Monday 31 January 2011

Peter Oundjian appointed as Music Director of the RSNO from 2012

We've known for a little while now that the 2011/12 season will be Stéphane Denève's last as music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. As such, there's been some speculation as to who might replace him. Indeed, for the last few weeks I've had a now redundant draft blog post of rampant speculation sitting on my computer. Perhaps most intriguing was the suggestion by Kenneth Walton in the Scotsman earlier this month that Saraki Oramo, formerly of the CBSO and currently doing great things with both the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and, as our rave reviews of their appearances at the Edinburgh International Festival over the last five years attest, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Given he has never worked with the RSNO, it always seemed rather a long shot. Walton, it turns out, was wide of the mark, both with that, and his suggestion that:
[Outgoing Chief Executive Simon] Woods is unlikely to be party to announcing a replacement, leaving that up to his successor.
Yet there did not seem any glaringly obvious choice. Fine young conductor James Lowe hasn't worked with the orchestra since his term as associate conductor ended in 2007, more's the pity. A glance through the guest conductors of the last few seasons didn't throw up any especially obvious candidates either.

Peter Oundjian (Photo - Cylla von Tiedemann)

In the end, Woods and the RSNO have turned to British Canadian conductor Peter Oundjian (Google reveals differing opinions as to whether it is pronounced "oon-jen", "oon-jun", "un-gin" or "un-jun"). Since 2004 he has been music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a post he will continue to hold concurrently with the RSNO job. True, his CV may look a little thin in conducting terms, given he is in his middle 50s: past posts include principal guest conductorships of the Colorado and Detroit Symphony Orchestras and most of the biggest orchestral names are absent from the list of those he has appeared with. Having said that, in large part this is probably explained by his having spent a good chunk of his career, some 14 years, as first violin of the Tokyo Quartet. And, let's remember, Robin Ticciati came to the SCO with a pretty short CV and is doing great things.

Despite some exceptional playing, Elder and the LSO don't quite find The Kingdom

Ever since the current London Symphony Orchestra season was announced, Elgar's The Kingdom under the baton of Mark Elder has stood out for me as a potential highlight. Not only is it my favourite of his big choral works, but when Elder brought the Halle to Edinburgh to perform The Dream of Gerontius in 2009 in was an extraordinary experience. (Preferring The Kingdom almost certainly puts me in a minority, but I have good company from the likes of Adrian Boult.)

From the outset, Elder had some handicaps to contend with this time. Some, such as the harsh and constraining acoustic of the Barbican Hall and the lack of an proper organ, were largely beyond his control. Others, such as the decision to split the work in two, were not. This was done in Edinburgh too and in both cases was doubtless to prevent the loss of interval bar takings. On both occasions it lessened the dramatic impact. It wouldn't happen in Mahler 3 (a work of comparable length), and doesn't any longer in the Verdi Requiem. It is a pity Elgar's choral works do not seem to have outgrown the practice.

From the opening bars it was clear we were in for a special treat orchestrally, and as the main theme was introduced for the first time it brought a tear to my eye. Elder drew out some of the finest playing I have heard from the orchestra and displayed a mastery at building the emotional swells that are so critical to great Elgar. In terms of tempi it seemed slightly higher octane than his superb recording with the Halle.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Great Performers at the Barbican in 2011/12 (and more)

In parallel with the LSO's announcement of their next season, the Barbican have published details of their other classical programming. While the Great Performers strand will doubtless draw the most attention it isn't what has me most excited, which is this. It seems that the BBC Symphony Orchestra are doing a Sibelius cycle next year, which is good news to begin with. The icing on the cake, though, is that concert of the 3rd symphony and more under the baton of Sakari Oramo. Not only is he one of my favourite conductors and Sibelius one of my favourite composers, but, for my money, he is one of the finest Sibelians around today (those with Spotify can hear his CBSO recordings here). The remainder of the cycle is in other hands.

