SoundState Festival: LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), Stewart McIlwham (piccolo), Colin Currie (percussion)

Royal Festival Hall, 16th January 2019

  • Arne Gieshoff – Burr
  • Anders Hillborg – Sound Atlas
  • Erkki-Sven Tuur – Piccolo Concerto (Solastalgia)
  • Louis Andriessen – Agamemnon
  • Helen Grime – Percussion Concerto

It is amazing what a little bit of knowledge, a dash of pretension and a fair amount of persistence can do. A few of years ago, like any right-minded, gregarious, gainfully employed individual, the Tourist wouldn’t have gone near a concert comprised solely of contemporary classical music. A minority pursuit for the culturally affected. Now I am wondering how many of the Southbank’s SoundState festival to attend. In the end I bottled it and only pitched up to this but there was plenty across this adventurous festival ,for the musically curious to get their teeth, and ears, into. Try it. What have you got to lose.

The draw here, aside from the always perky Marin Alsop on the podium and, of course, the LPO, was the Percussion Concerto from Helen Grime, written for master whacker Colin Currie, and the Louis Andriessen premiere. I also figured three Nordic composers, who I admit I had never heard of, couldn’t be a bad thing. (Though it turns out only one was actually from the region showing how little attention I was paying and the pitfalls of lazy ethnocentricity). And who would’t be tempted by a piccolo concerto.

Well it turned out that the Andriessen was as bold and brassy as expected, the Percussion Concerto will definitely require a revisit but the big surprise, for me if not the cognoscenti as he is already a big noise in their world, was Anders Hillborg’s Sound Atlas.

As Marin Alsop wryly observed her introductory interview with Arne Gieshoff was in danger of lasting longer than the piece itself. It was inspired by a wooden “burr” 3D puzzle, dates from 2014 and certainly had some spunk about it. There was an echo of Elliot Carter in the concentrated energy circling more stable “pedals”.

Estonian Erki-Sven Turr lives on an island in the Baltic Sea, (images of Nordic noir crime drama immediately pop into my head – a dull day and very windy,) and was prompted to write Solastalgia by the visible impact of climate change on his surroundings. Solastalgia is a time coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the distress we feel when we see how the climate is changing the environment of our memory.

(Now my regular reader has probably divined that much agonising has left the Tourist in the Stoical camp, philosophically speaking. We humans will come and go, we are not special, we will have failed to hang around for very long in the scheme of things (despite thinking we are better than every other species) and the earth will get over the damage that our brash, selfish selves do. Still he can’t deny that it is pretty scary to watch how our infantile inability to defer gratification has left us f*cking up so much in my lifetime, with climate the obvious victim).

In Solastalgia the piccolo acts as the squeaky catalyst for much bigger shifts of texture and process across the orchestra.. E-S T describes his “vectorial” compositional style in the programme but I confess it is beyond me. As was frankly this work. Never mind, if you don’t try it you won’t ever know if you like it.

Sound World was commissioned by the LPO alongside the LA Phil, the NDR Elbphilharmonie and Goteborgs Symfoniker, and this was its world premiere. Now this was much more my style. Crystalline is the word used to describe its sound world and the first section, which makes sense giving the extensive use of string micro-tones and the eerie squeals of the glass harmonica, expertly played here by Philipp Marguerre. River of Glass, Vaporised Toy Pianos (!!!), Vortex and Hymn follow this first section and all accurately describe the mood and texture of the music. It is measured in tempo and there is enough relation to diatonic history to make it easy to digest. Ligeti sat on top of Romantic, Sibelian string drones.

Helen Grime, like the three composers mentioned above, had a few words to say ahead of her piece, again receiving its world premiere. For someone so talented she is remarkably modest. To be fair there wasn’t anything ground-breaking about the Concerto in terms of structure, with three movements played straight through, (Bright, Subdued/Lamenting and Fleet-footed/Mercurial), instrumentation or technique, but, if you have one of the best percussionists in the world, then you might as well turn up the virtuosity quotient, which she duly did. The outer movements were predominantly tuned percussion, marimba, glockenspiel and vibe, with the inner section largely tom-toms, bongos, cymbals and woodblocks. The best ideas came with the frenzied, semi-quaver rhythmic repetitions at the beginning and end, counterpointed with strings and with the interplay between soloist and orchestral percussion. The wobbling pitches of the middle section, like all “drum solos”, was remarkable more for CC’s skill than musical inspiration. Even so I was rapt, but then I always am by this musician. Given how excited he was it is remarkable he didn’t crash into anything as he bobbed from one side of the podium to the other.

Louis Andriessen’s Agamemnon was here also receiving its European premiere. The inspiration was The Iliad and LA helpfully lays out the Dramatic Personae to include homo-erotic warrior Achilles, defecting bird-watcher Kalchas, the hapless, wind sacrifice Iphigenia and best-served-cold vengeful wife Klytaimnestra, as well as the brutal Mycenaen king himself. I must admit to being a little suspicious of this conceit especially when I saw that LA had pimped up his orchestra with a couple of pianos, a sax, electric and bass guitar and a drum kit. Well, as is always the case with this veteran composer, I should not have worried. The characters do not appear in programmatic sequence, except at the end, when Kassandra, she of the prophecies, steps ups with text from Aeschylus, via Ted Hughes, and here voiced by woodwind Principal Sue Bohling. Instead the colour and tone of the various episodes in the 20 minute piece indicates the various mortals of the story. War and terror are audible, this is Greek tragedy after all, but there are softer, more lyrical passages, notably for oboe and sax. There isn’t too much of the LA post-minimalism with which I am more familiar, though there are echoes of ancient musical structures a la his classic De Staat, but there are jazz infections and syncopated percussion. A kind of post-modern tone poem/film score if you will.

