Saturday, October 23, 2010

Know Your London Orchestras! A (B)ig (B)irthday (C)ake (S)urprise...

Considering the shocking (to an American at least) number of orchestras in London, one would think that the public professional orchestra has had a long and storied tradition here.  Well that's not really the case, especially considering that for an English cultural institution to have a long and storied tradition, it has to have been around for hundreds of years like Shakespeare's Globe or the University of Oxford.  And while across the pond the New York Philharmonic is pushing 160 years old, the oldest permanent professional orchestra in London had a birthday yesterday and is a whipper-snapper of 80 in comparison.

So to which orchestra should you send your warmest wishes?  Well from the obvious titular hint, it is none other than the BBC Symphony!

But wait a minute!  Wasn't the London Symphony Orchestra founded in 1904, making it a good 26 years older than the BBC?  Well, the LSO unfortunately was one of the many casualties of the Great War and really didn't exist from 1916 through 1919.  The BBC Symphony has exploited this loophole for marketing purposes because just like in the US, inflating one's relative age in Britain also inflates one's prestige (just ask the Universities of Pennsylvania and Delaware; I promise they're not really older than Princeton). 

But either way, it took a while for British orchestras to leave the Royal chambers and churches, and yesterday was indeed a special day for the flagship orchestra of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

David Robertson, who wore that same shirt last night
And what better way to celebrate this momentous occasion than with a concert highlighting both the BBC's storied past and its present vitality.   Led (slightly ironically) by its American principal guest conductor David Robertson, the orchestra presented two new concertos book-ended by past staples at the Barbican Center (the LSO's home ballpark, just to further the irony).

The concert began with one of those staples, Wagner's Overture to the Flying Dutchman, a piece that was performed during the BBC's inaugural concert on October 22, 1930.  Considering my distaste for historical fetishization, it was somehow appropriate I arrived minutes late to the concert and only heard the overture through the tiny lobby speakers.  But from talking with percussionist Alex Neal earlier in the week (my teach at Royal College), the piece was really just to get the blue-haired ladies in the door and not something the orchestra was really excited about.  In the end, no big loss.

So my evening with the BBC instead began with the brand-spankin' new ConcertO-Duo, a percussion concerto for the young men of, you guessed it, O Duo (Owen Gunnel and Oli Cox, RCM grads!) written by Stephen McNeff.  The piece began with a gargantuan percussion setup strung across the front of the stage, but no percussionists.  As the orchestra played on, it seemed to be a bit of a dadaist joke until the duo ran up from the auditorium's side doors, reaching their posts just in time to deliver an ear-numbing thwack.  However, the setup continued to serve a dadaist purpose as the next portion of the concerto featured the percussionists' formidable polyrhythmic clapping technique and the beautiful sounds they can coax from a wooden stage with little drumsticks.

O Duo took to their setup bit by bit, adding groovy tom-tom runs to the orchestra's vaguely bluesy backings, then some woodblocks and cowbells for spice.  As the players switched to marimba and xylophone, their parts were assimilated into the orchestra's.  It wasn't a concerto where the heroic soloist(s) was pitted against an orchestral onslaught, but one where the two worked as a team, using their varieties of instrumental textures to create an intoxicating sound world.  Until orchestra percussionist Alex Neal interrupted everything with a ferocious seizure for two flexatones.

See, even O Duo's press kit photos are silly
But of course there had to be some show of percussive virtuosity, and that came near the end of the piece during the extended cadenza.  Oliver Cox started a descending run at the high end of the marimba.  Then Owen Gunnell followed him (literally) step for step down the instrument.  When Cox reached the bottom 5 octaves later, he scampered back to the top for another ride.  Then Gunnell did the same.  Cox liked the run so much he went back again, this time faster.  So did Gunnell.  By this point the crowd was snickering, which was obviously a cue to go on to the groovy Latin section.  It was nearly danceable, but there is no dancing at British classical concerts, only gentle swaying at the last of the Proms.

Alright, so the cadenza ended, followed shortly by the piece itself in a final flash of loudness.  The crowd gave many ovations.  They seemed to enjoy all of the silliness that had ensued.  But unfortunately, that silliness seemed to overshadow some seriously beautiful moments scattered throughout the piece, like the part when the xylophone and marimba traded surprisingly lyrical melodies despite the brilliant attack of hard rubber mallets.  Considering that percussionists always seem to want everyone to take them more seriously, another percussion piece that emphasizes show-man choreography and a massed array of bells and whistles isn't what percussionists need right now.  The instruments become the stars rather than the players.  In the end, all of the wonderfully musical things O Duo did throughout the piece were pushed out of the audience's memory by the mad-cap marimba run.

