Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for Arcana FM on ‘Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19’. I concluded by saying that I wouldn’t get to see a performance of this epic ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and complete my personal Mahler live symphony cycle – any time soon, but that when I did it would have a very particular significance.
I certainly didn’t know that the performance would be by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the Royal Albert Hall on a Sunday afternoon in late October 2022, a concert that was itself rescheduled due to the pandemic.
And what a performance it was. The Royal Albert Hall could be said to be purpose built for this work, accommodating not just an expanded orchestra (including seven off-stage brass players in the gods) but three choirs, two boys’ choirs, eight soloists and a huge concert organ (the Royal Albert Hall’s was once the largest instrument in the world).
You get the full blast of the organ from the off with the tumultuous opening of Part 1’s Veni Creator Spiritus. It’s quite a ride from there on in, and Petrenko and the RPO handled it superbly all the way through to the powerful finale of Part 2’s setting of the end of Goethe’s Faust. This was not just about the big sections, the delicate moments were deftly done too.
But this work is really all about the singing, and the assembled choirs of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Choruses and City of London Choir, as well as the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School were magnificent.
And it wasn’t just the massed voices, as glorious as they were. The soloists – and let’s name them (above): Sarah Wegener (Magna Peccatrix), Jacquelyn Wagner (Gretchen), Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa), Jennifer Johnston (Mulier Samaritana), Claudia Huckle (Mary of Egypt), Vincent Wolfsteiner (Doctor Marianus), Benedict Nelson (Pater Ecstaticus) and James Platt (Pater Profundus) – were excellent too.
I made the point in my earlier piece that there is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. I think the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the end was testimony to this.
Mahler’s Eighth is definitely one of those pieces that you need to see performed live. I’m so glad that I finally did.
John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls
Howard Ellipsis (2021) [RPO Commission: World Premiere] Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) Holst The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-17)
Mao Fujita (piano, above), Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (below)
Royal Festival Hall, London Thursday 3 February 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo credit (Mao Fujita) Vyacheslav Prokofyev / Getty Images
Great British Music is the theme underlying the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s current series of concerts at Royal Festival Hall – a major work of the earlier 20th century complemented by music elsewhere in Europe and, in this instance, a commission from a young British composer.
Her output widely championed, not least by the RPO’s new music director Vasily Petrenko, Dani Howard is already master of the curtain-raiser. Hence the engaging yet never superficial effect of Ellipsis – her tribute to this orchestra in its 75th anniversary which alludes to various pieces and personages in its history, with a deftness that made for an appealing if not overly memorable listen. Not in doubt, though, was the keen motivic resource with which the piece unfolded from its fanfare-like opening bars towards the fervent apotheosis at its culmination.
Only caution through its origins in borrowed material can have prevented Rachmaninov from designating Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as his ‘Fifth Piano Concerto’. Certainly, those volatile mood-swings of its initial 15 variations, inward rapture of the next three then tensile incisiveness of the closing six variations constitute a three-movement design whose Classical proportions are informed by the developmental ingenuity of a later era. Qualities Mao Fujita brought out in notable measure during a performance which lacked little in technical finesse.
One of a handful of pieces whose all-round audacity was the incentive rather than deterrent to its immediate acceptance, The Planets was destined to prove the defining work of Holst’s career whose sheer impact a century and more has not diminished. Petrenko was evidently keen to emphasize its symphonic dimension through allying its seven movements to a broad consistency of pulse – witness the follow-through from his remorseless while never unduly histrionic take on Mars to his sensuous if never cloying approach to Venus. The former saw a suitably galvanic response from the RPO brass, the latter an elegance and poise from its strings which was no less evident in Petrenko’s lithe Mercury, then a Jupiter whose impetuous outer sections framed an eloquent and unaffected handling of the indelible trio.
