S&H Concert Review

BBCSO 70th Birthday Concert
Bainbridge Scherzi; Turnage Another Set To; Barber Violin Concerto; Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin with Christian Lindberg (trombone), Joshua Bell (violin) and Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) Barbican, 22 October 2000 (MB)

This great orchestra is 70 years old - and now finds itself in a new London concert hall and with a new chief conductor. Based on this concert the omens are extremely promising.

The BBC SO has probably played and commissioned more new works than any other orchestra in the world so it was fitting that two of the works performed in this anniversary event were world premieres. Poles apart in style and drama, Simon Bainbridge's Scherzi and Mark-Anthony Turnage's Another Set To compel attention for different reasons.

Bainbridge's slight 5-minute piece is always on a collision course. Quiet and reflective one moment, it suddenly becomes an inexorable panic-driven work the next, as it draws into its web an intriguing balance of colour and harmony. Pianissimos are often alarmingly short as they are shot through with violent conclusions. Colours are kaleidoscopic as they are refracted through the orchestra this way and that. An arresting piece, for its entire length it has one wondering where it will move to next.

By contrast, Turnage's trombone piece is almost too conventional. Based on an original work for 10 brass instruments, the virtuosity of this quasi concerto is almost self- serving. Christian Lindberg, for whom it was written, delivers a staggeringly rich panoply of colour - jazz inspired one moment, almost classical the next. It is, as with all of Turnage's works, skilfully written. It is at moments percussive, at others reflective, rather like Henze's later works. The rhythm is predominantly Stravinskian - something which the multi-talented Lindberg not only takes in his stride but also positively revels in. His trombone moved like a piston, the orchestra following his stride with playing that gyrated frenetically.

Leonard Slatkin coaxed a BBC SO through these works with consummate skill although whether he will continue to be so receptive to the commissioning of more new works from British composers will be interesting to see. Turnage has recently been appointed the orchestra's new associate composer so one hopes so.

The American in Slatkin was, I assume, partly responsible for the programming of Barber's Violin Concerto. Played as beautifully as it was in this performance, with Joshua Bell as the soloist, this work can never fail to make an impression. So different in mood from the concertos of Walton and Prokofiev, Barber's work seems on the surface too simplistic for its own good. Bell's tone is ideally suited to the lyricism of the first and second movements - and his playing in the upper register was as sure as it was exact. He was helped by some beautiful BBC playing - not least a superb oboe solo in the second movement. The final movement, short and devilish, produced breathtaking virtuosity as we were strapped to our seats on Barber's helter-skelter. The dash to the finishing line was electrifying.

The second half of this concert was devoted to one work - Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky which the BBC had premiered in Britain in 1941. This was a striking and memorable performance and one that was rightly graphic in its detail. This was never more so than in the Battle on the Ice where the BBC brass were superlative at conjuring up the image of Teutons breaking into the icy waters of the frozen lake. Here, trumpets, horns and trombones rampaged like warriors against a battle cry of timpani that symbolised the cracking of the lake. Woodwind shrieked like drowning soldiers. In The Crusaders in Pskov the brass were dissonant and grinding. Michelle DeYoung hardly looked the part of a young Russian girl searching by torchlight for her lost lover, but she sang movingly in The Field of the Dead. The chorus were triumphant in Alexander's Entry of Pskov - as they were heroic throughout the entire performance. Slatkin drove the BBC SO to play like savages.

This was a triumphant concert for all concerned. Happy birthday BBC SO and welcome Leonard Slatkin.

Marc Bridle

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