Following this, the next thing to grab me is also a British orchestra - the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with their chief conductor Andris Nelsons and soloists Sarah Connolly, Toby Spence and James Rutherford in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

A little déjà vu as the London Symphony Orchestra announce their 2011/12 season

At risk of sounding like a broken record, given I said this when the London Symphony Orchestra unveiled their current season, and indeed the preceding one, January is a little early for a season launch, leading to bookings almost 18 months ahead. I much prefer the March and April timeframe adopted by the three main Scottish orchestras. And this time round it didn't even seem like the LSO themselves were quite ready to launch: the website went live on Monday yet it took another two days before a PDF download of the season appeared. For an organisation normally such a slick exemplar of how an orchestra should do digital engagement, this looked sloppy. If you haven't finished the brochure you shouldn't be launching. In fairness to the LSO, they aren't alone - often organisations seem to announce with PDFs following later in the day, or days. It's baffling: how hard can it be? Still, it's the content that matters at the end of the day.

The first thing that jumped out at me was this programme of Beethoven's 1st and 9th symphonies from John Eliot Gardiner. It jumped out because I was at that exact concert last February - even the soloists were identical. Indeed, when I saw an advance copy back in January I wondered if this was a mistake. Now, I suppose one should expect Beethoven 9 to come up fairly often, but what about a different pairing, or something different?

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Ticciati and the SCO launch their chamber ballets series, but it's a hen that lays the golden egg

Walking into the Queen's Hall on Saturday night there was a rather disconcerting sight: diggers and workmen loudly churning up the pavement owing to a suspected gas leak. Fortunately the only explosions were musical and the walls proved thick enough to keep out the din.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Sat 22 January 2011 0423

The programme was the first of three centred around some of Stravinsky's chamber ballets, in this case Jue de cartes. For the occasion the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's ranks were swelled to more or less their limit - I can't recall the last time they had three trombones on stage. Indeed, this, in the relative confines of the Queen's Hall, presented a potential problem in terms of excess volume. Yet Ticciati, while he sometimes sailed close to wind, judged things well and ensured we weren't swamped. It was given a good reading with some fine playing, the bass section (led by Nikita Naumov) on particularly fine form. Sadly the regular bassoon section of Peter Whelan and Alison Green were absent, and it was keenly felt with some prominent parts. John McDougal wasn't bad, there weren't wrong notes, but the difference in tone compared with what we have come to expect from Whelan nicely exemplified the difference between a good player and a great one.

Monday 24 January 2011

Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Another Successful Rossini Revival at the Royal

The success of this revival of Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia may be measured by the transformation it worked in my mood. When I left for the Royal Opera I was feeling tired and grumpy. It had been a long week at work, and I suffered through a ghastly train journey from Lincoln to Peterborough seated (on a full train) next to somebody playing tuneless music at a horrendous decibel level. It was another of those occasions when one wonders why one has booked the ticket. By the time I left the Royal Opera House I was practically skipping, not to mention grinning from ear to ear. Proof yet again that Rossini in the right hands is the best tonic I know to the stresses and strains of regular life.

The show started as it meant to go on, with a sparkling performance of the overture from the orchestra under Rory Macdonald. The strings had a wonderful jaunty lightness of touch, the woodwind and brass were playful, even cheeky, and Macdonald ratcheted the thing up and up to a feverish speed. By the end I was grinning from ear to ear, my enjoyment only marred by the infuriating woman next to me who kept rustling her sweet packet (she and her companion were soon whispering away, though they fortunately disappeared after the interval).

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Collapse? I wish we knew

Collapse is a problematic film. On the one hand it raises important and interesting questions, yet on the other its many flaws undermine the message a more rigorous treatment might carry.


