London Schools Symphony Orchestra

Le Villi – La Tregenda
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Aleksandar Madžar (piano)

London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Peter Ash

Reviewed by: Alan Pickering

Reviewed: 12 September, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Due to lack of coverage of classical music in some areas, it is easy to believe that the genre is in decline. Against that background it was both comforting and rewarding to see a large orchestra of teenagers from various London schools displaying real quality in tackling some significant pieces and producing music-making of real distinction.

What was even more heartening was to see the real passion the musicians displayed for the music, their colleagues and the conductor and soloist. Much of the credit must go to Peter Ash (the LSSO’s Artistic Director) for both his excellent conducting and also the enthusiasm he engendered – but the greatest credit must go to the musicians themselves and the families who support them. If this evening was anything to go by then the future of classical music is secure.

The excerpt from Puccini’s first opera (a revengeful dance, jilted Anna giving Roberto his comeuppance) was an excellent opening piece – short, exciting and enabling the young musicians to find their feet, which they did with real aplomb, producing a performance which would not have disgraced many a professional orchestra.

For the Rachmaninov the orchestra was joined by Belgrade-born pianist Aleksandar Madžar. His playing seemed a little muted at first – maybe he was not sure how the orchestra would support him. He need not have worried. This was a confident performance from all concerned – with some fine solos from the orchestra. A wonderfully rich and melodious concerto ensued, Madžar giving an idiomatic account, one sensitive to nuance and integration.

Berlioz’s volatile and, even now, daring symphony was a brave choice to set before musicians, however talented, of this age; the music is exposed and constantly challenging. It was a decision that was vindicated, Peter Ash steering a compelling course between consideration and vividness, balancing the ‘symphonic’ with the ‘fantastical’ with awareness and consideration. It was good, too, to find him arranging the strings with antiphonal violins, and placing all the strings in the ‘old’ formation that was typical of Berlioz’s own time – good, too, that these music ‘students’ should be conscious of such things. Berlioz’s extravagance was matched by the LSSO being able to muster six harps.

Once again the orchestra gave its all, some vagaries of tuning overcome through sheer commitment. The first movement was lively and tempestuous, and the second, a waltz, was elegant – those harps making their presence felt, so too the ad lib cornet part. The long, pastoral third movement included a lovely cor anglais solo reciprocated by an off-stage oboe, and found two of the thunder-contributing timpani at the extreme front corners, although such placement didn’t add much. The ‘March to the Scaffold’ (full marks to Ash for observing the repeat, and in the first movement) was maybe on the fast side, but which made no concessions to the brass, these players fully up to the mark. The ghouls that had opened the concert, courtesy of Puccini, returned in the uproar of Berlioz’s finale, ‘Witches’ Sabbath’, which was here made suitably provocative and included church rather than tubular bells, which needed to be a little more satanic-sounding.

All in all, this was first-rate and encouraging.

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