Sunday 2 December 2007

A weekend of culture, Part I: Salonen and Sibelius at the Barbican

When I heard Salonen was bringing the LA Philharmonic to the Barbican, and for a series of Sibelius concerts no less, I wanted to attend. In part because I'm always keen to hear new readings of the composer, but also because Salonen is due to take over at the Philharmonia and so I wanted to size him up. Fortunately, then, one of the concerts fitted in neatly with my plans to jet down for Jansons' concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

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The programme offered us the first and third symphonies as well as a newish composition by Salonen's compatriot Kaija Saariaho called Quatre instants. Perhaps it doesn't help that Salonen's competition is tough. After all, not three months ago we heard the third symphony in a thrilling reading from Ades and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. But even allowing for this, the result was not much cop. From the opening bars this was too polite, though the playing was pretty fine. A fairly brisk pace, but the orchestra felt much to big for the work. There was little by way of drama. The rich textures of the orchestra were better suited to the second movement, but it was a little rushed. The finale was horribly polite: where was the flair, the drama, the sweep, the oomph, the anything! There were rather too many orchestral fluffs (from the winds at the start to the strings later on). The volume was remarkably constant, the kind of contrast that makes for a satisfying performance was wholly absent.

Things did not improve with Quatre instants. Salonen was joined by soprano Karita Mattila whose thin voice lacked any richness and possessed a painful vibrato at high volumes. Salonen continued his blandness, which was all the more impressive in this work, given just how much appeared to be going on in the score. The poetry, texts by Amin Maalouf, was as bland as the interpretation.

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Things picked up somewhat after the interval. Perhaps Salonen had been nervous as the composer was in the audience in the first half, or perhaps everyone involved had had their coffee. Perhaps they were simply tired from being on the road a while. That said, it was far from perfect, the start of the work was somewhat laboured. In the second movement, while he held pauses, he managed to do so without creating any real tension and he failed to get any interesting texture on the icy wind, string motif. The scherzo was taken too fast and played without sufficient bite. The finale was the best, rich and with a degree of sweep. Too quick in places, but towards the end he judged the tempo well and the last five minutes were pretty thrilling.

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He played some Ligetti as what was, quite frankly, a rather optimistic encore given the response.

Messiaen's tall tales: Peter Hill and the SCO Chamber Ensemble play the Quartet for the End of Time

It is rapidly becoming clear to me that the highlight of the SCO season is going to be these Sunday afternoon chamber concerts. For a start, they offer excellent value, where £12 buys you just an hour in the awful acoustic of St Cuthbert's church for a Cl@six concert, here it buys you a full couple of hours of glorious chamber music. The choice is a simple one.

This programme had been put together with an intelligence altogether absent from Elts' Invitation to Dance. Hill and the ensemble knew that you cannot possibly pair anything with the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (The Quartet for the End of Time, to those whose French is even more tenuous than mine). So instead of trying, or doing the obvious of not having anything (which still would have provided reasonable value), they chose instead to have Peter Hill give a talk. A noted Messiaen pianist, as anyone who has sampled his complete survey of the composer's piano music will be aware, he is also a scholar. According to the liner notes of his Messiaen recordings, he teaches at the University of Sheffield and has published books such as The Messiaen Companion, Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring and a biography of Messiaen with Nigel Simeone, not to mention making over 100 programme for the BBC.

These talents were on display as he gave us a brief history of Messiaen's life, illustrated musically at various points (including a few beautiful minutes of the composer improvising on the organ at the end of a church service as the congregation were meant to be leaving, as the applause attested they didn't, the music was interestingly unlike anything he wrote for the organ). Hill told us how Messiaen exaggerated the circumstances of the composition within a POW camp during world war two (to which all French soldiers seemed to have taken their musical instruments), the bizarre congregation of a pianist, clarinettist, violinist and cellist and the quartet that resulted. But the cello did not, as the composer liked to relate, have only 3 strings, nor was the premier outside to 5000 prisoners (as Hill remarked, a suspiciously biblical number from this most religious person), but rather in the camp's theatre to 400, many of whom were guards. He walked us through the movements, several of which had been written prior to meeting of the quartet. He was an engaging and informative speaker, and his Sheffield students are lucky.

After a brief interval he was joined by three of the SCO's finest: cellist David Watkin, clarinettist Maximiliano Martin and violinish Christopher George. All four gave a superb and utterly compelling reading, and showed just how well served with fine players the SCO really is. It's difficult to write more. I don't know the work all that well, and my one recording doesn't compare, suffice to say I'm now looking for another. If I had one reservation, it is that George doesn't quite shine in the chamber setting quite so brightly as the other three, he lacks the panache of both Watkin and Martin. But it is a small quibble with a moving performance.

Saturday 1 December 2007

SCO: Short-Changing Orchestra?

"I will be clear". A simple phrase, though if you believe The Economist's Charlemagne one which according to a guide written by British diplomats for interpreting their French counterparts means "I will be rude". And I suppose that's what I mean with this post. So, before I am, I should say who I'm being clear about: the comments I am about to make are not directed against the players of the SCO themselves, for whom I have great respect and admiration, but against the management of their orchestra, of whom I cannot say the same.

I've been to my share of poor concerts and worse in my time, but it is rarely the case that I genuinely feel short-changed. It was, to some extent, the case with Deborah Voigt's recent appearance at the Festival, as I said at the time, I feel it is something of a liberty to charge that kind of money for a voice that is so far past it. But it was at least interesting to have seen Mr Tilson Thomas, even if it is an experience I have no desire to repeat.

Much the same could be said of the SCO's Cl@six concerts. £12 seems increasingly to represent not much of a bargain. After all, it is half the length of a standard concert, in much less comfortable seats and with much worse sight lines (of course, if your are a student or a pension it is a better deal, but I am not, so they win no points from me on that score).

The idea was, as I remarked after the first one, a good one, having been first though of by Brian McMaster, former Festival director, who pioneered it with a superb series of the Beethoven symphonies from Mackerras and the SCO. However, as I noted then, it was not without its problems, and price was not the most significant. The reverberant venue of St Cuthbert's church was less than ideal for the 13 piece ensemble that played Mozart's Gran Partita, but when the full SCO took to what cannot reasonably be called the stage, it was intolerable.

I would like to review the performance itself, but that really isn't possible. The way the sound resonated the quality of the playing couldn't be judged since the musical lines were so unclear. Titled Invitation to Dance, we got Dvorak's Czech Suite, Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and Bartok's Romanian Dances, with Ligeti's Salon Dances from Old Hungary as an encore. The first thing to note is that this programming was a poor judgement on Elts' part. I have little love for him after his poor Sibelius, but less now. The genius of the McMaster 6pm (or 5.30 as his were) slot was that it was one work, to be appreciated in isolation. A beautifully played Beethoven 8th symphony, coming in well under half an hour, could be savoured and didn't feel like poor value for £10. This point seems to have escaped either Elts, the SCO management, or both. Elts' reading, to the extent it could be judged, in no way ever really came close to conjuring anything reminiscent of a dance.

I will be clear: had I known how bad the hall was, there is no way I would have bought tickets. I genuinely feel cheated and I am curious to know who was responsible for the decision to hold the concerts here. Either they had never heard the hall, in which case they were simply negligent, or they had and either didn't mind or didn't care, which shows either an incompetence or a contempt for the paying customer. I understand that if they wanted to use the west end it may have been this or nothing (as the Usher Hall is closed for refurbishment), but on that basis they should have chosen nothing. Or moved things to the Queen's Hall, which has one of the finest acoustics going.

All of which leaves me wondering what I'll do about the next few concerts. One is from the SCO chorus (which I will almost certainly attend). The hall's acoustic may, perhaps, be better suited to that, but also as I have a relative who sings with them. I may also go to the four seasons. I don't really like the work, but the violinist/director is Anthony Marwood who treated us to Ades's wonderful violin concerto recently.

It also makes me hope to high heaven that the people nearby who where chatting away about Elts (and implying there were in the know) were completely wrong in thinking that the SCO have him in mind for the music directorship. If they do, and they're reading this: for the love of God NO. Hire someone worthy of this fine orchestra. I refuse to believe it can be that hard to find someone who fits that criterion.

If the venue doesn't change next year, and this series repeats, I shall be saving myself £60 that could be better spent. I'd advise any discriminating listener to do the same.


Sing the characters in Sondheim's gem of a musical Marry me a Little. They're talking about sex, of course, but they could just as easily have been describing the pianism of Polina Leschenko. The former is preferable.

The concert, on Thursday 8th November, was an interesting one for me. The views of the Scottish press of the SCO's former chief conductor, Joseph Swensen are favourable, as is my impression from the one or two CDs I have heard, so I was curious to hear him in action. The start was not promising. They played a little known piece by Puccini called I Crisantemi. The programme describes it as a string quartet. However, since there were rather more than four players on the platform, one must assume some orchestration had gone on, but Svend Brown's programme note provided no illumination. Neither, for the most part did the piece which, while there was some nice enough playing, seemed justly obscure.

This was followed by the Chopin piano concerto. Or, rather, a brief pause as the chairs were moved about, during which the cellos decamped to the side stalls and chatted with one or two members of the audience. As the piano was moved closer, it occurred to me that the front row, while ideal in the Queen's Hall for chamber concerts, might yield less that ideal balance here. That was the least of my concerns. Leschensko is a thumper. No subtlety, but every note banged out. This may be to some tastes, but not mine and as a result the experience was fairly unbearable. Swensen's accompaniment was better, though he seemed to follow the example set by Fischer in mistakenly equating loudness with excitement.

