Live review – London Contemporary Orchestra @ The Barbican: Other Worlds

London Contemporary Orchestra & ChoirRobert Ames
Universal Assembly Unit (art direction)
Artrendex (artificial intelligence)

Barbican Hall, London
Wednesday 31 October 2018

Scelsi Uaxuctum (1969) (UK premiere)
John Luther Adams Become Ocean (2013)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If the apocalypse comes while we are alive, what music do you want played?

It is a thought-provoking question, one that some composers have tackled head-on by writing music of their own. The end of days provided the link for this programme of polar opposites from the London Contemporary Orchestra, given at the Barbican to the accompaniment of images dictated by algorithmic responses, thanks to the AI technology of Artrendex and the Universal Assembly Unit.

The first part was the end of days in the darkest possible sense. Giacinto Scelsi’s five-part Uaxuctum takes as its inspiration the Legend of the Maya City, and its self-destruction for religious reasons. Due to the demands made on the performers – and, the programme argued, an overly conservative approach to using Scelsi’s music – this was the UK premiere of a piece written nearly fifty years ago.

The textures were remarkable, achieved through a variety of vocal techniques such as trills, tremolos, hissing, deep breathing and nasal sounds. The use of quarter tones lent an extra level of difficulty and a sense of dread to the music, the vocals stubbornly sat in between the instrumental notes at times. The London Contemporary Choir met these demands heroically, stood on the left under a screen whose barbed imagery and sudden explosions of orange and red light were wholly appropriate.

The sizable orchestra was bolstered by a massive battery of percussion, including an enormous barrel rubbed with a ‘thundersheet’ – which made a suitably massive noise. This provided some chilling, incendiary shocks, while the percussion themselves supported the music from what felt like underneath the floorboards.

Perhaps because of the massive screen the edge was taken off the sound a little, which compromised the raw impact of the piece, but Scelsi’s often monotone musical language left an incredibly strong impact under the passionate direction of Robert Ames. Its resultant chill stayed throughout the interval.

John Luther Adams, environmentalist as well as composer, has garnered many plaudits for Become Ocean, a 2013 composition that sees the Earth returning to its early state of complete water coverage. Should it happen again, this form of apocalypse would be man-made; the ultimate destination should global warming continue in the way it does.

Adams chose not respond to this with the sharp edges and doom-mongered percussion of an industrial age. Rather he utilises the orchestra as a single instrument of subtly altering shades, beginning low in the murky depths of the piano but gradually superimposing layers to make a wonderfully sonorous block chord the listener can literally dive into.

Interpreting this as a colour, it could only be the deepest blue of the unfathomable ocean, and the imagery responded as such, submerging the orchestra in slow moving waves under deep, grey cloud. We were, it seemed, cast out in the middle of the ocean, as far from land as could be, but this was to be a meditative exile, accepting of its fate if not wholly aspiring to it.

The music carried for 45 minutes and there were several climax points, where the images grew deeper, before Ames pulled us back to the bare bones again. Adams ended where he had begun, back in the lower reaches of the piano.

Silence was the only appropriate response to this wall of water through sound, a wonderful contemplation and immersion that proved unexpectedly moving, the realisation hitting home of just how much damage we have inflicted on our own planet.

If they ever met, Scelsi and Adams would surely have found a common ground, despite the fascination of their wildly different responses to the final, greatest destruction. They left us with much to ponder and admire, especially from the London Contemporary Orchestra, whose standard of performance was unstinting, and whose virtuosity behind the scenes ensured these two apocalyptic visions met their final destination.

Further listening

The works in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth: Half-Six Fix – Stravinsky & Debussy

London Symphony OrchestraFrançois-Xavier Roth (above)

Half-Six Fix

Stravinsky Le chant du rossignol (1917)

Debussy La Mer (1903-1905)

Barbican Hall, London; Wednesday 28 March 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The London Symphony Orchestra’s new Half-Six Fix initiative went ‘live’ with this Stravinsky / Debussy double header; a concert full of colour and mutual appreciation for two of the 20th century giants.

A more relaxed approach was immediately evident on arrival at the Barbican for the early evening hour of music. Downloading the EnCue app gave audience members a stream of content at their disposal, with comprehensive notes on the two pieces as well as artwork and cues for the performances themselves.

Interestingly during the concert I did not witness anybody using their phone in this way – which in a sense was encouraging, for everyone was in thrall to the performers themselves. The other major disadvantage with reading concert notes on a mobile phone is the distraction of notifications from elsewhere. Surely one of the great advantages of live music is that it takes you to a special place away from everyday life! That said, the resources available do also give the option for reading between pieces, and were of a high quality to make them fully worthwhile.

Our compere for the evening was François-Xavier Roth and he was the ideal host, introducing the pieces with a nice line in respect and humour. The use of musical examples with the orchestra was helpful – flautist Gareth Davies showed off Stravinsky’s Le chant du Rossignol, while it was nice to see glockenspiel and cymbals promoted to the front line so that we could appreciate Debussy’s masterly use of the orchestra in La mer.

