Wednesday, 12 April 2017

There is no passion to be found playing small…

Two tantalizing prospects lured me to last night’s concert… – that of seeing and hearing the Orchestra of the Swan with a change of conductor; and witnessing that conductor – Julian Lloyd Webber – in his new element: that of (to use his own word) “accompanist”, rather than the accompanied. Having only witnessed him before as cellist (and one of the greatest) – but, luckily, been privy to his views on one of his new roles – I was rather intrigued.

There was a third element, I suppose: in that Mozart never having composed music for solo cello, this would also be the first time I would witness him immersed in this most beloved of composers (a kissed score at the end the perfect seal of this most wonderful partnership).

It was impressive – no doubt having been on the receiving end so very often… – how clear his instructions were, in rehearsal: both spoken and signed. So clear, that the dynamics (and crispness) he immediately provoked from the OOTS strings in the opening Allegro of Eine kleine Nachtmusik were incredibly and wonderfully fresh – vigorous even. He is a lithe big friendly giant of a man; and, even without a podium, loomed over the strings as if his arms would reach to the back desks. Never threateningly, though. It was almost as if he were embracing them….

This is a string section, of course – albeit with a scattering of fresh faces – more than capable of playing this work without guidance; and yet Julian quickly stamped his mark on what is always a watchful and obedient ensemble. The opening movement was therefore electrifying: pulling individual lines out for emphasis; snapping entries into place.

It wasn’t long – Julian much more verbal in rehearsal than David – before everyone had relaxed (acclimatized, one could say), and the usual smiles and laughter appeared. It is tough to take on an orchestra – although one known from their support in many concertos – so moulded by one man; and, although they have both played and recorded frequently with other conductors, it would have been easy to see them as, somehow, missing something (a limb, maybe?).

But this was certainly not the case. So professional and so adept, conductor and strings were almost immediately of one mind. The play-through of the Romanze – after a brief discourse from Julian – was therefore (to my ears) without fault; at least until the change of key and pace: where Julian wanted to ensure the change of mood – and those tricky ornamented ‘turns’ – were ‘just so’. A quick demonstration from the always-savvy David Le Page; and all was well. The closing of that movement – both in rehearsal, and on the night – was sublime: a wonderful, delicate softness and thoughtfulness (a trademark of the man, I suspect) that caught me unawares… – both times!

What Julian has in common with David (Curtis) is the time spent looking and reaching into the score and the orchestra – both with gesture and facial expression: sometimes almost daring them (those blue eyes are hard not to meet) to be their very best. And, of course, they were… – those three chords (treble-stopped in the violins), marking the Coda, so wonderfully emphatic – almost Elgarian in their richness; but so very misleading… considering the gentle beauty which followed.

[By the way, I wish we could see more young children – as was Julian’s daughter Jasmine (not yet six) – so happy, immersed and active in this environment – singing along with Mozart during the afternoon! Such joy; and a wonderful affirmation of the man’s heartfelt desire and drive to involve, and to educate.]

The Menuetto, I think, was the moment in rehearsal when everything came together. Somewhere in the Romanze, the magic had happened (at least from my perspective), and all tension had dissipated. Now, therefore, Julian felt free to wander into the auditorium to judge the acoustic. Quite rapidly, orchestra and conductor were as one: players willing to contribute their thoughts, knowing they would be heard, knowing they would be valued – especially as Julian wasn’t afraid to experiment with ideas… – especially that wonderful (and now uplifting) last note in the cellos and basses. (That the concert was so astonishing was because the rehearsal was, too. Hence its inclusion, here. To ignore its influence – the way it shaped the relationship of man, orchestra, and music – and so rapidly – would be plain wrong.)

The Rondo set off as rapidly as I think I have heard it: that truncated staccato ‘Mannheim rocket’ difficult to pull off at this speed – but perfectly executed. The repeat beginning gently: but with dynamics to die for – seventeen string players resonating with the expansiveness of a large symphony orchestra on that wonderful unison. The flittering delicacy in-between bringing such a contrast – but crisp and clear as the evening air… – momentum perfectly maintained throughout. The effect thrilling: Mozart played with two-hundred-odd years of refinement, knowledge and experience… but also great passion… – as valid today as he has ever been. Who could not love such music; fall in love with it: communicated with such awesome relish, mastery and panache?

