Neil Thomson Farewell Concert

Enescu
Romanian Rhapsody No.1
Chabrier
Habanera
Khachaturian
Violin Concerto in D minor
Elgar
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

Leonard Schreiber (violin)

RCM Sinfonietta
Neil Thomson


Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 29 June, 2006
Venue: Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

This special concert, to honour the end of the fourteen-year period of Neil Thomson as Professor of Conducting at the Royal College of Music, got off to a cracking start with Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody. Thomson delivered this colourful, sparkling score with an easy panache, allowing his large orchestra (has such a number of players ever been called a ‘Sinfonietta’ before?) to perform the music with real confidence and flair.

A short piano piece composed and later orchestrated by the Frenchman Chabrier evoked the altogether more delicate national flavour of neighbouring Spain. Conductor and orchestra played the work with suitable delicacy and shading while highlighting its sensual nature.

Khachaturian’s long (and often-tedious) Violin Concerto was played with effortless charm and virtuosity by Leonard Schreiber, who is currently a post-graduate violinist studying with Levon Chilingirian, himself a leader of the RCM Symphony Orchestra all those years ago. Why tedious? The work’s constant repetitions mean the hard-working soloist is often repeating figurations and patterns of little value to the musical structure of this large-scale Romantic concerto, written in 1940. It is easy to imagine Stalin saying to this year’s birthday boy (Shostakovich, 100 this year): “Why don’t you write such tuneful music as Khachaturian?” To which there is surely no reply!

Khachaturian certainly had an ear for exotic phrases (this is particularly noticeable in the slow movement of the present work) and it was surely this side of his musical character that persuaded film director David Lean to consider him as the composer of the ‘ethnic’ episodes in his “Lawrence of Arabia”. Lean’s other two preferences were William Walton (for the opening credits) and Malcolm Arnold (for the body of the film – Arnold had worked with Lean previously on the Oscar-winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai”). Apparently, after a liquid lunch, the two Britons saw the movie and giggled that it was merely about camels in the desert. Lean moved on to a better-behaved French composer!

This story provides a link with the second half of this celebratory concert. Sir Malcolm Arnold is surely the RCM’s most famous living ‘Old Boy’, but apparently no space can be found in the college’s concert schedule to celebrate his 85th-birthday in October. Surely it was a missed opportunity not to honour this great living composer by playing one of his nine symphonies instead of Elgar’s very familiar No.1. The choice of this work landed this concert in a quagmire of conformity, performed in the presence of the college’s great and good staff.

Elgar’s First Symphony begins with a wonderful tune which brings to mind the wag who said the only thing to do with such a tune in an orchestral setting is to repeat it but louder. Elgar duly obliges in the coda of the finale. In between comes an episodic work with moments of pure tenderness alongside many more of a bombastic nature that lie heavily in what is meant to be a symphonic structure. Elgar is by no means the only composer to write such a self-regarding first symphony: Brahms and Sibelius before him both bear witness to the heavy hand of expectation bringing forth works not typical of these composers’ true merits.

Thomson duly emphasised the episodic nature of the work, bringing out the luscious ideas to their full potential – thereby undermining any legitimacy the score must have as a cohesive symphonic statement. But faced with such a work a talented conductor hardly has an alternative. His youthful charges played with passion and concentration, though the brass section should take more care in not splitting so many notes.

The concert was received with loud applause and bunches of flowers were paraded; but, curiously, there was no ‘thank you’ statement either from or for a conductor who has done such a fine job over many years.

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