Let no such man be trusted

The man that hath no music in himself, that is.

Tonight to the SSO’s program, originally advertised as “London Calling” and featuring Vaughan Williams’ “A London Symphony” and Richard Hickox as conductor.

Hickox was replaced by Mark Wigglesworth (who is also stepping into Hickox’s shoes for Peter Grimes), and the London Symphony by a rejig of the program from:

The Wasps: Overture
Flos campi (Flower of the Field)
A London Symphony
(Symphony No.2, 1913 version)

to

BRITTEN Sinfonia da requiem
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Flos campi (Flower of the Field)
The Lark Ascending
Serenade to Music
ELGAR In the South

The result was to relocate the heavy lifting of the RVW symphony to the Britten and the Elgar, and leave behind an altogether more pastoral and benign version of Vaughan Williams – perhaps a little too much of the very sweetest stuff.

I suppose the SSO took some special step to alert me as a ticket holder to the change of program, but if so I overlooked it: the first inkling I had was when ABC Classic FM’s anticipatory publicity for the live broadcast didn’t mention the [or, properly, “A”] London Symphony.

So it’s probably just as well that, having persuaded a musical but non concert-going colleague to take up my ticket in my absence on the strength of the London symphony, I took it back once I was back in town.

My neighbour was a young man who informed me that he’d just got into the Sydney Sinfonia for next year. His teacher was Ronald Prussing, so obviously he is a trombonist. I’m not sure if much of the RVW was really up his street for fairly obvious instrumental reasons.

Those obvious reasons, just in case they aren’t obvious, are the absence of any trombone parts: in my experience young orchestral musicians are pretty partisan about their own patch of the orchestra.

Fortunately, both the Elgar and the Britten offered compensations.

The Britten is his first really big work, commissioned, amazingly, for the purported 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese empire. You have to wonder how Britten ever came to accept the commission: Japan’s belligerence was already well known. My own guess is that, as a young artist on the make, he just couldn’t resist it. Then perhaps having had second thoughts he responded with what must be one of the most ungracious ever fulfilments of a commission: a work which, evoking Christian forms and dealing with death, cannot have failed to have and must surely have been intended to offend. Some (probably liberal, western-oriented) Japanese cultural official must surely have had cause to regret that he ever thought of young Benjamin. I wonder if he was there when the work was finally premiered (BB conducting) in Japan in 1956.

There is a kind of sport with early works of composers – identifying influences and precursors to what with hindsight can be thought of as their mature style. In this case, the first movement has a melodramatic massiveness which I don’t think BB ever after assayed. In the second movement I wondered whether BB had been listening to a bit of Shostakovich or whether they’d both been listening to Mahler: this movement contained the most hints of BB’s mature style. In the third movement – well, even a left-wing composer in Britain in the 30s could probably not escape the influence of Sibelius.

The first half closed with ‘Flos Campi.’ It is very lovely stuff with a viola solo (Roger Benedict) and with the choir, which sings wordlessly, providing a halo of built in reverberation. There was also a rather odd “red Indian” (but probably actually Appalachian in the Cecil Sharp sense) section.

In the second half, in the additional sweetener section, we got rather more of the same. Michael Dauth lent his own style (more reserved than, say, Dene Olding’s) to the Lark Ascending and also had a prominent solo in the Serenade to Music. This is a setting of the final quasi-nocturne in Merchant of Venice when the characters discuss music in a kind of lyrical postlude. The relevant text from which the heading to this post is derived is:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.

Actually, I was a bit worried about my neighbour on this score, as for a musician he spent an inordinate amount of time reading his program – I am afraid that rather a lot of the music (albeit, much of it short on trombone moments) must have passed him by. He told me that free tickets to SSO concerts were a benefit conferred on him by the Sinfonia membership: maybe (now I’m sounding about doctors serenading the virtues of copayments and the vice of bulk billing under Medicare) there should be some, nominal charge. Then again, it’s true that many young musicians are keener on playing than on listening and there’s nothing really new about that.

There is a luxury version of the Serenade with about a dozen [16, in fact] soloists. The SSO took the more prudent approach (given that Cantillation was already on tap for Flos Campi) of doing the version with choir and a quartet of vocal soloists. It is only stating the obvious to say that they took a budget approach to the choice of soloists, who didn’t even merit a picture or biography in the program booklet. The men were fine but maybe a bit more money could have been spent on the ladies.

There is a section where the music takes a darker turn when the words explain how it is that the music of the spheres cannot be heard by mortal souls “whilst this muddy vesture of decay/ Doth grossly close it in.” At this point the hall where I was sitting was invaded by a sinister buzzing sound which can only have emanated from the amplification system (or from my own tinnitus: though for me this usually takes a high-pitched whistle rather than a buzz). Fortunately, this proved to be transient.

The Elgar was a bigger work than I anticipated, and made for a dashing finale. The opening was reminiscent of the prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. It is easy to see why Strauss thought highly of Elgar and in this work Elgar was at his most Straussian [well maybe not most Straussian: I have since heard the broadcast of Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Elgar’s “tone poem,” Falstaff, though that is perhaps early Strauss, whereas this goes further forward], including a closing section reminiscent of the finale to Rosenkavalier but without such taxing high string divisi writing (very wise: I doubt if London strings could match Dresden’s, Munich’s or Vienna’s at this time).

Despite my own (rather bemusing) oddly puritanical guilt at such almost entirely unalloyed pleasure, it was a most engrossing and captivating concert. Any minor regrets about the program changes pale in comparison to the wrench that Richard Hickox is not here (conducting whatever) and with us still as originally planned.

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