Friendly Fire – Simon Trpčeski, London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (above)
Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 25 February 2016
Welcome to Arcana’s new ‘alternative’ reviews slot! It is an ‘ask the audience’ feature – where I (Ben Hogwood) take a friend / colleague to a classical concert and get them to review it in the bar afterwards. Our second ‘reviewer’ in the series is John Earls, a family man from Harrow & Wealdstone who works as Head of Research at Unite. He shares his thoughts on a program of music inspired by ‘Shakespeare 400’ – with works by Smetana (Richard III), Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet), Richard Strauss (Macbeth) and the seemingly unconnected Piano Concerto no.2 by Liszt. The artists are pianist Simon Trpceski and the London Symphony Orchestra under newly announced guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda.
Arcana: How did you prepare for this concert?
John: I didn’t do that much in the way of preparation, other than see what the four pieces in the concert were, and whether I was familiar with them. At the time the only one I thought I was familiar with was the Tchaikovsky, but you reminded me I had heard the Liszt before.
What was your musical upbringing?
As a young child, pretty limited. Most of the music I heard from my parents would have been Irish music, then as I went through school I was more exposed to bits of classical music, as I learned the clarinet. In my teens I got more into contemporary music, rock music, new wave – I played in my own band – and became more interested in jazz and classical music as I got older and attended more concerts and read more about those particular types of music. Jazz and classical are the forms of music I listen to most now.
Name three musical acts you love and why:
(almost without hesitation): Miles Davis was a trailblazer and an innovator who has done some very different things throughout his career. He also struck me as a great leader of bands and ensembles, because he was a great talent spotter who pulled some phenomenal musicians together, and it always struck me that anybody who played with him was better for the experience. They tended to be either better musicians or composersafter having gone through the Miles Davis experience, and also his ensembles tended to be greater than the sum of their parts.
I would also go for Christy Moore, who in many ways would be the soundtrack to my development and my life. I think he has a huge amount of integrity, and if you listen to him sing he comes across as somebody who really means it. If you see him performing live you see a gifted songwriter but also somebody who has a mission to transmit the songs he knows. He has a great deal of songs he hasn’t written but he is able to communicate and pass them on.
I should pick a band really…Wire. I saw them last year for the first time in around 30 years, at the Lexington near Kings Cross. They were influential in my formative days in the late 1970s / early 1980s. They were innovative and straddled the artistic side with the punk sensibility, but had the credibility of doing what they wanted to do. To release an album like they did last year nearly 40 years after they first started, and to think they can still do it, was a phenomenal achievement. They are still great live and the songs incredibly well crafted.
Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?
I’m not sure I fit your criteria of ‘someone who doesn’t normally attend a classical concert’. I’m actually a regular classical concert goer – all forms and types. Living in London I’ve been able to see some of the finest musicians and orchestras in the world. Many of my most treasured musical moments have been at ‘classical music’ concerts – Mitsuko Uchida playing Schubert’s late piano sonatas, Rattle and the Berlin Phil doing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with Reich himself playing. I also think some pieces are best experienced live – Messiaen’s Turangalila, for example. Had a few disappointments too! But live music is really important to me.
What did you think of the Smetana?
I thought it was OK – I could see why they had used it as a piece with which to start. Would I have got the Shakespeare connection? Probably not, but having known it I could see there were bits that sounded regal. Some bits reminded me of a royal hunt, with lots of trumpet. Some of it was like a fanfare but there was solo trumpet that was quite ‘angsty’ and personal. I suppose the trumpet has royal connections. Those things came into my mind while I was listening but I’m not sure, as a piece of music, I would be in a huge hurry to listen to it again.
What about the Liszt?
I hadn’t remembered that I had heard it before. I quite enjoyed it, but there were parts where the pianist seemed a bit stroppy and belligerent, reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis! I enjoyed it a bit less than I thought I was going to but the thing that did stick out for me was the cello (Rebecca Gilliver’s solo in the third movement – ed). The sound was absolutely beautiful.
What about the Tchaikovsky?
I was more familiar and knew what to expect. I wasn’t used to being that close to the orchestra! If you heard those four pieces of music and was told there was a Shakespeare link to be honest I probably couldn’t have noticed it, but the one that would be most likely would be that one – and you would probably think Romeo and Juliet because of the tragedy, the romance and the action. You almost feel like you’re in a Bond movie! It’s got everything in it, around 16 minutes, it packs it all in, and it’s Tchaikovsky, who I love.
Finally, what about the Richard Strauss?
I thought that was a good piece to finish on. It had a range of things. I don’t think I would have thought Shakespeare but it was more personal in that it was not necessarily a narrative story – you’re inside somebody’s head. I’ve got ‘magisterial’ written down here, and I felt there was a real tension in it. The offstage snare drum was great, I always like that use of the space, and I’ve not heard the percussion played like that before (the tam tam I think! – ed)
It was more psychological I think, and it was only in that piece that I noticed Noseda’s score was tiny, I’ve never seen one so small! I enjoyed the music, and would go back to listen to it again. I didn’t realise Strauss was 24, that’s quite a phenomenal achievement – not only to put all the instrumentation together but to get the psychological elements at that stage, you would think only an older composer would manage that.
What about the environment and setting of the concert, and how it was promoted?
The only PR I’ve seen was the Shakespeare-related things, and I couldn’t see the link with the Liszt, but I like the idea of linking things in. Sometimes it can be a bit contrived but I think if it’s used as a technique to expose you to different bits of music then that’s fine – like Romeo and Juliet – and it worked for me in the case of the Strauss but not the Smetana.
I think they got the range and order of the pieces right. I’ve been to the Barbican as a venue, and I do like the way it works with an instrument offstage, like they did with the Strauss. I’ve seen that done with vocal and choral pieces and it can work. I think the conductor was quite energetic, not necessarily in a flowing way – quite staccato would be your terminology! There seemed a good rapport between him and the orchestra, the sense they really respect him.
If you could give it a mark out of 10 what would you give?
Probably a 7, but that would be an average. The Tchaikovsky and the Strauss would be an 8 or 9, and the Smetana would drag it down a bit. But it was certainly worth going to!
Arcana’s brief thoughts on the concert:
The connections between classical music and Shakespeare are many, but the London Symphony Orchestra did really well to present a variety of nineteenth century settings. All fall into the ‘Romantic’ period, where composers were getting to grips with the idea of the orchestra being a storyteller in what was known the ‘symphonic poem’.
Smetana’s Richard III was an ideal curtain opener, though like its subject it had an uneven walk – brilliantly portrayed but still with a sense of a portrait not quite fully fledged.
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was different. This was the London Symphony Orchestra on white hot form, Gianandrea Noseda conducting like a man wholly affected by the tragedy. This music surged forward with passion and drama in equal measure, and the hair stood up with the volley of brass and percussion, and the intensity of the love theme on the strings.
Richard Strauss’s Macbeth was equally intense, though even more effective in exploring the minds of the two main protagonists of the story. The lower strings had a steely effectiveness, the double basses brilliantly marshalled, while the drama above unfolded in compelling fashion.
Though Liszt’s Piano Concerto no.2 had no Shakespearian connection it was a relatively sound choice, for he is a composer unable to resist the temptation of telling a story! This one had its moments of drama, albeit fleeting in comparison to the warhorses of the second half.