Thus we were treated to a performance that perfectly embodied Julian’s deep love of (and respect for) the composer – his zeal unleashed, and obviously contagious, given OOTS’ responsive performance. Remarkable; and so fresh – breathing new life into a familiar work like this takes guts; and it was an immensely gutsy performance. (I would say “more, please…” – but this love affair would be continued after the interval. And how…!)

That this level of energy was maintained – in rehearsal; and then even more so in the actual concert – with the addition of woodwind and horns – for, firstly, Tchaikovsky’s (as much Fitzenhagen’s) Rococo Variations, and then Mozart’s ultramassive black hole of a masterpiece: the Great G minor symphony – a work, that for me, irrevocably transformed the direction of orchestral music… – is testament both to the unshakable joie de vivre of this excellent ensemble, as well as Julian’s collegiate approach to music-making.

Following directly on from Eine kleine, Tchaikovsky’s Mozartian influence was incredibly apparent. Francesca Moore-Bridger’s delicate horn call – Julian lowering his hands, and giving her all the space she needed for such beauty – ushering in the wonderful voicing of Laura van der Heijden’s always astonishing and mesmerizing cello. (I don’t remember breathing: which is probably why my chest hurts so much.)

This is, I think, where Julian’s experience as soloist paid dividends – watching Laura like a paternal hawk; always ensuring that the orchestra was perfectly balanced, and matched to her soulful – and, of course, with this work, virtuosic – interpretation. Julian says he has a love/hate relationship with this work – but all that was audible now was his love. (You might imagine that there must be an element, too, of regret. I don’t believe so, though. However much we may mourn the loss of such a great soloist, the man himself has simply transformed all that knowledge, wisdom, energy and experience into mastery of other kinds: something, too, that – especially in the light of this evidence – we must be immensely grateful for.)

His conducting was empathic – always in tune with Laura: allowing her to lead with her own interpretation. Perhaps the most astonishing accomplishment was OOTS’ accompaniment – achieving some remarkably quiet support; but without losing an iota of spirit. Utterly stunning. There is nothing this orchestra is incapable of….

What new can I write of Laura’s outstanding talent? The cello seems to meld, physically and emotionally, with her own being: as if her own soul is singing those plangent melodies: harmonics apparently a cry from the heart. There is a quiet, unspoken confidence in her own talent, her own beliefs, though – her interpretation always based on what was written; not what others may have imagined or invented. And, however imposing it must have been to have one of this work’s greatest interpreters standing over her, it did not show. What was evident was a partnership seemingly telepathic. This was no explicit, overegged demonstration of virtuosity: Laura instead – aided perfectly by her accompanists – extracting the work’s emotional content. Even in its lighter moments there was subtle pathos.

As the virtuosity does become more explicit in the score, if it were possible, Laura’s engagement with the music, and with her instrument, grew yet stronger. And yet, for all the acrobatics of bow and leaping fingers, the lyricism also grew yet more intense.

This must too have been infectious: the orchestra – especially the growling cello and bass entry of the seventh (and last) variation – pulling out all the stops. Fiery, lyrical, gentle, explosive, sensational, delicate… but always in perfect balance. This was a performance that grew organically throughout the ensemble; a performance with a perfect narrative arc – always building, accumulating mass and momentum towards that sensational, climactic ending. And, yes, they could whisper, when required; but the orchestra’s power was never sacrificed; and Laura’s cello always shone through.

(Perhaps, I thought, we should have more soloists as conductors? On this evidence, it seems to have brought remarkable insight and understanding – which not only shone a new light on the music; but opened it up… – the orchestral transparency a quite remarkable achievement: even for OOTS.)

In a nutshell… it was absolute perfection. It’s hard to imagine a more insightful and enlightening interpretation and performance: one so utterly transformative; one where musical belief so miraculously coalesced. Laura’s immersion in her playing – enabled by Julian’s watchfulness – so wonderfully communicative. So wonderful, so young – this is a career that is already packed with marvels: but will certainly continue to blossom. Astonishing! (I really don’t know what else to write….)

