WHAT a fabulous concert, generously applauded by a well-attended audience on a freezing Bonfire Night. With works by two Finnish composers, a German-American émigré and an openly gay British composer, I have no idea what some of the more asinine 'newspapers' would make of it. With a Finnish conductor-violinist and a young Danish cellist taking the soloist spots, the Scandinavian presence was enforced.
Skorgårds' performance was well-nigh faultless
My particular highpoint was Kaija Saariaho's Notes on Light (2006), which is to be released on the BIS label. I hadn’t heard anything by her before but, if this was anything to judge, she should be better known. The five-movement piece was a gripping, moving concerto, brilliantly performed by the orchestra and the young cellist Jakob Kullberg. Each movement had varying colours and demands. You knew it was a contemporary piece due to the number of percussionists taking their places behind the array of instruments.
The vibraphone and marimbas added textures and real dynamism, especially to Awakenings (third movement) and Heart of Light (fifth). The presence of a celeste, which looks like an upright piano, has a higher frequency than most instruments and was dramatically employed in the final movement, stopping the orchestra with single notes that rang clear across the hall.
Kullberg's playing - from weird, bending notes at the start, through the humming and buzzing effects that sounded almost like an electric guitar - was wonderful. At one point he descended down the fret, then left it and closed in on the bridge, the notes scaling higher and higher until you wondered if it was going to go beyond human hearing. At the end, washed with applause, he still remained a little hunched, as if the effort and intensity was still affecting him. A chap in the same row as me had filmed it throughout. The manager of the orchestra explained that it was Jacob's dad, so I allowed him a little leeway...
Two friends on the night had other favourites. The Kurt Weill Violin Concerto was one of these. A remarkably ornery affair, one which is memorably described in the programme as 'not a piece that goes out its way to be endearing'. John Skorgårds conducted whilst playing the violin, nimbly stepping around the stage, waving his bow when not playing, occasionally kicking his leg out to balance as he extracted more from the violin. This piece raced through different aspects of Weill's music, Brecht's musical theatre, Broadway musicals and so on, and at one point there was a jazzy duet between the xylophone and violin that was quite funny, even sarcastic. Every bit as demanding as the Saariaho, but - with a tighter, more concentrated register - Skorgårds' performance was well-nigh faultless.
The other two pieces, which bookended the concert were Sibelius' tone poem Tapiola, and Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Tapiola is based on sections from the epic poem that basically underwrote Finnish national identity, the Kalevala. The flautists should be singled out, as they impressed in this piece, and were remarkable throughout the different demands of the other three.
The final piece, the Britten, in four contrasting movements was a sensational way to end. The fourth movement, Storm, has been described as the most impressive evocation of a tempest ever produced. The committed playing, the roaring of strings and brass and woodwind, the punched and perfect kettle-drumming and Skorgårds' exemplary control made that claim self-evident.
The performance was recorded for Radio 3 and will be available on BBC iPlayer