Classical and Opera Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra @ Barbican Hall, London

11 November 2007


The London Symphony Orchestra’s Amriques is a wonderfully programmed season of music penned by Americans alongside music inspired by the country.

The second concert in the Season was bold, thrilling and deafening in equal measure.

From the ethereal introspection of Ives to the aural skyscrapers of Amriques by Varse, the orchestra were galvanised by the energetic presence of Kristjan Jrvi.

Like the country itself, American music refuses to be categorised by one particular idiom. Influences from the Old World invariably clash with the sounds of the New, leading to a musical soundscape that can genuinely be called unique.

And no American composer epitomises that uniqueness more than Charles Ives, rightly hailed as the grandfather of modern American classical music. With his music there are, at first hearing, few rules. Most of his work exists on multi-tiered platforms, which revel in bitonality and vastly contradictory tempi. The more Ives I hear, the more I succumb to his unparalleled musical vision.

Two of his most important works were given quite astonishingly vibrant performances by the LSO – Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question. The first is a mini tone poem where Ives attempts to recreate the serenity of the park with long sustained chords in the strings, whilst hearing various New York sounds in the distance – a honky-tonk piano, boats on the Hudson, and at the climax of the piece a horse bolts and stumbles over a fence. All this is brilliantly realised in the orchestral writing, and quite faultlessly played under Latvian conductor Kristjan Jrvi, who stood in for an ailing Antonio Pappano at short notice. In The Unanswered Question a chamber orchestra containing only strings and four flutes, responds to a plaintive solo trumpeter – the excellent Roderick Franks, here banished to the top of the balcony – who reiterates a simple motif, which is met by increasingly agitated responses from the flutes. It’s both simple, yet cosmic in its scope. More Ives please!

In stark contrast to these two contemplative gems, we were treated to a rip-roaring performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Soloist Wayne Marshall is incomparable in this repertoire and the sheer joy of his playing infected all those around him, including the audience. Pure magic- and what a piece this is; from the audacious clarinet glissandi to the jazz-infused rhythms, to the glittering orchestration, there can be no denying that this is one of the 20th century’s genuine masterpieces.

The concert concluded with a quite ear-shattering performance of Amriques by Varse. It’s as audacious as, yet more shocking than, The Rite of Spring. Completed in 1921, it was Varse’s first work he completed on American soil after having arrived from war-torn France in 1918. Scored for a huge orchestra including 27 woodwinds, 29 brass instruments and 11 percussionists – it’s not hard to see why it’s so rarely performed. On this occasion the LSO pulled out all the stops and played this gargantuan work as if their lives depended on it. Jrvi marshalled his forces brilliantly allowing the brutality of the urban landscape, which the music depicts, to come across with full force. An intelligent, thought-provoking and raucous night at the Barbican!



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