Concert Review

Ives Symphony No. 1 and Elgar Violin Concerto Barbican Centre 7 January 2000
LSSO conducted by Christopher Adey; solo violin Stephanie Gonley

A large, enthusiastic young audience of children and their families were joined by several critics for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra's enticingly chosen first programme in the new century. Charles Ives' First Symphony is rarely heard. It is a student work, composed at Yale from 1895-98, but not performed until long after he had stopped composing! His originality and individual turn of mind are apparent in his far ranging modulations, which worried his teachers. In 1910 a rehearsal had foundered because of its difficulty.

No serious problems for the LSSO, which gave a clear account of a piece well worth hearing, getting round the arabesques which are a feature of the string writing, and fielding a fine, steady cor anglais soloist in the slow movement. There is a lively scherzo with a warm central Trio, and a finale which builds to a rumbustious conclusion. Ives no. 1 was an excellent choice for this orchestra; not too many exposed solos, and likely to be new to the audience as well as the players. [Ives No. 1 is recorded by Jarvi & Detroit SO on Chandos CHAN 9053, and by Michael Tilson Thomas (with no. 4) on Sony SK44939.]

I have kept a watch on Stephanie Gonley's career since reviewing her memorable solo recital as one of Park Lane Group's Young Musicians (the PLG 2000 showcase week of the newest recruits to their prestigious roster commences on 10 January at London's South Bank Centre). Since then she has become a ubiquitous presence on the London scene, leading the Vellinger Quartet, which won the 1994 London International String Quartet Competition and has gone on to establish itself firmly as one of the most exciting quartets to be heard today, leading and directing the English Chamber Orchestra (whose principal players coach the LSSO's sections) and turning up in various ad hoc chamber combinations. Seeing her recently showing signs of fatigue, and playing a little below her best, I had become anxious that she might have been overdoing it.

Her performance of Elgar's Violin Concerto was triumphant, a real joy. She came onto the stage looking relaxed and happy to be there, and this confidence spilled over onto the orchestra, which supported her, playing as if it knew how the Elgar went, and relishing its marvellously realised orchestration. Stephanie Gonley related with the conductor in easy natural rapport and ensemble was perfect throughout. She did not linger unduly and her interpretation was fresh and totally committed; the accompanied cadenza in the finale, with strumming strings, was particularly moving.

For me what stood out was to realise once again how superbly Elgar had calculated the balance, perfect throughout without any obvious effort by Christopher Adey to moderate the orchestra's contribution. This is a work, and that was a performance, which demonstrated that for the best concertos there is no substitute for the excitement of live performance, and that boosting concerto soloists in broadcast and CD recording can be seriously damaging and falsify the best composers' intentions.

The long maintained ovation, with children screaming at the top of their voices, was like a pop concert, and the atmosphere enveloped more seasoned concertgoers who shared their experience.

Once again, one had experienced a truism, insufficiently appreciated, that concerts by youth orchestras (which usually have the benefits of boundless enthusiasm and unrestricted preparation time) can provide satisfactions not always achieved by even the most professionally accomplished orchestras. The LSSO, founded in 1951 and based in London's state schools is, on this showing, in fine fettle to enter its next half century of courses and concerts for ordinary youngsters, most of whom will probably not become professional musicians, but who are bound to carry on their enjoyment of classical music into their future lives.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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