London Schools Symphony Orchestra – Tchaikovsky & Bernstein

Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Eugene Onegin – Polonaise; Letter Scene
West Side Story – I Feel Pretty; Somewhere; Symphonic Dances

Joan Rodgers (soprano)

London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Michael Morgan

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 9 January, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The London Schools Symphony Orchestra is the main performing wing of the Centre for Young Musicians, based at Morley College. This was the opening concert of its 56th season (concerts in January, April and September). Some players are old hands. (The LSSO’s leader, Ning-Yi Xiang, for example, has a 10-year association with the CYM. She leaves to study medicine at Cambridge next year.) Auditions for new additions to the LSSO are held each November. Thus some players are LSSO members of barely two months’ duration. Intensive rehearsals for this concert took place over the recent school holiday.

Michael Morgan is African-American, with extensive experience of working with Youth and Community ensembles. In 1986, he began a 5-year association in Chicago with Solti and then Barenboim. In the same year, Leonard Bernstein, whom Morgan had first met at Tanglewood, invited him to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Morgan’s rapport with the young musicians was evident – as was their enthusiasm for him.

Joan Rodgers has a wide international reputation. Her work ranges from Haydn to Shostakovich. This year’s engagements include Britten, Poulenc and Puccini. Her presence here is a credit to the reputation of the LSSO – though she is by no means the first distinguished soloist happy to work with such fine young musicians as these.

The sombre opening to Romeo and Juliet was dark but very careful, the muffled brass commendably smooth and without technical mishaps. The relief when the music sprang into daylight and Tchaikovsky demanded rhythmic energy was electric and palpable. These are youngsters, after all. The great theme was a little subdued, however. The violins have yet to learn how to produce a Romantic sound that is full and luscious. On the other hand, the battling of the Montagues and Capulets had a vitality and vigour that put many listless, run-of-the-mill performances (by more experienced players) to shame. The Polonaise from “Eugene Onegin”was equally dynamic. (The advertised ‘Waltz’ was omitted.)

The vocal moments were in telling, astute contrast. As a preamble to the songs from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, Joan Rodgers did a bit of business with her high heels and, later, swung her garish, multi-coloured, huge-circled dress with extravert aplomb. Her voice sounded to me slightly amplified. (No need for it!) The orchestra accompanied heartily, without fear of drowning the high spirits of her singing. The ‘Letter Scene’, more introspective, was sung in quieter vein and unamplified. For this, the orchestra had to restrain itself. Even when the emotion intensified, the music gained volume but not blast. Rodgers projected both styles with artistic and technical assurance.

The highlight of the concert was the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”. The big-band jazz and the Latin beat of the West Side contenders were exhilarating. Syncopations abounded loudly, abrasively and resoundingly. The strings tripped their rhythms with stinging precision and then surged into recalls of the Romantic melodies with full-blooded lyricism. Woodwinds called to each other ringingly. The aggressive fervour of this youth culture clearly spoke strongly to the players. After the dances’ glittering splendour, the music closed in an unhurried twilit stillness which the orchestra carried off superbly.

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