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London Symphony Orchestra

by Suzanne Yanko

The London Symphony Orchestra’s visit to Melbourne was all too brief, but Classic Melbourne benefitted from hearing not just the concert, but also masterclasses hosted by the Australian National Academy of Music on the same day.

The LSO’s website claims simply that it is “widely regarded as one of the world’s leading orchestras”, a claim that few would dispute. Its regular conductors are among the world greats, and this night in Melbourne it was Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev, appropriately in an all-Russian program that comprised:

Prokofiev – Symphony No.1 Op 25 Classical

Stravinsky – Petroushka (1947 version)

Shostakovich – Symphony No.10 Op 93

Maestro Gergiev acknowledged the warm welcome given by the capacity audience in Hamer Hall (tickets had been keenly sought), and set to work almost immediately. Contrary to the cliched concept of flamboyant Russian musicians, Gergiev is almost businesslike in his approach; a small, contained figure, he famously conducts with a “toothpick”. In fact, his baton is a little larger than that, but nowhere near most conductors’ basic tool of the trade. Instead, Gergiev uses his hands with direct purpose and great expressiveness when needed – and that was often, in a concert of 20th century music that had emerged from a century of Romanticism and was often infused with national sensibilities.

The Prokofiev was an excellent choice to begin, being a homage to Classical symphonies (such as those of Haydn) in its form and instrumentation. There was a massive strings presence, however, and the scope of the composition as well as the very fine phrasing and rich strings sound made the opening Allegro an impressive introduction to the orchestra. The delicately played Larghetto was more stylised than emotive, but had a lot of movement, for example in the steady march of the lower strings. A long pizzicato for all strings tested the limits of the conductor’s control but proved to be a challenge well met. A stately Gavotte is perhaps the best-known part of the Symphony. Gergiev treated it with respectful precision, an attitude he then used to keep the Finale (molto vivace) in check. The orchestra, however, appeared to relish the work’s showiness, with the winds contributing to a great finish – and a great start to the program.

Thirty years after Prokofiev wrote the Classical Symphony came the 1947 version of Stravinsky’s Petroushka – and this performance showed how much freer composition had become. Best known as music for the ballet of the same name Petroushka has a story to tell, which dictates the choice of instruments (including the piano to represent the puppet of the title) and the carnival setting. The busyness of a country fair is evoked from the outset, with tootling winds, insistent trumpets – even a suggestion of a barrel organ! With clever syncopation adding to the mix there should by rights be chaos – but Gergiev ensured this was not so, right to the final perfectly aligned chord of the first Scene.

A beautiful flute signals a change of mood for the romance of the Ballerina and the Blackamoor, and the intrusion of the jealous Petrushka (brilliantly signalled by pianist John Alley). As the scene changes to evening at the fair – including a dance, performing bear, a chase and murder, and a ghost – Gergiev’s “toothpick” is again hard put to highlight all the elements at play. They include brilliant brass and dramatic percussion, with a slow waltz featuring tuba and flute achieving the slightly shifting slow melody against the urgency of the orchestra as a whole. As the death march is heard while the ghost hovers, Gergiev’s management of the conflicting time signatures was one of his (and the orchestra’s) crowning achievements in this work.

It is worth saying at this point that these first two works not only confirmed the reputation of conductor and orchestra, they illustrated the extent of virtuosic playing in every section. There was no need for a soloist – the orchestra was full of them. This could potentially cause difficulties (as many a choir full of strong voices has found) but did not; it simply made every entry of every instrument a joy to hear. Gergiev’s achievement was in drawing out each performer without allowing any one to dominate – except at the moments where Prokofiev intended that they should!

Finally there was Shostakovich – his Symphony No.10 Op 93. This great symphony is memorable for many reasons, one being the sombre lower strings, with a recurrent fugal theme; another being the importance of wind instruments in setting the emotional tone throughout. The work is most powerful, however, in drawing the listener into to a dramatic world of sound, and I have to confess I stopped taking notes and gave over to the experience. Even in the most thrilling crescendos Gergiev conducted with a calm that belied the sound he drew from this great orchestra. The Slavic melody that infused the ending lifted the work – and of course, the performers – beyond even comment. I expect this will be one of the most unforgettable experiences of my career as a reviewer. What more can I say?

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Suzanne Yanko thanks the Arts Centre, Victoria, for her review ticket to the LSO’s only Melbourne concert, at Hamer Hall on November 28.

 Earlier in the day, Heather Leviston saw another side of some of the great performers in this orchestra as she reports …

The London Symphony Orchestra did more than enthral the audience at their Hamer Hall concert; as a prelude, four LSO members gave masterclasses at the Australian National Academy of Music to a selection of students on the day of the concert. In the morning the classes were for percussion and horn while the afternoon brought Principal Cello, Tim Hugh, and Principal Clarinet, Andrew Marriner.

Because I was with a couple of clarinet playing and teaching friends, it seemed like a good idea to start with Andrew Marriner and his three students in the main hall for the first hour then whip upstairs to hear the remainder of the cello students for the second hour of the two hour classes. There are times when you wish you could be in more than one place at the same time. Suffice to say that Andrew Marriner’s teaching was so insightful and enlivening that I couldn’t drag myself away. My clarinet teaching friend took copious notes throughout and my clarinet playing friend kept wondering why her teachers had never said any of this to her.

Andrew Marriner’s class would have been among the most illuminating of the many master classes that I have attended. Always immensely helpful, encouraging and good humoured, he shared his knowledge with the three highly talented ANAM clarinettists in the most generous and positive way possible. Among many other things, I learned was that instead of saying, “That was sharp”, it is more diplomatic/less discouraging to say that the offending notes were “slightly on the cheerful side”.

How Andrew Marriner managed to put so much energy and enthusiasm into this masterclass, given the LSO’s hectic schedule, is a mystery. In any event, we can be thankful for the generosity of the LSO musicians and the fact that ANAM continues to provide wonderfully enriching musical experiences for student and professional musicians and the general public.

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