Striding forwards with Dima Slobodeniouk and the LPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom León, Mendelssohn, Sibelius: Beatrice Rana (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Dima Slobodeniouk (conductor).  Royal Festival Hall, London, 31.3.2023.  (CS)

Beatrice Rana, Dima Slobodeniouk and the LSO

Tania LeónStride (2019)
Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25
Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43

Titled Heroes and Heroines, this London Philharmonic Concert at the Royal Festival Hall promised me three ‘firsts’: a composer, pianist and conductor, each of whom I’d read much about, but not seen or heard live previously.  In the event, each of these new experiences offered something unique and revelatory.

Cuban composer Tania León’s 15-minute orchestral work, Stride, certainly sets out to be ‘heroic’ in spirit.  Commissioned in 2019 by the New York Philharmonic – who gave the premiere of the work the following year – it was one of 19 works by female composers designed to honour the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which barred states from denying women the right to vote – though one might note that it was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that women of colour were guaranteed the right to vote.

Stride is dedicated in honour of the suffragette Susan B. Anthony, of whom León has said, ‘it was tremendous to see the inner force that she had … I imagined her as a person who did not take “no” for an answer.  She kept pushing and pushing and moving forward, walking with firm steps until she got the whole thing done.  That is precisely what Stride means. Something that is moving forward.’

Struggle, movement and a restless pushing forwards certainly characterise Stride, and seem to reflect León’s own journey from Cuba – which she left as a refugee in 1967, on one of the Freedom Flights that expedited the mass migration from that country – to New York City, where she became a founding member and music director of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, and onwards to an international career marked by numerous, prestigious accolades, as a conductor and composer.  In 2021, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Stride; in December 2022 she was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor; and in 2023 she was announced as the winner of the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition.

Tania León, Dima Slobodeniouk and the LSO

In September this year, León will begin a two-year residency with the LPO, who will perform two of her works each season.  The founder and Artistic Director of Composers Now, she will continue her lifelong advocacy for the music of living composers and for cultural diversity as mentor to LPO Young Composers.

Stride emerges gradually from the silence, violin harmonics countered by double bass pizzicatos, the registral contrast opening a space which is quickly filled by kaleidoscopic colours and textures – brassy fanfares, a quiet timpani roll, percussive jangles, woozy wind solos, wa-wa horns – as small motifs interplay in polyrhythmic combinations, emerging from and subsiding back into the orchestral fabric, creating an edgy vibe at once both celebratory and moody.  One can hear resonances of León’s Latin-American roots (she claims Cuban, African, Spanish, French and Chinese ancestry) in the earthy rhythms, but the intricacies are threaded together into a dissonant Western modernist medium.

The Russian conductor Dima Slobodeniouk had the large orchestral forces on a tight leash, heightening the energy of the wriggling motivic developments which were shaped with precision and clarity.  Though there were increasingly hyperactive undercurrents, the lid was never entirely lifted, ensuring that the details of colour and rhythm could be heard and appreciated.  Percussive brightness illuminated the joyful close, ringing bells suggesting optimism and joy but set against quasi-primitive rhythmic ostinatos of a darker hue, both elements fading into echo and then silence.

It’s always difficult to take in a new work on a single hearing but it seems to me that in Stride León has somehow cohered fragmentation and momentum, the restlessness of the gestures embodying both resistance and progress.  I look forward to hearing more of León’s work during the LPO’s forthcoming seasons.

Since she won the silver medal at the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, the Italian pianist Beatrice Rana has been increasingly arousing interest and acclaim.  2019 saw her make her Carnegie Hall solo recital debut and receipt of the Ronnie and Lawrence Ackman Classical Piano Prize in 2022 led to her debut with the New York Philharmonic, playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, that year.  Her recordings, for Warner Classical, have made critics sit up and take note, too, including an account of Bach’s Goldberg Variations which earned her a Female Artist of the Year nomination at the Classic Brit Awards in 2018, and, more recently, a highly praised disc of Chopin’s Études and Scherzi (2021).