The second half was an improvement: Schumann's 1st (spring) symphony. Swensen gave a dramatic and exciting reading, in many ways everything the concerto hadn't been. The playing was much sharper too. However, the middle movements were somewhat rushed, but perhaps that comes of being used to Bernstein's later recordings. He could have offered more contrast, both in tempo and more importantly in volume which was, most of the time, far, far too loud. Like many of the SCO's conductors this season, he seems to cope poorly with larger works in the small hall.

Swensen seemed to have garnered much enthusiastic praise for his years as the SCO's music director, but I have to say I wasn't blown away. A slightly odd conductor to watch, with a very angular style of movement, almost like a marionette at times and annoyingly reminiscent of Michael Tilson Thomas. To be sure, his (or indeed, any) guiding touch is missing from an orchestra that has had no music director since he left, but once again it is a disappointment that an orchestra with players of this calibre does not seem to attract conductors of the same level.

Two weeks later, and history was repeating itself. This time the conductor of the day was Diego Masson. Who? You might well ask. Well, you haven't missed much. He opened with Rossini's overture: The Silken Ladder. The orchestra's playing was not particularly sharp and there were rather too many fluffed notes (from the winds and horns particularly). His reading was not really light or playful as Rossini should be.

Then came Piotr Anderszewski to play Mozart's 21st Concerto (it was to have been the Schumann concerto, but having never performed it before he got cold feet at the last minute, in truth the substitution was a merciful one as the Mozart is briefer). Bang, bang! Again, from the first piano notes it was all downhill. Not only did he thump like anything, but there wasn't even any passion behind it, a performance that was horribly matter of fact in the way the notes followed one another. Overly romantic, for Mozart, and with conductor and soloist seeming not to be playing quite the same reading. The beautiful slow movement lacked any poetry. To make matters worse Anderszewski revealed an extremely annoying grunting, groaning, almost moaning, singing mannerism. The finale too was deeply unimpressive. One to be avoided, it is with horror, therefore, that I notice I have him again later in the season. One lesson seems to leap from this: the season ticket, which seemed a nice idea at the time, was a hideous mistake.

In the second half he brought us Stravinsky's Concerto in D. It was a competent reading, but devoid of the kind of electricity that Stravinsky really needs to shine. This was followed by Haydn's 88th symphony. Masson played too loudly and a reading that, like Fischer's Beethoven, felt a little rough around the edges. It lacked the sparkle, joy, humour and, well, anything that marks out great Haydn, stodgy and overly intellectual instead. So, if Masson is unknown to you, there is no hurry to rectify this (if rectify can indeed be said to be the correct term).

Sometime I feel we need a society to campaign against thumping pianists, to champion the likes of Kempff or Uchida. But even Paul Lewis, who plays the Hammerklavier with as much force and passion as I've heard, but who is capable of getting volume without thumping, a skill that is apparently beyond the reach of messrs Anderszewski and Leschenko. Pitty. Will the SCO please start engaging pianists who do not thump! It is, I suppose, some comfort that in a few months time the sublime Christian Zacharias will be paying a visit (if he was willing, and the orchestra had the sense, they would engage him as their music director).

Saturday 17 November 2007

Aida at ENO, or the Company partially redeemed and the critics shown to be fools

As regular readers will know, I have made no secret of my contempt for the present ENO management of John Berry and Loretta Tomasi, especially after the utter shambles which was Kismet at the tail end of last season. Thus, having followed the reviews of the first two productions of this season (Carmen and The Coronation of Poppea) I was thoroughly prepared to deliver the last rites on seeing the new production of Aida. This anticipated viewpoint was strengthened by a hatchet job of a review in The Guardian which suggested yet another production working totally contrary to the text, and the obsessive publicity surrounding the costumes. Contrary to all these anticipations this production is very solid, has some moments of absolute genius, some beautiful singing and playing and has been most outrageously treated by the critics of The Guardian and The Observer.

The production is opulent, but it is opulent to a purpose. Pyramids, hieroglyphics, Egyptian headdresses – the style certainly seemed convincingly Egyptian to me – a nice change from the endless parade of modernised productions we are so often forced to sit through. This achieves its greatest effect in the military parade that follows the Egyptian victory at the end of the second act. It is very easy for these ballet interludes in Verdi to be tedious. This was exciting with a distinctly military air including a stylised re-enactment of the battle just fought. The onstage brass were note and move perfect, and the offstage chorus also impressed. But the highlight was Radames’ triumphant entrance (which The Guardian critic ignored and The Observer critic turned up his nose at). The only other time I saw this opera, Radames was perilously borne in on a boat like object which the bearers looked as if they might drop, and he looked as if he might fall off at any moment. Here, he is born in on the back of an elephant, while dancers manipulate giant ears and a giant trunk. It is a real coup de theatre and completely appropriate to the moment. The other highlight of the production is the burying alive of our heroes at the conclusion, another problem moment, which is brilliantly solved.

Turning to the musical side of things. Here it has to be acknowledged there are some shortcomings. Both John Hudson as Radames and Jane Dutton as Amneris both take a little while to warm up. However, Dutton in particular is giving a powerful performance both vocally and dramatically by the second half. In Hudson’s case one slightly yearns for an over-powering tenor voice but accepting the fact that there are very few such voices available his is ultimately a serviceable performance. And the other performances are in the main stunning. Claire Rutter is an excellent Aida, her voice soaring over the orchestra, and Iain Paterson a very impressive Amonasro. The confrontation between Rutter, Paterson and Hudson in Act 3 is a particular highlight musically and dramatically and again illustrated the strong points of the production. When Radames surrenders his sword, he actually throws a sword down before the enraged priests. How often does one see such moments staged literally? It is very refreshing.

Finally, in the pit, Edward Gardiner drives the whole thing forward, again drawing fine, exciting playing from the ENO Orchestra. For possession of him alone the company deserves to be sustained.


Sunday night took me to the South Bank for the first visit in a four year residency from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I will leave it to my esteemed brother to explain why Janssons’s interpretation of the third movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony was wrong and confine myself to noting that I have heard this piece in concert on two previous occasions and it did not work for me. I felt it seemed like five chunks which didn’t quite go together, that it never seemed to reach the climax one always felt was around the corner. For me, Jansson’s performance was utterly compelling. Exciting where it needed to be, ethereal, other-worldly in the adagio, and an ending that did reach a climax. It was fascinating, as in Edinburgh to watch him conduct. At times he seems to do almost nothing and yet there is no flagging, or loss of precision and direction in the sound. One can see exact responses to gestures. It was a telling example of that most elusive of performing qualities – emanation. Finally, particular kudos have to go to the First Trumpet who made his tricky exposed sections simply sing. I’m not sure I can recall hearing a trumpet play so beautifully quietly before. A memorable evening, and an orchestra-conductor pairing that nobody should miss hearing. Full credit to the South Bank Centre for signing this deal.

Parade at the Donmar

About a month ago now (can you tell my day job is keeping me busy) I attended the Donmar Warehouse’s musical of the season, the London premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. I previously saw Brown’s The Last Five Years at the Menier Chocolate Factory, so I was hopeful about this show – and it is always interesting to see new musicals (especially given the time-lag which tends to intervene between a New York premiere and the arrival of the show in the UK – when is The Light in the Piazza ever going to reach us?) There is no denying that parts of this show are powerful, particularly the two lead performances, but it ultimately came across, as my better half suggested afterwards, as a show which had been workshopped to death.

The show dramatises one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in American history – the trial of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew transplanted to Georgia, for the murder of a 13 year old child labourer in 1913. Apparently the show did not play well in the States, and it is easy to see why. It exposes the nastiest sides of the post-Civil War South, but it is not altogether friendly to the Jewish man in the dock. And yet, when one compares it with similar attempts to expose the darker side of the American dream through musical theatre, perhaps most obviously Sondheim’s Assassins, this show ultimately has too many agendas, and lacks real savage bite.

The major problem, possibly a consequence of that over workshopping already mentioned, is evident through the lengthy first half. While Leo and his wife Lucille (powerfully played by Lara Pulver) come across very convincingly, the characters around them tend towards the stock. This is particularly the case with the murder victim herself. The murder occurs roughly about scene three, by which point we have had only the very briefest acquaintance with the victim. She seems flirtatious in a deliberately provocative way – and she certainly does not come across in Jayne Wisener’s portrayal as a 13 year old. For me the consequence was that her actual murder left me cold – like something you might read of in the “in brief” column of a broadsheet newspaper. This had a knock on effect through the first half because, for the dramatic tension really to work, one needs to believe in the image of the victim presented by family, friends and trial witnesses and one had not seen enough of the victim to be convinced (and what one had seen somewhat contradicted their story). A further problem in this first half is the number of characters jostling for attention. A washed up newspaper man, the governor worrying about his popularity, the scheming police chief, the fire-eating reverend all get their moment in the sun of centre stage but again none of them is given enough space to develop as a fully rounded character. The show goes off in too many directions. Consequently, crucial arenas of the narrative are too condensed, most notably in the trial which concludes the first act. It is explained towards the end that a defendant in a murder trial is not allowed to take the stand, and I’m sure this is historically accurate. I find it more difficult to believe that throughout the forty day trial, the defence attorney never cross questioned any of the witnesses or made any significant statement at all – yet this is the scenario the show requires you to believe. The trial is simply too staged.

In the second half things do improve considerably. The show seems to settle down and decide that what it actually wants to be about is the relationship between the Franks. This is accompanied by a picking up in the musical quality. One of the problems in the first half is that too often I didn’t really feel there was a compelling reason for this to be a musical – the music was not adding much to the drama. In the second half this changes. The Franks have three excellent duets, the Governor has a nice dreamy dance number, and the Judge and the police prosecutor a telling ballad about the lost glory of the Southland. The direction also tightens up – the segue from husband and wife’s reunion into the chilling final scene is especially effective.

