London Philharmonic Excite!

Fanfare for the Common Man
West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
Excite! [World premiere]

Adisa / Ansuman Biswas (spoken word)
London Adventist Choir
Voicelab Swell
Renga Ensemble
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 7 June, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Roman GontcharovThe “Excite!” project was devised about four years ago as a triple celebration: of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 75th-Anniversary Season; of the 21st-birthday of the LPO’s Education and Community Programme; and of the Orchestra’s first full season back in the Royal Festival Hall. It was also designed to emphasise the growing role that the Education and Community Programme is playing in the Orchestra’s outreach to the “many diverse communities” of Lambeth and Southwark.

The proclaimed result of this collaborative effort is the 75-minute “Excite!”, a “hymn of praise to present-day multi-cultural London”. It is told through a mixture of visuals, spoken word, chorales and a large orchestra incorporating jazz piano, expanded percussion, cimbasso, bass flute and electric guitar along with the usual forces. The work is cast in twelve sections, some purely orchestral, one wholly spoken and others accompanied by either full orchestra or just a few instruments.

Wordsmith Eugene Skeef, a native of South Africa who has lived in London for 28 years proclaims himself in “love with this great city”. He and Richard Bissill (a member of the London Philharmonic’s horn section) first collaborated on an LPO tour to South Africa in 1993. “Excite!” grew from their friendship and from a series of community workshops in which ideas about what it means to be a Londoner emanate, apparently!The LPO’s playing was impeccable and the sense of occasion gave a palpable swing to the proceedings, with all the performers having a great time. However, the idea that this music has distilled into it the “sound of London” is unreliable. Gershwin and Bernstein were writ large across the scoring of the music’s ‘positive’ messages (as espoused by the words and the projected images). Trying to conjure sounds for London is, it seems, difficult, although one can immediately think of such for other major cities. Why not London? Is it because of the constant identity crisis that affects the ‘Islington liberals’ (who rule our cultural establishments) through the mantra of ‘multi-culturalism’ that this concert attempts to force-feed the audience a mantra that is now being disowned by its one-time proponents and originators in the Government?

The many visual projections showed lots of tall buildings; but what was amusing about a girl pretending to hold a gun at a railway station? Or of two old men without shirts sitting on a park bench drinking alcohol? The filming was self-indulgent trash that did not in any way reflect the glorious heritage of this great city and nor did it offer any visual that one thought of as being London. Is that the point?

The piece, with music by Richard Bissill, begins with a fanfare, with lots happening in the orchestra. This was characteristic of most of the score (more jazz than classical) with some soprano-saxophone outbursts that recalled Gershwin. Evocative too, words not being necessary, such as the second ‘Pastorale’. There are two interludes: ‘Welcome to Britain ‘ and ‘The Children’. Both evoked New York with the latter being unsettling, dominated by a theme almost identical to the main one used in Steven Spielberg’s film “Catch Me If You Can”. Other numbers seemed carbon copies of familiar tunes, with Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” noticeable in ‘Prayer for London’. The passage of despair to hope was a great musical event in the penultimate ‘The Miracle’, generating the only authentic London sound. The finale (‘Excite! Finale’) was pure Bernstein, already heard, and unnecessary after ‘The Miracle’, which made for a natural peroration.

Opening the concert was Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. In its three minutes it manages with great eloquence to evoke America. It was exceptionally played, too. Bernstein’s “West Side Story” dances brought to mind New York without much difficulty, the joy and rapture of that great city given life throughout the LPO’s playing including really tender responses.

Sandwiched by these pieces was Graeme Koehne’s 11-minute Powerhouse (1993), the second of a triptych of pieces drawing on popular- and film-music, which pays homage to the Cuban-American band-leader Xavier Cugat. Koehne’s stated aim is to “inject some of the energy, ebullience and immediacy of popular music into the classical orchestra”. The percussion had a good time and the work has a sunny and happy outlook on life.

Vladimir Jurowski’s flair and joie de vivre infected all around him and, consequently, whatever gripes about the ‘message’ of the music one might have, this was an enjoyable evening. I wonder what happened to the advertised Beethoven overture (Leonore No.3) though?!

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