The performances were superb. Le chant du Rossignol had rhythmic precision and musical finesse, telling the story of the nightingale and the efforts of its Japanese imitators to emulate its song in vivid, widescreen technicolour. Stravinsky’s inspiration in this piece was revealed to be very close to Petrushka, and Roth conducted a performance that brought the melodies to the front but emphasised some wonderful textures conjured up in the middle foreground. There were visuals, and fleeting glimpses of solos, but it seemed the LSO had not fully decided whether to show the orchestra in full or images derived from the piece, settling for a halfway approach which was fleetingly helpful.

Watching the orchestra was definitely enough – their standard these days is as high as ever, and if anything was even better for La mer. Clearly this is one of Roth’s first loves, and from a seat near to the orchestra you could practically feel the spray as the orchestra dived in.

Tempo choices were on the whole assertive but never at the expense of detail and expression, and when the final swell came in the third movement, Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the waves).

Roth is an ideal host for this sort of evening, which can be wholeheartedly recommended, a case of quality winning over quantity – and it is pitched at a level where everyone present, from the first time attendee to the hundredth, will learn something new and get a fresh perspective. A great initiative for opening the mind to classical music in a more relaxed setting.

Vilde Frang, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Anna Clyne, Britten & Beethoven ‘Pastoral’

Vilde Frang (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Clyne This Midnight Hour (2015) [London premiere]

Britten Violin Concerto, Op.15 (1939)

Beethoven Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68, ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Barbican Hall, London; Wednesday 21 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to the broadcast of this concert here, available until 20 April 2018

Most concerts by the BBC Symphony still feature either a world or national premiere, and tonight’s concert began with a first London outing for Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour. Drawing inspiration from poems by Juan Ramon Jiménez and Charles Baudelaire, this 12-minute piece duly alternates between energetic and more ruminative music in a ‘stretto’ of accumulating impetus. A pity the climactic stage loses focus in an amalgam of waltz-like flaccidness and folk-inflected jejunity – suggesting this as not one of Clyne’s better pieces.

Britten’s Violin Concerto has certainly come in from the cold over recent years. Vilde Frang was a little tentative in the initial Moderato, with its interplay of wistful lyricism and driving impetus, but the central scherzo was finely judged through to a seismic climax then dextrous cadenza leading into the finale. The earliest among Britten’s passacaglias, it makes plain his feelings over the demise of the Spanish republican movement, and Frang (below) had the measure of its sombre inwardness and high-flown rhetoric prior to a recessional of haunting eloquence.

As so often, Sakari Oramo was an astute and attentive accompanist – thereafter putting the BBCSO through its paces in a fluent and often searching account of the Pastoral Symphony. In this, as in Beethoven’s music overall, Oramo was his own man – omitting the exposition repeat in what was an incisive but never headlong reading of the first movement, followed by an Andante whose rhapsodic unfolding was accorded focus by the flexible underlying tempo and fastidious shading of string textures as has long been a hallmark of Oramo’s conducting.

The last three movements proceed continuously and if the scherzo was a little too streamlined for its verve and humour fully to register, the ‘Thunderstorm’ made for a powerful interlude before (and climactic upbeat to) the finale. As disarming melodically as it is difficult in terms of pacing, this unfolded with a sure sense of its developing variation; allied to a lilting motion which evokes a cosmic dance offered as thanks for peace in time of crisis. Maybe the closing cadence was just a touch over-emphatic, but the sense of a journey fulfilled was undeniable.

You can watch Vilde Frang talk about the Britten Violin Concerto in a BBC video here For more information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to the orchestra’s homepage – and for more on their chief conductor Sakari Oramo, click here

Meanwhile you can listen to Vilde Frang’s disc of the Britten and Korngold Violin Concertos, recorded for Warner Classics, on Spotify:

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC SO / Sakari Oramo – Schmitt, Franck, Ravel & Sibelius Symphony no.3

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 27 October 2017

Schmitt Symphony No.2 in E flat major, Op.137 (1957)

Franck Variations symphoniques (1885)

Ravel Piano Concerto in D ‘for the Left Hand’ (1930)

Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op.52 (1907)

You can listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking here (available until 26 November)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Sakari Oramo‘s Sibelius cycle continued as part of a judiciously balanced programme which opened with a rare revival of the Second Symphony by Florent Schmitt. This continues the French symphonism of Roussel and Honegger; albeit with a quirkiness of melodic thought and virtuoso handling of sizable forces to confirm Schmitt as no mere epigone. Indeed, the angular wit of the first movement suggests his willingness to confront post-war modernism head on, and if the central Lent admits warmer and even tender emotion, the finale resumes the assaultive mood with an unremitting intent through to its scabrous close. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had the measure of this unsettling piece throughout; their responsiveness underlining that Schmitt was not one to accept the passing of his own era with even a hint of good grace.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (below) then joined the orchestra for two staples from the French concertante repertoire, separated in time by almost half a century. Good to see that Franck‘s Variations symphoniques has now re-established itself in UK concert programmes, as this unlikely yet successful hybrid of elements from symphony and concerto, as drawn into the pithiest of its composer’s cyclical designs, has a substance more than equal to its entertainment. Bavouzet and Oramo were especially fine in the expressive contrasts of its opening minutes, and if the rhapsodic musing at its centre seemed a little inflexible, then the effervescence of its final section too forcefully projected, there was no doubting the coherence and the ingeniousness of its composer’s response to a piano-virtuoso tradition he spent much of his life despising.

