United Kingdom Kendall, Debussy, Adams: Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Bancroft (conductor) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 23.6.2023. (CK)
Hannah Kendall – The Spark Catchers
Debussy – La Mer
Adams – Harmonielehre
A year ago to the day, I was in the Royal Festival Hall listening to the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra give a fine performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony under Semyon Bychkov; so it seemed fitting to be in the adjacent hall listening to another batch of aspiring musicians in the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra. ‘Batch’ is both disrespectful and inappropriate: the stage was filled almost to overflowing with these fine young players, who showed their mettle from the moment Ryan Bancroft raised his (batonless) hands. The auditorium was full too, with friends, families and well-wishers: not so much a concert, more a celebration, and a good place to be.
The opening piece – Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers – was no mere warm-up. Kendall – herself an alumnus of the RCM – took inspiration from Lemn Sissay’s poem of the same name, depicting the women who worked at the Bryant and May Match Factory, catching any stray sparks that could set the factory alight. Even if, unlike me, you heard the work’s BBC Prom premiere in 2017, this was a great opportunity to hear it in close-up. It is full of snappy rhythms – delivered with brilliant unanimity and discipline by the players – which give the piece its sharp edginess, its nervy sense of the women’s continual vigilance; even in the beautiful central section, where the strings (minus the double basses) sustain a sense of stillness with glassy purity of tone, the quiet harmonic clashes maintain the tension. The whole performance had the taut vividness you only get when every player, from principal to back desk, is utterly alert and on their toes.
The same sense of thrilling close-up characterised the performance of La Mer. The opening sounds, as the orchestra gently rouses itself, were truly magical: seaborne, we could register clearly the half-lights, the flecks and splashes of colour as they appeared and vanished; the expanded cello section that Debussy asked for almost made us feel the heave and swell. Harps, flutes, solo trumpet, violin harmonics – everything was wonderfully placed and played: wonderfully conducted, too. It was a performance with all the finesse, and all the drama, one could hope for.
John Adams’s Harmonielehre is becoming something of an orchestral favourite; and rightly so. Twenty years ago, after a performance under Adams himself, a London critic fretted: is it music or manipulation? (I wonder if he had the same problem with Puccini.) Perhaps we are more comfortable these days about a Minimalist intersecting with the Romantic symphonic tradition. Sibelius, Schoenberg, Mahler, yes – but Adams is his own man, and the music he brews is personal, utterly West Coast, and thrilling. So it was in this performance. Those pounding chords at the beginning were urgent rather than weighty: the airborne tanker of Adams’s dream evidently had somewhere to get to. Bancroft and his young players brought out all the beauty in the central part of the first movement, and all the pain in the second; then, serenely and ineffably, we were airborne with the medieval mystic Meister Eckhardt – in another of the composer’s dreams – with Adams’s baby daughter perched on his shoulder, whispering to him the secret of grace. As the climactic waves of the conclusion crashed over us, horn bells raised, we may have asked ourselves: has any composer broken out of an extended period of creative infertility as emphatically as this?
The RCM players rose magnificently to the challenge. Clearly, Bancroft’s energy and commitment inspired them: he even asked for – and got – a steep crescendo from the brass on the final chord. He is an exciting conductor. Soon, at the BBC Proms, he will be urging on his Welsh choral and orchestral BBC forces in Adams’s Harmonium. I can hardly wait.