That direction needs a little additional comment. Maybe it’s a consequence of the emphasis on the persecution of the Jewish outsider, but the colour barrier in this staged South is not effectively dramatised. The company includes at least two black performers. The characters they are given to perform are either stock servants of the merry plantation type (which made me more uneasy than any of the attacks on Jewish ways), or they are slotted into ensembles as if their colour was irrelevant. In 2007 casting terms of course this is perfectly correct, but in 1913 Georgia it is wholly incorrect. Thus you have these cast members happily cheering Confederate Memorial Day, and later donning KKK hoods with the rest of the white company. This is not my specialist period so it is possible the former might have historical evidence to back it up, I find it unbelievable that any black would have been admitted to membership of the KKK. If you are going to try and conjure a historical period you have to get this kind of detail right.

It’s good to see darker musicals being written in the States, and getting a hearing over here, and this is a show worth seeing for the two central performances. It also seems probable that some of the use of Jewish idioms (particularly the mockery of the wedding ceremony) would have a much stronger impact with a New York audience. As a complete musical though it doesn't ultimately work.

Sunday 4 November 2007

The Scottish CHAMBER Orchestra

In addition to the regular evening concerts and the Cl@six concerts, a third string to the SCO's programme is its Chamber ensemble. Performing at 2.30 on a Sunday afternoon, this season's first programme proved that they are something of a treat. We were given Dvorak's string quintet in G and Brahms sextet in B flat.

Both might as well have been selected just for me as they have prominent cello parts, and I'm very fond of the instrument. In the Dvorak, as the programme note tells us, the double bass takes the bass line away from the cello allowing it greater freedom. And the cello here, Su-a Lee, is always a joy to hear. The SCO is extremely lucky in having not just one exceptional cellist but two (principle cello David Watkin will be playing later this month in Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, which promises to be rather special). The rest of the ensemble was excellent too.

Interestingly, perhaps because they come from an orchestra, the communication between the players was more subtle than in some ensembles I've seen, but must have been there as the playing was very tight. I recalled the Janacek quartet playing the piece at the 2005 Edinburgh festival, but on examining my programme it seems we actually got the quintet in E flat. I remember not being especially bowled over by it, and wondering if Dvorak's string quartet writing was to blame, this performance suggests otherwise.

The Brahms was interesting too. Again, the extra instruments freed the first cello, though this piece is for slightly odd forces: absent the double bass one might expect and instead pairs of violins, violas and cellos. Together they produced a wonderfully rich sound and some stunning playing, particularly the pizzicato at the close of the first movement or the beauty of the cello part in the slow movement.

A lovely concert, and a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It left me with the sneaking suspicion that these may be the highlights of the season. What a pity, then, that the Queen's Hall wasn't a little fuller.

where's Runnicles? flying south again tonight - Thomas Dolby plays the Carling Academy, Islington

In another one of the mad dashes south to catch a single concert for which this blog is justly famous (or for which it would be famous, if it were famous, which it probably isn't), on morning of Wednesday 10th October, I jumped on a plane down to Stansted in order to hear Thomas Dolby live, and have the opportunity to misquote a line from his song Flying North (although, given that's based on the fact that most planes head north immediately after taking off, to do with flying fuel efficient routes in grand circles, switching the compass point makes it somewhat meaningless).


I should also point out, right at the start of this review, that this is going to be neither objective nor unbiased, due in large part to the fact that there is a glaring conflict of interest: Mr Dolby (not his real name) is our uncle.

As such I've been a fan of Dolby's music for as long as I can remember. I can remember, for example, dancing around with my brothers to such hits from the 1988 Aliens Ate My Buick album as Hot Sauce (and listening to it again now, and the nature of some of the lyrics, I'm a little surprised my parents didn't mind). However, he hasn't produced an album since 1994's The Gate to the Mind's Eye (well, this isn't quite true, there's been a 'best of album', some remixes and several live recordings but no new studio album). In fairness, he's been busy working at his company Beatnik, which is responsible for software in some roughly two thirds of the worlds mobile phones and is used to create the polyphonic version of the annoying Nokia ringtone. I should stress that that sound is not representative of what you hear at a Dolby concert. However, it has meant that at every family gathering for the last decade or so, he's had to put up with me asking him when he's going to record a new album.


So it was excellent news when a year or so ago he decided to return to music. He started out with a solo tour of the states, finishing up with two gigs in London. In part because one of these was at the Wireless festival (which is televised), I decided not to make the trip down. When it turned out that only 30 seconds was broadcast, and after the rave reviews of the Scala gig that preceded it, I rather wished I had. I contented myself with the rather fine DVD and CD that he made out of the American performances. However, when he was visiting Scotland with his family a year or so ago, we made the point of insisting that when he toured the UK he made it up here. He hasn't (I'm told this was because they couldn't make a date work), so there was nothing for it but a trip south.

So, after meeting up in a nearby pub, the Angelic (which has an interesting Tapas menu - Tapas fish and chips, who would have thought it?), with several of my cousins and my sister-in-law-elect (joke will be lost on all non Gilbert and Sullivan fans) who kindly let me use her spare bed, but alas not Finn, whose job kept him away, or my younger brother, who was sick, we headed in to the Carling Academy. An interesting venue, located as it is in the middle of a shopping centre. As we arrived the warm up act was still on stage, I have no note of who they were, and there doesn't seem to be on the venue website. They were not memorable though.


At a little after 9pm Tom took to the stage and played what seemed to me to be a new song: Your Karma Hit My Dogma. At least, I've never heard it before (and it's on none of the many CDs I own), but then given the way he introduced a new song later on, I'm not certain. Then it was into The Flat Earth, Europa and the Pirate Twins and One of Our Submarines (the later a slightly different mix, without much by way of bass lines, this prompted by a computer issues at a previous gig and him having decided that he thought it worked rather well this way). One of the reasons it's interesting to hear Dolby live is that the songs sound rather different than they do on the studio album, the sounds and textures he's used the way he builds them up may be rather different. It's also fascinating to watch him put the tracks together.

Hot Sauce Horns.JPG

At this point the Hot Sauce Horns (a trumpet, trombone and sax) were brought onstage. Apparently, these were something of a last minute addition owing to visa problems with the musicians Thomas had intended to bring, though you wouldn't have guessed that to hear them play. They also integrated well to Dolby's electronic one-man rig and added a nice extra colour to the sound.

Someone (screen name heretic) on the forum on Dolby's website posted this playlist (which looks roughly correct, I wasn't keeping note):

Your Karma Hit My Dogma
The Flat Earth
Europa and the Pirate Twins
One of our Submarines

With the Horns:
What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend (Cover of the Specials track)
The Key to Her Ferrari
May The Cube Be With You
My Brain is Like a Sieve
Jealous Thing Called Love? (new song)

Introduces Kevin and Matthew
I Scare Myself
She Blinded Me With Science

Thomas and the horns:

Introduces Lene Lovitch and Les Chappel
New Toy
Sway (duet with Lene)

Thomas and the Horns close with
Hot Sauce

Encore (just Thomas)

A look at the list shows a number of songs not there in the Sole Inhabitant tour. It was particularly nice to hear May the Cube Be With You, a favourite growing up, similarly Airhead. Sadly though, both here and on the Sole Inhabitant DVD the woman (presumably the eponymous airhead) saying "Oh, you speak French" in response to the line "Quad erat demonstrandum baby", which has, in my view, always been one of the funniest in the song, was absent.

The new song was rather hard to judge, I didn't quite catch all the words, and I think judgement is best reserved until it appears on the new album that Thomas is working on.

He was also joined on stage by a number of people whom he'd worked with some years back. All of them were unknown to me, but it added more colour and variety to the show. They were clearly all having fun together and that always makes for a better performance.


If I had to make a criticism it's that after a few weeks on the road, both here and in the states, you can tell from the voice, but that's inherent to this sort of live concert tour. Another might be that it would have been nice to have heard some of the material from Astronauts and Heretics, in particular Close But No Cigar. However, now he's back in the UK for a while, we'll doubtless get the chance to hear him live again before too long.

All in all, a great evening's entertainment, and something I've wanted to hear for some years now. And even if you're not related, and the name Dolby means nothing more than surround sound processors to you, his blend or electronic sounds and intelligent lyrics is well worth investigation.


Saturday 3 November 2007

There's Runnicles (or, rather, there was Runnicles, way back in August - a belated review)

The craziest, and briefest, of your correspondent's several dashes down south to catch one artistic highlight or another was prompted, of course, by the namesake of this blog. The chance to hear Donald Runnicles at the Proms, conducting Wagner, and with none other that Christine Brewer singing Brunnhilde, was simply too good to pass up. The more so as Mr Runnicles was, as we have pointed out once or twice, not least in the very title of this blog, shamefully absent from the Edinburgh festival this year.

However, there were complications that made this an especially mad dash. In their infinite wisdom, the minds behind the BBC Proms had scheduled this concert for the opening weekend of the Edinburgh festival. The previous evening would see Jarvi doing Sibelius, the following Ades and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, neither of which I wanted to miss. Not to mention my duties at a small Fringe venue. There were but 24 hours to fly south, catch the Prom and return. It was mad, crazy, insane, but was it worth it?

Gotterdammerung is, of course, a long slog to sit through, but I had taken my precautions. Cunningly I had also booked tickets for Finn to use for an earlier Prom (featuring Salonen's piano concerto), this enabled me to get priority booking, since the scheme is designed to encourage people to book new music. I hasten to add that had I been able to spare more time in London, I would have booked something along those lines for myself, rather than slightly abusing the system. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised it had got me the aisle seat, front row, centre stalls with only the prommers in the arena before me. Armed with a notepad and a rucksack filled with a bottle of water and a sandwich, I was prepared (and pleasantly surprised security didn't relieve me of it).

