The Melos Sinfonia Offers a Mixed Experience at St Luke’s

17/10/2015

Na’ama Zisser, Mahler and Beethoven: Ross Ramgobin (baritone), Melos Sinfonia/ Oliver Zeffman (conductor), Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London, 16.10.2015 (AS)

Na’ama Zisser: Space melts like sand running through fingers

Mahler: Rückert-Lieder

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92

Any orchestra that performs in front of a paying audience deserves to be judged by the highest standards. Back in the summer the Melos Sinfonia under its musical director Oliver Zeffman gave a very good impression of itself at the St Jude’s Festival (review), but last night’s concert proved to be a mixed experience.

Na’ama Zisser was born in Israel in 1988, and now lives in London, where she has recently graduated from the Royal College of Music, having studied with Mark-Anthony Turnage. In a programme note she revealed that the title of her new work is a quotation from a book by George Perec. Zisser goes on to write, “I liked this line for the imagery it suggested to me – I often feel a constant need to retain a precise memory of a space; to appropriate it, designate it, to make it survive. Failing to do so, I end up with lots of small bits, fractions or moments that define this space for me. This piece is an exploration of that process.”

The reader/listener is thus already being asked to digest some pretty abstract concepts. Clearly Zisser herself knows exactly what she is expressing in terms of her musical creativity, but can the listener make a connection between her ideas as explained in writing and its expression through the medium of sound? I doubt it. What we heard was in fact rather familiar to those of us who experience contemporary music with any regularity – a succession of orchestral patterns and sonorities, many of them interesting and ingenious in themselves, but seemingly unconnected and formless. I suspect that the playing, which seemed to have ragged elements, did not help to present the work in its best light.

The young baritone Ross Ramgobin made a good impression in the five Rückert songs of Mahler. The voice itself is attractive. Ramgobin has a good, reliable technique, a pleasing stage presence, and he brought a good degree of character to his interpretation. But the orchestral part, with its often spare textures and exposed passages for solo or small groups of instruments was less than ideally realised, particularly by the brass section, and the playing as a whole was a little tentative.

Matters improved after the interval. The orchestra was not up to the high standard it showed at St Jude’s, and fallible playing did detract a little from Zeffman’s impressive realisation of Beethoven’s symphony. Rhythms in the first movement can easily become lumpy, but with good choice of tempi Zeffman took great care to keep them springy and full of life. The basic tempo for the Allegretto was quite brisk, but Zeffman gave his players plenty of room for some neatly turned phrasing, and the Scherzo had plenty of impetus, with an effectively slowish trio section. If the beginning of the finale seemed a little hectic Zeffman introduced some subtle changes of tempo and pulse, so that the movement emerged as an admirably coherent and satisfying entity. As a whole it was a most impressive, well-conceived performance.

Oliver Zeffman undoubtedly has much talent as a conductor: it would be good to hear how he might use his skills in front of a top-rate orchestra.

Alan Sanders

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