Thursday, May 11, 2006

James Olsen: new piece in London

By Dominic McHugh
From musicOMH.com - 7 May 2006

In his second concert with the London Symphony Orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov juxtaposed two youthful works by Mahler and Prokofiev. And the talented Paul Watkins made a brief appearance at the beginning to conduct a third product of youth, the world premiere of James Olsen's Composition (30 January 2006). It's the latest instalment in the LSO's enterprising Sound Adventures scheme, presented in collaboration with the global financial services firm UBS.
The orchestra has been springing short - and unannounced - pieces on us in various concerts, usually at the end of a workshop process at LSO St Luke's. Even if these works fall short of being masterpieces, they are consistently provocative, inventive, and sometimes pleasing as well.
This was the case here. Olsen is a graduate of King's College, Cambridge, and a student of Julian Anderson and Wolfgang Rihm. This was his first piece for symphony orchestra, and it showed some imagination, as well as some shortcomings.
The title, for instance, is utterly pretentious. Composition (30 January 2006) refers to the day on which the piece was finished, and the anonymity of the name seems to me to reflect a certain void in the music – it simply lacked substance and a goal. The beginning was beautifully evocative, however: a duet between two solo cellos, with asides from the oboes and bassoons.
Olsen states in the programme that he wanted to remove all percussive elements from the piece, and the flutes and clarinets were also dispensed with. So why use muted tuba, trombones and trumpets (a percussive effect)? He skilfully built up an impressive palette of colours, with the violins entering gradually, but there was more journey than arrival: the music never quite blossomed as it promised to. Nevertheless, it was a confident debut, and no doubt we'll be hearing more from him in the future.
From a world premiere to Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto. It was written when the composer was in his early twenties, and frankly, it's not hard to perceive his immaturity. Not yet able to deal with the neo-classical style that he eventually clung to, Prokofiev falls back on high Romantic clichés throughout the three movements of this concerto, and despite some resourceful and ingenious moments and gestures, it's page after page of predictable melody and accompaniment in the late-19th century Russian style.
Perhaps the diffident playing of the orchestra didn't help. The LSO rarely sounds this lacklustre these days, and in a concert dedicated to the memory of ex-chairman Anthony Camden (who led the orchestra through the difficult period up to the opening of the Barbican Hall) and in the presence of many distinguished LSO luminaries and musicians including Sir James Galway, it's a shame they didn't muster up more inspiration in the first half.
Soloist Lisa Batiashvili showed genuine emotion and technical brilliance, but failed to communicate these qualities to the audience until the third movement. There was a lack of warmth in her tone until the finale, when she suddenly thrived. She flew about the registers with dexterity in the first movement and coped well with the tricky scales and spiccato passages of the Scherzo. Yet it was all too polite, all at the same level: I was longing for a gipsy-like flair in the Scherzo, for instance, and instead got a glamorous diva. Temirkanov's conducting was rather disengaged for much of the time, though his love of the music was usually apparent.
In the second half, we heard the most peculiar performance of Mahler's First Symphony imaginable. Written at the age of 24, it already shows many ingredients of the composer's future style (even if they are not yet in the right combinations). The third and fourth movements are particularly poetical, and here the LSO was at its best, playing together as an engaged and evenly-distributed ensemble.
The first movement was also very good on the whole, with nicely controlled high string tremolandi and an excellent cor anglais solo. However, the tempo of the second movement was grotesquely slow, a most peculiarly exaggerated choice by Temirkanov that resulted in a claustrophobic and pedantic performance. Interestingly, the orchestra couldn't cope, and by the return of the 'A' section, the tempo had increased a little. The movement is meant to be a pastiche of a buoyant Ländler – filled with 'robust, earthy vigour' as Stephen Johnson's excellent programme note tells us – but here it was drained of energy and almost fell apart.
Yet from the massive timpani roll of the third movement onwards, the performance suddenly became glorious. The canonic entries of the instruments in turn – cor anglais, double bass solo, bassoon, cello – built into a massive, imposing edifice of sound, and for the first time in the evening, the music carried some gravity with it. And there was purpose and direction to the last movement, where Temirkanov was at his inspired best: the trumpets and trombones sounded fanfares and the strings played ardently and movingly.
It was a tremendous end to a bizarrely mixed evening.

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