The BBC Symphony Orchestra forces were impressively padded out (at least, I assume some of the 6 harpists aren't on the regular payroll). The start of Gotterdammerung is tricky to pull off. The last of Wagner's Ring cycle, it suffers from having been written first, then having a prologue added to explain things, then three more operas added to explain the prologue. This in itself is not a fatal flaw, or rather would not have been, had Wagner shown some willingness to make the odd cut or two. He didn't, and the result is half an hour of three people bemoaning what has happened in the previous nine hours. That said, in concert this could be an advantage, since we hadn't had the preceding nine hours, or, at least, we'd had them but over the past three years. But in the opera house, if not well staged (as it was in the Albery produced Scottish Opera Ring, where they wove around the stage with a luminous rope), it can be rather dull, you have only to watch the Met Ring were the three Norns spend the whole time sat in a tiny hole in the middle of the stage (but don't waste your money just to find out). At £3 and with a full libretto (typed nice and large and including stage directions) the programme offered better value that we would have had in Edinburgh, but the person responsible for typesetting could learn something from them: printing in light grey in the top right hand corner "please turn pages quietly" doesn't work. It should be in the bottom right and in black bold, so that it's the last thing you read before turning the page. It's impressive how much louder the page turning was than in Edinburgh. Another hair to split is the further listen suggestions. I have no trouble with the recommendation of Runnicles, Brewer and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Tristan und Isolde (indeed, I have recommended it on these very pages), but to point to Tomlinson in the Haitink Ring cycle..... Of course, the Bavarian orchestra plays beautifully for him, and he shows the score in a fresh light. Tomlinson sings well too. The problem is Eva Marton's Brunnhilde is poorly balanced and sounds unpleasantly like a police siren. It is impossible to set the volume so that you can hear everyone else and don't suffer bleeding from the ears every time she sings. Those of us with out a remote control on our amplifiers are therefore constantly up and down out of our seats.

But, to the music itself. The BBC Symphony Orchestra could have been sharper, and it did rather make me wish he had been conducting the BBC Scottish for this, as he gets a more impressive sound from them. However, when Runnicles got them going, they produced a wonderful richness. The norns themselves were something of a mixed bag. The second norm, Natascha Petrinsky, was not very good but Andrea Baker and Miranda Keys were much better. It was with a stunning reading of the Rhein journey that the evening really began to shine, displaying Runnicles' marvellous trick of making the familiar fresh: a very brisk pace, and yet it worked. Of course, Christine Brewer's entry didn't hurt, as she soared effortlessly over the orchestra. Stig Andersen gave cause for concern though, with a shakey start as Siegfried, his voice cracking slightly, it didn't seem likely he would cope. But he improved as the performance went on and turned in a creditable performance. True, you can expect better performances of the role, even in this day and age, but not hugely much so. Then came what was, as far as I am concerned, a misguided casting choice: John Tomlinson as Hagen. This will doubtless be controversial and cause ire amongst his legions of fans. Let me preface my remarks by saying he is an amazing artist and a fine singer. But he is no longer in his prime. True, the sheer characterisation and drama he brings makes up for the technical imperfections in his voice. But casting is not an isolated thing and when your actor playing Hagen is old enough to be Alberich's father, when the reverse should be true, and both looks and sounds it, you have a problem which the suspension of disbelief didn't counter for me. It was also the case that the strain caused his face to turn worrying redder as the opera progressed, so much so that my enjoyment of his performance was muted by concern for his health. The sad thing is that he'd have sung a magnificent Alberich, and been well cast in the role. But elsewhere Karen Cargill sang a fine Waltraute. Alan Held's Gunther was okay. But there was little question that the stars were Runnicles and Brewer, and a lingering wish for the BBC Scottish.

One other point should be noted: semi-staging. At least this concert performance in the Royal Albert Hall was allegedly semi-staged. And that's been done before at the Proms (the Mackerras performance of H.M.S Pinafore from the 2005 season provides a textbook example of how this can be done). The programme even gave a credit to one Paul Curran. I sincerely hope that none of my licence fee or ticket price went into his pocket since there was not the slightest evidence that he had done anything at all. True, all the characters walked on and off the points marked in the libretto, but it surely doesn't require a director to point those out. I've heard a great many operas in concert at the Edinburgh festival and never seen a director credited before. Even in the Poulenc concert recently (which 'staged' the executions).

Another moan concerns the staff at the Hall. After a nice sandwich on the steps of the Albert memorial, I went back into the hall, and an usher informed me I'd have to check my bag into the cloakroom. I noticed a large number of other people, and virtually everyone in the arena, were not subject to this. I don't mind having rules, and I can even see the logic of this one. But such rules should be applied fairly and to everyone and I don't think I should have to check my small rucksack when everyone in the arena seems to be allowed several hampers.

But that didn't matter. Act two was nothing short of exceptional. True, the Alberich/Hagen scene didn't quite work, for the reasons outlined above, but from there on..... Conducting and playing were electric throughout and any doubts and roughness about the orchestra's playing were erased. Some wonderful singing. Another Runnicles hallmark was the cleverness of the orchestral placement, brass and horns from every balcony and gallery the hall has. That and the sheer precision and drama he brought. It was nothing short of magical and, as always when one is that completely swept away, the words don't quite do it justice.

Act three was very fine too, though perhaps not quite so brilliant as act two. Siegfried's voice was a little thin when imitating the woodbird, but then aside from Wolfgang Windgassen, whose isn't? Gweneth-Ann Jeffers' Gutrune lacked power. The Rheinmaidens (Katherine Broderick, Anna Stephany and Liora Grodnikaite) were good, even if they didn't look even vaguely like sisters. Siegfried's death and funeral march were thrilling and once again Runnicles brought an amazing freshness to the score. And again horns were placed offstage to perfection. The only reservation was the light show (the ceiling flickering orange and red like the ultimate damp squib), which added nothing the drama and perhaps only existed for Curran to demonstrate his fee had actually achieved something. It was well received and the Tomlinson fan club was out in force, his cheers outdistancing the quality of his performance by some way. I'm not sure everyone needed huge bouquets of flowers. But none of that really mattered. This was a thrilling, draining, magical evening of music. May it find its way to CD post haste. And may Donald Runnicles get together with the BBC Scottish and Brewer and commit an entire Ring to disc. In the meantime, and retreating from the fantasy world, we must content ourselves with Tristan and, if we can find it, the excellent, and mystifyingly deleted disc of orchestral chunks with the Dresden Staatskapelle.

I reached Gatwick at around midnight, too late for the last flight. With four hours to kill I tested out the ludicrously overprice pod hotel. It was mad, it was tiring and it was more than a little silly. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world (the performance, that is, not the hotel), and would dash down again in a heartbeat. Of course, come 2008, I won't have to.

Sunday 21 October 2007

The SCO concert season finally catches fire - Frans Bruggen (who?) conducts Mendelssohn

Frans who, I hear you cry, or possibly not. Certainly the name was unknown to me prior to Thursday (or, at least, prior to my filling out the booking form). Which made it all the more surprising to see a stool on the podium, normally only there for conductors of advancing years, and the older a conductor the more likely it is that one has heard of them. However, as Wikipeida confirms, he is in his early 70s, though the page adds little else to the sum total of human knowledge, a better biography can be found here.

A very tall man, well over 6 feet, he fitted himself into the stool slightly awkwardly, given the space available, and launched into the all Mendelssohn programme with the Overture: The Fair Melusine. This was nice enough, and unknown to me, but didn't seem to stand out as one of Mendelssohn's finest works. What stood out immediately, though, was how much sharper and more disciplined the orchestral playing was than under Fischer last Saturday. However, at times, when the score really caught fire, it made fore a very entertaining performance. He further won me over when, after the overture, rather than swanning on and off milking the applause like some (Mr Tilson Thomas, I'm talking to you), he sat straight back down and switched over to the next score.

That score being the violin concerto. After a few moments he was joined onstage by the young and, it must be noted, very attractive German soloist Viviane Hagner. Actually, I'm not sure her attractiveness must be noted, that's probably rather chauvinistic, still, in her bright, flowered, I suppose oriental in its styling, dress, she was certainly easy on the eyes. All of which would be neither here nor there if she couldn't play well. But play well she certainly can. And with what incredible passion, so much so that strings were breaking on her bow left, right and centre (and she had to keep ripping them off whenever she got a pause). Indeed, it is possible this took its toll as to these ears, by the end of the piece, she seemed to have gone fractionally out of tune, but not so much as to be a problem. Beneath this, Bruggen provided superbly judged accompaniment and support. There was little pause between movements (something that actually works much better than the comparatively pronounced pauses on the CD I was listening to this afternoon). It was well received and she gave us an encore, which she actually introduced but all I caught was "Milstein" (a quick google indicates he was a violinist, but gives no indication as to what the piece might have been). It was pleasant enough, but I was firmly of the opinion it rather spoilt things. The ending of the Mendelssohn is so fine, nothing more needs to be said.

After the interval it was the turn of, perhaps predictably, given the location, the 3rd 'Scottish' symphony. If I'm honest, I'm no great fan of this work, much preferring both the 'Italian' 4th and the 'Reformation' 5th. But Bruggen won me over with a wonderful reading. An excellent precision to the playing of the SCO, such that it made its absence from Fischer's performance even more noticeable. Intensely passionate and yet light hearted when required, this was the SCO at their very best, and a reading that has fully won me over to the work.

