Dani’s Howard’s Trombone Concerto gets a staggering performance in a mixed LSO programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Dani Howard, Qigang Chen, Stravinsky: Peter Moore (trombone); London Symphony Orchestra / Xian Zhang (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 24.4.2022. (CC)

Peter Moore (trombone), Xian Zhang (conductor) and the LSO (c) Andy Paradise

Ravel – Mother Goose – Suite (1910/11)
Dani Howard – Trombone Concerto (2020/21)
Qigang Chen – L’Éloignement (2003)
Stravinsky – The FirebirdSuite (1919 version)

The Chinese conductor Xian Zhang has been the subject of scrutiny a couple of times previously: a superb programme of Beethoven and Mahler with the Philharmonia (review here), and a rather more mixed concert with the LSO of Bartók, Nielsen and Zemlinsky (review here). Excellence was at the forefront here, though, with a radiant performance of the Suite from Ravel’s Mother Goose (Ma mère l’Oye). Alongside some splendid solos from London Symphony Orchestra principals was Zhang’s real feeling for Ravel’s music, from the daintiness of the opening ‘Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant’ (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty) and the sheer gossamer beauty and twinkling climax of the final ‘Le jardin féerique’ (The Fairy Garden). The chinoiserie of ‘Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes’ (‘Little Ugly, Empress of the Pagodas’ is the translation in the Barbican programme) was keenly drawn, varied, and beautifully characterised with a splendid sense of forward-moving momentum and energy at the end. Special mentions should go to Oliver Stankiewicz’s superb oboe solos in the first movement, the piccolo and cello lines delivered in perfect tandem by Sharon Williams and Principal Cellist Timothy Walden, plus the superbly characterful contrabassoon of Steven Magee in the fourth movement, ‘Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête’ (Conversation of the Beauty and the Beast).

I reported on the world premiere of Dani Howard’s Trombone Concerto (review here)– in a streamed concert that was also Domingo Hindoyan’s first concert as Principal Conductor Designate of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a remarkably strong work. Howard’s use of texture, her inner ear, is remarkable. Interestingly, some of the textures didn’t feel a million miles away from Ravel; and there are certainly parallels to be made in terms of sheer orchestrational expertise. Her Trombone Concerto was written for the present soloist, Peter Moore; it was actually commissioned pre-Covid but composed during lockdowns. It celebrates the unsung heroes of the pandemic, the bus drivers, refuse workers, post persons and so on. The ‘life before’ informs the opening ‘Realisation’ (the soloist is instructed to ‘play as if you are totally oblivious to your surroundings’, so I assume that level of awareness means Howard either knows London well or resides here). The gradual erosion of that everyday, bubbling vivacity comes in tandem with what I suspect is a baseline lyricism of Howard: her lines are expressive, lyrical. There is an almost pastoral element to this.

Moore’s performance was staggering in several aspects: his ability to create a true legato, but also purely in his accuracy, something heard particularly in the remarkable cadenza (which included multiphonics that absolutely did not sound like metal grinding). ‘Rumination’ seems to be Howard’s equivalent to Bartókian Night Music, but with her own ‘accent’: restrained, beautiful yet somehow somewhat eerie, before the bright, bell-like ostinatos of the finale’s dance (‘Illumination’) took the piece to a virtuoso conclusion. It is impossible to think of a finer soloist than Peter Moore: his tone is beautifully round, burnished and yet carries beautifully. Without doubt, this is a major addition to the trombone repertoire.

Perhaps Qigang Chen’s L’Éloignement is a touch less impressive. Premiered in 2003 at the Shanghai International Arts Festival by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, the string-only piece is a rondo with variations on a folksong from northwest China, ‘Zou Xi Kou’ (Going Beyond the Western Gorges). The piece mixes folk music with modernist adornments, yet lush textures and the occasional playful moment enliven the journey. Perhaps the piece was chosen because of the cello harmonic glissandos (that link to the Stravinsky)? Interestingly, a YouTube performance (with video score) by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Leonard Slatkin makes a considerably better case for the piece.

Finally, that Firebird, which balanced the opening Ravel beautifully and further balanced it in excellence of performance. ‘The Dance of the Firebird’ was wonderfully alive (especially the woodwind contributions), the ‘Khorovod’ (Round Dance of the Princesses) graceful featuring beautiful oboe and clarinet solos from Stankiewicz and James Gilbert, while the ‘Infernal Dance of King Kashchei’ boasted that world-famous LSO precision, its opening gesture a real wake-up call. Daniel Jemison’s bassoon sang beautifully, almost vulnerably, in the ‘Lullaby’ before the final peroration of the Finale.

No faulting Xian Zhang’s programming here; and no doubt, either, that performances of Dani Howard’s Trombone Concerto are definitely worth seeking out.

Colin Clarke

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