Final Concert of the Jorma Panula Conducting Masterclass

Finlandia, Op.26
En Saga, Op.9
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 – Suite No.2, Op.64bSymphony No.7 in C sharp minor, Op.131

I Maestri
David Curtis
Jean-Louis Gosselin
Jörg Hammann
Sinaed Hayes
George Hlawiczka
Simo Väisänen
Edward Webb

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 July, 2007
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

“Final Concert” suggests an earlier such event; in fact, three days of masterclasses had preceded this one-and-only concert. Those masterclasses had served as rehearsals and an opportunity for several conductors to work with I Maestri – an ensemble that is made up of “professional … and excellent amateur musicians” – and to benefit from tutelage from the Finnish conductor Jorma Panula who is especially esteemed as a teacher.

This long concert was entitled “Ballet in Russia” – well, only Romeo and Juliet comes into this category – and apart from it being a ‘prelude’ to the orchestra’s forthcoming “Russian Scenes” series at St John’s (given a plug from the platform by a member of the orchestra as well as in the loose-leafed programme, which was priced at an amazing £3!), it was difficult to appreciate this appellation. Still, the focus was on the seven conductors, and Jorma Panula was in attendance near the back of the hall.

The playing of I Maestri, while undoubtedly committed, was variable – ragged ensemble, technical struggle, tuning deficiencies, false entries and, sometimes, no entries at all! Everybody did their best, though, but this was a real test of the conductors. Edward Webb, no details of nationality or birth-date given in his biography, was first on and led a tentative account of Finlandia, one disfigured by absurdly loud (painful on the ears) brass – and I was towards the back of the hall just two rows in front of Panula. David Curtis (his biography also short on essentials) made rather more of En Saga; a good atmosphere was created and there was a sense of purpose; a sensitive clarinet solo closed the performance.

Two conductors were listed for Sibelius 7. Two performances? Surely we weren’t going to get a pause halfway through to change conductors! Well, no, for come a long-held note Simo Väisänen vacated the podium and George Hlawiczka took his place – as a piece of choreography it was flawless, although whether this masterpiece of compressed and seamless symphonic thinking should be disrupted in this way is questionable.

The baton-less Väisänen (from Finland, born 1980) made a considerable impression over the first 10 minutes of Sibelius’s final symphony (excepting, of course, the 8th that he seems to have destroyed). What impressed about Väisänen’s conducting was his immediate ability to suggest that he was taking this music on a journey; and he has a fine ear for sound and balance – the brass notably well integrated (not least the trombone’s summonses). His overall tempo-base was notably spacious, and it was clear that Hlawiczka (?, ?) preferred a slightly quicker pulse; the second half of the symphony was less well detailed and not quite as assured in terms of playing.

The Prokofiev half began with the seven-movement Second Suite from Romeo and Juliet. Richard Brunson (?, ?) took the first four sections and brought a disciplined technique to bear and was unfazed by false entries, while Jean-Louis Gosselin (Montréal, 1978) brought a greater sense of theatre to his selection.

That the Seventh Symphony was on the programme was as surprising as it was gratifying – it’s an under-appreciated work. That a conductor can make a real difference had been shown by Väisänen, and was again by Sinead Hayes (from Galway). It can only be coincidence that she, like Väisänen, eschewed a baton, but, like him, she drew a response from the players that had one listening. Hayes conducted the first two movements; she was alive to the nostalgia and regret that is present in both as well as bringing out the composer’s characteristic spiky harmony and scoring; the corners of the second, waltz-like, movement gracefully turned albeit the closing pages needed to be rather more uninhibited. Jörg Hammann (Germany, 1970) didn’t show quite the same sympathy for this work as had Hayes; the music now moved rather stiffly and the knockabout finale lacked humour and was too metronomic as the ‘fading light’ closing bars were reached. Prokofiev’s revised ending was used; his first thoughts are preferable.

Technically, all seven conductors seemed to have benefited from Panula’s guidance; on this showing, Curtis, Hayes and Väisänen are worth keeping an eye on.

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