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Music: 80th Birthday Concert \ BBC Symphony Orchestra \ Barbican

October 24, 2010

Friday night was party night for the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Concert Hall on Friday 22 October.

Inevitably, this was a tame party. No drunk teenage girls perched on the stairs trying to avoid the desperate advances of teenage boys eager to show off their alcohol fuelled prowess at an ill-thought out Saturday night bash at home.

No one was rowdy. Everyone even had their mobile phones switched off – largely because the moment the doors shut at the Barbican Concert Hall all connection with the outside is thankfully severed.

But there was a relaxed feel to the concert. Chris Cooke – the tallest presenter I’ve ever seen with the most gorgeous of voices on the Radio 3 network – guided the audience through the concert, papering over the delays whilst an army of stage managers reset the platform for a range of large scale works.

Short film excerpts kept the energy up as audience and orchestra members alike peered into archive footage of previous BBC Symphony Orchestra performances (the earliest from 1935 shows that in some respects classical music television hasn’t really changed that much so much so that we mourn the brief excursion into daring shots and screenwipes peppered through Pierre Boulez’s studio productions of the late 1970s).

No surprises that amongst this party atmosphere, the audience was at one stage invited to wish the orchestra a happy birthday in time-honoured tradition. I hope to God that doesn’t make it to the broadcast in Wednesday evening’s Performance on 3. The singing was a little lack-lustre, it has to be said. Maybe they were a little shy.

Seemingly cast-adrift at the top of the programme was Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture. Its relevance was that it was one of two works the orchestra played in their inaugural concert in 1930, a nod to the revolution Richard Wagner’s contribution to the operatic canon had made 80 odd years before.

The concert programme for the BBC Symphony Orchestra clearly set the tone of the band back in 1930. Hearing the overture now in isolation seemed a little odd however, almost as though its tuneful popularity had eclipsed the composer somewhat. The work sounds overblown. Pompous even. Part Tchaikovsky in its momentary similarity with the 1812 overture, other times veering towards Gilbert and Sullivan. There’s nothing wrong with popularity, clearly. But take a snippet out of its original setting – today – and somehow something is lost.

ConcertO Duo composer Stephen McNeff

One world premiere DuO Concerto by Stephen McNeff and a UK premiere premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s D’Om Le Vrai Sens graced the middle section of the concert. Both large scale works demanding big platform settings, these performances underlined the contribution the BBC Symphony Orchestra still strives to maintain in today’s considerably larger orchestral scene.

On a personal level, McNeff’s DuO Concerto was the more successful. Breaking the usual conventions of two concerto soloists standing solemnly on stage as the music began, percussionists O Duo bounded onto stage with all the youthful bravado naturally expects of boys who love to creating a cacophany of sound. Percussionists were always the ‘cool’ mysterious people in the orchestra. The ones who could drink endlessly into the small hours of the morning and still arrive at rehearsals on time and fully alert. Light of foot, both performers didn’t disappoint here.

O Duo‘s performance was breathtaking. Players Oliver Cox and Owen Gunnell mastery of their instruments was quickly taken for granted. But more than that they achieved something rare in the concert environment (and something which sadly you won’t necessarily appreciate fully if you only get to hear this on the radio). As a pair of instrumentalists on stage they communicated with each other almost immediately. Separated by a large selection of percussion instruments at the front of the stage, you’d forgive them for concentrating solely on their own individual lines. And yet they didn’t. Such was their interaction with one another that there were moments when the fact that this was a world premiere was completely forgotten. Was this a work written solely for O Duo or something they had picked up, understood immediately and associated themselves with almost immediately?

D’Om Le Vrai Sens was less satisfying, possibly because it trod the fine line between music and performance art. One of the most technically demanding plays for any clarinettists (some of the sounds soloist Kari Kriikku delivered were stunning in his depiction of a unicorn in this setting of a collection of medieval portraits), the boundary between what was the composer’s intention and the soloist’s realisation were blurred, clearly making closer inspection and repeat listens of the work necessary. Where it succeeded in the concert hall was when the soloist wasn’t detached from proceedings – as at the beginning when his opening lines made determining where exactly in the hall he Kriikku was.

Ultimately however, it was a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring rounding off the concert which ticked the most boxes. On paper it had all the potential of being just another performance of the Rite. Everyone plays it. Everyone knows it. And when you listen to it more and more it’s initial impact lessens somewhat.

And yet, the BBC Symphony’s performance during this concert was none of those things. Indeed, it was the best I’ve heard them play in a long time, well-timed and fitting. Something underpinned by a comment made by one of the violinsts after the concert who explained how much the band liked playing it: “It’s one of those works which has been handed down through the ranks of the band since it started. We always love playing it.”

:: Listen to the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Performance on 3 on Wednesday 27 October via BBC Programmes or via the Radio 3 website or – who knows – live on the radio.

:: Performance on 3 is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Monday-Friday from 7pm

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