Written by: Leonard Slatkin
The first Barbican program contains a work new to the UK, and one whose origins are very much associated with the region. One of the very first recordings that marked the debut of Virgin Classics was one that I made in 1987 of Walton’s First Symphony with the London Philharmonic. I have not had much opportunity of presenting the work in London since then – there was a Philharmonia Orchestra performance in the mid-nineties – so I am especially pleased to be doing it on this trip.
My own history with Walton actually dates back to the late 1940s, when my parents, acting as one half of the Hollywood String Quartet, chose to include Sir William’s Quartet as the very first release on Capitol Records. The composer had heard the Hollywood play the piece and felt they captured the essence of the work. From that time, Walton’s music became an important presence in our home. I had become acquainted with the Symphony through early recordings and, shockingly, I have never actually heard the piece live, other than performances I have conducted. It is not a common work in the US and that is a shame. I have led performances of the piece with the Boston and Chicago Symphonies as well as the New York Philharmonic and St. Louis Symphony. It is always a pleasure to return to this work.
We will use – mostly – the new edition that has recently been published by Oxford University Press, although there are a few things from the previous version that I still incorporate. We will take this piece on our upcoming European tour.
The new piece is the Concerto for Orchestra of Jennifer Higdon. Ms Higdon is fast becoming one of the most important composers on the American scene. This work, which had its world premiere in Philadelphia, has already been played by a number of orchestras and also recorded. She writes in an accessible style that is at once her own. The work truly utilizes the full resource of the modern orchestra, making the title more than apt.
I return in May for the second Barbican concert with my good friend Emanuel Ax. We have known each other since we were students at the Juilliard School in New York. It remains the greatest of pleasures to make music with him, although there have been times when the dinner afterwards was just as interesting. He will be playing Mozart.
This is in stark contrast to the work on the second half of the concert, the 11th Symphony of Shostakovich. For a very long time, this piece was considered one of the composer’s weaker efforts. But history has a way of changing one’s perception. What was thought to be a depiction of the Russian Revolution in 1905 is now seen additionally as a portrait of the Hungarian uprising as well, which occurred in 1956 the year before Shostakovich completed this symphony. The musical language is not complex but the work does reach into a very dark place. With its pealing bells at the end, you can imagine a struggle that is far from over. This Symphony is about an hour long, but I find that the time moves by very quickly.