The Classic Look
Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (Linn Records)
The Sixteen - The Earth Resounds: Josquin, Brumel, Lassus (Coro) The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage continues until October
Belcea Quartet tour
BMW LSO Open Air Classics - London Symphony Orchestra with Valery Gergiev, Trafalgar Square, London, May 12
Louis Andriessen has spent a lifetime writing rowdy music to make people sit up and listen. But at 72 the Dutch composer/iconoclast admitted he’s no longer bothered by the size or age of audiences. “I just have to write the right notes,” he shrugged cheerfully. “Actually, I don’t think it has to do with the notes at all, it has to do with what musicians look like, and symphony orchestras don’t look very cool.”
Andriessen gave up writing for traditional orchestra in the late 1960s, but he’s not alone on the image front. How to present classical music in a way that does it justice but doesn’t look and feel stuffy still flummoxes many a fine ensemble.
Conductors like Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Stéphane Denève unleash reams of podium chat before raising their batons in the hope of charming listeners; the gentlemen of the BBC Symphony Orchestra push the boat out during the Proms season by donning friendly white (instead of the usual sober black) bow ties.
Jonathan Morton, violinist and director of the Scottish Ensemble – and not a bad talker himself – told me recently he worries constantly about the communication issue. “Classical musicians are prone to a false sense of entitlement,” he said. “But just walking on stage and playing amazing music and expecting the world to say ‘wow’ – it doesn’t necessarily work like that.”
Still, the balance must have something to do with artistic integrity. Take the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s new disc of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, out now on Linn Records. It’s their first recording under sensational principal conductor Robin Ticciati, and you’d be hard-put to resist its stripped-down, hard-hitting energy.
There’s a generosity and adventurousness to this orchestra that only gets more exciting with Ticciati at the helm; his take on Berlioz is fresh and visceral and whimsically wide-eyed. All of which communicates on disc, let alone in the concert hall.
Then there’s The Sixteen’s annual choral pilgrimage – a six-month, 27-stop tour around churches of England, Wales and Scotland that began in Winchester on April 13. No frills or gimmicks here either, just early sacred music performed (seriously well) in the spaces for which it was written.
This year’s programme is an all-Flemish line-up of Josquin, Brumel and Lassus that the choir (pictured) recorded for their self-run label Coro and released earlier this year. It’s a beautiful disc and if you live near a major UK town, chances are the pilgrimage will be passing within striking distance for the live experience.
The excellent Belcea Quartet continue their Beethoven immersion with a complete cycle of the string quartets at Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, starting on April 24. They’re recording the lot, too, for a live box-set to be released in the autumn on EMI. They say over the years their approach to Beethoven has become less aristocratic and more gutsy, and that they aim to make “an impact that is sometimes quite disturbing”. Exactly as Beethoven should be.
One final concert recommendation: the Stravinsky ballets in Trafalgar Square. Valery Gergiev conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in Firebird and Rite of Spring, to the graceful choreography of early evening traffic. Turn up for free with a picnic and a woolly jumper.
And another thing…
The Cheltenham Jazz Festival runs May 2-7 with a fine-looking line-up: from speakeasy swing to the Norwegian folk-tinged Helge Lien Trio, the British grooves of Seb Rochford and Kit Downes, plus one of my personal heroes, bluegrass/folk/jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.