It was a lot to take in but there was more than enough that warrants further examination and would be surprised if any of these pieces fail to get a further outing in years to come. The hall wasn’t full but it was busier than I have seen for many a more traditional programme. That perhaps speaks to the esteem in which Marin Alsop is held. Many a conductor talks a good game when it comes to new music: she, and the LPO, were prepared to put in the hard yards to make it happen. There were certainly four happy looking and grateful composers on stage.

Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop, Nicola Benedetti

Royal Festival Hall, 4th February 2018

  • Beethoven Symphony No 4 in B flat
  • Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major

“Stardom” in the classical music world is a curious thing. To get there ideally you need to be a child prodigy. Then take a prize at your chosen music school. Get taken under the wing of a teacher and mentor, (more than one ideally), who are maestros from prior generations. Win a competition prize, or finish as a creditable runner-up, and secure a few prestigious gigs. A recording of a Romantic staple which tests the previous best recommendations. Set yourself up with your own festival in the middle of nowhere. Teach the kids and the underprivileged and travel. A lot. And, if you are a woman expect a load of airbrushed photos of you exuding grace, or if a bloke, brooding, ideally with a shock of unkempt hair. Make the cut, and there aren’t that many places available, and you are set up, literally, for life.

Obviously though you need talent and a level of dedication far beyond other jobs/professions/vocations. And even if you get to the top of the tree you are still only going to be appreciated by a minority of the population. Ah, but the pleasure you bring them cannot be measured.

Just occasionally though classical musicians break out into the wider consciousness by virtue of their genius, position and/or symbolism. In this concert I would contend we had two such musicians.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Marin Alsop’s rise to the top of the conducting profession. Recently appointed as Artistic Director for the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, alongside her leadership of the Baltimore and Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestras, she is probably best known to the general public from her two recent stints at the Last Night of the Proms. Here at the South Bank, where she is an Artist in Residence, she was given the award from the Association of British Orchestras, the trade body if you will. Let us hope she continues to inspire women to follow her. (I am looking forward to hearing Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO perform the Rite of Spring and Daphnis and Chole later in the year at the Barbican for example). There is a long way to go. Vienna’s other orchestra, the Philharmonic, didn’t permit women until 20 years ago (though they had a secret woman harpist, bloody hypocrites) and the unacceptable behaviour of certain male conductors is now being revealed. Ms Alsop is proving a powerful and eloquent champion and should be roundly supported for her work and her stance.

Nicola Benedetti has also proved capable of transcending the usual confines of classical music. Her recordings to date have not fought shy of delivering the popular “compilations” that shifts units. There was a packed house for this concert, and I would venture the majority were here just to see Ms Benedetti. This country is blessed with a rich classical music culture, (though maybe not quite as rich as Central and Eastern Europe), and there are plenty of talented musicians and marvellous composers. But world class soloists are a little thinner on the ground. So it is no wonder that Ms Benedetti, who is still just 30 years old, is so treasured, what with her MBE and Queen’s Medal for Music. Note I am unashamedly claiming her for Britain: she is unequivocally proud to be Scottish.

This was the first time I had heard her play. In a piece I now know well and, obviously, adore. With a band which comprises musicians who are at the top of their period music game. On a period fiddle whose sound I understand. This was Ms Benedetti’s first time with the OAE. (She will be joining the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican at the end of May in a programme of Vivaldi and Telemann. BUD and KCK have been signed up). Though not the first time she has played with gut strings. Ballsy then to take on Beethoven, the Daddy of the modern violin concerto, in a period performance.

So I couldn’t tell you what live sound she makes on steel strings, but, on the basis of this, it is probably something special. Here was a sweet, earthy and perfect tone but with a huge dynamic range. Very impressive. Especially in the slow movement Larghetto. And a real treat in the cadenza she has written specially in conjunction with Petr Limonov, what with its jamming with the timpani manned by Adrian Bending, (who also gets his big cameo in the opening and second movements of the Fourth Symphony remember), and its harmonic fantasy culminating in some showy pizzicato. Obviously you wouldn’t turn your back on an old-fashioned, knock ’em out between the eyes rendition, (my favoured recording is the Perlman/Barenboim/BPO which really pumps it up in the last movement), but this was still very satisfying. This is, after all, Beethoven’s least gruff, un-buttoned up orchestral masterpiece, set in its Happy D home key.

I wasn’t quite so persuaded by Marin Alsop’s treatment of the Fourth Symphony. Now I know it is a funny creature, murky and tentative in places, with those stop/starts, and it gets a bad rap compared to the Third and Fifth. But there is still lots to enjoy and explore. The OAE’s brass was in fine fettle but the woodwind was occasionally not quite what I expected and the strings felt a little too polite in the adagio vivace of the first movement, after that mysterious opening, and in the final allegro, which needs that massive contrast into the stalls. Tempi were a little on the slow side for me but then again I get off on John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire Et Romantique’s Beethoven cycle, especially in this symphony. Here Ms Alsop, as in the Violin Concerto, was most convincing in the slower movement.