BBC Symphony Orchestra – Opening Concert 2006-7 Season … Listen Up!

Gareth Wood
Listen Up! Fanfare
Suite in A, Op.98b
Hojoki (An Account of My Hut) [BBC Radio 3 co-commission with the Casa da Música, Porto: world premiere]
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Lawrence Zazzo (countertenor)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 September, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This opening concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 2006-07 Barbican season was dedicated to Sir John Drummond (a former Director of the BBC Proms and Controller of BBC Radio 3, who died earlier this month) and also launched the welcome return of Listen Up! (please use the link below to find out more about this celebration of British orchestras, amateur and professional) as well as marking 60 years to the day since the Third Programme (which became Radio 3 in 1967) began broadcasting.

Then the first evening’s broadcast included a contribution from the BBCSO and Sir Adrian Boult. 60 years on and the present BBCSO and its current Chief Conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek, gave a mighty fine concert that was also broadcast live and can be listened to again for seven further days (the Radio 3 link below gives more details). Beforehand the newly formed BBC Symphony Family Orchestra was to be found on one of the levels of the Barbican Centre (I still get confused as to the numbering!). There was no doubting the enthusiasm, skills and sense of togetherness that this diverse ensemble brought to “Haiku Cyclone” under the direction of flute-playing Lincoln Abbotts (a leading member of the BBC’s education wing). This band was formed just ten days ago, infants to grandparents playing with members of the BBCSO. The music played was created by the ensemble’s members – a real team-effort – and was related to Jonathan Dove’s “Hojoki (An Account of My Hut)” that was premiered later.

The first sound I heard – the piece already started – was the haunting timbre of pan pipes (actually it was some fine recorder-playing by the BBC’s Alison Walker). Add in a guitar and a range of instruments (including a gong being struck by a little boy aged about 4!) and the atmospheric colours created suggested South America (and echoes of Villa-Lobos) – to me. Read the handout, though, to find that “Haiku Cyclone works … with pentatonic modes and paints musical landscapes which lightly reflect Japanese music and culture”. That did become evident to the ears, and it all seemed great fun. The Family Orchestra is an ongoing series, and the ‘learning’ link below tells more.

The main concert (also recorded for BBC4) was a triumph and began in stirring fashion with the revival of Gareth Wood’s Fanfare, which was written for the 2004 Listen Up! festival. This short piece for brass (the players standing) and timpani made a bracing call to attention, and is very much part of the British tradition for musical ceremony.

It was then good to hear Dvořák’s Suite in A, sometimes given the epithet ‘American’; not top-drawer Dvořák, maybe, and certainly considered a poor relation to his other works penned in the States – the ‘New World’ Symphony, Cello Concerto and the ‘American’ String Quartet. The five-movement orchestral Suite is, nevertheless, a delightful piece, ranging from exuberant to confiding, stylistically ‘American’ in that some music suggests ‘open plains’ and with ‘furioso’ elements that might ‘picture’ Red Indians dancing around the totem pole; other passages are more obviously Bohemian and Slavonic. Maybe Bělohlávek made slightly heavy weather of the music, inflating it beyond its due, yet Dvořák’s colourful scoring was gratefully revealed and the shapely melodies and danceable rhythms were sculptured with insight and affection.

There followed a substantial (30-minute) premiere, Jonathan Dove’s setting of lines by the Buddhist monk, and author and poet, Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216), a dramatic eye-witness account of the devastation wrought on Kyoto in less than a decade by fire, whirlwind, famine and earthquake. Dove has set the vivid text as a ‘dramatic cantata’ for countertenor and full orchestra – and it made and left a big impression. Written for David Daniels, he was unfortunately struck down by a severe bout of influenza earlier in the week; fortunately Lawrence Zazzo was able to learn the piece in a few days. One would never have guessed that this was an eleventh-hour assignment; Zazzo’s mellow voice seemed at-one with Dove’s lyrical setting.

If Dove’s score seems (too) redolent of ‘other composers’ and even specific pieces (reflective passages for the soloist reminded of Britten’s opera “The Turn of the Screw”, and the opening ‘sea music’ isn’t that far from Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan), ‘Hojoki’ came across terrifically well on its own terms – graphic, vibrant and intense and with pictorial and (Japanese) indigenous elements palpable while integrated. It certainly demands to be heard again and held the attention over its span; not a second too long and seeming rather shorter than it was. A notable addition to the repertoire.

There was something reassuring about Bělohlávek’s account of the ‘Eroica’. Tempos were moderate, a natural momentum driving the first movement forward, the repeat of the exposition made integral, and the whole having an inevitability that was compelling. With the BBCSO’s full strings at his disposal, Bělohlávek gave a ‘traditional’ reading that was also fresh-minted; this wasn’t a historically-informed account (even to the extent of keeping Hans von Bülow’s emendation that extends the trumpet line as the end of the first movement is approached). Although Bělohlávek’s tempos were not unduly spacious, each movement had time to establish itself without being pushed along metronomically. The ‘funeral march’ was introspective and rose to eloquence, Bělohlávek reducing the pulse to really emphasise a ‘left, right’ trudge as this second movement reached, here, a rather bleak conclusion. The scherzo was fleet and mercurial, the trio greeted by a trio of ripe-toned and very secure horns, and the finale was exuberant, the “slower interlude towards the end” (as Anthony Burton described it in the programme note) was exactly that – Bělohlávek again adopting a pre-‘authentic’ stance – and the final bars were joyous.

With the surprise that Bělohlávek didn’t ask for antiphonal violins (mandatory really for this music, and one the conductor does use: in Bruckner 9 at the Proms this year, for example), this was a superb performance that was painstakingly prepared yet leapt from the platform with resplendent communication, the BBCSO on top form.

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