Even the (doubtless) spontaneous applause which greeted this most familiar section did not undermine contrast with the emotional starkness of Saturn as it headed towards a climax of wrenching plangency, before finding release in a final stage that was nothing if not cathartic. The only passing disappointment came with Petrenko’s skittish and over-hasty rendering of Uranus, such as forced the martial main theme into a rhythmic straitjacket (for all that the climactic organ glissando made its mark) then detracted from the emptiness of its final bars. Not that this prevented Neptune from casting an otherworldly spell – whether in the modal musing at its start, those ethereal textures near its centre, or the gentle evanescing into which orchestra and wordless voices (the laudable RCM Chamber Choir) withdraw toward its close. If not a revelatory account, this was nevertheless a committed and involving performance that renewed admiration for Holst’s magnum opus as well as reinforcing the overall excellence of the Royal Philharmonic in the early stages of what looks set to be an era of real achievement.
For more information on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021-22 season, visit their website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artists Mao Fujita and Vasily Petrenko.
The new Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra talks to Arcana about his appointment, the importance of an orchestra in its community and what he hopes to bring to the city of Liverpool.
interview by Ben Hogwood
It is a tall order indeed, following Vasily Petrenko onto the conductor’s rostrum at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Domingo Hindoyan is the man chosen to fill the sizeable shoes of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s chief conductor, and he has joined Arcana to chat about the opportunities that lie ahead for him and for one of Britain’s finest orchestras.
He brings with him a positive energy, channelled through the most sonorous of voices. He could easily be mistaken for a baritone singer on this evidence alone, but his perspective as a conductor is brought immediately to the front. We begin by talking about one of his first appointments with the orchestra, his first Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in September this year. On the program were Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, with Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, a new piece from Grace-Evangeline Mason (The Imagined Forest), Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and finally Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Carl Maria von Weber.
The concert received extremely favourable reviews and was a great experience for the Venezuelan conductor himself. “It was a unique moment, a special moment in my career and in my musical life. It was my first concert as chief conductor, and the very special atmosphere of the Proms is unique around all the concert halls in the world.”
We talk about his decision to end with the Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis. “It is a great piece, and I had a lot of fun working on it, especially comparing it to what Weber wrote with the piano pieces. It is very, very clever, and shows perfectly all the facets of the orchestra, stressing a little bit on the brass section and the percussion. We have a fantastic set of bells, so we could use them in the second Turandot movement. We had a lot of fun. There was of course a link between all these pieces, with the 20th century composers, Strauss and Hindemith, but also an American connection between Hindemith and Dvořák. It is probably not obvious, but we’re talking about two composers who were influenced by the plantation music and by American music. Dvorak was the first one who really developed that to another level, and in the concerto, you don’t see as much as you can in the New World Symphony or the American string quartet, but you have in the second movement all the elements of American music. Hindemith was impressed later with some jazz moments we have in the second movement.”
He speaks very fondly of the Strauss, too. “Don Juan is a masterpiece, a showpiece for the orchestra. It’s a very difficult piece for orchestras, though today a little less as the technical level of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is very high. When you are technically free as the orchestra is, it is a piece that has thousands of colours, situations and emotions that we can explore. Every time I conduct it, I find new things you can do. That’s why it’s a masterpiece – all masterpieces have this characteristic.”
Hindoyan recalls his first visit to Liverpool. “It was not that long ago, in summer 2019. I conducted Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, among other pieces of course. It’s not an easy piece to start a relationship with an orchestra, because every orchestra knows it very well, but I remember that immediately the chemistry was right. The energy was right too, so we could really rehearse in a natural way, as if we knew each other from a long time ago. The second time was also very special, because I could play some Latin American repertoire with a colleague of mine, Pacho Flores, a Venezuelan trumpet player. This was where I conducted Don Juan for the first time with the orchestra, and then I did Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Since the beginning the relationship has been very natural, with a great chemistry. So far it is going very well!”
On meeting an orchestra for the first time, how does a conductor gauge their strengths and common ground? “That’s a very interesting question, because that moment is probably the most important moment together with the concert. I was an orchestral musician, and if you ask a musician how it is when a conductor is with them for the first time, they will always tell you they know after one minute, as soon as they stand on the podium, they know if things will be OK or not. From the conductor’s point of view, it is also the same. From the first upbeat, and the first two or three minutes, you feel how it will go. You are not like a football trainer, where you are going to analyse the team against you with videos and so on. I don’t do this, and I have never met a colleague who does it. After five minutes you understand the strengths and the weaknesses, and then start working your way through with your ear and with your version of the music, the score you have in front of you. You try to achieve the sounds and version you want. Sometimes you don’t even need to talk, you can go with a gesture alone. It is a very interesting side of this job, the psychological contact with and between the musicians. It’s magic, and thanks to the scores and the genius of the composers!”
