The Salomon Orchestra concert – 19th February

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Mathis der Maler – Symphony

Fiona Kimm (mezzo-soprano)
The Salomon Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 February, 2002
Venue: St John’s, Smith Square, London

Named after the impresario who brought Haydn to England, the Salomon Orchestra will be 40 next year. For one of its regular concerts at St John’s, the ensemble “recognised for many years as London’s leading non-professional symphony orchestra” was conducted by John Gibbons in an ambitious and attractive programme.

John Gibbons’s professionalism extends to being principal conductor of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, and Music Director of Opera Europa; he has assisted a number of leading international conductors, Gardiner, Rattle and Slatkin included. His repertoire includes contemporary music and rare operas; he is involved in educational activities and has worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the London and Royal Philharmonics.

At this concert he conducted thoughtful performances, each well prepared, which accommodated the players’ abilities and the ambivalent acoustic with integrity.Walton’s Partita, a virtuoso work for George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, was remarkably well negotiated, the trading with Walton’s characteristic rhythmic sleight-of-hand impressive, albeit the outer movements were reined-in regarding, respectively, exuberance and wit, the latter rather too underlined. If the music didn’t glint as it might, Gibbons was successful with the languorous middle movement, which ideally flowed, pulse and exotic expression in accord.

Invariably, and despite copious rehearsal, there was some ensemble precariousness, suspect intonation and less-than-quick reflexes. In the symphony Hindemith fashioned from his opera the strings suffered in the voluptuous middle of the finale; it was also as the contrapuntal threads gathered for the summatory ’Alleluia’ – itself too pushed-through and with over-enthusiastic cymbal clashes – that Gibbons’s Horenstein-like deliberation sounded laboured, dramatic thrust sacrificed for keeping the musicians together. However, Gibbons is a skilled operator. He knows the music from the inside, and what needs his attention the most – his gestures and focus are for those playing. The first two movements of Hindemith’s politically-sensitive work centred on artistic alienation were both well balanced and paced, with plenty of emotional life.

In that he is attentive to essentials, Gibbons is also a sensitive accompanist. Fiona Kimm, replacing Jean Rigby, is a versatile singer, one who combines technical excellence, a genuine involvement with the text and a poise and phrasal shape that is always musical if occasionally over-literal. The voluptuous ’Asie’, its sense of wonderment, was somewhat suppressed and too loud – a consequence of a vivid, immediate acoustic that coagulates in complex tuttis or fortissimo passages (hence my comments earlier; the Walton was a little dulled); ’La flute enchantee’ included a blissful solo from Michael Copperwhite; ’L’indifferent’ – perhaps the greatest of the three songs – not quite reaching its interior.

If Fiona Kimm didn’t always transport the listener to Eastern promise, she and Gibbons combined memorably in the Mahler, the highlight of the concert. From her there was an Expressionist realisation that pointed this music just that little nearer to Schoenberg – the stylistically-evolving final stages of Gurrelieder for instance – and from him there was a rapport with the music that compelled attention. In what was the finest playing of the evening – the orchestra seeming to recognise that Gibbons had something intimate to share about this music, not least declaration from ’within’ the orchestra usually overlooked – each colour, inflexion and phrasal curve – and silence – carried with it the resonance of nature and loss (that are at the heart of this music) with a subtlety and import that was tangible. One would like to hear John Gibbons tackle a Mahler symphony.

  • The Salomon Orchestra’s next St John’s concert – conducted by Jaques (sic) Cohen – is on 18 June; a Spain-related evening including Chabrier’s Espana and Strauss’s Don Quixote
  • Box Office: 020 7222 1061
  • John Gibbons is one of the conductors in a performance of George Crumb’s Star-Child with the BBCSO on 8 March in the Barbican Hall – Box Office: 020 7638 8891

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