The Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell)
Janice Watson (soprano)
London Schools Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Zander
Reviewed by: Chris Caspell
Reviewed: 8 January, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Reviewing amateur productions is perhaps the most difficult a reviewer will have to do. By definition a critic passes comment on a particular event while having in mind other experiences from past and current trends. Comparisons for this concert, played by musicians who are still at school, with any other orchestra, even another youth orchestra, is unfair.
Britten’s piece, written for a Ministry of Education film in 1944, was intended as an introduction to the instruments of the orchestra. Aimed at a young audience, Britten did not necessarily intend ’Guide’ to be played by young musicians; this didn’t trouble the London Schools Symphony Orchestra. Benjamin Zander’s infectious enthusiasm for music was reflected in the orchestra’s performance, and his tempi paid little concern to any perceived ability of the orchestra’s members. The nimble fingers (and lips) of the trumpeters tackled their fanfare with a speed and ability commendable from professionals.
With limited rehearsal time, key areas of the music were marked for particular attention – and it showed – for example, the closing fugue where Britten puts the orchestra back together from top to bottom; the wind players were shining stars. In tried and trusted amateur-orchestra tradition – ’get the beginning and the ending right and the middle will look after itself’ – the final tutti took in its stride the reprise of Purcell’s tune (used by Britten for the instrument-by-instrument variations), the three-against-two time-signatures confusing no-one, the path to the interval paved with admirable playing.
Unlike the Britten, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was not intended for children, though it does take a child-like view of the world, with Heaven its main focus. To appreciate that children can understand this piece, let alone play it, may be a real challenge for those not at this LSSO concert. The orchestra had five days of rehearsal with Zander – five times as long as any UK professional orchestra might have for the same concert. One hidden advantage of such intensive rehearsal is the orchestra gets to really understand the music; they get to really understand the conductor too. This sympathy was cited by Zander in his pre-concert talk – he spoke of a young viola player who said that this newly-discovered symphony gave them a real reason to live. Unfortunately no amount of delight in the discovery of Mahler’s music will replace the depth of upper string tone that a professional violin section can produce. Though the playing was mostly accurate, the violins could not match the strength required for just balance with the rest of the orchestra. This is a small point, one perhaps expected in such an orchestra and certainly not a point for criticism.
In his talk, Ben Zander spoke of the second movement violin solo that is tuned up a tone (the Leader using a second instrument) supposedly to represent the devil’s violin and the harshness of its sound. Perhaps someone should have warned Jennifer Watts, the orchestra’s very capable Leader, that under hot lights the instrument may require re-tuning or else it will be even more diabolic; I don’t think this is a mistake that she will make again. From something unfortunate to complete control – the string opening of the third movement was quite exquisite, in particular the viola and cello sections. Zander seems to have a real connection with lower strings; I’m sure that being a fine cellist himself helps gain the players’ respect – the weakness heard in the upper strings was not reflected here. Towards the end of this movement the music ascends to a heavenly plain; in this performance the ascent seemed to take the orchestra completely by surprise, meeting St. Peter while still breathing the Mahlerian infusion of St. Ursula.
Janice Watson was sheer delight in the finale; she brought out the naivety of the child within each adult. I have seen Watson in her many appearances with Welsh National Opera; therefore I was surprised that she appeared to underestimate the Barbican’s refurbished acoustic. Her performance, though delightful in style and appearance, did not have the strength to carry to the back of the stalls, words becoming unclear.
In his talk, Ben Zander seemed to apologise for the fact that the performance of children was imperfect. I take a different view – the performance was perfect for children of this age; in fact, it was better than could be expected by those so young. Zander and the LSSO have worked closely together to produce something quite wonderful: an enthusiasm for music. As a child I remember discovering the music of Britten, Mahler, Shostakovich and other late-nineteenth-/early-twentieth-century composers. I was excited by the sounds I heard; the instrumental combinations composers had created astonished me. The same enthusiasm for orchestral music lives in me now as then; if the youngsters of the LSSO come away with the same wonder of classical music as I did, then the time and money invested in them will be more than justified.