I've been a little lukewarm about the concerts so far this season, even going so far as wonder whether block booking was a mistake, but this has reminded me why I did it. In contrast to Elts' Sibelius and Fischer's Beethoven, I might have passed this by, and that would have been a mistake. In truth, Bruggen did have it slightly easier than Fischer and Elts, as I know the repertoire far less well. And yet, I've heard plenty of 'Scottish' symphonies before without being won over.

It also answers the question posed at the start of this post: is Bruggen unfairly unknown? To which the answer must be an emphatic yes. Let's hope he returns.

Saturday 20 October 2007

Not really a fair comparision - Thierry Fischer and the SCO play Beethoven and Haydn

In my review of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's concerts, I mentioned that it was unfair to have to follow the Bavarians as even the best ensembles would pale somewhat in comparison. Similarly, Thierry Fischer's programme contained material that we have heard (or heard similar) from one of its finest exponents in the last year or so, with the same orchestra. However, given that, one cannot but compare. I should say up front though, that last Saturday's was by far the finest concert so far of the SCO season.

The second thing I'll say, before I get onto the business of actually reviewing the concert is that it was utter nonsense that the opening concert of Sibelius couldn't have fitted into the Queen's Hall, given the scale of the forces we had for this one. It felt a little odd for the first few stalls rows to be missing and the orchestra sitting there instead.

The programme opened with Beethoven's 5th symphony, which Mackerras played so brilliantly in his revelatory cycle of the symphonies at the 2006 festival, and played with such sheer passion and joy the year before by Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Fischer gave us a fast and furious reading which in its way was quite exciting. But there were problems. When compared with the detail that Mackerras drew from the score, the wonderful surprises therein as well as the quality of the textures he produced, there was a lack of focus and precision to Fischer's reading. And while there was no shortage of pace, there was also not the kind of momentum that there should be to this symphony.

There were other problems too. I'm not sure where they had rehearsed, and clearly they had been in a more appropriately sized hall on Friday when in Glasgow's City Halls, but where I was in the stalls it was a little loud. I'm overly sensitive to this, but there wasn't the dynamic range that there ought to be, where were the quiet contrasts? The SCO's horns were once again a weak link, fluffing more than their share of notes. And, perhaps most crucially, Fischer didn't really build the tension. Take, for example, the transition into the finale: he didn't really slow up all that much. This should be a moment of unbearable anticipation, but Fischer seemed almost over-eager to leap into the finale. It wasn't a bad reading, but it was not in the same class as the two great ones mentioned above.

The second half comprised Haydn's Harmoniemesse, not a work I know. And yet the competition is stiff here too as Mackerras opened the last SCO season with a performance of the Creation. An immediate plus is that this means the SCO Chorus, who are always wonderful to listen to, and Saturday was no exception. Again, it was certainly an exciting reading, but seemed a little rushed. There is some great beauty in Haydn's choral writing, but Fischer didn't seem all that interested in slowing to take it in. Tempo alone is not a key to drama and excitement.

The soloists were a bit of mixed bag. Both soprano Joanne Lunn and mezzo Tove Dahlberg were good, but tenor James Gilchrist and bass Stephan Loges were rather poor, indeed when the latter sang his first notes, the first of any singers, I worried it could be a trying experience. Fortunately he was not isolated that often.

In fairness, I should point out that the orchestra and chorus seem to genuinely enjoy working with Fischer, and he's clearly a nice guy (from the way he was chatting with them enjoying a drink at the bar afterwards, as we were with a friend in the chorus), but that doesn't a great conductor make.

Tuesday 9 October 2007

"Plagiarise.....let no one else's work evade your eyes...

Only be sure always to call it, please, research". So said the great mathematician Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky. Okay, in fairness, and before he (or rather his heirs, since he himself has been dead for over one hundred and fifty years) sues me, I should point out that in fact it was American satirist Tom Lehrer who said it, and he used Lobachevsky's name for, in his own words, "purely prosodic reasons". However, in the best spirit of the song, and its guide to the secret of success in academia, the SCO have been inspired by one of the great innovations of McMaster's final festival in 2006: the short, single work, early evening concert. In that festival, they were Charles Mackerras's cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, also featuring the Philharmonia for the 9th. They have, however, made one sensible modification and shifted the time back from 5.30 to 6.00, no bad thing as they were always a little trickier to get to if your office wasn't in the west end.

The setting has moved too, though how much this was necessity due to the closure of the Usher Hall and how much a positive choice to be in St Cuthbert's is not clear. They obviously could have used their regular home in the Queen's Hall, but doubtless they wanted to be close the office district the surrounds the Lothian Road. St Cuthbert's is set very nicely at the west end of Princes Street Gardens, at a slightly lower level than the main road, making for a rather tranquil environment (and not one that is plagued by police sirens as can be heard inside the Usher Hall). It's a nice building inside too, in shape (particularly with regard to its galleries) not unlike the Queen's Hall, though rather larger. The main difference being that where the Queen's Hall has its rear wall (the one the performers sit with their backs to), completing its roughly shoebox shape, St Cuthbert's has a semi-circular and domed area (the religious name of which I do not know), which doubtless would accommodate a choir. Just before this, the performing area is rather hemmed in by the immovable (marble) font and pulpit on either side.

Sitting down, this being a church, and the seats instead being pews, is uncomfortable, even for the relatively short duration of the performance. The ticket price is rather steep too, at £12. Mackerras and the SCO in Beethoven, frankly a bigger name than anything we are getting in this series was a flat £10 in the far more comfortable Usher Hall. Of course, if you're a senior then it's cheaper at £9 and for some reason students get in for just £5. I'm neither; so, if they're reading this, the SCO get a poor score in that regard. A flat rate price would be fairer. The more so since given the high average age of the audience, I had the distinct impression I was subsidising them.

The programme, if such it can be called was rather dear too at £1. Really more of a leaflet, the size of 3 A5 sheets, folded into a booklet. The most interesting information was contained on the back:

Everyone's A Critic

Welcome to pupils from Gracemount High School who are in the audience tonight. They've been working with Rowena Smith, music critic for The Herald and The Guardian newspapers, to learn about the skills needed for writing about music. To find out what they thought of the concert, visit to read their reivews!

Anybody can take part in Everyone's A Critic. Simply write a review and send it to You may see it on the SCO website!

If I was being cruel, I might question how well equipped Smith is tutor people in those skills, but I shall refrain. Foolishly, I'd managed to sit behind four of these aspiring writers and, very possibly Smith herself. Now, as an amateur who is passionate both about music and writing about it, I welcome encouraging the next generation in the same direction. But it strikes me that there is one skill which should be taught possibly above all others: invisibility. These four your aspiring critics sat constantly scribbling and even whispering to each other, and Smith (if, indeed, she it was) did nothing to admonish them. Now, I'll concede that it's difficult to remember all the things you want to about a performance, but I make a point of not taking notes during the playing, and then scribble them furiously during the applause (I usually now do so in the programme, though was prevented tonight as the paper was black). I've developed a few techniques for making sure I remember the things that I want to. But I feel that anything falling by the wayside is preferable to my marring someone else's enjoyment purely for a blog post. It's always easier to remember details the less good a performance is, but, to be honest, even with a notepad on hand, scribbling furiously, I think you'd still struggle to write in a truly inspiring reading.

So then, to the concert. And I realise I've nearly done something I hate in reviews: take up the vast majority not actually talking about the performance. In fairness, though, what irritates me about those reviews, and you see it a lot during the festival, is when you get a long, generic description of the work(s) on the programme that could easily have been written months before, followed by a sentence or two on the actual performance. And while that might appear to be what you're getting here, it is fair to say that this post couldn't have been written yesterday, well, the opening paragraph excepted.

Thirteen members of the SCO, the wind section, took to the stage under the baton, or rather fingers, of Thierry Fischer. As I overheard someone else question, it it worth asking whether a conductor was really necessary for Mozart's serenade for thirteen wind instruments, the Gran Partita. My theory is that since he is here for Saturday's concert of Beethoven's 5th symphony and Haydn's Harmoniemesse, they decided to get their money's worth. Right from the start it became clear what the biggest problem would be: the hall's acoustic. Perhaps the way they were crowded together didn't help, maybe it was the domed ceiling of the area behind them, maybe some other aspect of acoustic science that is beyond my grasp. Whatever the explanation, the hall, or rather church, was far too reverberant. It rather reminded me of the Giulini recording of Bach's B Minor mass that was playing on my iPod for most of yesterday. That was recorded in St Paul's Cathedral, and while the BBC's engineers worked miracles taming it, the problems can still be heard at the end of each track. Here they were omnipresent, and it made for what sounded much less clear playing than it doubtless was. There was some fine work, most notably from clarinetist Maximiliano Martin (when I saw the orchestra in Glasgow on Friday, I did wonder if he was still there, as I had heard rumours he was getting itchy feet, but as the diminutive musician swayed in his seat and played wonderfully, the explanation became clear: he has merely cut most of his hair off).

The other main fault lay with the conductor. As a reading it altogether lacked the sort of sparkle that someone like Mackerras brings to this combination of orchestra and composer. It was nice enough, but it didn't dance, there was never the urge to tape or conduct along. He seemed to plough a slightly unsatisfactory middle ground between that and a more rich and sedate reading. It only really fully caught fire in the allegretto section of the 5th movement. The variations felt a little rushed. It was certainly a perfectly fine, solid reading, and it wasn't as though it was littered with mistakes, but I just wanted something more taught, something with more punch. Something, for example, along the lines of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's recording (showing, incidentally, that a conductor is not needed).

Midway through the concert another issue became apparent, there is a drawback to the six o'clock start: it's teatime. It needs to be a better performance to overcome this. Perhaps November's effort, which eschews the single work formula for dances from Dvorak, Bartok and Kodaly will fair better.

Monday 8 October 2007

A new beginning...?