Then, that symphony – which, if you hadn’t believed in Mozart’s genius before, would either convince you of it; or force you to ask if some alien spirit had guided his hand. It is miraculously contemporary; and utterly fresh each time one hears it (as infrequent as this may be). But it requires a masterful hand to control the astonishment that so infuses every bar – from that driving Molto allegro opening to the last, emphatic G minor chord. As the orchestra reconvened in rehearsal after a break that reflected the programme’s structure, how eagerly I awaited that most famous theme; and – after Julian’s crystal clear, sparkling interpretation of the earlier serenade, to see how he would stamp his mark on it.

In fact, he seemed to breathe new, thrilling life into this, as well – the first movement startling in its cohesion, dramatic dynamics and incisiveness – and, dare I say it, angst. All Mozartian orchestras should be this size (should be a democracy of friends) – each instrumental line readily apparent (and always traceable) – the wind on spectacular form… – each change of volume precise. (All Mozartian orchestras should also be this remarkable – so thoroughly invested in their music-making.)

This is not a technical exercise, though, however challenging a work this is… – Mozart’s tempestuous emotions are dark as a rain-bearing cloud: the thunderous basslines and astonishing bolts of musical lightning broken only by fragile shafts of scudding light… – they are also paramount… regardless of the nature of that challenge. The technique must vanish beneath the tsunami of pathos and anger. And, here, it did. Absolutely.

The mysteries of the Andante come as such a contrast: the fragmentary nature of the music requiring imagination to keep its rhythms both fresh and flowing; to keep the story moving on. Here, Julian and OOTS conjured up an atmosphere of longing – perhaps even regret – which seemed to fit flawlessly. Not all is sorrow, though; and the lighter moments – however abbreviated – brought fleeting respite: the wind section, again, demonstrating their prowess – their ability to float free, as well as to blend, to add weight and texture. It is so easy to lose the momentum of the first movement in this second one. But here, it seemed to build, to drive towards the Menuetto and its angry cross-rhythms; to form the perfect narrative and emotional bridge.

This third movement could easily convince you that Mozart was going through some sort of failed anger management: flinging the ink (with Shostakovichian rage) at the page. “Angst” is not powerful enough a word, here. This is mood music – bad mood music – the Trio’s gentility (and those angelic horns) therefore something of a shock, as well as a release: the still heart at the centre of Mozart’s almighty whirlwind. But it is not long before we are back to that darkness: each instrumental line arguing vehemently for its prominence, for the last word… – the woodwind gently assuaging them all: bringing any disagreement to a soothing close.

But do not breathe easy – just yet. The Allegro assai is where the Apollo-sized ‘Mannheim rocket’ is fully unleashed – to boldly go where no composer had gone before – into explorations of tonality, atonality, Serialism; all the darkest corners of Mozart’s musical galaxy. No matter how many times I hear it – and when an orchestra is on this great a form; with a conductor expressing not only his love for Mozart, but the explosive passion (just about) contained in the notes – this onslaught of genius (the cellos and basses digging deep to find its foundations) empties my lungs. And no fresh air comes with the quieter or lighter moments – that ascending theme is always there to pull you back to the profound, intense blackness: its propulsion and power seemingly infinite.

This may not have the majesty of the ‘Jupiter’ symphony’s finale – but it is just as overwhelming in its emotions and dynamism; non-stop fireworks until it does end, seemingly mid-thrill/explosion: OOTS and Julian more than deserving of the lengthy applause – which also exploded into the air (perhaps momentarily lifting the ArtsHouse’s wooden frame from its foundations).

Maybe it was my mood, my own love of these three final symphonic megaliths – these things are subjective, after all – but this was Mozart imbued with all the energy he should, could ever be. Tempestuous clarity; loving pathos; soothing lyricism – all present and correct – but all overpainted with passion, darkness… – the product of a troubled mind, perhaps – but, for these two all-too brief performances, alive and thrilling… raw. Proof (not that you should need it) that this music can live, and will live in such great hands.

Trust me. There will never be a performance of this symphony that gets to its distressing, frightening, menacing heart as impeccably as this. We were in the presence of greatness. Magic had happened. And the man didn’t even have a wand….

[Only now – past midnight – do the tears flow: the immensity of the experience hollowing out my heart and mind. When music is this good (a very weak word for such an occasion) – this painful and intense – there is no drug like it. The withdrawal, therefore, will be truly horrendous. Until then, I shall bathe in the memory of a unique conjunction of talent. One of those rare nights when it is easy to believe in magic and the power of the weaver of moonbeams….]

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