wed 12/08/2020

Kanneh-Mason, Philharmonia, Wilson online review - light in darkness | reviews, news & interviews

Kanneh-Mason, Philharmonia, Wilson online review - light in darkness

Kanneh-Mason, Philharmonia, Wilson online review - light in darkness

With starry soloist and sky-high production standards, this is a sure-fire winner

Twinkle-toed partnership: Sheku Kanneh-Mason and John WilsonAll images by Camilla Greenwell

Presenting online concerts has been a Matterhorn-steep learning curve for the music sector. Now, after a few months in which imaginations have been tested to the limit, it’s becoming clear what works and what doesn’t. All the more power, then, to the Philharmonia’s many elbows: in yesterday’s webcast, the first of three for their Summer Sessions series, they showed exactly what is possible once one dives into the chilly water. In a programme slightly under one hour long, conducted by John Wilson (who has grown a lockdown beard), Sheku Kanneh-Mason, justifiably British music’s man-of-the-moment, was the soloist for Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto and the orchestra’s string section completed the event with Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

I’ve been rather resistant to online orchestral concerts, because I miss the real thing like an amputated limb. Still, the level of excellence that came bowling out of my computer this time has just about changed my mind. Initially, seeing a smallish orchestra with players spaced wide apart had me wondering how the ensemble would work. Answer: extremely well, with a beefy, rich, unified orchestral tone rising around the shabby-chic interior of Battersea Arts Centre (BAC). Do the players possibly have more room to let rip without being squeezed up together as if on a rush-hour bus? The brief interval offered interviews with, among others, the sound recordist, who revealed that the situation produces, as unexpected side-effect, a more spacious sound. 

Kanneh-Mason brought a light-filled, luminous tone to the Saint-Saëns concerto's twinkle-toed virtuosity, beautifully balancing its drive and vigour with moments of radiant lyricism. The French composer’s sound is unique, evoking worlds sometimes balletic, other times operatic, and John Wilson’s conducting was alive to both sides, keeping the drive and fizz zipping along irresistibly, while giving the soloist ample room to shine. The one real casualty of the situation was Saint-Saëns’ orchestration. With the three-metre separation rule for wind and brass instruments, some of the orchestral parts, notably the second woodwinds, unfortunately disappeared altogether. Wilson made it work nonetheless. Philharmonia session 1 in Battersea Arts CentreAs for the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, it’s the perfect piece for the occasion: it happens to include a socially-distanced sub-group of players as part and parcel of its scoring, and at its world premiere (in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910) the audience kept silent because of the ecclesiastical setting. Therefore the most uncomfortable thing about lockdown music - the lack of applause - could almost feel like an evocation of something vaguely “authentic”. 

Still, it looks as if the Philharmonia has struck gold with its format. It has partnered up with Classic FM for this series, so you can watch it on the radio station’s Facebook page, the orchestra’s website, or BAC's Youtube channel, and there’s a live chat facility should you want it. Watching the numbers tick upwards and the viewers clock in, it can be inspiring to see wave-emojis ping up from Brazil, Canada, Los Angeles and more as the world suddenly tunes in to south-west London. The quality of filming and the recorded sound were absolutely superb - other orchestras should note that you can’t cut corners on such things - and the characterful surroundings of the BAC added visual atmosphere galore. With starry soloist, conductor and repertoire cannily chosen and sky-high standards all round, this was a sure-fire winner, for audience and performers alike. We can look forward to two more in the series (22 August and 17 September). 

Most importantly, however, all these musicians were audibly and visibly playing their hearts out, having not performed together in months. Their performance showed how much music matters: it is not just a consumer commodity, or a post-work snoozefest, or a place to be seen, but medicine for the soul. The Philharmonia’s interim managing director, Michael Fuller, commented that the orchestra hopes it will bring “some measure of comfort and healing”. If this grim year makes us recalibrate our attitudes to live music and appreciate its role in our existence to the degree it deserves, that can indeed extrapolate some good from the gloom. If the situation continues, meanwhile, they really should make us pay for tickets.

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