The second half began in a darkened hall with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's recent clarinet concerto D’om Le Vrai Sens, which I think roughly translates to "On the True Meaning Of."  The open-ended title is quite apt for the wonderfully abstract piece, performed last night by another Finn, Kari Kriikku.  The music lit up the darkness with eerily lush string chords that perk up the spine and tense muscles.  It was so powerfully transporting that when I heard a cellphone beep, I mumbled a serious "fuck you" for disturbing my reverie.  And then out of nowhere came a sound like a rocket, a growling clarinet from an unseeable source.  The line continued, as the clarinet didn't just play notes, but notes between the notes, sounds beyond the notes.  Sometimes the clarinet would melt into the orchestra and suddenly reappear.  It was hard to know where each sound was coming from, especially with the extensive use of amplification and the fact that I still couldn't actually see the clarinetist.  No matter, as it was interesting enough to watch David Robertson's careful gestures and the percussion section's muted entrances.  I was adrift on a cool, gray sea and wasn't hoping to leave any time soon.

Peter Sellars, renowned opera director and Belo Knock, renowned clown
By the beginning of the second movement (though I hesitate to break the seamlessly flowing piece up in this way), the clarinetist was on stage, wading through the orchestra, making wide gesticulations to emphasize the color of each sound.  The choreography and lighting for this performance, conceived by famed opera director Peter Sellars (who has yet to change his clown-like hair style), added to the otherworldly quality of the music.  After moving across all of the stage during the second and third parts, the clarinetist became a pied piper, taking most of the violin section with him back into the audience.  Although I couldn't see much of this development from my balcony seat, I'm was pleased to hear from my stalls-seated friend that the string players were as into this final set of choreography as the impassioned clarinetist.

When the piece finally let the atmosphere dissipate, four concert-goers to my left bolted for the door as much of the audience gave a rousing ovation with many a curtain call for the composer, director, and performers.  And in that way, the piece was fantastically successful.  It wasn't one of those "oh, that was nice" kind of pieces, but one that made you actually feel something.  Whether or not you liked that feeling was another question, but these kinds of affecting pieces are the ones that have the most staying power.  The classics of today were generally met with some sort of hostility at their premieres, a perfect example being Igor Stravinsky's riot-inducing "Rite of Spring."  Which of course was appropriately programmed to finish the concert.

As I was listening to "Rite," it became clear just how much my mind's ear of the piece has been affected the Philadelphia Orchestra's version from "Fantasia" conducted by Leopold Stokowski.  The Philadelphians have always featured a loud string section, which gave those famous string accents at the beginning of the piece so much impact.  Even in a loud and resonant hall like the Barbican, the BBC's smaller string section couldn't match the Philadelphian's force.  But what they lacked in shear volume, they more than made up for in clarity and groove.  Especially with Robertson on the podium, a master of navigating such rhythmically complex works, the piece had a razor sharp edge and a fleetness that most orchestras even struggle to get in a studio.  And because the string section was not as loud as to what I was accustomed, I was able to hear all of the neat inner wind and brass parts that almost always get lost.

As the piece went on, the orchestra showed that it could rear back and smash the audience's faces with sound when it wanted to, especially when the brass section went full throttle.  After the emphatic final chord,  the audience gave yet another hearty ovation, a testament to both the energy and precision of the orchestra. In an audacious program that spanned centuries and traditions, the BBC showed that they are a chameleon of an orchestra.  At one moment they can be a schmaltzy Romantic philharmonic, and the next, a hip new music ensemble.  The group's commitment to music of all stripes is particularly noteworthy in a time when falling ticket sales are pushing many orchestras toward programming nothing more than radio FM classics and video game scores.  Because they perform challenging and disorienting new music with such verve, it's hard not for the audience to grab onto something cool in the piece.  In the end, it's a win for all involved.  The composers love the BBC because they will play their new and weird stuff.  The players love the BBC because they get to play new and weird stuff that poses interesting musical challenges.  The audience loves it because they may come for the Wagner, but it's the world premiere that they remember.

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