Leif Segerstam and the London Schools Symphony Orchestra

Berlioz, Britten, Sibelius, Respighi: Pia Segerstam (cello), London Schools Symphony Orchestra, Leif Segerstam (conductor). Barbican Hall 27.4.2011 (KC)


Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
Britten: Symphony for Cello and Orchestra
Sibelius: Karelia Suite
Respighi: Pines of Rome


This was, alas, not entirely one of Segerstam’s finest hours – nor one of the LSSO’s. Matters did improve, though, as the concert unfolded.

The Roman Carnival Overture began auspiciously, but it never really amounted to anything of moment.  All carnival atmosphere was missing.  The instruments remained subdued in tone, lacking sufficiently vivid colour as the festivities were supposedly getting under way. Also, the ever-lengthening melodic lines failed to swell with the ebullience that Berlioz surely intended. Volume increased, but not verve.

Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra was a very dark affair indeed. I felt that Segerstam did not fully have the measure of the piece. He excels in works that respond to enlivening strokes from a broad brush – much in the same way as Sir Thomas Beecham gave renewed life and vigour to many a tired-out old war horse …  and enjoyed the occasional blaring vulgarity. (Segerstam’s ‘Finlandia’ is thrilling.) Britten’s rhythms are usually subtle, only indirectly apparent. Melody, equally, is not evident and manifest. Moreover, Britten rarely cares to declare his heart – with personal reasons for employing caution. Where conductor and composer – and the young musicians of the LSSO – met was on orchestration.  Britten used the large orchestra sparingly, so that there is plenty of opportunity for individual sections of the orchestra to shine in what are virtually solo spots or sections with unexpected but effective juxtapositions of two disparate instruments (for example harp and, as I remember, horns). Pia Segerstam was scrupulous, but with a presence that was rather pallid, even anonymous.  While an orchestra comprising school students should not have to cope with some wildly idiosyncratic soloist, one less prim and with more gusto would surely have raised their spirits.

Thereafter, the concert began to flourish.

The Karelia Suite had a joyous swing to its outer movements and a sobering, affecting gravity to the central Ballade. In the Alla Marcia – a ‘call to battle against the ancient Russian foe’ – the massive, white-haired Finn on the podium turned to the audience at one point and rolled a benign dance on his non-too-secure feet. All credit to the LSSO that, temporarily, its conductor confidently left it to its own devices.

The Pines of Rome was splendid, capturing a number of atmospheres neatly and effectively, giving each of the four pictorial soundscapes its own particular ambience. We heard children at play – light-footedly dancing, playing soldiers and then scattering like birds in flight. We heard a sepulchral invocation of time-stopped brooding in the vicinity of a catacomb. We heard the hushed rapture of pines under the moon and we finished with the tramp of long-passed Roman soldiers down the Appian Way. Shadowy, then rampaging, the orchestra came into its own.  During Respighi’s colourful piece the clarinet solos were dark and silken, flutes cooed like doves, the cello solo told a tale of lament throughout eternity. And, delight of delights, the horns were unfailingly warm and smooth – a credit to their players’ skills and training.

Ken Carter