Note: this is the first in a series of undetermined length.
The city of London has an obscene amount of orchestras. While big US cities like Detroit and Philadelphia are having trouble supporting their 1 orchestra, London boasts 5 major orchestras, not to mention the smaller specialty ensembles that play only really new music or really old music, and all those orchestras at the conservatories. So there's the London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, and (to break up the naming pattern) the BBC Symphony.
A few Saturdays ago, I checked out the London Philharmonic, led by their principal conductor, the young and wiry Vladimir Jurowski. Dressed in racing stripe black from hair to foot, Jurowski can look a bit intimidating on the podium, his high cheekbones and piercing eyes reminiscent of one of those Soviet spies from Cold War action films. But his conducting style is both efficient and animated, eliciting a performance that engages the audience both intellectually and viscerally.
Jurowski also has a flair for unpredictable and mind-tickling programs, where the relationship between the pieces isn't obvious at first blush. At this concert, the Philarhmonic began with Haydn's Symphony no. 63 (out of 106 no less!), surprisingly played with period instruments: pedal-less timpani, valve-less horns and trumpets. This is something of anomaly for a romance-sized orchestra like the LPO and like all anomalies had consequences both good and bad. Good: the group's sound was clean and intimate, making the large Royal Festival Hall seem more like Prince Leopold's sitting room. Bad: natural horns are really hard to play. There were many a flubbed noted, and of course, Haydn does love his repeats. This gave the horn players another crack at those notes, but it was particularly disheartening when they'd screw it up the second time around. Luckily, the orchestra overall played with a comfortable and insistent groove. Jurowski at points would stop beating time, trusting his players to sit in the pocket while he shaped the larger phrases.
The second piece, the world premiere of "Flight from Byzantium" by the Italian composer Matteo D'Amico, was just about as sonically different as you can get from Haydn at an orchestra concert. For this piece, the orchestra increased the string section by 50%, tripled its brass, and constructed wall of percussion instruments in the back, not to mention the addition of some middle eastern lute-y and flute-y instruments, a Renaissance vocal quartet, and an amplified narrator. Oof. That's a lot of sound-producing things in one place.
D'Amico's piece was based on texts by the Nobel Prize-winning author Joseph Brodsky, including an article about the Roman emperor Constantine, autocracy, and his founding of Constantinople, declaimed by the narrator, and a selection of his Nativity poems, sung by the Hilliard Ensemble in their ethereal Renaissance tone.
The piece was filled with conflict. The rational tone of the narrator versus the contemplative spirituality of the singers. The exotic sounds of middle eastern instruments versus the western orchestra. All of this was to underscore the conflicts of east and west, Christian and Muslim, and autocracy and democracy that were dealt with in the texts. While D'Amico filled his work with bold harmonies, rich string pads, and sprightly percussion textures, the whole thing felt a bit like the score to a picture-less documentary. The music certainly was effective at setting moods, but not as good at getting inside your head, drawing attention to itself. He let the texts tell the story, which is all well and good if you're composing a soundtrack, but maybe not so good if the piece stands alone in a concert hall.
After the interval, the Hilliard Ensemble returned for a little solo set featuring the 15th century music of Guillaume Dufay, including a piece that also had Constantinople in the title. Hmm, looks like a pattern. Or maybe it's just that since the LPO hired the Hilliard Ensemble, it would let them do their Renaissance thing for a bit. The austere harmonies and tight canons in the music were very revealing, not of the singer's intonation but rather of the dryness of the hall. This kind of music was written by guys who had only heard music inside stone Gothic cathedrals and much of its beauty is stripped when the notes decay too quickly, as was the case in this dry hall.
But the orchestra was back on before too long to play Bela Bartok's ballet, "The Miraculous Mandarin," with full chorus but sans dancers (the stage isn't that big). The ballet tells the story of a miraculous Chinese man that pursues a winsome young woman, is beat up and killed by a group of goons, recovers and continues to pursue said woman, and then finally dies when the woman embraces him. A little absurd, yes, but the score brims with energy, shows off the orchestra's virtuosity (crazy, crazy piano part), and even manages to swing a bit (I was head bobbing). Jurowski deftly handled the many moving parts without sapping the forward motion in a performance that confirmed Bartok's status as a total baller.
As I left the hall (and passed by an old lady congratulating Mr. D'Amico, who I didn't realize was sitting just a couple of rows away), I still was a bit confused at the rationale of the program. I definitely loved the fact that the four pieces were from four different centuries and there wasn't one overplayed romantic work in there. Someone walking out seemed to think it was about storytelling, but to me the Dufay didn't seem to have much a story (but what do I know, I don't know Latin, just going off a hunch). I ended up having to do a bit of snooping after getting back and found out that the Haydn symphony was really just a collection of incidental music for a play called "La Roxalane," about one of the wives of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent.
Aye, there's the rub. It's all about the West's fear of the East. Certainly, that was an obvious theme in the D'Amico premiere, but more subtle in the Haydn - there weren't the cymbals and triangle that scream "I'm making Turkish music!" But certainly, a play in Vienna (where Haydn worked) about the Turks (who not that long before laid siege to the city) would play on the audience's fear of the eastern exotic. Dufay - there's the Constantinople connection, I think I get it, enough at least. And though the Bartok refers to a place farther east than the others, it is about fear of the other, a lack of understanding. The woman continually rebuffs the Mandarin, who comes off as a bit creepy, and the goons would rather beat him up than ask questions.
So although the London Philharmonic is not known as the top London orchestra, it certainly puts on both a thoughtful and varied program, one that can be enjoyed by the elderly patron, the over-analytical student, and the performer alike.