimes, the LA Phil brought out the theatrical elements of the score. The high point was undoubtedly their electrifying performance of the ‘Infernal Dance’, the lightning-speed tempo resulting in a heart-in-mouth rendition, prompting a few spontaneous claps to ring out at its finish. Some bold solo playing made this Firebird characterful and gripping, with the vigorous Finale prompting many of the audience to give a standing ovation.
The creative partnership between the LA Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel seems to be thriving, and the resounding applause suggests that the rest of the audience thought similarly. Some thoughtful approaches to some frequently-heard repertoire and a riveting performance of a rarer piece made this a memorable concert.

My concert highlights of 2012

With the Oxford term having finished and finding myself with a bit of time on my hands, I decided to take a look back over the most memorable concerts which I’ve seen this year. In no particular order, here are my top 6:

May 19th – Harry Christophers and The Sixteen

The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage saw them turn their immaculate sound to music by Brumel, Lassus and Josquin. Their carefully balanced textures and clarity of entries made for an immersive listening experience, lending a sense of intimacy to the space of Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral. Brumel’s Earthquake Mass was a particular highlight.

June 23rd – Gustavo Dudamel and the SBYOV

As an avid fan of both Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, I had booked well over a year in advance for their return to London with a programme of Britten and Beethoven. I was not disappointed. Following a headline-making appearance in Stirling with the participants of the ‘Big Noise’ scheme, this most inspiring of orchestras gave a rousing concert. The atmosphere was buzzing, and the silence of the audience after the encore of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ spoke volumes.

September 29th – Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO with London Philharmonic Choir and the London Symphony Chorus and soloists

Performing a programme of lesser-known Russian works (including Rodion Shchedrin, Miaskovsky and Denisov), the LPO sparkled under Jurowski in Royal Festival Hall. The orchestra excelled in their performance of these demanding works, making use of a broad range of colours. All of the players demonstrated both technical finesse and intensity of vision, making this a gripping concert.

October 12th – Sandrine Piau and Roger Vignoles

The opening concert of the 11th Oxford Lieder Festival set the bar high for the rest of the festival. In a programme including Fauré, Poulenc and Chausson, Piau’s performance was full of poise. Her subtlety was well-matched by Vignoles’ sensitive accompaniment, and the pair brought an elegant simplicity to this repertoire.

November 16th – Phantasm and Daniel Hyde

The viol consort brought a spaciousness of sound and rhythmic vitality to the music of Gibbons, Lawes and Jenkins in Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford. Imbuing sprightly passagework with an expressive quality, the programme allowed the players to show both their virtuosity and their sensitivity to nuances of mood

December 1st – Nicholas Cleobury with Oxford Bach Choir, English Chamber Orchestra and Elizabeth Atherton
Britten’s Two Psalms was given a stunning world premiere in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. This early work was accompanied by an equally gripping performance of the composer’s Ballad of Heroes, and some perceptive Beethoven topped off the evening.