Domingo is conscious of the city’s fortunate position in having the Philharmonic Hall at their disposal, and when I suggest there is a buzz for classical music in the city, he agrees. “I also felt it! The city is lucky to have its own concert hall, and the orchestra is lucky to have a concert hall where many things happen, and where it is the cultural reference of the city. It is not only the concerts of the Philharmonic, but it is the pop concerts, the small ensembles, the music room – many, many activities. The daily life, after the pandemic, is that almost every day something is happening. These walls are used to beautiful vibrations of music, but one of the things that attracted me most to the orchestra was the community work they do, and how they want to expand to the community what’s happening in the concert hall. It is a symbiosis, from the stage to the community but also from the community to the stage. People get to know the faces of the musicians, the conductors, the guest conductors, and so the orchestra is the baby of the city.”
Hindoyan speaks from personal experience. “I am Venezuelan, and I grew up in Venezuela. I was part of El Sistema, a huge organisation of more than one million people. I studied violin and then conducting in Geneva. We had the idea with the Geneva Conservatory of founding an El Sistema project in Geneva. This year is ten years since we did it, and it’s working very well. It has brought music to some neighbourhoods that would not normally play music. There are two beautiful orchestras, one aged 10 to 16, for beginners – and it worked very well. This is motivation, and in that sense it feels like home to me, because it’s not exclusively about the orchestra. It is about everything, what’s happening with the choir, the kids, the young and contemporary music, pop music. I feel at home in that sense.”
Some adventurous concerts lie ahead for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their new conductor, including an interesting coupling of a new symphony – Roberto Sierra‘s Sixth Symphony – as a companion for Beethoven’s Ninth. “I first met Roberto when I had to do the European premiere of his Trumpet Concerto, and I enjoyed it enormously to analyse the score and see how talented, clean and transparently he can write his ideas. My heart was even more involved because I see he writes with elements of Latin American music, and I love it. When I first asked him, I said, “Roberto, I’m doing Beethoven’s Ninth in my first concert in Liverpool, and how many symphonies do you have?” “I have five”, he said. “That’s perfect – you should write the sixth and do as Beethoven did in his Sixth Symphony, a Pastoral” He didn’t name it as a Pastoral, but it is exactly that, a Caribbean Pastoral. It is all about the nature in the Caribbean area, and in Latin America. The first movement is about the cities, the urban craziness of Caracas or Mexico City. The second movement is the Caribbean nights, and then we have a scherzo with a shape of the perfect pastoral symphony. He took the example of Beethoven throughout!”
There is a reunion with Pacho Flores, the trumpeter giving the European premiere of the Concerto Venezolano by Paquito D’Rivera in November. “I think bringing some of the Caribbean to Liverpool in October is a very good idea. This is what I want to bring in general, to bring more of the Latin American repertoire to Liverpool. We have great composers in Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico, for instance. Many of them were students of Copland, and I really want to play them more here. In building a program I found it better to mix with other folkloric music. I decided to take the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and couple them together. I think for the ear it is better, because you can compare, and you have some freshness. The Bartók Concerto, as we said with the Strauss, is a showpiece for the orchestra too.”
Are there plans afoot for new recordings with the orchestra? “We have some plans. My colleague Vasily has left a great legacy, he has been doing a fantastic job for 15 years. I will record my beloved pieces, those I feel comfortable with, and those I want to explore. I will introduce a lot of the Latin American repertoire and American repertoire that has not been played so often, without excluding anything of the traditional repertoire, that I love myself and I conduct very often too. It is a wide range of repertoire, and we have great plans.”
He reveals that he spoke briefly with Petrenko, his predecessor, before beginning the job. “We did have a short conversation, and we will have a longer one soon, but I am already on the job. Time for conductors is crazy! I had a nice message of welcome, and I was touched to see his last concert on demand. It was a difficult last year for him though because he couldn’t achieve his last season as he wanted. I could not do the transition as we wanted either, so our really first concert with full orchestra was last Sunday.”
