The Bartered Bride – Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 [selections]
Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Reviewed by: Bob Briggs
Reviewed: 11 March, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
We are informed that Orchestra Europa is innovative and exciting. According to its website the “aim is to change the lives of young people through the medium of classical music and to enhance the future of orchestral playing in Europe.” Quite how an orchestra will change the lives of young people, except by helping them gain employment in orchestras is quite beyond me, or perhaps this is meant to mean that the work the players do with children will help to change their lives. It could have been better written. Its website also claims, “Orchestra Europa has already gained recognition for its unique and pioneering fusion of performance and education.” This is an interesting comment for, from what I can gather about Orchestra Europa’s programming, it is all in the very safe comfort zone of the romantic classics with nary a venture into more demanding territory or music which would require a deal of work. The concept of fusing performance and education was missing tonight in a concert, the orchestra’s Southbank debut, that was routine, poorly executed and with dull programming.
Orchestra Europa is supposed to be an academy which bridges the transition from music-college to full-time employment in the musical world. This isn’t the first time that such an idea has been put into action in this country. The BBC ran a similar orchestra from 1966 to 1977 called the BBC Training Orchestra, changing its name, in 1972, to the Academy of the BBC. As that venture was wound up, the National Centre for Orchestral Studies was established at Goldsmith’s College, in South London, and this ran from 1978 to 1989. Both ventures benefited from the work of such conductors as Richard Armstrong, Paavo Berglund, Colin Davis, Edward Downes, Charles Groves, Vernon Handley, Richard Hickox, Lorin Maazel, Diego Masson, Charles Mackerras, Norman Del Mar and many more. The point of these two academies was to train aspiring orchestral musicians and allow them the chance to play music which would have been unknown to them – I can still remember a superb performance of the Moeran Symphony by the NCOS in about 1980. And here are the differences between NCOS, the BBC Training Orchestra and Orchestra Europa. First of all, the players were trained. On the strength of what I heard at this concert Scott Ellaway is no orchestral trainer. Secondly, having had a look at concert listings for Orchestra Europa its repertoire is firmly based in the past with not even a passing nod to the present day, or even recent past.
At this concert, the Overture to Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” was, as it almost always is, rushed and all the charm and fun was removed at the expense of showing just how fast the orchestra could play.
The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto was very well played by Alexander Melnikov, who showed us exactly how to tackle a work we think we know well, bring out the best in the music and reveal a few new things along the way. His performance was full of light and shade, give and take, and it was a marvellous display of musicianship, as well as virtuoso pianism. It was also good to see him play totally without histrionics.
After the interval we had nineteen excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet which, under the circumstances, was far too much. It was here that Ellaway’s shortcomings were most noticeable. In the Smetana he had undertaken to throw himself about the podium, showing us his dance moves. Now we were treated to his poor stick technique – arms flung wide with the stick facing towards the wall and not the players, stick above the head, stick below the waist where the beat could not be seen by more than a few; an insistence on turning to face the first violins whilst ignoring the rest of the orchestra – and, worst of all, blaring brass overpowering everything else. Entries were occasionally poor at best or ragged at worst; interpretation was lacking; we were given a reading of the notes with no insight into the music whatsoever. The orchestra played very well but without leadership it was just that – playing.
I am not one to complain that we have a new orchestra in London, but if that orchestra has weak leadership and ‘safe’ programming, then we can do without it. We have excellent amateur orchestras playing more adventurous and interesting repertoire than the Orchestra Europa is promising us and with more insight. A radical rethink is necessary before making great claims for this orchestra, for on present performance it simply isn’t good enough for a paying public.