Originally to be conducted by Krzysztof Urbański this Philharmonia Orchestra programme was taken over by Hong Kong-born Elim Chan, the first female winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition. The unchanged concert was bookended by music for Romeo and Juliet, by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, although the selections from the latter’s ballet were fewer than scheduled. Chan seized her opportunity and made a thoroughly positive impression. There were moments when experience might have made for greater subtlety but it was immediately clear that the Philharmonia was responding with commitment.
The Tchaikovsky Overture was anything but routine, slow-burn and with something kept in reserve for the ultimate climax and with the ‘fight’ music delivered with fire and passion, and unbridled for the ill-fated lovers. There was also notable warmth in the string sound, led by Laura Samuel.
The Piano Concerto was less involving. Whilst there was no doubting Simon Trpčeski’s mastery of the notes, his thunderous approach frequently bordered on the coarse side to create a grandiose battle-royal between piano and orchestra but with little interaction between the two protagonists. There were occasional moments where one felt a genuine musical impulse, for instance the simplicity of the Andantino’s opening with Samuel Coles’s affecting flute perfectly matched by the pianist and the murmuring strings but all-too-soon this was vitiated when we reached the flickering ‘firefly’ music which was attacked with undisguised ferocity.
The Finale’s fireworks led to an encore, a most unusual one dedicated by Trpčeski to the memory of Lorin Maazel with whom he had played this Concerto in 2009 (to the date). Trpčeski was joined by Samuel and Timothy Walden (principal cellist) for two of the variations from the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s A-minor Piano Trio – a pleasure in the simple act of making music together.
In the Prokofiev, it would be idle to pretend that Chan conjured the gossamer delicacy of ‘Juliet as a Young Girl’ or the titanic waves of string sound needed for ‘Juliet’s Funeral’ but what it lacked in sophistication was made up for in fervour and devotion. Chan has a clear and effective stick technique, and has internalised this music to the point where she is able to highlight frequently obscured detail. With the Philharmonia giving its collective all, there were also some particularly fine individual contributions, not least Antoine Siguré’s outstanding timpani-playing. Occasionally balances went awry at climaxes but better a dash of youthful enthusiasm than aged calculation. Evidently Elim Chan has come a long way since her Flick win and from next season the Royal Scottish National Orchestra has acquired an impressive Principal Guest Conductor.