Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Hrůša @ Barbican Hall, London

24 November 2012

The BBC Symphony Orchestra always takes a risk presenting new works by contemporary composers. But its decision to give the world premiere of Rolf Hind’s accordion concerto in front of an audience of young children was surely inviting disaster.

The sheer incomprehensibility of the music and its yogic-sufi-philosophy would have challenged even the keenest of contemporary music followers. But the children and parents in this ‘family-friendly’ concert were simply bored — yawning, fidgeting and rustling their activity sheets through most of Hind’s The Tiniest House of Time. Even worse, others laughed their way through the closing bars.

One can see why. There was something faintly pretentious about Hind’s meditation on the meaning of life, death, God and everything else, and the sounds produced on stage never really bore much resemblance to the obscure medieval poems of Rumi and Kabir, which were supposedly the inspiration for three of the four movements. The accordion part played by James Crabb was hardly discernible during much of the work, except through amplification, which was surely a bit of a cop-out. Hind’s use of an orchestra of strings, piano, harp, celesta, reduced woodwind, brass and percussion did have its moments — loud industrial-scale passages alternating with more delicate moments. But structurally and musically, the work sagged after the first ten minutes or so, and some of the orchestral effects were just plain daft — like water poured between a bucket and what looked like a bed pan, string-players fly swatting their bows, and percussionists whirling bright green plastic tubes. Conductor Jakub Hrůša and his players bravely maintained a serious calm, but the BBC will have a job editing out the unexpected bits of audience participation before it broadcasts the concert next week.

At least the suite from Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen held the audience’s attention. Hrůša opted to play the arrangement by Czech conductor František Jílek rather than the more familiar one by Václav Talich. This later version restored the composer’s orchestration, and included music from all three acts. The result was a kind of symphonic poem, exploring the opera’s emotional highlights. The music was expertly played, with conductor and orchestra bringing out the score’s raw vitality and pathos. The horns were on particularly good form, supported by well-disciplined strings.

Despite its crowd pleasing familiarity, a lot can go wrong with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Its colourful exoticism can come across as pastiche, even kitsch, while its lengthy repetitions (especially in the second movement ‘Tale of the Kalendar Prince’) can be tiresome. Yet Hrůša and the BBC SO injected this old war horse with an invigorating booster. The sound was sharp and rich, and a steady balance was maintained throughout, preventing the brass section from overpowering the rest of the orchestra. Hrůša also allowed the principal players — including Leader Stephen Bryant, representing Scheherazade — a fair degree of leeway in interpreting their roles.

The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 14.00 on Sunday 2 December.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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