Review: BSO ‘An Artist’s Reply’ @ The Great Hall

There can be few experiences quite so exquisite as being in the front row while a world-class orchestra blasts Prokofiev’s ‘Dance of the Knights’. From the moment the hellish conflict of wind and brass gave way to the menacing, soft stirring of the violins, a smile was painted on my face that refused to shift for the rest of the evening. Every section was alert and animated during the principle theme, playing with vigour and passion. The percussion, led by Matt King, were particularly strong during the Prokofiev, aided by the horns and violins.

The orchestra coped admirably with the last-minute change to conductor, with the planned maestro for the evening Vassily Sinaisky sadly indisposed due to illness. The BSO’s Young Conductor in Association took his place, and performed as if nothing was amiss. The slightest of hesitations at the close of ‘Dance of the Knights’ threatened to betray the last-minute alteration, but the professionalism of the players and Aviat himself was never in doubt.

At the close of the suite, there was a pause as the grand Steinway was wheeled out to the centre of the stage, and guest pianist Kirill Gerstein took to the stage. The orchestra ripped their way through the twenty-four themes of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody with consummate skill, allowing just the right amount of room for the virtuosic expertise of Gerstein to shine through without running away from the main orchestra. The piece itself is not, in my opinion, Rachmaninoff’s best – each variation on Paganini’s theme ends before the audience has time to adjust to its tonal vocabulary. The entire set is fast and technically brilliant, but lacks the emotional atmosphere of his better Piano Concertos and especially his second Symphony. After the Rhapsody an encore was unsurprisingly called for Gerstein by the impassioned audience. After two curtain calls, he obliged, playing an unfortunately unnamed piece at a blistering speed and with thick, rich melodies and harmonies that showcased his very best technical abilities, while being serenely relaxed.

After the interval, the main event began. Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, a self-conscious embodiment of ‘socialist realism’, was brought to life on stage. I took a kind of morbid delight in imagining the premiere of the piece, watching with horror the expression of Stalin shift from a menacing placidity to a grimace at certain points of loud playing. The grimly evocative melodies and forced rejoicing of the final march were conveyed with stunning power by the brass, and by the Trumpets and Trombones in particular, led by Chris Avison and Kevin Morgan respectively. I was pleased to see a return to white tie for this performance, lending the concert a sense of occasion that befitted the pieces played.

If you’re aged between 18-25, I urge you to take advantage of the BSO’s ‘Vibes’ programme, which offers £5 tickets to concerts at Lighthouse Poole, Great Hall Exeter, Portsmouth Guildhall, and Bournemouth Pavilion. This offer should be taken up regardless of whether you’re a young but passionate admirer of classical music, or something of a debutante to the scene looking for an opportunity to experience a live orchestra at a low price. There is a dire need for classical music to attract a younger audience, and I am pleased to see the BSO taking the initiative to offer lower rates to young people. Making the concert price as little of an obstacle as possible will remove the excuse of cost for students to attend world-class orchestral concerts on their doorstep. For more information, and to register for a ‘Vibes’ card, please visit: https://www.bsolive.com/vibes/

– by Thomas Gordon-Colebrooke

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