Wednesday, 21 September 2011

LPO, Jurowski, RFH 21 September 2011

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain (vers. orig.)
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: In the village (Quasi fantasia) orch. Zimmermann
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: On the southern shore of the Crimea orch. Zimmermann
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Stille und Umkehr (sketches for orchestra)
Alexander Raskatov: A white night's dream (Homage to Mussorgsky) for orchestra (World premiere)
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: Songs and dances of death orch. Raskatov (UK premiere)

A cloud hangs over the London Philharmonic as they open their winter season. On 30 August, four players from the orchestra signed a letter to The Independent calling for a boycott of a Prom by the Israel Philharmonic, citing Israel’s use of the ensemble as a propaganda tool to divert attention from human rights abuses. Each indicated after their name that they were members of the LPO. That was enough to get them suspended for nine months. The orchestra's argument, a tenuous one to say the least, was that they had implied that their views were the views of the orchestra, simply by stating that they played for it. A nine month suspension is an unprecedented sanction in modern British orchestral history, and an over-reaction by any reasonable standards.
Protests against the LPO's decision have since erupted all over the classical music community and beyond. The management's reaction to the protests, sadly, has been silence. Many, myself included, had hoped that the start of the winter season would be a chance for the management to draw a line under the issue. Had they made an announcement today that they were going to reinstate the players with immediate effect, and with a full apology, then the season of concerts that they are about to embark on would not have been affected. Instead they have chosen to do nothing and to offer no further explanations beyond Tim Walker's (Chief Exec of the LPO) infamous and now much derided statement that 'music and politics don't mix'. In fact, given that the organisation is now widely seen as opposed to freedom of expression as a result of the affair, it is ironic that their only public action in the past week has been to close down the LPO facebook page, where a vigorous debate had been taking place about the suspensions. The policy appears to be to ignore the whole business and hope it goes away. It's not going to – both the Times and the Guardian recently ran articles supporting the musicians, and the public anger at the orchestra's intransigent position is growing by the day.
I wonder what the players think of the affair? In theory, they own the orchestra, and the managers run it on their behalf. So (in theory) the suspensions could only have happened with their consent, and they have the power to reverse the decision. They've all been told not to talk to the press, so the intricacies of this remain speculation. What I can say is that there wasn't a smile from anybody on the stage this evening. In fact this was the most miserable looking orchestra I have ever seen in my life. It wasn't the cheeriest of programmes of course, but even so.
And I wonder what Alexander Raskatov, this evening’s featured composer, makes of the management's stance. Given their obvious contempt for freedom of expression, it was disingenuous of the orchestra to include these lines about him in the programme: "Born and trained in Moscow during the years when the state was anxious to keep its composers in a straitjacket of orthodoxy, Raskatov has fully exploited the freedom that came with the fall of the USSR." That's the kind of dark irony you need to be Russian to fully appreciate. No statements as yet from him though about the situation, nor from Jurowski, another Russian who spent just about enough time in the Soviet Union to appreciate the value of freedom of speech.
The sheer normality of this evening's concert was its most galling feature. But then normal for the LPO is most other orchestra's idea of a step into the unknown. A concert dedicated to the morbid side of Mussorgsky's personality, while it seems to have chimed with the musicians' mood, is a very strange way to open a concert season.
The first work, A Night on Bare Mountain, was presented in its original version. It is good to hear that once in a while, but again, as the first work in a concert season? The logic, I think, is that it better prepares Raskatov's new work in the second half. Raskatov has clearly learnt much from Mussorgsky, and one common trait (or is it a bad habit) is their shared disinterest in logical structure. In a sense, Jurowski seemed to be justifying Raskatov's formal indulgences by demonstrating that Mussorgsky had done it before.
The rest of the programme was made up of a Zimmerman work and a Zimmerman Mussorgsky orchestration, followed by a Raskatov work and a Raskatov Mussorgsky orchestration. Zimmerman too seemed like canon-fodder, providing us with some conservative Mussorgsky orchestrations and a modest composition (not his best) in order to show off how much better Raskatov is at both these activities.
Anybody who heard Raskatov's opera "A Dog's Heart" at ENO last year will be wondering which direction his reputation in the UK will take. The opera was interesting, but the music was completely upstaged by the puppetry and theatrical design. The work presented tonight "A White Night's Dream" shares many of the virtues and many of the faults of the opera. Raskatov shows himself to be a master of orchestration in both. He also has a fabulously fluid sense of pace, one minute giving us long, flowing phrases, the next stopping everything short with a percussion crash every few seconds. The main problem with Raskatov's music, at least on the basis of these two works, is the suspicion that it lacks any substance, that it is all just sound effects. "A White Night's Dream" allayed those concerns a little, but it is clearly of apiece with the opera.
You couldn't mistake Raskatov's orchestration of "The Songs and Dances of Death" for Shostakovich's if you tried. Shostakovich, to my knowledge, doesn't use a drum kit, or electric guitars, or a gong suspended in a bucket of water...Some of these effects get in the way, but on the whole Raskatov makes reserved use of his huge orchestra. Baritone Sergei Leiferkus intones the songs in a way that only a Russian could. His lower register is fabulous, although his upper register and some of his quieter passages lack tonal control. And while Raskatov usually holds back for him, there are a good few places where the sheer quantity of the orchestration defeats him.
There have been many calls over the past week to boycott LPO events, and the calls are likely to increase over the coming days. For myself, I decided a better move this evening was to come to the concert and then make my views on the players' suspensions known in this review.
Was the concert itself worth scabbing for? Only just.
Gavin Dixon

1 comment:

  1. "I wonder what the players think of the affair? In theory, they own the orchestra, and the managers run it on their behalf. So (in theory) the suspensions could only have happened with their consent, and they have the power to reverse the decision."

    The Daily Telegraph mentioned two interesting details today:
    "The LPO is owned by the musicians and the suspension was decided by them, rather than by management."
    "Mr Walker said that all four, who work on a freelance basis, would be welcome back once their suspensions were over."