Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSSO/Segerstam @ Barbican Hall, London

7 January 2009

The London Schools Symphony Orchestra may not be as famous as the National Youth Orchestra, but is notable for the enthusiasm of both its players and its audience.

The orchestra also benefits from the tutelage of some distinguished musicians.

One such musician is the Finnish composer and conductor Leif Segerstam, who previously performed with the orchestra in 2005. With his white hair and beard evoking an ever closer resemblance to the traditional image of Santa Claus, he led the young players in an adventurous programme of Sibelius works and the world premiere of his own Symphony 189.

It was perhaps a miscalculation, however, to commence the concert with Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. This subtle distillation of symphonic form isn’t a natural curtain raiser, and it would have been preferable to have started with something else to warm up both orchestra and audience. As it was, the performance lacked incisiveness and tension, failing to convey the nobility and timelessness of the symphony.

Far more impressive was the account of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto which followed. In fact, I was bowled over by the playing of the young Finnish violinist Elina Vhl. From the very opening, the breathtaking finesse of her playing was matched with a great depth of feeling, the combination of which communicated the essence of Sibelius’s concerto. The orchestra must have been inspired by their wonderful soloist, since their accompaniment was first class. By any measure, this was a remarkable performance.

Leif Segerstam has composed more symphonies than any other composer, with over 200 at the latest count. Played after the interval, Symphony 189, Marimekko surprised the audience by suddenly commencing without a conductor on the podium. Some people were caught out assuming it was the orchestra tuning up, and continued talking for a few moments until they realised it was actually the symphony.

Segerstam calls his style of composition “free-pulsative”, and there was certainly an improvisatory quality to some of this richly textured work, which includes instruments such as tubular bells, whip, ratchet and thunder sheet. Flowing tempos and overlapping waves of sound were also a feature of the 22 minute work. It was very impressive to see the orchestra meet the work’s technical demands without the aid of a conductor.

Somewhat more conventional fare rounded off the concert in the form of Sibelius’s Finlandia. Segerstam, now back on the podium, led an account of the work which emphasised forward thrust rather than sonority. I would have preferred a more measured approach to the work’s apotheosis, but it was otherwise a fine conclusion to the evening’s music making.

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