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Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra Launch Centenary With Three Concerts in New York


By Raphael Mostel

NEW YORK, 2 February 2004—New Yorkers have learned to eagerly anticipate the annual visits of the London Symphony Orchestra as one of the highlights of the season. Last year was Hector Berlioz's centenary, and Sir Colin Davis and the LSO stunned New York with the complete performances of Berlioz's Damnation de Faust and Roméo et Juliet, plus Harold en Italie and Symphonie Fantastique. Sir Colin even followed this Berlioz feast with a most delicious dessert, conducting the New York Philharmonic in a wondrous and innovatively quasi-staged Béatrice et Bénédict too.

So this season, the orchestra's own centenary, New Yorkers' expectations ran higher than normal. And none of the LSO's three New York programs was more eagerly anticipated than the full concert performance of a very English work, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. These unreasonably high expectations were not only met but exceeded. This is music that conductor Sir Colin Davis, the orchestra, its chorus and the soloists have in their bones. One could almost smell the brine in their superb and overwhelming performance. So vivid and vital was their interpretation, staging and scenery would have been superfluous.

Famous for its often-excerpted "Sea Interludes" Grimes is a demonic parable of the doom awaiting those daring the inexorable tides of the sea, of society or of self. Musically it is roughly halfway between Debussy's La Mer and Berg's Wozzeck.

Britten at his best was a genius at reductive writing, reducing the music to the bare essential, and this is one of his peak imaginings. The score is a masterpiece of concise musical visualizations—one can all but see the birds circling and diving over the harbor, the flecks of sunlight on the water, the heaving waves...

Leading the excellent cast was tenor Glenn Winslade in the challenging title role of the tormented, inarticulate fisherman whose sole poetic hope is to "turn the sky back and begin again." While not erasing memories of the greatest interpreter of this role, Jon Vickers, and despite a brief rough patch, Winslade triumphed. And throughout his exemplary diction was nothing less than stunning.

Colin Davis is famous for his Sibelius interpretations, and he demonstrated why in the second program, which featured En Saga, and Symphonies 3 & 5. Many can pull off the big climaxes in these works, but very few know how to bring out the longing and the search for the ineffable in this music. Sibelius's music is all about journeys, and with seemingly effortless magic, the LSO revealed worlds of color and every last detail of the landscapes traveled in these scores. Midway in the journey through the fifth, the hard-working horns briefly and very uncharacteristically lost their footing in intonation. But they recovered and resumed the journey on solid ground. Certainly all their perorations were not only secure but transcendent. In fact, the entire brass section did themselves proud throughout all three concerts.

Sir Colin Davis
Sir Colin Davis
Photo: Clive Barda

However, the third program was a letdown. One had high hopes for Beethoven's Eighth Symphony at the beginning: The sunnily insistent F-major opening led one to believe this might be an old-fashioned full-throated interpretation, the kind our great-grandfathers might have heard. Unfortunately, this opening phrase was just about the only one which made sense. Colin Davis, who in person amply demonstrates wry wit, in this instance showed little understanding of this richly witty symphony. He captured the ongoing melos and the rhythmic obsessiveness. But I fail to understand why he would insist on such soggy, doggedly inexpressive articulation. Even the scherzo's joke about that then-new invention, the metronome, went out the window as the tic tic tic became dum dum dum. Maybe this is zeitgeist, because Beethoven seems to be having a tough time in New York right now with a spate of mediocre interpretations.

Stravinsky's complete original 1910 version of The Firebird filled the remainder of the program. This brilliant showpiece for orchestra is in large part great swoons of the voluptuous alternating with swaths of the mysterious, interrupted occasionally by wakeup calls of the grandiloquent. This reading of the music was crackerjack, licketysplit, especially the surefire wakeup call of the Infernal Dance. But English people simply don't do voluptuous. Languid is not an adequate substitute, as it so easily devolves into doldrum and humdrum. Cavils about interpretation aside, the orchestra's playing was magnificent.

Most remarkable, though, was not the performance so much as the sound the orchestra was able to generate in Avery Fisher Hall in all three programs. The New York Philharmonic has complained about the hall ever since it was built and rebuilt and rebuilt again for them. The management even tried to ditch the hall entirely and jump back to Carnegie Hall, until reality nixed that pipe dream. They should take a lesson from the LSO. Avery Fisher Hall will always have a few pockets of muffled sound, but the LSO demonstrated that with care, it can be a wonderful place for an orchestra. One of the secrets is part of the orchestra was placed on risers, which allows the full range of the instruments to penetrate into the hall with greater clarity. This is a vindication for Berlioz, who long ago advocated exactly this staging so that the musicians could more easily project effects of the instrumentation. (Well, actually, he advocated ALL players be placed on risers, not just some of them.) A side benefit is that such placement is less damaging for the hearing of the musicians: It provides a cushion of physical distance between players' ears and their colleagues' instruments, which is especially welcome when everyone is going at full toot.

The hundred-year-old LSO almost didn't make it to adolescence: In 1912 the adventurous young orchestra took the unusual step of planning a tour to the U.S. to bolster its reputation. But for a last minute snafu which forced them to change their booking for a later-departing boat, the entire orchestra was to have sailed on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

Following the launch of the Centenary in New York with Sir Colin Davis in January 2004, the London Symphony Orchestra continues its 100th birthday celebration at the Barbican in London and worldwide with a tour of the Far East. Click here to view performances on tour.

Raphael Mostel is a composer based in New York City. His composition The Travels of Babar (the only new concertwork authorized for a Jean de Brunhoff picturebook since Francis Poulenc's The Story of Babar) has recently been released on CD with English narration. His website is www.Mostel.com..

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