Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra @ Barbican, London

9 March 2007


On paper, Jonathan Dove’s Stargazer is a paradox: a piece about space, concerning cosmic questions and profound philosophies, written for the most stereotypically galumphing member of the orchestra, the trombone.

By turning the instrument into an outsider – an anonymous man with a telescope – Dove both overcomes the discrepancy and transforms the concerto mould into a profound dialogue between mortal soloist and galactic orchestra.


And it all works rather well. At the work’s opening, Stargazer’s search for answers is heeded only by mysterious violins and secretive tuned percussion, while a throbbing timpani motif hurriedly retracts into the texture, hiding itself from speculation.

Later, as the soloist calls out, spot-them-if-you-can instrumental voices burst forward with brief antiphonal responses, while the violins splatter into the texture a frenzied line of semi-minimalist statements. What is the nature of their answer? If the trombone’s dastardly trills, balanced on a threatening double bass growl, are anything to go by, it is not a pleasing one. Ambiguity abounds, though stylistically we are in familiar territory for the subject matter: ethereal strings, splayed percussion, bursts of blazing trumpets and moody harmonic progressions are in abundance. Gustav Holst and John Williams are just two names that spring to mind. Stargazer is, however, exceptionally well orchestrated and not without its surprises, including one startling invasion of jazz in the second half.

Even more surprising is the writing for the trombone, which shakes off its reputation as a drunken uncle and sails through the full gauntlet of emotions with a freedom of expression and not a little charisma. If soloist Ian Bousfield lacked some carefree vigour, he floated though every mountainous leap, every piano decoration and every fearsome legato line with superlative intelligence and such ease that, if required, he could well have done it all again without breaking sweat. Such a thing is no minor achievement.

Michael Tilson Thomas‘ performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony had its own moments of vigour, though they tended to jar with the otherwise spacious approach to tempi and phrasing. The first movement’s stream of hummable melodies was intelligently handled, and the gasping return of the strings’ Mozartian theme generated a great rush of climactic excitement that had thus far been missing in the concert. But the conductor’s concentration on interplay of parts and transparency of sound lost much momentum in the slow movement’s extended set of variations.

Soprano Sally Matthews was exceptionally elegant in the fourth movement’s vision of heaven, though the floated legato phrases left her short of breath more than once. Elegance, meanwhile, was not something promoted by the solo violin of Sarah Nemtanu in the Scherzo, and while the London Symphony Orchestra played with customary fire, an uncertainty of timing interfered with many of Tilson Thomas’ more expansive ritardandi. Not so in Steve Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, but rather a robotic beat and a lack of passion. Minimalism requires a sense of forward motion, and that this performance never quite nailed.



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