Classical and Opera Reviews

Genius of the Violin: Take a Bow!: LSO @ Barbican Hall, London

22 February 2006


For the first-time concertgoer unfamiliar with the sound of a string orchestra, attending the LSO’s Genius of the Violin: ‘Take a Bow!’ Concert could have been an excellent start to the world of classical music.

Featuring the LSO String Ensemble, and musicians (mainly violinists) from Carlibar Primary School, Gallions Primary School, Haggerston Girls’ School, Havering Music School, Junior Guildhall School, LSO St Luke’s Musicians, Royal Academy of Music, and the LSO String Experience, the night promised to be exciting and fun, and indeed it was.

The concert started with the world premiere of Gareth Glyn‘s EGAD! (pronounced Eh-gadd and not Ee-gaad), consisting of an opening with huge and lush string sounds from the eighty or so violinists on stage that would have fitted any scene from Lord of the Rings. The following six variations were rather well written; and while the schoolchildren admittedly did not have the most complicated of parts, their presence contributed to the fun the performers (and the audience) had in the various characters of the different variations, ending in a Hoe-down which can best described as a spectacular display of flying bows.

Limerock is an arrangement of a traditional hoe-down and is, predictably, an active little piece, whose amazing technical difficulties were masked by the brilliant performance and communication between violinist Mark O’Connor and cellist Tim Hugh. Their playing with time in the performance was somewhat unpredictable, and that made for quite a bit of enjoyment. Unfortunately, the work was far too short for them to fully display their musical interaction, and I would have loved the performance a lot more had they taken their tempo changes more dramatically.

The Valse from Tchaikovsky’s famous Serenade for Strings is one of the most well-known string orchestra works in the world, and under the guidance of concertmaster Gordon Nikolitch, the string orchestra did not disappoint. The beautiful and long lines of Tchaikovsky were well brought out: all credit to the hard working violists, whose extra bit of time-taking – probably not noticed – added much charm to the already delightful and enchanting rendition of the Serenade.

Unfortunately, Singer’s Fantasia on Yehudi’s Theme was more of a technical exercise than asatisfying piece of music. Violins playing repetitions of D, E, A, D (on open strings), cellos constantly doing descending chromatic lines and descending step lines, repeating the theme a few times in the manner of a passacaglia gone wrong: the work itself, for all its merits in being able to get the six year old children to join in, fails to convince, no matter how convincing the performance. However, the building up of a sound sculpture towards the end of the work is considerably more intricately written, and the school orchestras deserve massive praise for their control over individual sections’ dynamics in the buildup to the end.

If one had to point to what one considered was the best trait of the LSO, it would have to be their amazing ability to project energy in a work. In Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, the orchestra’s control over dynamics and energy was incredible, executing perfectly what the piece demanded of them.

Perhaps if Tchaikovsky had lived to see the last variation played live, he would have considered rescoring the third movement of his fourth symphony. Indeed the LSO played the last variation with so much energy and passion that one can only think of one term to describe the performance: debonair. For me, the suave performance was the highlight of the evening.

What followed was a performance of 18 of Bartok’s 44 duets for two violins. Violinist Carmine Lauri had the immensely difficult task of having to partner different violinists from different schools, as well as LSO leader Gordon Nikolitch. Changing partners in a short span of time is not an easy task, and Lauri’s extraordinarily flexible virtuosity was apparent throughout.

It was a pity, though, that the students only had one or two variations each, and even more of a pity that the audience did not follow the suggestion of not clapping between variations. Curiously lacking in energy for a Bartok work at the beginning, the performance picked up pace after the ninth variation, and built up towards a climactic end with Nikolitch almost dancing as he played. The contrapuntal lines were well brought out, and the communication between Lauri and the students was excellent.

If one had to give a three word description of Nikolaj Znaider, it would probably be ‘What a Vibrato!’ Never mind the fact that Kriesler passed his Violin Concerto off as written by Vivaldi, and never mind the argument that it should have been played in the Baroque style. The first movement of this performance is one example of the orchestra failing to live up to the standards of the soloist. The expressivity of the lower strings can be said, at best, to have been binary, and certainly a far cry from Znaider’s heart-wrenching high notes, passionate long lines, and the occasional touch of portamento which tugs at the heart strings and refuses to let go.

There are few experiences in the concert hall as memorable as listening to a 1000 strong choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus. All credit to Glyn’s arrangement of the Bach Double Violin Concerto in D minor for creating such an effect. Consisting of extra layers of texture (mainly eight year olds playing their D, A and G open strings), the work sounded much bigger than it is heard today in recordings – perhaps as big as when Bach’s audience heard it. The problem with 1000 people singing Messiah is that in the oratorios the choir tends to drown out the soloists, and it was no exception here. The solo violinists were overwhelmed by the open strings of the orchestra, the harpsichord-sounding keyboard was unfortunately tuned too loud, but admittedly everyone on stage (and off) had an immensely good time. Such a good time in fact that the orchestra performed the entire work again. This time Znaider, Nikolitch and Lauri played round robin with the duo solo violin parts, causing quite a bit of comic relief for the audience.

All in all the concert was immensely enjoyable. I only wish they played the 3rd movement of the Bach double concerto for the encore. I am sure the children on stage (and the parents off stage) enjoyed themselves too, and so three cheers to the LSO for organizing such a family-friendly and enjoyable event.



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