Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Charities Philharmonia @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

21 June 2008

The Charities Philharmonia’s Summer concert at St John’s, Smith Square saw Mahler’s First Symphony programmed alongside Tchaikovsky and Copland, with proceeds going to the NSPCC.

The idea of a “charity orchestra” put me in mind of an anodyne evening of soppy and sloppy hits. This wasn’t the case. This Orchestra proved to be a fire-breathing ensemble capable of almost anything.

The show started with Copland’s too-well-known Fanfare for the Common Man, which I was not looking forward to. Fearless percussion opens up the work (lead by Guthrie Musser) before the trumpets make their opening statement. The brass wasn’t always immaculate, and being so exposed it’s easy to spot slight hiccups but, because this piece is usually only ever heard in freeze-dried recordings on television, the appearance of some minor flaws was very welcome. This isn’t just some dross used in adverts, it’s actually a piece of music! It was rough, ready and, best of all, visceral.

Gordan Nikolitch strode onstage for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with a brooding, distracted air. As Michael Alexander Young began conducting it was Nikolitch who did all the swaying, and when he began to play it was obvious that he completely dominated his violin, making a real variety of sounds from luscious to percussive. The orchestra was fairly subdued at first, but when they got hold of the main theme for the first time they rocketed into the most heart-soaring, reckless playing I’ve ever heard. If music from the Romantic period is supposed to sacrifice pristine logic for the benefit of blind emotion, then this was a perfect performance.

In the second movement the orchestra was vivid and responsive to the conductor’s direction as he insisted that they play the pizzicato twice as softly as they were initially inclined to. Nikolitch continued to play the hell out of his violin, to the point of detuning it a couple of times, but he recovered without much trouble. Far from a chocolate-box composer of the ballet suites, this concerto (and this performance) reminded everyone of the depth of Tchaikovsky’s thoughts and feelings.

Mahler’s massive First Symphony was the final piece in the programme, and what a piece it is. Full of preposterous, inflated ideas it was played with controlled daring. This is a giant work of over 50 minutes, and to keep it tamed isn’t easy, especially as Mahler goes on so many complicated tangents. Explosive percussion, eerie string playing and (when they weren’t a little late) devastating brass made this daunting symphony a gripping ride.

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