Described as a documentary, it is effectively eighty minutes of Michael Ruppert talking to camera (well, more or less: generally shot at an angle and poorly lit so his eyes are barely visible) interspersed with various archive footage, an ominous minimalist score playing in the background. He ranges broadly, from economics, to oil, to apocalypse, not always quite connecting the dots.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Twelfth Night at the National, or in which Peter Hall comes over all HIP

Note: This review is of a Preview performance on Saturday 15th January 2011. The Press Night will take place on Tuesday 18th January 2011.

Twelfth Night is one of my favourite plays. Unfortunately it is also a play where I have a very distinct benchmark, and one is which is probably rather unfair. That is, my benchmark is the BBC film (1996) which includes among its roster of stars Imelda Staunton as Maria, Ben Kingsley as Feste, Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, and Imogen Stubbs as Viola. This production does a slightly better job of the play than the recent Donmar West End production which I didn't rate at all, but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a triumph.

Fundamentally, there is no sense of a director with a driving vision of the piece. Now I agree that driving visions of pieces can be over-rated (and modern opera productions are littered with the catastrophes created by such visions). However the lack of such a vision can be equally serious – one feels here somewhat as if Hall has nothing really compelling to say to us about this play. This is the more exposed because of the decision to print an essay by Hall about the play dating from 1960 which raises a number of interesting questions about the piece most of which are nowhere to be seen under consideration in this staging. Instead, the main distinguishing feature is a stylistic one, which is that Peter Hall has got a bad dose of HIP (otherwise known as Historical Informed Performance). In this case the HIP approach Hall calls upon is what one might call the Globe Theatre effect and, in particular, a fundamental, and frankly rather unsuccesful, attempt to turn the Cottesloe audience into groundlings. Two particular failures may be listed here: the effect of the approach on Rebecca Hall's (Viola) delivery of her brief sililoquys, and the attempt to get a bit of audience participation going at the end of the piece. Both these points we shall return to. There are also some suprising lapses in the management of the ensemble on stage. Rebecca Hall has to do an unconvincing half circle of the stage to avoid spotting Sebastian at the beginning of the recognition scene, while Simon Callow (Sir Toby) and his acolytes speak ridiculously loudly and are so close to Malvolio in the letter scene that his inability to notice them is dangerously near to being unconvincing.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Alfred Brendel at 80

January 5th 2011 was the 80th birthday of one of the greatest, if now retired, living pianists. Decca, which has now completely absorbed the Philips label that Alfred Brendel has been with since the 1970s, have dipped into the archives and released this set to cash in on, I mean commemorate, the occasion. Spotify users can hear the set here.

brendel birthday.jpg

Unlike his Artists Choice series, which contains some fabulous releases which are frequently superior to their studio counterparts, it is not clear if Brendel has actually picked these himself - certainly it is not explicitly stated on Decca's website or on the CD case. In addition, Brendel's own words do not generally mark them as favourites in the same way. Sadly, for the most part the set is something of a damp squib and hard to recommend.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Some new thoughts for the new year

Regular readers may have noticed a drop in the number of reviews and posts lately. There are several reasons for this, among them that there was a little less on in December than some months and my being laid low by flu over Christmas and the New Year, which, in case you are wondering, is not a fun way to spend the festive period. One potential post that fell by the wayside in part for this second reason was a roundup of my favourite live concerts and performances of the last year. This isn't that post, not least because it would have been largely rehashing what I've already written about the more exceptional concerts (such as Bruckner 8 and Mahler 8, Fidelio and the Kronos Quartet).

One thrilling concert experience hasn't been chronicled here, though. Thursday 3rd December found me playing my trombone (not all that well, as normal, since I don't practice very much) in the winter concert of the Stockbridge and New Town Community Orchestra, or SNOTCO, as we prefer to be known.

We started the concert with Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 which has long been a favourite piece of mine. That said, the thrill of listening to it is, it turns out, as nothing next to the electricity that I felt playing it. That's not something I'd say about everything we play. Probably it helped that it got me thinking back to that performance of Fidelio.