Hindoyan is grateful to have a full programme stretching in front of him. “Of course. Every country had its own regulations. My first concert with an audience was last March, with a small audience for the Detroit Symphony. Then in April I had a bigger audience in Utah, but then in Europe we started with a small audience, and here in Liverpool last June I had a very warm audience for the last repertoire we did here. We did Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, BerliozSymphonie Fantastique and StravinskyOctet, and the trombone concerto by Dani Howard. We had the audience but now finally we have 80 people on stage, and the choir for the Beethoven in October. Finally, we can do music as we used to.”
There is a positive side to be found from the pandemic, however. “I always try! There were two positive things for me. First was the discovery of plenty of repertoire, which didn’t get played very often. Second, the exposure of the orchestras online, with recorded video, was very important, so that people had access to the concerts whenever they want. Social distancing was difficult, but on the other hand it has increased the attention of the players and the conductors. You have to make an extra effort to play together, which means when you start playing close again it is easier. It’s like going to the gym and you have to lift 30 kilos, but in fact you your goal was only 20, That is very light when you lift 30!”
One benefit of the online concerts is the chance for those further afield to see orchestras they would not normally see. “You can watch orchestras in Japan or South America, you can go on tour without travelling! Of course I believe there is nothing like live performance, the energy is never the same. When it is filmed you gain something, especially with opera, but in a symphonic concert there is nothing like the acoustic of the concert hall and the feeling of the sound coming to you directly.”
Domingo Hindoyan conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Roberto Sierra’s Symphony no.6 and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the ‘Choral’) on Saturday 16 October in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. For tickets, click here
For more information on the orchestra’s 2021-2022 season, including the concert with trumpeter Pacho Flores, head to the orchestra’s website here
Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) Respighi Concerto gregoriano (1921) Mendelssohn Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.107 (1830)
Royal Albert Hall, London Wednesday 4 August 2021
Written by Ben Hogwood
A fascinating concert, notable on several counts. It marked the first Prom for Vasily Petrenko, recently transferred from Liverpool, in his new role as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director. It featured three works paying tribute to a distant musical past – Vaughan Williams, Respighi and Mendelssohn expressing their admiration in very different ways. By way of an aside, it was your correspondent’s first live music in 17 months. A happy experience indeed!
In a sense my ears were in alignment with those who would have been at Gloucester Cathedral on 6 September 1910, for the world premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. The Royal Albert Hall, in its current reduced capacity, offered a similar acoustic, suitable for a performance where the quietest statements could be clearly heard. In the wake of a pandemic, this was wholly appropriate music to be listening to.
The Fantasia is written for two string orchestras, the second of which, nine players strong, might normally be distributed high in the gallery. Here they were positioned on stage, upper left from the conductor’s viewpoint, and projected beautifully to the back of the arena. Petrenko did not linger over the serenity of the opening, but allowed Vaughan Williams’ invention plenty of space to breathe as the Fantasia formed. A sensitive audience ensured every little nuance could be heard, and the RPO strings – in particular the solo quartet within the main orchestra – played beautifully. Petrenko has recorded a good deal of Elgar with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, so it will be interesting to see if he decides to look at Vaughan Williams in equivalent detail.
There followed a Proms premiere of a work written 100 years ago. As David Gutman’s excellent programme footnotes pointed out, Respighi has not enjoyed good representation at the festival over the years, and in general his music still languishes in the repertoire. This first account of the Concerto gregoriano could hardly have been more persuasive, with a passionate advocate in violin soloist Sayaka Shoji, who quarantined on her arrival in the UK prior to this performance. Respighi was a violinist, writing with skill for the instrument, but chose not to use this concerto as a display piece. Rather he paid homage to the Gregorian chants with which he had had been preoccupied in recent years, and he used these as the basis for a piece containing some particularly lush harmonies and idiosyncratic rhythms.
This was a compelling performance, Shoji soon into her groove and leading with faultless intonation in the high passages of the slow movement, carrying beautifully into the wide open spaces of the hall. She was aided by the horns and trombones of the RPO, positioned along the back of the orchestra, the punctuation of harp and celesta adding glitter to the edge of the sound.
