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LSSO and Louise Alder at the Barbican Hall
11 Jan 2018

London Schools Symphony Orchestra celebrates Bernstein and Holst anniversaries

One recent survey suggested that in 1981, the average age of a classical concertgoer was 36, whereas now it is 60-plus. So, how pleasing it was to see the Barbican Centre foyers, cafes and the Hall itself crowded with young people, as members of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra prepared to perform with soprano Louise Alder and conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, in a well-balanced programme that culminated with an ‘anniversary’ performance of Holst’s The Planets.

LSSO and Louise Alder at the Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Louise Alder

Photo credit: Gerard Collett


Despite the youthfulness of the participants, there was no sense that this was anything but a ‘professional’ performance. The LSSO are not only talented individuals, they are an undoubtedly disciplined ensemble, attentive to the sort of musical detail that ensures high artistic standards and the sort of concert etiquette that ensures that the orchestra communicate directly and engagingly with their audience.

This was a thoughtfully constructed programme, paying homage to two ‘anniversaries’ - the hundredth ‘birthdays’ of both Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Holst’s The Planets - and combining a centrepiece of the classical repertoire with less well-known fare.

Samuel Barber’s depiction of early twentieth-century Tennessee - Knoxville: Summer of 1915 - sets text from a 1938 prose piece by American author, poet, screenwriter and film critic James Agee. When Renée Fleming sang Knoxville at the Proms last summer I noted that the text and score seek not only to resurrect synaesthesic images of long warm Southern evenings, but also to present a progression from the innocent solipsism of childhood towards mature knowledge and integration. While Fleming’s sumptuous soprano and glamorous demeanour highlighted the moments of rapture and transcendence, Louise Alder, the soloist on this occasion, was in a sense more ‘grounded’: in place of Fleming’s redolent, dusky nostalgia, we had clear-eyed wonder and innocence. Fleming encouraged us to look back to the past; Alder transported us back to yesteryear.

The easy sway of Alder’s narrative opening was utterly enchanting, as she described the time that ‘people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street’. The unstressed fluency of the prose text was absolutely matched by Alder’s vocal relaxation. The tone was light and bright; the focus pinpoint; the delivery unfussy. One could hear the Straussian silver of Alder’s soprano being used to intelligent and emotive effect ( Through Life and Love , WNO Rosenkavalier ). Armstrong took things at a fairly swift pace, which enhanced the genuine story-telling ambience, as ideas, articulating memory, tumbled forth.

This was a beguiling ambulatory narrative through time and place, though the text was not always clearly enunciated: surely more should be made of the frequent use of alliteration and word repetition, a lyrical prose idiom which entranced Bernstein. That said, Alder could be forgiven for prioritising clean definition of melodic line over consonants, especially given the soaring beauty of her vocal arcs. With the magical pronouncement, ‘Now is the night one dew’, she immersed us in crystalline splendour.

In interview in 1981, Leontyne Price (who had recorded Knoxville in 1969) remarked that, ‘You can hear the streetcar, the horns, and everything; you can smell the strawberries’, and the reduced forces of the LSSO created ambient intensity: the woodwind confidently articulated their solos and violinist Samuel Woof McColl showed strong leadership when negotiating the transition from evocative childhood reminiscence of sensory impressions, to the jangling intrusions of ‘A streetcar raising its iron moan: stopping, belling and starting’.

After moments of vocal intensity - ‘On the rough wet grass of the back yard … We all lie there’, Armstrong continued to push forward rather than allow the music to wallow in recollection; there was a feeling of pressing sentiment rather than indulgent emotiveness, and in the final phrases Alder floated free, her voice timeless, aloft, perfectly capturing Bernstein’s own response to the text’s evocation of hinterlands: ‘the summer evening he describes in his native southern town reminded me somuch of similar evenings when I was a child at home … You see, it expresses a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.’

LSSO 1.jpg LSSO at the Barbican Hall. Photo credit: Kathryn Hare.

Before such enchantment came effervescence, in the form of the overture to Bernstein’s Candide. There was plenty of flair and collective brio here: rhythms were tight and the intonation was impressively precise - those first fiddle parts are hard! Articulation and bowing were uniform and idiomatic, and while it took a little while for a balance between the expanded forces to be struck, this was understandable, and Armstrong was a cool, collected guide. Percussion, timpani and woodwind relished their moments of drama - those piccolo cries rang in one’s ears! But, the LSSO seemed less secure in more lyrical passages: the lower strings’ rendition of ‘Oh Happy We!’, Candide and Cunegonde’s idealistic paean, felt underpowered and unfocused.

If the LSSO musicians seemed a little nervous at the start of the evening, then after the interval they were more relaxed and there were more smiles warming the Hall stage. And, while the more numinous and luminous qualities of Holst’s The Planets proved harder to attain, there was such rhythmic punch in ‘Mars’, such darting diversion in ‘Mercury’ and such unalloyed joy in ‘Jupiter’ that - as one percussionist festooned his shimmering tambourine above his head and the timpanists vied with each other for feistiness - who would not celebrate such youthful talent and musical energy.

Claire Seymour

Bernstein - Overture to Candide; Barber - Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Holst - The Planets

Louise Alder (soprano), Sir Richard Armstrong (conductor), London Schools Symphony Orchestra

Barbican Hall, London; Tuesday 9th January 2018.

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