Friday evening found me sitting on a train to Glasgow, sadly not to take advantage of Donald Runnicles' debut as music director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, for which I will have to wait another two years. But for another debut, that of Olari Elts, the new Principle Guest Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. This also marked the opening of the SCO's 2007/8 season and the start of a new series of posts dedicated to that season (since I've been foolish enough to buy a season ticket). Actually, though, that season ticket hadn't included this concert and I'm not sure I would have headed over to Glasgow, but for the fact this was an all-Sibelius programme. Elts is a young (36) Estonian conductor who should have good pedigree in this area, having won the International Sibelius Conductors' Competition in 2000.

The move to Glasgow and the nice City Halls venue had, apparently, been necessitated by the closure of the Usher Hall for refurbishment (which means all Edinburgh SCO concerts this season are being played in the smaller Queen's Hall). Apparently this programme required too great forces to be done there. If they say so, though apparently it will have no problems accommodating Mendelssohn's 3rd symphony or his and Tchaikovsky's violin concertos.

Elts opened the first piece, The Swan of Tuonela, very quietly. A novelty, for an SCO concert, was the sight of a timpanist in addition to Caroline Garden (who was playing the large bass drum - with which she produced a wonderful sound). He took a delicate, carefully sculpted approach, the orchestra's playing always very light and a little pretty. Indeed, it was rather too light much of the time, as was shown by the wonderful richness the orchestra was capable of on the rare occasions when he let them go. He brought a nice symmetry with the quiet end, and yet it would have been nice to have a little more edge to the playing.

This was followed by the violin concerto, with soloist Antje Weithaas standing in impressively at the last minute. Both soloist and orchestra produced a lovely string tone. Weithaas played with a real passion, accentuated by her angular bowing style. But this was in stark contrast to Elts' rather laid back accompaniment (though this did improve towards a rather exciting close). For the beautiful slow movement they seemed much more on the same page and Elts got a good balance between soloist and orchestra. One thing that begins to stand out is that he is clearly not one to go in for forte. The finale was good too, but Elts' passion didn't always match Weithaas's.

The second half opened with Valse Triste and Scene with Cranes from Kuolema. And he had tough competition since it is but a few weeks since Jansons gave the former in a wonderful encore, next to which this was very dull. The orchestra had a very thin sound, perhaps because Elts insisted on going rather slower and quieter than they could. His readings of both pieces seemed overly intellectual. The reception was decidedly lukewarm for a hall so full.

The concert closed with the 7th symphony. The start was horribly rushed, so much so that it took me a few moments to take it in. The orchestral sound was also rather nastily blurred and the big themes lacked emotion, although this improved somewhat after the cello theme. There were some annoyingly flouncing, Tilson Thomas-esque gestures. The first entry of the trombones, one of the wonders of this symphony, was spoilt by poor balance, managing, impressively, to overwhelm them with the rest of the ensemble. Frequently the music was garbled due to the speed and the reading hewed the work of the faster and slower contrasts its various sections usually provide. The lovely icy wind theme on the violins and other strings was devoid of any kind of chill. Again and again I found myself wishing Elts would slow down. Towards the end, as Elts built to one of the work's climaxes, he finally let the orchestra go for the first real forte of the evening, but the richness of the orchestra was transmuted into a musical cacophony. Again the trombones were drowned out, giving no sense of symmetry, but to some extent that didn't matter since the reading as a whole had none of the sense of journey that I find so key to this work. Funnily enough, though, the work's closing bars were well played and satisfying. What really crippled the reading was its tempo. It came in at less than 20 minutes. Bernstein's sluggish reading lasts just shy of 25 in comparison. But even compared with Oramo's 21.19, certainly not one to hang around, this is very quick.

All in all, not an especially promising start and boding ill for the rest of the season. The performance raises three questions for me. Firstly, how on earth did Elts come to win the Sibelius competition in the first place, though it must be said that these things are to some extent a matter of taste? Secondly, why cannot the SCO attract a new top notch conductor? Mackerras is still affiliated, as is Swensen, but the music directorship has been vacant since he left. They are a top band, one of the finest chamber orchestras in the UK, finding a really good conductor to lead them shouldn't present the slightest difficulty (any more than finding the top notch section leaders they have presently was, I'm thinking particularly of cellist David Watkin and clarinetist Maximilian Martin). And, thirdly, was buying this season ticket a hideous mistake? Well, I've only heard Elts in one composer, granted one he claims expertise in, so it would be premature to judge, but if the rest of his concerts aren't better, they will be an endurance.

Friday 5 October 2007

Fame and fortune await (or not)

In truth, I don't think this blog is read by terribly many people who aren't personally known to us. That's all right, though, since to be honest, we write it because it's fun. However, it showed that I, at any rate, am not entirely without an ego when it came to my attention that we had been noticed by someone else. We've had just three comments in the history of this blog since March (anyone reading this is most welcome to become number four), well, if you exclude the couple I've made to update a post. The first was from a friend of the family and the second anonymously agreed with Finn as far as the Tiger Lilies were concerned.

Today (or rather yesterday now), brought something else. Somehow we seem to have passed across the radar of the marketing manager of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra! Stephen Duffy was kind enough to write:

Delighted at your reaction to Donald’s appointment – we at the BBC SSO agree that he’s a very special musician.

Feel free to comment on this at the BBC SSO’s blog:

As for the BBC SSO not being in Edinburgh away from the Festival - we're working on that!

Oh, Smashing blog! Stephen, BBC SSO

Once the rush of giddiness had subsided and I'd remembered that this probably didn't mean the day job could be given up, I wondered how he'd stumbled across it and so quickly at that (on the off chance you're reading this again Stephen, I'd be curious to know). My best guess is Google News. The same technology that provides the updates about Donald Runnicles and the Edinburgh Festival on the right of the screen can also be set up to automatically e-mail you alters. I have one such set up for another artist I admire, Charles Mackerras, and many blog articles come my way as a result. Actually, I initially had it set up for just Mackerras, but that brought a great many stories about Australian political analyst (and relative to the great conductor) Malcolm Mackerras, but during times of high political drama in Australia the quantity of these actually outweighed those devoted to the musical Mackerras and they ceased to be quaint.

However, the best news wasn't anything he said about us. No, the news that the BBC SSO might be more regularly in Edinburgh would be the icing on the cake of the new appointment. Doubtless it will not be before the 2008/9 season, and not until midway through that, due to the Usher Hall's refurbishment and the lack of another suitable venue (the RSNO are decamping to the Festival Theatre), but if it comes to pass it will be worth the wait, not to mention the money saved in train fares.

Anyway, after such kind words it would seem rude not to return the favour, so a link to the BBC SSO Blog now joins our list to the right.

It also begs the question, if Mr Duffy has stumbled across us, has the man himself? Donald Runnicles, if you're reading, your most welcome and we'd love to hear from you. In the meantime, we'll have to make to with this rather interesting interview in the Herald.

Thursday 4 October 2007

Director's Notes (and coming attractions)

The king is dead, long live the king? Well, not quite. I liked a lot about this year's festival, in many ways more than I thought I would. But at the same time, the body of work I sampled was much reduced on previous years, in part due to ambivalence when the programme was released and in part to other commitments. I passed by the director's foray into early music and the near disaster that seems to have been the drama this year. I also didn't make a single one of the Queen's Hall concerts.

However, there was some very interesting programming: the Poulenc and a much more adventurous attitude to new music (Ades and Zimmermann being particular highlights). And while I didn't really engage with them this time, I do like the idea of stronger and more thematic programming. Brendel was magical, so too were the Bavarians.

But, this was no perfect year either, there some really turkeys: Tilson Thomas, the San Franciscans and Voigt being chief among them, but from what Finn says this was a poor year for staged opera and drama. But, awarding the benefit of the doubt, it is true that these are arguably the trickiest and most expensive areas. Mills had severe budget constraints, the festival having been over a million pounds in debt when he took it on, and if the rumours I have heard are accurate, next to nothing had been left on the slate. It is clearly the case both that McMaster behaved badly, in going out with such a glitzy and expensive programme and leaving the finances in such a state and, more crucially, that the Festival Council badly shirked their duty in the process of selecting an appointment. They should have done one of two things: appointed a director elect several years in advance or ensured the outgoing director had engaged much of the programming for a couple of years after his tenure. They chose not to choose and Mr Mills was left to pick up the mess.

Mr Mills has briefly given his own thoughts, and in particular highlighted the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. When the programme came out I deliberately elected to steer clear of this, apparently in the minority as it quickly sold out. I stayed away because I've heard two of his CDs, or at least exerts therefrom, on Radio 3's CD Review. Their disc of Beethoven's 7th symphony proved that I was wrong in thinking that the finale couldn't be taken too fast, though determining whether it was actually the absolute tempo or orchestra's inability to hold up to Dudamel's choice would require more comparative listening. The more recent attempt at Mahler's 5th symphony seemed fairly uninspired. Perhaps much of it is simply experiencing the passion live. The rave reviews would seem to bear this theory out. Then again, Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra manage to translate wonderfully to silver disc. If they return next year, I may have to sample them, if only to sate my curiosity on this matter.

There was a puzzling absence of top flight names: where was Mackerras, who achieved such acclaim with his Beethoven last year and has over the past few years built up an excellent relationship with both the festival and the SCO; brilliant though the Bavarians were, they were in a league of their own amongst the orchestras; and, of course, where was the eponymous Runnicles of whose recent performances with the BBC Scottish have shown wonderful chemistry and been a consistent highlight [in fairness to the director, it appears this will be rectified in future].

