The 1990’s saw some classical music initiatives in Leicester which to this day have had a very significant effect on the quality of the music making in the city. One of these initiatives led to the gradual embedding with no little struggle of the Leicester International Festival, which in time resulted in the New Walk Museum Lunchtime Concert Series attaining a similar stellar quality of chamber music making.
And then, wonders of wonders, in 1996 one of the world’s great orchestras, The Philharmonia, reached an agreement with the City Council to set up a residency in the city, giving each year a number of concerts, most of which would be the same as those performed in London. Not only that, but the orchestra also committed itself to education projects in the city. The outward manifestation of these became in time the Orchestra Unwrapped scheme. The numbers involved have been quite stunning. Since 2011 the orchestra has given concerts to over 15,5000 Leicester school children between the ages of 7 and 11 and every adult that I have known who has gained entry to one of these concerts has come away both moved and astonished. So, the city and the orchestra have really something to celebrate and that was done in style at the opening concert of the 2016/ 2017 Season.
Not that everything went according to plan for this celebratory occasion. A famous veteran Russian Conductor had to withdraw, to be replaced by a young British conductor, Ben Gernon. On the face of it some might have thought that hardly a quid pro quo. Alas, there always has been the assumption amongst a number of concertgoers that great conductors are the product of aging, that the slower a conductor is to the podium, the finer the interpretation there will be on arrival. As one of the grey hairs myself, I have become increasingly impatient with such condescension towards the young and fit. Like everything in life, there is often loss as well as gain. Sometimes I have felt that in regard conducting aged ‘wisdom’ can come at a price, with a loss of the voltage that goes with youth and discovery. Also, it is nonsense to assume that that which is exciting and sprightly is superficial and that which is slow, sometimes bordering on the soporific, necessarily delves deep. In addition this orchestra’s track record for searching out young talent is second to none. They gave their present day chief conductor his first chance in London in the 1980’s and Leicester in recent times has heard a number of fine conducting debuts. On the evidence of this concert, Britain has yet another great emerging talent.
Firstly, though, one must take one’s hat off to the Armenian violinist, Sergey Khatchatryan, who gave a phenomenal performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. I remember sometime ago hearing with surprise a violinist suggesting that this concerto was to be avoided as it was the most draining in the repertoire. This performance certainly conveyed how unremitting are its demands, not least because this artist met all of those demands head on. The range of tone and dynamics he achieved was quite stunning. He has an extraordinarily rich tone in the lower registers and can spin the most magical of pianissimos and yet was rarely drowned by the orchestra when Sibelius seems to think he is writing his Symphony 2.5. One extraordinary moment was at the end of the slow movement when the violinist looked for a moment like a boxer just about to throw in the towel, only the next minute to launch with rich vibrancy and drive into the final movement’s opening theme as if embarking freshly on a 100 metre sprint.
Perforce, up to the interval Gernon had played a relatively secondary role as accompanist and in a performance of Glazunov’s Valse de Concert. Even here, though, in what to this listener tends to remind one how much more memorably Johann Strauss handles the form, he shaped the detail with such musicality and elan as to make one almost forget such thoughts. In the Sibelius, he matched the soloist in the frequent and often dramatic moments when the orchestra takes centre stage, eliciting at times a wonderfully dark sound from the orchestra.
And that spilled over into Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. Curiously it is a long time since I have heard this war horse in the concert hall and this performance reminded me that a piece reaches war horse status for good reasons. When performed as it was here, it is a work that delivers a tremendous clout. But, of course, a performance needs to register also its frequent moments of beauty, even elegance, as in the third movement, and Gernon to my mind shaped that very finely . Indeed the whole performance gave the impression of clear vision and control. This was not a symphony bordering too often on excitable hysteria but one of tragic vision. So, when in the middle of the last movement Gernon let the horse loose, the gallop was absolutely irresistible, certainly when played, as here, by the strings in particular with hair raising attack. Hence the final peroration brought the performance to a spine tingling but finely gauged dramatic end. Throughout the orchestra seemed in fine form. One wondered at moments whether the woodwind section with a number of guest principals had quite its usual distinctive blend but overall ,particularly in the sumptuous strings, this seemed the vintage Philharmonia the occasion demanded. Also, one very much hopes to hear more of Ben Gernon , perhaps this time in a programme of choice.