London calling

Last, wind-chilly,  Friday night, to the SOH to hear the SSO in a concert marketed under the title “Channel Crossings.”

The program was a mix of English and French music:

  • BAX Tintagel
  • RAVEL Piano Concerto in G
  • VAUGHAN WILLIAMS A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)


The irony of this on the night that the UK (or the English parts of it, at least) had voted to leave the EU did not pass unremarked.

John Wilson, whose visit probably owed more to the previous week’s concert of movie music, conducted. Jonathan Biss was the pianist.

You’d think “Tintagel” would count as the rarity on this program.  In fact I last heard it in 2009.  I enjoyed it more this time than last time and was less inclined to discount it as the precursor of a thousand British maritime film scores: it made me think of the first act of Tristan, though I can’t say I explicitly recognised the reference to the “Sick Tristan” theme which comes in the middle.

The Ravel, sadly, seemed to be over almost as soon as it began.  It is one of my favourite piano concerti.   I wouldn’t say that Biss swept the audience off their feet or that the co-ordination between orchestra and pianist was as crisp as it might have been (especially in the first movement), but I still enjoyed it and not just because it is a great work.

Just this week I had taken part in an SSO poll which asked what would improve your subscription series and now, too late, I had an answer: L’Enfant et les Sortileges! Or even L’Heure Espagnole.  Some may have thought we had a surfeit of Ravel in the Gelmetti years, but I’m definitely ready to hear more of his less-performed works.  I also want to hear the Litolff Scherzo one day, by the way, though maybe including the whole work would be a bit of a stretch.

I was surprised to find that I had last heard  the SSO play the Vaughan Williams in 1991.  I can’t say I remembered it specifically, but I did remember it making a strong impression, so that I was looking forward to it very much when the SSO’s projected performance was cancelled in 2009 owing to Richard Hickox’s unavailability.  The first movement, incidentally, has a snippet which sounds just like a bit out of Phantom of the Opera – the theatre-organ melodramish bit.  How ignominious for RVW.  Apart from that, the symphony is pretty pastoral for an avowedly urban work (though RVW did say it was a Londoner’s rather than a London one).  I liked the Bloomsbury Square in November slow movement with muted strings (I’m a sucker for these) and gentle triplet figures the most, though the Mass-in-G-ish ending was also quite magical and held the audience in rapt silence for quite a time before applause began.

I would have enjoyed the concert more were it not for my lady neighbour who spent the entire evening re-arranging her forearms about once every 30 seconds and looking at her watch.  At first I thought it was because she was cold but I think probably just restless and a bit bored. Hard to tell.  I should have moved.

Afterwards, for once, I headed to the Northern Foyer for one of these “Night Lounge” events which the SSO has been running after some concerts.  The goal is to make the orchestra more groovy for younger people – perhaps also to offer other outlets for the musicians. The other reason offered as an incentive to go (not applicable to me) is to sit out the traffic jam in the car park.

It was the promise of witnessing a serpent in action which took me there.  Scott Kinmont played that with Bassist David Campbell and percussionist Mark Robinson in an improvisation on a chant by Hildegard von Bingen; Kinmont was replaced by  Emma West and Alex Norton for a spirited percussioned-up Vivaldi version of La Folia.  Then an even larger cast, headed by singer Katey Wadey, performed “Blues Fall” from “Tombstones” by Michael Pisaro.  We got a slightly incoherent introduction about this from bassist Ben Ward and I still don’t really understand where it was coming from or what it was about, but I allowed myself to mellow with the atmosphere (quieter and darker SOH) and a glass of Shiraz.

The whole thing was a pleasing kind of coda to the main show.  It’s good to see some of the musicians close up and doing something a bit different away from that nineteenth-century industrial machine or factory which we call an orchestra.

We were played out with a more perky song – all about Georgia but not the song I already knew.  Afterwards the younger musicians hung around with their friends as the rest of us left past the odd cleaner.

The next Night Lounge, we were told, is in October.  That seems a long way away for anything to catch on as a regular thing.  Then again, being the SSO, there were almost more staff than musicians in attendance and I suppose they have to watch their budget.

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