Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Classical Pride review – music from and by LGBTQ+ performers and composers

7 July 2024

Four days of Classical Pride events culminate in a Barbican concert celebrating the initiative’s first anniversary.

Classical Pride

LSO, LGBTQ+ Community Choir, Oliver Zeffman & soloists (Photo: Matthew Johnson)

Last year’s Classical Pride – an extension of Pride Month into July – was the first essay in presenting the work of ‘classical’ LGBTQ+ composers and performers, and was quite a small affair. The popularity of its final Barbican concert prompted a repeat this year with a more extensive programme, beginning on Wednesday with ‘Classical Drag’, and continuing through Friday and Saturday with choral and chamber works, both existing and newly commissioned. Sunday saw the grand finale at Barbican Hall, again presented by Nick Grimshaw, and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, the LGBTQ+ Community Choir, soprano Pumeza Matshikiza, tenor Russell Thomas, and pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, all under the baton of Oliver Zeffman.

Classical Pride

Pumeza Matshikiza & Oliver Zeffman (Photo: Matthew Johnson)

Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man eventually became part of his third symphony; it was originally written, though, as a rallying call for American troops in the Second World War, an act of supreme irony, given that its composer (a gay, communist, Jewish son of Lithuanian immigrants) was not exactly 1940s Uncle Sam’s poster boy. It has, however, stood the test of time, and become popular as incidental music and concert opener alike. The LSO, under Zeffman’s slick direction gave it a rousing performance, with enough space in it for both percussion and brass to make their sonorous impacts, and, in a twist of programming fate (if we can ignore its gendered title), mark the recent election of a government that will hopefully do more for the ‘common’ people.

American composer Jake Heggie’s song setting Good Morning, Beauty, for soprano and orchestra was specially commissioned for the evening, and sets words by Taylor Mac that are a celebration of queer love. The work’s lush orchestration, twinkling percussion, and occasional soaring portamento lines all reveal the influence of musical theatre on Heggie’s works, and bring an instant, misty-eyed affection for the song. Matshikiza’s voice was the perfect match – it has a deliciously creamy quality that is maintained even above the stave – and she tackled (without score) its shifting moods (opulent intensity, a lighter section underscored with a scuttling melody in the orchestra, a rhythmic, driving figure, and a closing shimmer) with self-assured excellence.

At last year’s concert, pianist Pavel Kolesnikov was joined by his professional and personal partner Samson Tsoy to present their account of the Poulenc double-piano concerto. This year Kolesnikov went solo for a performance of Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto. Although probably not in the top ten, it’s a charming, if quirky, piece; its opening lengthy near-cadenza (reminiscent of a Bach fantasia) setting out that, really, it’s more a work for virtuoso piano solo with occasional orchestral accompaniment. Kolesnikov, as always, did not disappoint, his peerless technique shone through not only in the big expressive gestures of the outer movements (to which he brought some perfectly timed rubato playing), but in the quiet scurrying passages of the second movement, which, together with the precisely timed comedic orchestral ‘bangs’ became a glorious exercise in Parisian joie de vivre. For a programmed encore, Kolesnikov brought us a nuanced performance – light and airy as gossamer and full of expression – of Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale

“Kolesnikov, as always, did not disappoint…”

Classical Pride

Pavel Kolesnikov (Photo: Matthew Johnson)

Cassandra Miller’s Round takes Valse Sentimentale as its base material, and presents it as a series of statements of overlapping layered figures for the orchestra. It’s a hypnotic work that feels initially slightly chaotic, but the antiphonal trumpets (played from the gallery) anchor the material with their single note utterances that resemble the tick of a clock, and, as one’s senses attune, it’s possible to hear little snatches from the Tchaikovsky emerging from the texture (a little woodwind iteration of the waltz here and there, for example), all highlighted by the sudden virtuosic intense playing by sections of the orchestra. Although this was a first-rate performance, with Zeffman ensuring that the shifts in texture and dynamic were spot on, ultimately, it came across as an experiment in sound whose point was made early on and didn’t really need all the repetition.

Karol Szymanowski’s third symphony (‘Song of the Night’) is a great glittering juggernaut of a work. Scored for massive orchestral forces (including a range of percussion instruments, celesta, piano and organ), chorus and tenor soloist, it is well-named, as its twangling, rustling percussion, angular tenor lines and vast sonorities summon, through the melting rainbow hues of its ‘rotten-romantic’ chromaticism, a sumptuous and awesome dreamworld. The text Szymanowski chose (and had translated into Polish) is by the 13th century Persian poet, Jalal’ad-Din Rumi, this exoticism putting the symphony in a similar ‘experience bracket’ to Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie.

This was a barnstorming performance. LSO are a top-class orchestra, and here they brought all of their skill and nuance to the work, whose mercurial nature was carefully controlled through some agile and thoughtful direction from Zeffman. The opening muted brass, quiet gongs and lush violin solo immediately conjured a fervid atmosphere, and the depictions of the dream states continued with some splendid metallic glissandi  from the strings, sinister militaristic rustling from percussion and horns, and some spine-tingling, roof-raising moments of full orchestra.

Russell Thomas’s voice suited the work well; there is solidity and power in the mid range that was able to cut through even the louder orchestral passages, albeit that occasionally, his top notes seemed a little stretched.

Full marks must go to the LGBTQ+ Community Choir, who, despite being seriously outgunned by the orchestra, held their own in this challenging sing. Although the voices were not always blended, this was no bad thing – a more heterogenous sound (which was, nonetheless well controlled for pitch and intonation) suited the unrestrained luxuriance of the piece.

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