This month Rana released an account of the piano concertos of Richard and Clara Schumann with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Yannick Nézet-Seguin, and it was the First Piano Concerto of the Schumanns’ contemporary and friend, Felix Mendelssohn, that she chose to present with the LPO.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that the daughter of two professional pianists should have such poise and ease at the keyboard – in one sense she began playing the piano before she was born! – but Rana’s disarming naturalness and unassuming self-possession were still striking.  Her technique is immaculate, her manner unfussy: an economy of gesture produced remarkable rich results.

One sensed both imagination and intelligence at work here, served by a copious variety of touch, attention to detail, thoughtful dynamics – she knows how to make a pianissimo touch the heart – and beautifully lucid voicing.  Rana made Mendelssohn’s concerto seem neither a virtuoso showstopper nor a slight jeu d’esprit, but rather a thoughtful work of character, contrasts and communicativeness.

She calmly despatched the racing runs in the Molto allegro con fuoco, her strength allied with a freshness that was enhanced by the orchestral fire.  The Andante was pure poetry at the piano, Rana’s lovely tone and her calm, focused delivery creating an intimacy that drew the listener in.  She saved the fireworks for the final movement – though they were of the elegant rather than flashy kind – adding a Mendelssohnian fairy-glitz to the Presto’s classical core.  At the close the right-hand frolics spun like sparks from a catherine wheel disappearing into the air, while the sure, strong bass line kept the movement firmly rooted on earth.

Slobodeniouk’s baton-less gestures were sympathetic and expressive.  He conjured a dark, driving energy in the Allegro, though the counterpoint was always crystal clear, and if he calmed the temperature for the more doleful second subject then the underlying impetus from the celli and timpani was sustained.  In the second movement he coaxed a rich, passionate tone from the violas and cellos, complementing Rana’s unassuming composure, and the LPO fairly fizzed in the finale.

‘Fizzed’ isn’t a word that one would normally associate with a performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony, though on this occasion the LPO certainly seemed lit by a flaming vigour.  The emphasis from the first was on fluid forward movement.  Instrumental gestures seemed to propel each other onwards, as when at the start of the Allegretto the double basses’ emphatic pizzicatos seemed to pick up and run forward with the warmth conjured by the horns, or when, in the following episode, the baton was passed elastically between the strings and woodwind.  Slobodeniouk used the pedal points to create tension without labouring the point, and there was much eloquent rhetoric in this movement.

In the Tempo andante, ma rubato, the conductor’s clear gestures helped to persuasively juxtapose the cool with the climactic.  The lower strings’ opening pizzicatos were ethereally quiet but still focused and expressive, and the cross-currents between the celli’s triplets and the bassoons’ expansive unison melody were further energised by the timpani’s quiet rippling.  A fantastic urgency surged through the upper strings’ pressing theme, propelled by Slobodeniouk’s free, sweeping strokes.  Perhaps there was a little too much haste?  Not enough room to breathe deeply at the corners, a certain poignancy missing?  But, it was always exciting, with a strong sense of direction.

The Vivacissimo was a live wire of fizzling static, tiny baton gestures tiny creating a bristling energy, so that the gentleness of the trio was welcome, though Slobodeniouk built the theme into a heightened Romantic re-statement.  The transition into the Finale was a skilful sleight of hand and ear, and here the pace and structure were again superbly controlled.  The movement towards the reprise of ‘big theme’ was surprisingly brisk: it was as if the LPO were not interested in tempting the audience in their anticipation but simply couldn’t wait to reach their destination.  A dynamic burst from the tantalising pianissimo at the start of the coda to the blaze of D major at the close brilliantly cleared the air.

Born in Russia in 1975, Slobodeniouk moved to Finland at the age of sixteen and has described how ‘encountering’ Sibelius’ music, which for him was ‘new, and slightly unusual’ represented ‘the start of a new life’.  In 2016 he became the principal conductor of the Lahti Symphony as well as artistic director of the orchestra’s Sibelius Festival.  This performance, like that I heard from Slobodeniouk and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall in May last year, had tremendous conviction and purpose.  It might not be the reading I’d want on my CD rack, but there was no doubting the LPO’s joy in the collective spirit Slobodeniouk raised.

Claire Seymour

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