I'm therefore going to go for a fudge in so far as making any kind of overall assessment is concerned. Some promising signs, others less so, but judgement reserved for the 2008 and 2009 programmes. With time to prepare and without the debt burden bequeathed him, Mills will have a freer hand and the standards against which he shall be judged will be higher. We await next April with interest (and hope that unlike last year, we may get some preliminary information in November).

Until then, and more particularly, until the madness restarts next August (amidst hopes that the Usher Hall restoration plan doesn't fall apart, relying as it does on the hall being closed until August, reopening for the festival and then closing again, what could possibly go wrong!) what will we be doing? In truth, where's Runnicles may not be any quieter. For a start, I already have no fewer than three trips to London planned between now and Christmas, which will fold in the Salonen and the LA Philharmonic in Sibelius, Jansons and the Bavarians again, Haitink conducting Wagner's Parsifal and, a little off the beaten track so far as this blog's standard faire goes, the electronic stylings of Thomas Dolby.

The core of it all, though, is that in a moment of semi-madness I picked up a season ticket for the SCO this year. I found that last year I went to virtually none of their programme and decided the best solution was just to go to everything: chamber music, six o'clock concerts, the lot (including one or two in Glasgow, either because the Queen's Hall is too small or because I've managed to double book one against Donald Runnicles' return, and there was no way the SCO was going to win that one).

And when I can find a moment in amongst all that, I'll be trying to keep up with the odd CD review. My Sibelius project remains ongoing (I recently finished Ashkenazy's Philharmonia cycle, now all I have to is type it up) as does the Runnicles discography. Not to mention the one or two reviews from last season that I still haven't quite got round to. Suffice to say you needn't worry about my keeping busy. And that's just me, I'm sure Finn will have a thing or two to say.

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Strauss and Schumann from Cologne and Poulenc from France (well, nearly)

Fresh from the experience of San Francisco, things could only get better. However, my expectations were not high for the Gurzenich Orchestra, after all, they are also the orchestra of Cologne Opera, whom Finn had not overly appreciated in Capriccio. Furthermore, Gabriele Fontana, who was joining the programme with the last minute addition of three Strauss songs, had come in for particular criticism.

But, it's always as well to go in with low expectations, that way it's harder to be disappointed (though not impossible, as anyone who watched Star Wars, Episode Two: Attack of the Clones, can surely attest). I was further aided in that I came fresh from the pub as a colleague had just left, which can't have hurt.

They began with Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. It was clear for the outset that this was not a first rate orchestra and there were a few too many fluffed notes. The reading too lacked variety, for much of the time too fast and too furious and not enough luxuriating in the richness of Strauss's orchestration. Better was to follow with some newish music: Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Photoptosis. Stenz (the conductor) turned to address the audience and gave us a passionate explanation of the piece that put the programme note to shame. Essentially, and I'm afraid I am not doing his explanation justice, the piece is all about rays of light. In the first section the music captures a vast blue canvas, in the second he shows it up close and in detail, littered with quotes from Beethoven, Bach, Wagner and much more (there are twelve apparently, of which I spotted both from Beethoven's 9th, the Wagner, from Parsifal, and I think possibly the Brandenburg). The third section gives what Stenz described as a moment of calm, based on the idea of light as a wave (sad particle physicists, or those with a smattering of knowledge such as myself, will know that the truth is more complicated and that it is both waves and particles, but the odds are you probably don't want to know that). It builds to a close and mesmerises in a rather Messiaenic way. A wonderfully fresh piece and well played, it clearly helped that the conductor had great enthusiasm for it, though I wonder whether it's the kind of work that doesn't transfer well to the silver disc. Either way it was something of a highlight.

The second half brought us Schumann's 3rd 'Rhenish' symphony. I'm not hugely familiar with Schumann's work, but the third is one of those pieces that is instantly familiar (a little like Mendelssohn's 4th in that regard). The orchestra's playing was somewhat ropey and there was a lack of focus both in comparison to the Bavarians but also to the San Franciscans. But that didn't really matter because they had something much better: passion. The orchestra was brimming over with enthusiasm (perhaps not quite so much so as, say, Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of Arab and Israeli teenagers a couple of years ago but certainly an unusually impressive amount). This more than made up for the flaws in the playing, of which there were plenty, and resulted in a far more satisfying experience than anything delivered by Tilson Thomas.

The concert closed with an appearance by Gabriele Fontana, a late addition to the programme and fresh from her performances in Capriccio. She gave us 3 Strauss songs: Das Rosenband, Morgen! and Cacilie. Finn had warned me of the quality of her voice, which had been one of the many things that he had found lacking in Capriccio and having had my expectations of what a soprano could do suitably lowered by Deborah Voigt, I was forearmed as she took to the stage. On the plus side Stenz provided perfectly good accompaniment. But Fontana's voice was simply not very good. It was, however, fascinating to listen to: every now and again you would think 'oh, this is quite nice' and then suddenly it would go horribly off and sour. She is a singer best avoided.

Still, all in all it was an enjoyable evening in the concert hall. I'm very glad to have heard the Zimmermann, and may well have to seek out a recording, and I was thoroughly swept along in the Schumann. While not the greatest orchestra I've heard, and certainly comparing poorly against Scotland's three main ones, they were far from the worst.

Saturday 1st September brought the closing concert, not counting the fireworks, which I don't, and the realisation that this review isn't even vaguely timely. Deneve led the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a celebration of Poulenc, about whose music I know next to nothing other than that he's French. I will confess that in the past I've been a little lukewarm about Deneve, his Bruckner 4th last year fell flat, for example, and in truth the evening's main draw was soprano Christine Brewer. However, it seems I may have been unfair to Deneve. Here, in French repertoire, he is clearly at home and very persuasive. He got some wonderful playing from the RSNO throughout, and really underscored how much they've closed the distance with the BBC Scottish in the last couple of years. But the star was Christine Brewer: her effortless power soaring over the orchestra, the sheer beauty of her voice. I would be interested to find out if she's recorded the work.

Following the interval came the organ concerto and an appearance by Gillian Weir (and some welcome use of the hall's organ, which hasn't really got the use it ought since its restoration in 2003). She gave a wonderful reading, and again left me anxious to become better acquainted with the work. Finally we received exerts from his opera Dialogues des Carmelites. Wonderfully played and sung, and directed. The drama was heightened at the end as the nuns arranged themselves in a row at the front of the stage (in such a manner that the BBC didn't place nearly enough microphones to properly catch the event). As the percussion sound for the guillotine came down, from left to right they bowed their heads one at a time. Actually, it was until about the 4th of these before I realised what the sound was (rather than some infuriating noise off), but the effect was powerful. It was one of the finest pieces of concert staging I've seen. Indeed, it called to mind the fact that in the Proms Gotterdammerung (superbly conducted by one Donald Runnicles, review to follow) a director was credited, despite the fact that any work he might have done wasn't much in evidence. Contrast the festival where I've seen many concert operas, and never once have I noticed such a credit (though, in truth, this was the only occasion I can recall where it would have been merited).

All in all it was a wonderful evening of French music and a fine close to the 2007 festival.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Here's Runnicles! - is a name change required? (or 'Best News Ever')

Well, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. World peace (or in the Middle-East, at least), cures for aids or cancer and an annulment of the Supreme Court's infamous decision of 2000 would all be better news. Even in the world of music I could imagine better (Runnicles to lead Ring cycle in revival of Scottish Opera's acclaimed production, the news following better funding and some decent management). Still, given our complaint that the eponymous Mr Runnicles has been too absent from the Scottish musical scene in recent years, indeed, the very name of this blog was a tongue in cheek jibe at the Festival for not engaging his services this year, it is hard to think of how the news of his return to Scotland could easily be topped.

True, it could be better. He could be joining an Orchestra on our side of the country (the BBC Scottish do not, sadly, do a joint programme, meaning I'll be contributing to increased revenues for train operators), but the RSNO seem very happy with Deneve and while the SCO are in need to a chief conductor, Runnicles has developed a very special relationship with the BBC Scottish over the last couple of years and it will be wonderful to hear this develop.

Of course, the real hole is at the top of Scottish Opera (the SCO seem to be humming along fine without a director). They have been leaderless since Richard Armstrong left. Actually, a check of the Scottish Opera website just now, shows that isn't quite true. Francesco Corti (who?) has been appointed, and apparently took up the post in August (though in quite what sense is a question worth asking since he will not actually conduct anything until the 2008/9 season). Unfortunately, given the current state and funding of the company and their failure to nurture young Scottish talent in recent years, without more substantial changes behind the scenes, a Runnicles directorship might well be wasted on it.

Runnicles will be spending a minimum of eight weeks a year with the orchestra and will both record and tour with them. Indeed, one of the great boons of this is that as many of the orchestra's concerts are broadcast on Radio 3, we will have a lot more of him on our airwaves. According to the BBC, the appointement will also mean engagements at the Edinburgh festival, the very lack or which this year gave us our name. He last appeared on 26th August 2006. Earlier that evening he was spied in the Grand Circle of the Usher Hall listening to Charles Mackerras's superb performance of Beethoven's 7th symphony (now available on Hyperion), sadly he was seated close enough to the door that he escaped harassment for an autograph. Three hours later he was standing before the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and leading a magical performance of Bruckner's 6th symphony (including an enchanting moment where he seemed almost to dance on the podium, and the orchestra with him). We stood at the end of that performance, in part because it was superb, in part to put our marker down to Mr Mills and impress upon him the importance of engaging Mr Runnicles in the future. To the extent that was our aim, we failed in so far as this year's programme was concerned. But from today's news we couldn't really have asked for more. The Scotsman and the Herald seem to agree.

Where's Runnicles? Well, over there in Glasgow (from 2009, at least). We'll be there to hear how it goes. Those who can't wait can catch him in April with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and MacMillan's 3rd symphony.

