BBC Symphony Orchestra 80th-Birthday Concert [David Robertson, O Duo, Kari Kriikku … McNeff, Saariaho]

Der fliegende Holländer – Overture
ConcertO Duo – for duo percussion and orchestra [BBC/Borletti-Buitoni co-commission: world premiere]
D’OM LE VRAI SENS [BBC co-commission: UK premiere]
The Rite of Spring [1943 version]

O Duo [Owen Gunnell & Olly Cox (percussion)]

Kari Kriikku (clarinet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Staging by Peter Sellars [Saariaho]

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 October, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A marathon affair – three hours-plus including some protracted platform changes, not least the seemingly-confused one that extended the interval – to celebrate eighty years to the date since the BBC Symphony Orchestra first sounded its wares, Dr Adrian Boult (his knighthood came in 1937) at the helm for The Flying Dutchman Overture, beginning a Wednesday Queen’s Hall concert that continued with Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Ravel. (Given Boult’s commitment to it, it’s interesting to note the absence of British music.) Boult was not Chief Conductor at that point. Rather he was Director of Music for the British Broadcasting Corporation, charged with the founding of the Symphony Orchestra. In 1931, at the invitation of Lord Reith (General Manager from the inception of the BBC and from 1927 its Director General), Boult accepted the additional post of Chief Conductor. Eighty years on David Robertson (the BBCSO’s current Principal Guest Conductor) led a powerful and expressive account, vibrantly suggestive of greasepaint and the elements (splendid horns), with gutsy attack and dynamic attentiveness, Alison Teale’s cor anglais solo especially poetic.

The BBCSO’s current Chief Conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek, put in a brief appearance on film, as did his eleven predecessors (a very thoughtful touch):

  • Adrian Boult (Chief Conductor 1931-1950) – Beethoven 5 (1935)
  • Malcolm Sargent (1950-57) – Henry Wood Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (1957)
  • Rudolf Schwarz (1957-62) – Beethoven Piano Concerto 4/Myra Hess (1958)
  • Antal Dorati (1963-66) – Beethoven Piano Concerto 4/Artur Rubinstein (1968)
  • Colin Davis (1967-71) – Britten Soirées musicales (1967)
  • Pierre Boulez (1971-75) – Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra (1968)
  • Rudolf Kempe (1975-76) Dvořák New World Symphony (1975)
  • Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (1978-81) Mussorgsky A Night on the Bare Mountain [Sorochintsy Fair version] (1981)
  • John Pritchard (1982-89) Mahler 4 (1980)
  • Andrew Davis (1989-2000) Elgar The Dream of Gerontius (1997)
  • Leonard Slatkin (2000-04) Copland El salón México (2001)
  • Jiří Bělohlávek (2006-present) Mahler 8 (2010)

    Very appropriately, new music played a significant part in this celebratory concert. However, neither of these concertos sustained their length and proved only intermittently appealing.

    ConcertO Duo (2010) by Stephen McNeff proved that a lot of percussion goes a very short way. Unfortunately McNeff managed thirty minutes. The lighting of the front-of-stage percussion instruments in blue and red was as superfluous as it was irritating, the opening of the piece snazzy and jazzy, engagingly cartoon-graphic. Owen Gunnell and Olly Cox (O Duo) now entered, clapping and stamping! The concerto’s range – embracing cool to rowdy – proved an assemblage of sounds in a cut-and-paste construction, a few nice – quiet – moments suggesting the Copland of The Red Pony and Gershwin’s Cuban Overture (the latter, coincidentally, recorded by Boult in 1968 with the London Philharmonic). For all the activity and tints there was little substance, those American-tinged passages (McNeff hails from Belfast, by the way) aside. Nothing but unstinting praise though for the virtuosity and teamwork of Gunnell and Cox – faultless in execution and commitment (their separate kits festooned with microphones) – and the high-level preparation of the BBCSO and Robertson.

    Similarly high praise for the performance of Kaija Saariaho’s D’OM LE VRAI SENS (2010), Kari Kriikku stunning in his mastery of the clarinet and the requirements of this particular role, not least embracing Peter Sellars’s staging, which presumably directed Kriikku’s bestial-calling from afar, his descent through the stalls, his location at various points of the platform, and his Pied Piper-like summoning of most of the violinists to follow him away – the unicorn at the centre of things neighing the appeal. Well, okay. Here were more lighting effects, sort-of bathing the orchestra (here relatively reduced, McNeff went for ‘full’) but having green, pink, or whatever hue concentrated on the projection screen was too isolating of this rather abject effect. Music is for listening, and this 35-minute playing-time tested patience, Saariaho’s trademark graded timbres as ever carefully notated and quite evocative and suggestive, yet nothing seemed new or even freshly imagined, the first three (slow) movements embracing ‘Hearing’, ‘Sight’ and ‘Smell’ seemingly as one sense. Wonderful rendition, no doubt, with Kriiku a sporting (gold-medallist) performer.

    Thank God for The Rite of Spring. The BBCSO first tackled it in January 1931 under Ernest Ansermet. Playing for an exuberant and explicitly-gesturing David Robertson, this birthday performance compelled – from the lyrical and potent opening bassoon solo (Graham Sheen) to the emphatic and unanimous final chord. Usually played these days as a concert showpiece, Robertson returned The Rite to choreographic vitality, bringing dramatic impetus and stressing the music’s folk-melody inspiration. With luridness and gratuitousness (part and parcel of most modern-day Rites) left outside the auditorium, Robertson and the BBCSO proved indefatigable in bringing this great (and still surprising) piece to spontaneous yet disciplined and perceptive life. This was indeed something to celebrate.

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