December 9, 2012

Sibelius Sunday – A review


And so Sibelius Day started with the concert at the Leeds College of Music. A friend came from Manchester to watch his flatmate play the Violin Concerto, and I went along too, mainly because of my love for the work, and also the curiosity to hear how the LCM orchestra sounded like. In conductor John Anderson’s brief introduction to the concert, he mentioned that the accompaniment to the concerto was extremely difficult and that they would do their best to play it. Usually when the conductor says something like that, my immediate thought would be ‘Oh dear me, how bad is this going to be?’

The Overture to Prince Igor by Borodin was at best, loud. At its worse, it was disorganized, entirely out-of-tune, and an absolute bore to listen to. Anderson was trying his best, and admittedly so were the musicians, but they could not get their act together.

Instead of the desolate chill that one was supposed to feel from the opening violin tremolo of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, I felt my hair stand on end – the tremolo of a minor third was reduced to a series of quarter-tone squeaks, shrill and scratchy. Soloist Bing Xiang never let that get to him, as he launched into the rich, full, opening tones of the concerto . Immediately the sense of “chilly warmth” was felt. His intonation was faultless, his playing refined, and coupled with strong technique and musicality.

If there was something consistent throughout, it was the terrible intonation of the orchestra. More than once, the orchestra got obviously lost, and there were moments of awkward decrescendos, the music held up by the few stronger musicians while the rest grappled and struggled to find their way around. The string players were hiding behind each other, and lost half the time. The flutes seemed to be the best section, being remotely in control.

The delicateness of the second movement was made somewhat draggy by a floppy-haired first clarinettist. He kept slowing down every single time he had a solo to play, perhaps because his view of the conductor was obscured by his fringe which covered his eyes!

Bing was starting to get a little tired towards the end of the last movement, and there just wasn’t enough energy to keep the rhythmic drive in the third movement, for it seemed as though both he and Anderson were trying haul the entire orchestra out of a pit of quicksand! He was assisted by the brass section towards the end, who did what they were best at doing – blasting.

In all, the concert was a let-down, the brilliance of the soloist marred by the sheer incompetence of the orchestra.

That very evening however, listening to the perfect intonation from the trombones’ ominous opening growls, the expressive beauty of the woodwinds, and the lush sonority of the strings, Finlandia was a glorious opening to the concert at the town hall. I felt a welcome sense of relief that this concert would definitely turn out better than the last – and thankfully, it did.

The Violin Concerto by Philip Glass which followed seemed to be a tad lacklustre in nature. The small sound of soloist Jack Lieback’s violin was swallowed up from time to time by the orchestra, who was playing its part with so much enthusiasm that it seemed to have forgotten that it was supposed to support and accompany! Even sitting in the fifth row from the front, I struggled to hear the violin in the outer movements. The intensity and intimacy in the second movement shone through, especially in the higher registers of the violin, which pierced through the syncopated accompaniment of the orchestra.

Háry János Suite was based on a comedic Hungarian character who spun tales about adventures he had when he was younger. Kodály explained that those stories are “an inextricable mixture of realism and naïveté, of comic humor and pathos…”, and intended his music to be taken as seriously as the old man’s claims, of which are “irrelevant” and “the fruit of a lively imagination”.

As the old Hungarian belief that a story told after a sneeze is almost always true, the suite opened with the loudest, most comical sneeze, complete with an impressive glissando down the piano! From the sad melodic themes to the percussionists’ imitation of Viennese intricate clockwork, the satire in the brass fanfares to the atmospheric slow Song with the viola and the cimbalom (a Hungarian string instrument played with mallets), conductor Richard Farnes was almost like a magician, waving a magic wand to conjure up fairytales.

The build-ups in Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, from the very first one awakening in the first movement, radiated forth powerfully like a burst of light at daybreak. The rest of the symphony to follow, right up to the majestic emergence of the horns in the ‘Swan Hymn’, brought a joyous, magnificent end to the concert.

Maybe, if Bing Xiang had played Sibelius’ Violin Concerto at the town hall with the Orchestra of Opera North, in between Finlandia and the Fifth Symphony, that would have made the perfect Sibelius concert (;

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