Tag Archives: London Symphony Orchestra

EIF: LSO/Rattle | Phaedre/Minotaur | The Threepenny Opera

Usher Hall / Lyceum / Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As befits an Edinburgh Festival posing a question about the direction of travel in this century, the third weekend of the programme offered an excellent opportunity to hear and see crucial works of the last one.

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie, Benjamin Britten’s dramatic cantata Phaedre and Kurt Weill’s breakthrough music-theatre work Die Dreigroschenoper are all essential to an understanding of the art of their creators, even if the Britten is from the very end of his life.

Phaedre has not been heard at the Festival for almost 20 years and this staging by Deborah Warner featured a visceral acting performance from mezzo Christine Rice that made the work a chamber opera. Using a piano version of the score, played with percussive propulsion by Richard Hetherington, the instrument itself became one of the simple props (alongside sheets, a chair, shoes) at her disposal.

If the structure of the work is Handelian, the emotional heft of Britten’s setting of Robert Lowell’s text is searingly contemporary – the work is not yet half a century old. Rice conveyed the passion of her character’s incestuous love powerfully, but more moving was the mix of wistfulness and regret she found in the work’s closing bars.

Warner partners the work with a danced version of the story of Phaedre’s sister Ariadne, played by Royal Ballet artist Isabel Lubach. The sound collage by Eilon Morris was a long way from Britten but its broad palette served the classical line of Kim Brandstrup’s choreography well, Lubach partnered by Tommy Frantzen and Jonathan Goddard.

The work of Elizabeth Hauptmann that Bertolt Brecht used in the writing of the adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera half a century earlier is no longer unacknowledged. Australian director Barrie Kosky’s Berliner Ensemble production of The Threepenny Opera may be very self-consciously “Brechtian” in much of its conception, but he is as admiring of Brecht’s collaborators, especially composer Kurt Weill.

The score was performed by an authentic seven-piece pit band led by Adam Benzwi from piano and harmonium, and the singing actors had varying levels of musical ability, with Gabriel Schneider’s charismatic Macheath and especially Bettina Hoppe’s soulful Spelunken-Jenny the best of them.

The distancing achieved by Rebecca Ringst’s somewhat grandiose designs – six tall multi-platformed towers moving up and down stage on rails – might have fitted Brechtian philosophy, but while the performers went out of their way to engage with the audience front-of-cloth, they only rarely engaged with one another. Doubtless this was deliberate, but it sometimes made the Festival Theatre stage look very large for the show. And for a script with a lot of sex – and a Kosky production – it wasn’t very sexy.

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila is all about sex, alongside the Tristan and Isolde myth, Eastern music, birdsong, and his devout Catholicism. The fact that the composer saw no contradiction in any of these elements is what makes it so thrilling.

There will be few performances of this massive piece from the mid-point of the 20th century as thrilling as the one by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle that brought the orchestra’s Festival residency to a close. There was a real sense of occasion before a note was played, as Rattle’s tenure as music director of the LSO comes to an end, Festival director Nicola Benedetti opening the evening’s two concerts with a lavish encomium to Rattle’s place in British music.

He reacted, as he only could, by moving swiftly on to talk about “The Road to Turangalila”, the title given to the three works in a preceding early evening concert that influenced Messiaen’s masterpiece. His comparison of Pierre Boulez’s reaction to the work with Fringe perennials The Ladyboys of Bangkok, encamped across Lothian Road, was wittily provocative.

The Fanfare from La Peri by Dukas, Milhaud’s La creation du monde, and Debussy’s La Mer paved that road. If 11 LSO players made the fanfare sparkle and the full orchestra gave a wonderfully rich account of the Debussy, with terrific soloists and a choral quality to the strings, the Milhaud was the revelation.

An alto sax has the lead line at the start of the piece, but the jazz content of this 1923 piece really kicks in with arco bass and a “Hot Five” front line of trombone, trumpet and clarinet from the 20-piece ensemble. Here was evidence from this side of the Atlantic to support Duke Ellington’s argument against labelling genres of music.

If jazz and movies are the great cultural developments of the 20th century, Turangalila is the musical expression of widescreen cinemascope. Rattle’s partnership with pianist Peter Donohoe on this work goes back to his time with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Donohoe was as important as the LSO to the spectacular success of this rendition. So too, of course, was Cynthia Millar at the ondes Martenot, with its unique swooping proto-synthesiser sound, but it was always very carefully placed in the mix, and the other solo voices in the orchestra, as well as every detail of the percussion (requiring 10 players), were equally favoured.

Beyond argument, Turangalila was one of the events for which Benedetti’s first Festival will be remembered; the fact that the Usher Hall was full for the concert was also a notable achievement.

Keith Bruce

Ayanna Witter-Johnson & LSO Percussion Ensemble

The Hub, Edinburgh

Since Ben Tindall created a home for the Edinburgh International Festival in an abandoned Church of Scotland building on Castlehill in 1999, the architectural confection lumbered with the prosaic name of The Hub has presented a challenge for successive directors of the event. Although there have been successful one-off concerts and productions there over the years, it possibly achieved maximum usefulness as a studio for filmed chamber music during the restrictions of the Covid pandemic.

Nicola Benedetti’s solution to the use of the place during the three weeks is an eclectic series of recitals reflecting the range of the wider programme, which she hopes will make it a venue for the conversation she wants to have with the audience about the future direction of the Festival.

Few of the musicians performing there will encapsulate that range more individually than songwriter and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson. She last appeared in Scotland as a member of Peter Gabriel’s touring band and at EIF as a composer, her specially-commissioned work, Blush, paired with Judith Weir’s woman.life.song, performed by Chineke! and Andrea Baker during those Covid years. That piece, which plundered the archives of 70s jazz orchestration and Blaxploitation movie soundtracks, suggested a restless musical mind which her cheerful engaging combination of soulful performance and virtuosity here quickly confirmed.

Her collaborators were jazz pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock and the long-serving Principal Percussionist of the London Symphony Orchestra Neil Percy with three of his LSO colleagues from the section. The Hub stage was filled with their instruments, tuned and simpler, but the metronomic beat of much of the music came from a foot-pedal and woodblock operated by Witter-Johnson herself, as, standing, she also played riffs and improvised on her long spiked cello, both bowed and pizzicato, and sang quite beautifully. As her solo encore of Sting’s Roxanne, complete with Bach-like introduction, demonstrated, she developed that startling one-woman-band technique to perfection before success brought her the luxury of these musical partners.

Her relationship with the LSO goes back more than a decade to her youthful involvement with the orchestra’s composers’ hub (every arts organisation has to have one) initiative, but it has reached a new level with the release in October of an album by this ensemble, Ocean Floor, on the LSO Live label. This concert was a showcase for that recording, built around her suite that gives it its title.

There are tragic stories, historical and personal, behind the music Witter-Johnson has composed for the project, but you might not guess that on an initial listen. She has a gift for joyful melody, both instrumental and vocal, and the complexity of her own writing teamed beautifully with Neil Percy’s improvising and Simcock’s arranging of her earlier tune, Chariot, in a distinctly Steve Reich style.

Simcock’s own composition for the album, Holding, although expansively introduced by the pianist, was less successful, probably because the short theme which it explores is less interesting in itself, but it did give each of the other players – David Jackson, Tom Edwards and Sam Walton (also a member of Colin Currie’s quartet) – their own moment in the spotlight.

Keith Bruce