More hall of mirrors than comfortable visiting card, this late-afternoon concert – Omer Meir Wellber's home-turf debut as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic – took listeners down some radical roads. Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, in the original 1909 scoring, came over as polished and disciplined if at times cool – expressionisms veering towards the inexpressive. The 1851 revision of Schumann's Fourth Symphony suggested a reading in progress, rhapsodic and liberated in tempo and characterisation, occasionally loosening rather than tensioning the music, but with the potential to impress – for instance, the Beethovenian/Wagnerian over-toned prologue and coda of the closing movement, rooted mightily.
“In today's world”, Wellber tells us, “we like problems more than sweetness.” Formerly Barenboim's assistant at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, he's a musician of independent outlook, energised, opinionated, sure of himself, happy to play around with the blueprint and nuances of a score irrespective of style or period, more often underlining than reconciling urges and divisions, prone to cast paragraphs into self-contained, disparate pictures. His way with the classics – think of a rampant Schubert Third Symphony he did in Stuttgart two years ago – is personalised, physical and free, posing scenarios more than answers. He has the capacity to re-imagine at every turn, neon-lighting old pages and worn memories into driven, dramatised modern illuminations, each glint of an instrument, each subterranean tidal wave, seared into the foreground with the brightness of stars on a frosty night. His is neither safe music-making nor about parodying others, he gets us to repeatedly think and ask questions, to juggle new juxtapositions. It can be a refreshing experience.
This side of forty, Wellber likes to do all things – composition, conducting, talking, educating, piano, harpsichord, accordion. His pianism is crisply detached but not without an occasional dropout. His continuo-playing is big-bodied and vigorous, arguably headstrong. In Vivaldi's ‘Summer’, arranged for mandolin, he drove matters hard, Jacob Reuven, using a big-projection Arik Kerman instrument, coping manfully if not always comfortably with the speedier fences.
Mozart's 'little' A-major Piano Concerto – in Wellber's view “a Concerto with a lot of space” – set off like any other day, all smiles and 1782 civilisation, cellos and basses to the right, keyboard (a mild-mannered centrally positioned Steinway) facing into the ensemble. Reduced strings, a Bärenreiter score on the music stand. But – Kuusisto and Kopatchinskaja, Fazil Say, scarcely a hair's breath away – the image was short-lived. An explosion of extremist cadenzas covering the three movements – shocking, terrifying, disquietening, disorientating, bizarre – ripped up the rule book, not to say the harmonic function of the Mozartean model. Suddenly we were confronted with bared, pungent, out of sync scenes drawing on improvisation, Harlem jazz, klezmer, the percussive Levantine hand rhythms of Wellber's background in Be'er Sheva and the Negev desert. An array of obbligato instruments, including trumpet, clarinet, mandolin, accordion and drum-kit, missiled jaggedly through the ambience, the museum of Mozart's world, the manners of our own, in velvet, violent, earthy confrontation. Asked “why”, Wellber, clearly well-pleased, left the experiment to our fantasy. The audience, lukewarm in its applause, smiled awkwardly. The body language of the BBC Phil suggested unease.
No encores but during the interval Reuven and Wellber, old college friends, offered a couple of mandolin and accordion duets – the endless music, as Wellber put it, of weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs, played with flair, panache and rubato, and a born sense of idiom, locale and give-and-take. If Wellber can develop such engagement and exchange with his BBC colleagues, and with the public generally, his term will not be a routine one.