International Conductors’ Academy of the Allianz Cultural Foundation

I vespri siciliani – Overture
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

Severin von Eckardstein (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Anna-Maria Helsing [Verdi]
Christian Schumann [Mozart]
Matthew Coorey

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 26 March, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Launched in 2003, the International Conductors’ Academy is a collaboration between the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras which aims to select three young conductors each year to participate in a training programme throughout the concert season and share a concert in the Royal Festival Hall. Unlike conducting competitions, those chosen spend a great deal of time across the season not only with the orchestras but also with the various departments of orchestras’ respective management as well as meeting agents, composers, record-company representatives and others involved in the music business. The resulting atmosphere is more collegiate than competitive.

Without continued funding from the Allianz Cultural Foundation, it has now become necessary for the orchestras to absorb the costs of this programme into their own budgets and it is greatly to their credit that, despite restricted resources, they have done so; London has more orchestras then any other major city and if it is to maintain its position, development programmes such as this are essential. Especially given that both orchestras have put money in, there is surely now an unarguable case for additional public funding.

This year’s trio included the Australian Matthew Coorey, currently Assistant Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and a one-time horn-player, Anna-Maria Helsing, a recent graduate of Helsinki’s Sibelius Acadamy who – like Coorey – has studied with Jorma Panula, and Christian Schumann, German-born but of Hungarian descent, who has a particular interest in the synthesis of music and film.

Rather like the ongoing Viking explosions of the eighth-century, there seems to have been an eruption of Finnish conductors over the last quarter-century, Anna-Maria Helsing being the latest. This year she will make her debut with the Helsinki Philharmonic and has previously worked at Finnish National Opera and Savonlinna Opera Festival. Her conducting of Verdi was a qualified success. Whilst there was no doubt as to her energy nor her control of the orchestra, the overture’s atmospheric opening hardly dripped with greasepaint and, whilst there was a high degree of forcefulness later on, there was a lack of subtlety – the cello tune was just that but there was nothing which made one catch one’s breath.

Christian Schumann received his diploma in conducting and composition from the Franz Liszt University in Weimar and has since worked with various German and Swiss orchestras. Accompanying Severin von Eckardstein in Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto – mostly baton-less apart from the finale – whilst unfailingly musical, this account was lacking in light and shade. Despite the first movement’s relaxed tempo, Schumann failed to use such elbow-room to clarify textures; interaction between conductor and soloist was minimal with the result that synchronisation between orchestra and pianist was occasionally tenuous. Best was the slow movement, which had a degree of concentration and intensity lacking elsewhere. There was the most curious ritardando midway through the finale and, on a point of etiquette, Schumann failed to shake the leader’s hand at the finish of the work. One suspects that Schumann did not do himself full justice on this occasion.

By contrast Matthew Coorey seized his opportunity. Having re-seated the orchestra with antiphonal violins, cellos and double basses to his left, this was a superb Beethoven 4, which – a few minor slips aside – required few concessions of any sort. Initially self-taught, it was immediately apparent that Coorey is a natural-born conductor with the capacity to fine-tune an orchestra and get it to play with both weight and precision – the slow introduction’s perfectly balanced opening five bars were sufficient proof. To be fair, Coorey does have the advantage of being older and more experienced but if I were an orchestra manager, compared to several evolving careers, I would have no hesitation in contacting him.

There may have been more expectant introductions but when the Allegro vivace burst in with maximum force, pauses perfectly judged, exposition repeat taken, it was evident that Coorey had that inestimable ability to distinguish clearly between ff, f and sf markings. The Adagio hardly lingered but – despite the flowing tempo – the inward cantabile in the violin line meant that the music’s essential character was fully in evidence, and there was a notably fine clarinet contribution from Mark van de Wiel. The Allegro vivace Minuet was deliciously light on its feet, with dovetailing of wind and string beautifully integrated. Only in the finale’s moto perpetuo did one feel the need for a slightly more relaxed tempo – it is well-nigh-impossible to play the bassoon solo at bar 185 at this tempo – but it was all hugely exhilarating.

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