That the Franck outlines a ‘three movements in one’ formal design makes it a more than likely precursor to Ravel‘s Piano Concerto in D major, the most enduring of those left-hand works written for the redoubtable (if frequently wrong-headed) Paul Wittgenstein. Not the least attraction of tonight’s performance was its emphasizing the canniness of the balance between soloist and orchestra, such that the former was never less than audible in the context of what is the most overtly rhetorical and combative of all Ravel’s works. Add to this Bavouzet’s limpidity in the eloquent theme which returns intensified in the cadenza, not to mention Oramo’s control of momentum in the jazz-inflected animation of the scherzo, and what resulted was a reading attentive to every aspect of this masterpiece: one that justifiably brought the house down.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony is easy to underestimate as a transitional work poised between overt romanticism and renewed classicism. It was to Oramo’s credit that elements of both aesthetics were not only evident but also reconciled – not least in an opening Allegro which moved between fervency and incisiveness with no mean purpose. The highlight came with a central Andantino whose quasi allegretto marking may have been minimal, but whose opening-up of emotional space made for a riveting listen. The final movement was hardly less impressive in its purposeful equivocation between scherzo and finale, Oramo teasing resolve out of uncertainty so the hymn-like theme that eventually emerges built to a powerful apotheosis. A gripping performance, reinforced by the conviction of the BBCSO’s response.

For more concert information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to their website

You can hear a recording of the Florent Schmitt made by Leif Segerstam on Spotify below:

Kensington Symphony Orchestra – 60th anniversary concert

Kiandra Howarth (soprano), Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano), Epiphoni ConsortPegasusVox CordisKensington Symphony Orchestra / Russell Keable

Barbican Hall, London, Monday 15 May 2017

Matthew Taylor Symphony no.4, Op. 54 [KSO commission: World premiere]

Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A near-capacity audience greeted this 60th anniversary concert by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and its principal conductor Russell Keable (below) – who, in a sign of continuity rare in the modern era, assumed that role from the orchestra’s founder Leslie Head over three decades ago.

Throughout its history, the KSO has been an advocate of British music past and present, and this evening was no exception in its witnessing the first performance of the Fourth Symphony by Matthew Taylor. Four years ago, the orchestra gave a memorable reading of his tone poem Storr and this new work was hardly less impressive. An in memoriam to composer and pianist John McCabe, and dedicated to his widow Monica, the 27-minute piece falls into three continuous movements. The first, pointedly marked Scherzo, maintains its initial energy across various changes of dynamics and texture (some evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett) then subsides from its impassioned climax to a central Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and expressive warmth – both amply sustained here.

On first hearing, the Finale buffa was slightly less successful. Beginning at a rather jarring remove from what went before, its nonchalant humour (not a little reminiscent of Malcolm Arnold) sounded forced rather than provocative; its seeming lack of substance not bolstered by a deftly scored intermezzo-like episode which itself waylaid the denouement. This latter, though, was powerfully controlled up to a climax that recalled the work’s opening theme on the way to a close the more decisive for its succinctness; the music literally coming to a halt.

Make no mistake, this was a characterful and absorbing work from a born symphonist, and any reservations about the finale might well disperse in the light of further performances. Not that there was much to fault on this occasion, with Keable drawing a dedicated response from the KSO to reaffirm its status as the finest non-professional orchestra in London (arguably the UK). Taylor’s exacting yet always practicable writing also benefited from the immediacy of the Barbican acoustic, not least that for two timpanists which propelled the opening and close.

Certainly, the orchestra sounded more consistently at its best here than in Mahler’s Second Symphony which followed the interval. This is a work often pressed into service on notable occasions (memory recalls its inclusion in the first concert at Copenhagen’s Koncerthuset in 2009 after the premiere of Per Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony), on basis of its epic conception and overall impact. Qualities as were often in evidence here, not least an opening movement whose literalness did not prevent a pathos emerging out of the music’s heightened emotions.

Both the lilting Andante and sardonic scherzo were fluently if unexceptionally rendered, with Caitlin Hulcup giving a soulful rendition of the pivotal Urlicht setting. Keable then steered a secure course through the vast finale, giving its extremes of motion and expression room to unfold without risk of diffuseness. Kiandra Howarth made an appealing contribution, while the combined choruses saw the climactic setting of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode through to a blazing apotheosis. The KSO’s next 60 years were duly launched in no uncertain fashion.

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website