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A great orchestra fails to convince

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Mon, March 25, 2013 22:04:02

A GREAT ORCHESTRA FAILS TO CONVINCE

24th March 2013

I have the privilege of living a few miles from the Barbican, home to the London Symphony Orchestra, which has the reputation of being Britain’s finest orchestra, and I also have the privilege of being able to afford a £25 or more ticket to such events on a relatively frequent basis.

Last night’s performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto by the Russian violinist Nicolai Znaider was immaculate, not only for his virtuosity and sweetness of tone, but for some well-judged chamber-music-like orchestral playing, particularly from the wind section, with the opening oboe solo of the 2nd movement being played by Fabien Thouand with exquisite sensitivity, supported faultlessly by his fellow players.

This was playing of utmost professionalism. And yet……

Why did I go away feeling unsatisfied?

The LSO is a Rolls-Royce of an orchestra. It purrs luxuriously and effortlessly through the most demanding of repertoire, making it sound oh-so-easy. It smooths all the rough edges away and burnishes its playing with a glossy and immaculate sheen.

But glossy and immaculate somehow does not meet, or even honestly represent, the power of art music to touch and provide a real encounter, whether intimate or unsettling. It is all too self-confident, pre-packaged, settled, even complacent. It felt to me as though the orchestra had come to some kind of unspoken compact with its audience not to surprise or disturb, but to provide a familiar and comforting spectacle, where we could marvel at the virtuosity of this very familiar music without getting too involved, before consigning the event to memory as a “nice evening out”, similar to, and soon merging in the memory with many similar events over the years.

I compare this, to me, rather sterile experience, with something utterly wonderful (and free) that I attended a few days earlier. Colleagues at the Guildhall, Armin Zanner and Dinah Stabb had the beautiful and original idea of re-creating (in music, drama, and wine) a party held by the singer Jane Manning for the Austrian Composer Ernst Krenek on a visit to London in 1970 (see http://www.acflondon.org/music/party-ernst-krenek-2013/ ). It was held in the drawing room of the Austrian Cultural Foundation, and was laid out in salon format, with tables for the audience of 50 or so. An actor spoke some of Krenek’s actual words, a scholar of Krenek explained some of the background to his work and philosophy, and Jane Manning (and some others who had attended that party) reminisced on what Krenek was like, and how he behaved at that party, and what their reaction to him was. The young singers sat among the audience, talked to them, and then, suddenly one of them would stand up and start to sing. Every audience member was welcomed personally by one or more of the cast, invited to drink wine, and was drawn deeply into the event, physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally. Everyone was involved, engaged, and at the end came out bonded and uplifted, and having got to know excellent music that many of us had never heard before. There was absolutely no compromise on musical standards – which were impeccable. But huge value was added by the passionate engagement and commitment of every single participant. This, for me, is the classical music event of the future. I will remember and savour it for a long time. Alongside it, sadly, the kind of audience experience that the LSO offered last night on the Barbican stage seemed thin, faded and one-dimensional.

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