Marin Alsop and the LPO: A Decidedly Mixed Bag

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Dvořák, Milhaud, Varèse: London Adventist Chorale, Ken Burton (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 20.2.2013 (GDn)

Three Spirituals
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9
Milhaud: La création du Monde
Varèse: Amériques

The programme for this evening’s concert was a mess, and I blame Alex Ross. Its role in the season, The Rest is Noise is clear enough, but the Europeans-in-America theme was curated with a heavy hand. From a historical perspective the choices of composers and works were obvious, but they sit well together. On top of that, the idea of beginning with real spirituals and then moving straight into Dvořák Nine meant that the whole programme had to be reversed, with the symphony in the first half and the curiosities in the second.

I’ve never subscribed to the view that African-American spirituals form the melodic and/or spiritual basis of the ‘New World’ Symphony, so perhaps the first half of this concert was aimed at listeners like me. A gospel choir, the London Adventist Chorale, opened the concert and their performance segued directly into the opening of the Dvořák. The congruence between the spirituals and the symphony was blatantly engineered by the inclusion of Going Home, a setting of the cor anglais solo from Dvořák’s second movement in the form of a spiritual. But even that failed to make the case.

The choir was on top form, and their short performance was a highlight of the concert. With only twenty singers, they struggled to fill the hall with sound, but the sheer beauty of their tone ensured that everybody listened intently. They performed a simple, homophonic setting of Deep River, a jazzy Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and a setting of Going Home that even followed Dvořák’s harmonies and textures.

As the choir ended the orchestra began, but there was little continuity here. In fact the commitment of the singers, the precision of their ensemble and the elegance of their tone, were in stark contrast to the messy, incoherent orchestral playing that followed. Given the challenges of the second half, the majority of the rehearsal time was presumably given over to the Varèse. But did they even run the Dvořák? Considering the consistently high standards the London Philharmonic usually maintains, this was an amazingly sloppy performance. Alsop clearly has a vision for the symphony. She’s keen to drive the outer movements like it’s Beethoven Five, and both of the inner movements are about steady, insistent tempos. But she wholly failed to communicate any of this to the orchestra, and the result was leaden, incoherent playing, poor balance within the orchestra and a distinct lack of poise at almost every turn.

The second half opened with Milhaud’s La création du Monde, a piece that requires a programme of this sort to justify its presence in an orchestral concert but that acted as effective palate cleanser between the more substantial works. Milhaud seems to be taunting the orchestral players with all the jazzy licks he expects them to struggle with, but this time the joke was on him, as all the pseudo-jazz came off beautifully. Special mention should go to Andrew Barclay, whose nonchalant kit drumming succinctly set the tone.

The concert ended with a bang, or rather with several, in the form of Varèses’s Amériques. As soon as it began it was clear where all the rehearsal time had gone. The London Philharmonic fielded about the largest band you’ll ever see in the Festival Hall, including an unprecedented 12 percussionists (that’s apart from the two timpanists) vying for elbow room at the back of the stage. This time, Alsop set the pace more carefully and paid much greater attention to the many details of the score. Balance within the ensemble was impressive, with those crucial woodwind textures shining through, even against the large brass section. Some of the quieter passages sagged, but the composer should take as much blame for this as the conductor. And the ending was fabulous, with Alsop managing to increase the volume and density of sound, even over the repeated extremes that make up most of the piece, to give the final page that extra impact. An impressive end, then, to a variable concert, one which struggled to make sense on its own terms, despite its pedantically themed programme. Let’s hope that later offerings in The Rest is Noise are more consistently inspired and make a better case for every work, not just the ones with the loudest bells and whistles.

Gavin Dixon