Wednesday 19 September 2007

From the sublime to the if not quite ridiculous, then certainly much less good (Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans)

It's not fair really. The Bavarians are one of the very best orchestras in the world, and to have to follow them is not a task to be envied. At the festival it fell to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. When I first spotted these two concerts in the programme I rushed to book both, in part because of the relative lack of top visiting orchestral names this year, in part because of the comparative absence of Mahler (though we have arguably been overserved with this composer in recent years). But after such drama and quality of playing, even a very fine ensemble would struggle to impress. I suppose, then, that the SFO deserve a measure of latitude in this regard. For reasons that may become apparent as I write, I feel Mr Tilson Thomas deserves none.

As they sat warming up on Wednesday 29th August, I could hear strains of the opening of the finale of Copland's 3rd symphony, which I ignorantly thought a little odd (since it wasn't on the programme). If I knew more about Copland than what is contained in my Bernstein Collectors Edition boxed sets, I would know that it's lifted from the Fanfare for the Comman Man, which was first up. It was also difficult not to notice that, for the third night running, the Usher Hall's own podium was absent. Mr Tilson Thomas, it seems, requires one that is entirely black (possibly to match his attire) and with no rail. The house lights dim. Nothing happens. Finally he emerges, takes his time bowing, before finally launching into the Copland. And what a tune this is. Tilson Thomas took it loudly, as one might argue a fanfare should be. But there was little variety to his reading. It was loud throughout. In truth, it was rather bland, there is no comparison with the range of emotion Bernstein finds on disc. We then moved onto a piece by Ruth Crawford Seeger, her Andante for Strings. Seeger is, according to the programme note, one of those composers whom history has unjustly neglected. Possibly the performance was to blame, but we didn't feel that history had been unkind. Without the slightest pause we lurched into Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, surely this was not what the composer intended. And what a fun piece this is and the SF orchestra played it well. But, once again, there was not quite enough variety to the reading.

What might be termed the overtures over, we got a concerto: Prokofiev's 3rd piano concert with soloist Yefim Bronfman (of whom I have heard good reports in Beethoven's first concerto with Mackerras) who, in an unfortunate error, does not seem to merit a credit at the front of the programme with everyone else. It's not a work I know, but in my experience Prokofiev isn't dull. Or rather, shouldn't be. Here it was, there was no edge to the orchestra. Contrast this with the finest readings on the LSO's cycle of the symphonies with Gergiev. The balance between soloist and orchestra was very poor too. The Usher Hall never normally has this problem, so I place the blame on Tilson Thomas for riding over the piano. This tracks with the fact that there didn't seem to be a huge amount of communication going on between soloist and conductor. The orchestra's quiet playing (something Tilson Thomas hadn't really asked of them before) wasn't a patch on the Bavarians. The variations in the central movement were truly bizarre, in that they didn't feel the least like a set of variations, so little variety was there in Tilson Thomas's reading, especially in tempi. All in all, it was a major disappointment taking us into the interval. A stiff drink was called for, certainly it couldn't hurt.

The second half was also from Russia, but this time Tchaikovsky's 1st symphony, Winter Daydreams, not that you'd have guessed the title from the reading we got, so lacking was it in any sense of temperature. Tension was missing too. There were some odd orchestral balances, especially with the flutes. Again the orchestra's skill in the quieter passages was an issue. However, in fairness, here at least Tilson Thomas did provide a measure of variation in his approach. The adagio began much more promisingly, here at last was some passion, some beauty. But it was fleeting. The reading soon slipped back into dullness. The scherzo was worse. He didn't really play it like a scherzo, and here his conducting was particularly odd - there would be huge sweeping gestures producing not the slightest audible effect (it should be noted that this was typical of his conducting, but simply more pronounced in this movement). In the finale, Mr Tilson Thomas clearly believed that fast and loud equalled exciting. He was mistaken. This is especially true when the band was unable to hold together at the tempi he selected, as too often it was. All in all, a deeply disappointing evening.

And yet we seemed to be in a minority (though the Herald's Michael Tumulty agreed with us, doling out a mere two stars). There was loud applause (though, had one had a decibel meter, it certainly would have been less than Jansons and his Bavarians achieved). Tilson Thomas flounced on and off the stage in the manner of a man who fancies himself to an unbelievable degree. I was reminded of the film Top Gun: "Son, your ego's writing cheques your body can't cash." We got an encore and he decided to announce it. The one time a conductor needn't have bothered, since the Overture to Bernstein's Candide is rather hard to miss. He talked too much introducing it, one rather wished he'd been influenced rather more by the great man in his conducting. He took it too fast and thus provided no contrast with the lyrical second subject. Again, his orchestra was not always quite up to the tempi he chose.

Yet there was more applause, and more flouncing from Mr Tilson Thomas: he closed by miming that he was going off to bed after this - just in case we were concerned. When I got home I did something I almost never do: went to my CD collection and recreated part of the concert: Bernstein conducting the NYPO for the Tchaik and the Copland and the LSO for the Candide. The passion, the contrast he brought underscored just what had been lacking. The comparison was the more telling given Tilson Thomas's references to Bernstein, his work in San Francisco and encounters with Tilson Thomas when he introduced the encore.

It was, therefore, with trepidation and dramatically lowered expectations that I returned to the Usher Hall on Thursday 30th. In fairness, my expectations had already been knocked down twice before. A few months before the festival, while browsing in a CD shop, I picked up one of Tilson Thomas's Mahler recordings (the 5th) with the San Francisco orchestra, reasoning that as I was soon to hear them live, I might as well hear what I was letting myself in for; the results were not confidence inspiring. Then, there had been my brother's dire reports of Deborah Voigt. But even this could not have fully prepared me for the horror that was in store. Her voice is terrible, hideous even. She is quite unable to sustain long notes, be they low or high, quiet or loud, without cracks or wobbles. She was singing the final scene from Salome, but, to be honest, it was difficult to judge the piece as a whole or the accompaniment, so distracting was the voice. Another conductor might have provided more support, but I'm dubious about the extent to which it would have helped. Personally I feel that it shows some nerve to charge people to hear a singer who has wrecked her voice this completely. However, plenty in the audience disagreed and cheered loudly. I am at a loss to explain why. Often, for example when I find a performance dull and someone else is inspired, I can easily accept that it is purely a matter of taste, but I fail to see how anyone can find these sorts of technical flaw appealing. I was not altogether alone - a number of people did not return from the interval.

The second half could only be better. Though I did wonder if I wouldn't have been wiser to join my brother for Capriccio. After the interval we were given Mahler's 7th symphony. I have been fond of this work ever since I first heard it in concert from Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. They gave a wonderfully coherent performance that completely made sense of this as Mahler's long journey through the night. It was not to be repeated on this occasion. The first movement was rather bland, but more critically it was far too bright and upbeat where a journey into the dark, the unknown, is so much more appropriate. He seemed to have little sense of any big picture (a shame as there are moments in this work were Mahler hints at where he's going). However, it did help to answer one question I had had. How good an orchestra might this be without Tilson Thomas? There are a number of solos in which, unfortunately, the players were in general unflatteringly exposed, the euphonium and first trombone excepted. I should point out something here. When I voiced this view on the Radio 3 messageboard recently I was derided and all but called an idiot since this passage isn't scored for the instrument. I myself was surprised to see it, but I know a euphonium when I see one, and sure enough, after the proms, a former professional trombonist confirmed this. The second movement got off to a poor start too, but the insights into Tilson Thomas's conducting kept flowing: the more complex becomes the score (and in this symphony it gets very complex), the less activity there is from him. Again, in this nachtmusik, any sense of night was as absent as the winter in the previous evening's Tchaikovsky. The off stage percussion didn't work at all, and I was left wishing for Donald Runnicles, who has a wonderful sense for such things. As the scherzo opened he finally seemed to have something to say. But soon things reverted to blandness as he is apparently only interested in the big tunes. There is a wonderful sense of 'things that go bump in the night' when this is well played. Not in this performance. The second nachtmusik was even blander. This movement is bizarre, surreal (with its lute), for me it calls to mind those oddest of dreams that make no sense and come shortly before waking. But Tilson Thomas was going out of his way, or so it seemed, to iron any of that sort of thing out. And so to the finale. One of the toughest pieces that Mahler wrote - the amount going on in the orchestra can make it difficult to hold together coherently (both for conductor and players) and even the great Mahlerian Klaus Tennstedt never fell in love with it. But I adore the daybreak encapsulated in this, with its pastiche of Wagner's Meistersing. Given this team had struggled with speed and complexity, I expected a train wreck here. For the most part it was, though not quite as awful as might have been expected. It doesn't help him that they have in no way earned a daybreak - we haven't been on the long journey through the night, so it is meaningless. The end, where light finally triumphs, was just muddled.

There was loud applause. There were also people leaving. Odd for Mahler in Edinburgh, given it wasn't running long. Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans have not only recorded this, but have won a Grammy. I cannot for the life of me explain why that may be. Especially given the work Abbado has been doing with Mahler of late. As I headed for the pub, I wondered if Finn had had better luck at Capriccio. He hadn't and seemed as in need of libation as I was.

All in all, a deeply disappointing two evenings. And on top of it all sits the irritating Tilson Thomas. His infuriating self-adoration. His apparent disregard for anything not a big tune. His inability to pick tempi his orchestra can cope with or to communicate effectively with them. True, there are worse. Roger Norrington stands unique amongst artists I have seen in that he provoked feelings of physical violence from me (not acted upon, I hasten to add) as he constantly turned to the audience mid-performance, grinning maniacally. I so disliked the experience, I resolved then that I would not attend another concert from him or buy a CD. So, in the grand scheme of things, Tilson Thomas could have been worse, but I certainly shalln't rush to hear him or his orchestra again.