La valse – poème choreographique
Concerto in D for Alto Trombone and Orchestra
Cantos de la Mancha [London premiere]
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition
Christian Lindberg (trombone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 10 October, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
This concert – very much in the old Friday night “Classics for Pleasure” mould (and none the worse for that) – marked Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first concert as the London Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor. He first conducted the orchestra in May last year and his star is rising, as he has also just taken over from Gergiev at the helm of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, in addition to his long-standing duties with Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitan.
Short and energetic, but with an ability to suddenly adopt a very still, flowing conducting style, Nézet-Séguin was certainly a hit at this concert. Extraordinarily, the programme bore an amazing similarity to one of this season’s BBC Proms, again conducted by a young conductor from the New World. Indeed the first piece was exactly the same and the concerts both ended with French orchestral masterpieces, flanking a contemporary Swedish concerto, played in each case by a Swedish soloist who was not only asked to play but also required to dance, mime, pirouette and – in this case – vocalise.
Where Gustavo Dudamel and the Gothenburg Symphony were joined at the Royal Albert Hall (13 August) by clarinettist Martin Fröst in Anders Hillborg’s Peacock Tales and ended with what I dubbed in my Proms round-up as ‘Symphonie bombastique’ (which is everything you need to know about what I felt about the performance), Nézet-Séguin had the irrepressible trombonist Christian Lindberg in Jan Sandström’s second (revised) trombone concerto, based on Don Quixote, before returning to Ravel, for his ever-popular orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano masterwork.
There’s no doubt that Nézet-Séguin scored heavily over Dudamel, especially in the orchestral classics. While I wouldn’t necessarily want him as my partner on “Strictly Come Dancing”, he certainly knows a waltz rhythm better than Dudamel, and also has a fantastic ear for balance and sonority, with timbres suddenly coming into focus that don’t seemed to have registered before. There was a sense of an edifice teetering and crumbling, all the more so because the LPO players (as they had for Kurt Masur two nights earlier) were on top form.
There was the same keen musicality on display in the Mussorgsky/Ravel, encouraging excellent solo work from saxophonist Martin Robertson in ‘Il Vecchio Castello’ (accompanied relentlessly by John Price’s bassoon tread, another detail that seemed ‘new’) and Paul Beniston’s trumpet, mimicking Schmuyle’s shivering in the portrait of the two Jews later. The chords of ‘Catacombs’ were also wonderfully layered in both brass and strings.
Nézet-Séguin had certainly made his mark and he got a tremendous reception from both audience and orchestra. With Dudamel a regular visitor with fellow RFH residents, the Philharmonia, it will be fascinating to watch these two conductors develop over the next few years – perhaps Masur’s choice of symphony two nights earlier was prophetic: ‘From the New World’ indeed!
In the middle of the concert, Christian Lindberg played two concertos, prefacing the Sandström with his own edition of Leopold Mozart’s D major Concerto for Alto Trombone, composed in 1756 for outdoor performance and for a player in Salzburg, Thomas Gschladt (a horn and violin player as well, for good measure), who out-lived both Mozart père and fils, into the 19th-century. It’s a delightful work, notable for its cantabile slow movement (who says the trombone can’t carry a tune!), flanked by genuinely engaging nimble outer movements, with Lindberg’s high tessitura riding over a typical accompaniment of strings, harpsichord, oboes and horns.
The orchestra was suitably enlarged for Sandström’s 1995 Cantus de la Mancha, a shortened version of his second trombone concerto, Don Quixote, composed the year before (Sandström’s first concerto for Lindberg was the Motorbike Concerto). Here Lindberg was more traditionally attired than in the Mozart (in which he was in an open white shirt and tight-fitting trousers), complete with tailed-jacket and bow-tie. But he didn’t keep them on for long; the jacket was dispensed with first, then the trousers – revealing leopard-print leggings – and also the tie. The first section ended with a cadenza in which Lindberg tapped his slide three times on the floor, mimed as a tennis player with various swings and jumped around like a rabbit (or wallaby), while uttering various noises. The tapping returned throughout the work, as did sudden shouting Spanish and also English – aping that curious character, Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
The five sections take their lead from the Don’s adventures – after the introduction (and cadenza), Quixote’s knightly self-delusion is followed by Muslim princess Zoraida wanting to elope with a slave of her father’s and find solace in Christianity; Quixote being inspired by love-mad Cardenio (who is running around naked) to both send to Dulcinea confirmation of his similar affliction for her and to carve a love poem in a tree; and, finally, his defeat in a fight with a goatherd.
It is definitely quirky, but very funny, especially when the performance is secure as this one, as much of the faster passages are thrillingly syncopated (outdoing Leonard Bernstein or Latin-American composers). It probably won’t become a repertoire work, but this London première was enthusiastically received.
There is one other thing to mention – the Royal Festival Hall’s current foyer displays of art by prisoners, reflecting the work done by the Koestler Trust. Adjacent to the Box Office and Bar (Green Side) there’s an extraordinary paper sculpture of an orchestra and choir, with stage, players, singers, instruments and stands – even the flower displays at the front of the stage – moulded and folded from photocopied pages of the score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The attention to detail is utterly exquisite and was matched by Nézet-Séguin, Lindberg and the London Philharmonic players a floor up on this evening.