The first movement found nicely judged contributions from oboe (John Roberts) and cor anglais (Patrick Flanaghan), with a sheen from the strings not unlike that of the Vaughan Williams. The third movement presented faster music and a greater sense of drama from its main theme, the brass again involved. This pulled back to peaceful climes, and a recap of the second movement material. Concerto gregoriano was certainly a work benefiting from a live performance, deserving of a higher profile.
Shoji was a sensitive performer, allowing Respighi’s music star billing, a sign of her maturity as a soloist. She also chose a wholly appropriate encore, the soft pizzicato beginning the Sarabande from Ysaÿe’s Sonata for solo violin no.4 (À Fritz Kreisler) the only audible noise in a rapt hall.
Mendelssohn wrote his Reformation symphony in 1830, making it the second in his output chronologically, but it was not published until long after his death. He appears not to have been wholly satisfied with it, leaving it unperformed. It carries a powerful impact, anticipating Schumann’s own D minor symphony (no.4) while including the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God). In this the composer, perhaps inevitably, was including Bach in his homage.
Petrenko had the work’s measure, leading us straight into the ‘sturm und drang’ of the first movement with its grim, D minor struggles. They were captivating, especially at the end of the introduction when rapt strings introduced the ‘Dresden Amen’, a striking alternative to the flurry of activity around them. The second movement had an attractive lilt, the third a nicely poised subject, before flautist Emer McDonough gave an impeccable solo to lead us into the finale. It fell to her to present the chorale theme, taken up with greater number and power by the rest of the orchestra. The mood turned from struggle to victory. Petrenko’s pacing was ideal, as was the phrasing, while the final reverberations of the chorale were more than sufficient in lieu of an encore.
This was a very fine if slightly understated first Prom for the RPO conductor in his new role, bringing the ideal combination of new and familiar. The orchestra appear to be in very good hands.
You can listen to a playlist of the works featured in this concert, including the violin encore, on Spotify below:
You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage
The BBC Proms should be commended for their commitment to new music, though this does come with a caveat, for it is not often that a commission for the Proms makes it to a second or third performance. Hopefully that fate will not befall Emily Howard’s Torus, a joint commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave it a thoroughly committed and virtuosic first performance under Vasily Petrenko.
Torus is based on a mathematical phenomenon, but to Howard’s credit she did not make this the domineering feature of the piece – if she did, like all good composers, it was part of the essential framework rather than explicitly signposted. Instead we were able to enjoy the colours of the large symphony orchestra, and especially the percussion, the three players using bows on their cymbals to make the textures glint towards the end.
Though subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, there was no display of gravity defying, musical athletics for the sake of it. Rather we enjoyed the orchestra as an instrument, the melodic content taking on a distinctive falling motif as though the music were heading for a trap door.
Shostakovich’s popular Cello Concerto no.1 followed, with a last minute substitute, Alexey Stadler, standing in for the unfortunately ill Truls Mørk. Any doubts about inferiority were immediately quelled, the young Russian cellist finding the soul of the music in a searching account of the slow movement and cadenza in particular. Petrenko and the RLPO, so attuned to this composer’s music in their award winning accounts of his symphonies for Naxos, were superb in support, especially horn player Timothy Jackson – but Stadler rightly stole the show, adjusting to the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall with commendable ease. His beautiful tone brought both pain and hope to the solo part in equal measure, and led to a gorgeous encore in the form of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite no.2.
Finally Petrenko led his orchestra in the music of another composer with whom they share great familiarity – Rachmaninov. There are several warhorses in his output that are arguably overplayed in concert, but the Symphony no.3 is not one of them – and how wonderful it was in this account, with soulful melodies, sleights of hand from Petrenko and sudden bursts of light from the orchestra.
The tricky syncopations of the finale were expertly handled, the orchestra delivering the suddenly loud snaps like the slamming of a door, a thrilling effect in the live arena. Yet they were also alive to the music’s lyrical and occasionally less certain undercurrents, where leader Thelma Handy was a superb soloist.
As an encore Petrenko brought out Shostakovich’s arrangement of Youmans’ Tea For Two, and gave it a brilliant send-up, as though conducting the last night. It was a beautifully judged encore, and showed again just how much this orchestra and conductor enjoy working together – which is what it’s all about, surely!