sat 22/06/2024

Gilliver, LSO, Roth, Barbican review - the future is bright | reviews, news & interviews

Gilliver, LSO, Roth, Barbican review - the future is bright

Gilliver, LSO, Roth, Barbican review - the future is bright

Vivid engagement in fresh works by young British composers, and an orchestra on form

LSO Panufnik Scheme young composer Christian Drew in conversation with François-Xavier RothAll images by Kevin Leighton

It’s hard to know which aspect of this adventure to praise the most. Perhaps the fact that of the four recent works originally programmed, the two freshest were by young beneficiaries of the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme. There was also the pleasure orchestral members took in their colleagues’ playing, not just Rebecca Gilliver’s as soloist. The culminating glory was their response to François-Xavier Roth’s mastery in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

More by accident than design, the living composers were bracketed by two great Hungarians. Admirably, Roth and the orchestra adapted to the sad news that Péter Eötvös, also a fine conductor (not least with the LSO) and an engaging human being, died a fortnight ago by featuring the shortest possible piece at the start: his impressionistic epitaph for "my maestro and friend" Luciano Berio, using full symphonic resources to create a brief nebula. It seems to start with the mysteries of Debussy’s Jeux underpinned by tuba, and quickly vanishes into the ether. Stef Conner with François-Xavier RothIf the programme notes suggested we were going to get nothing but similar textures at greater length thereafter – the dreaded “sound world” always suggests the triumph of atmosphere over substance – Christian Drew’s Aquarium Drifter offered an immediate corrective. Though Drew is fond of terms like “noodling” and “woozy”, there was a clear structure to this life aquatic, which took the shape of a continuous sinfonietta, and far from all the music of the past lying at the bottom of an iridescent lake, one particular neobaroque specimen seemed to break the surface in full sail. Bewitching and original “sound world”, too; the brass did Drew proud, and the woodwind managed to sound at times like a saxophone ensemble. I smiled from start to finish, and would happily have listened to the whole work again.

And though Stef Connor’s Hateful Grace (the composer pictured above with Roth), launching the second half, is rooted in personal tragedy – the loss of her mother to cancer – you’d not know it from the energy and drive of its all too brief five-minute span. This was music that left you wanting more: could she expand it, as Drew did Aquarium Drifter’s basis, Double Chorus of 2020-1? Could it become another, fuller experience of grief like Turnage’s Blood on the Floor, with elegies as well as stomps?

Both young composers reference popular culture in an original way; Conner seemed to take Roth aback in conversation with her love of death metal, powering the bass lines, and Drew has one foot in the worlds of indie rock and ambient music. The results are enriching rather than diminishing. Donghoon Shin and François-Xavier RothMore is less, unfortunately, in SPIRA, the overlong work by the best-known name among the four contemporary voices, Unsuk Chin. I’ve never responded to the South Korean’s music: here, “sound world” isn’t enough as gestures lurch from ricochets to meandering reflection to sudden brief panics. Yes, Chin does use the keyboard percussion imaginatively, especially towards the end, but it’s not part of a coherent experience like Drew’s. So much admirable effort went in to the performance, but to whom does this music actually speak (answers welcome – this is not just a rhetorical question)?

Her younger compatriot Donghoon Shin (pictured above with Roth and two of the orchestra's double-bass section, placed on the left throughout) has a far better grasp of dramatic trajectory in his Nachtergebung (Surrender to the Night), a title he modestly brushed off in engaging conversation with Roth – the two clearly like each other a lot – as “pretentious”. But not in German-speaking lands, perhaps: the commission came from the Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic, which gave the premiere under Kirill Petrenko with a superlative orchestral cellist, Bruno Delepelaire, as soloist, and it draws clear inspiration from the nocturnal dreams and nightmares of the great Austrian poet Georg Trakl. Rebecca GilliverThere’s a real shape here, and grateful melodic lines from the start for the soloist, here the LSO’s wonderful Rebecca Gilliver (pictured above with fellow cellists). The instrument can be smothered by full forces at times, but the attacks have real rhythmic energy and the final movement, amplifying the work's title is hypnotic (again, imaginative use of percussion).

Night and darkness almost got the upper hand over daylight brilliance in Roth’s thoughtful interpretation of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, signalled near the beginning by Gareth Davies’ mysterious flute solo and the trumpet ensemble. Yes, this is a gift for all players, and praise for the performance could easily turn into a list of LSO stars, but Roth underlined how Bartók, for all the entertainment value of his Boston Symphony Orchestra/Koussevitzky commission, looks back with sadness and nostalgia at his lost homeland. François-Xavier RothUsually the dark heart resides exclusively in the central "Elegia," but Roth managed to get a veiled pathos from his players in parts of all the other movements except for the weird and wonderful character-studies for wind and brass in the scherzoid “Games of the Couples” (how can one resist a shout-out hear for bassoonist Rachel Gough and her team?) The semi-folk-festival finale had more cries and whispers than usual, and the brass’s climactic assertion before a brilliantly stage-managed ending somehow proved moving to tears. All this at the end of an evening that was a feat of stamina, much appreciated by a full and diverse audience (whatever special offers had been put out, the fact is plenty of young people came). With conductors like Roth, Rattle, Pappano and Noseda, the LSO seems indefatigable.

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