The last time we saw conductor British Simon Rattle perform in Segerstrom Concert Hall, he was leading the Berlin Philharmonic on his valedictory tour as its music director. He returned Tuesday night with another ensemble, the London Symphony Orchestra, which he has headed since 2017, in what will likely be his last appearance here with these musicians. He decamps for Munich in 2023, after a surprisingly short stint with the orchestra.
What went wrong? Well, Brexit, for one, which makes touring much more difficult for British groups. Stalled plans for a much needed new concert hall in London, for another. Sir Simon has said that his departure from the LSO was for wholly personal reasons (his family lives in Berlin), but who knows? For whatever reason, Rattle is on his way again, next stop the Bavarian Radio Orchestra (in Munich), where, incidentally, a new concert hall is scheduled to break ground this year.
These news items were mere background to Tuesday’s concert, which looked like a sure thing on paper, with blockbuster works by Berlioz, Sibelius, Bartók and Ravel on the program, a new work too, and one of the best orchestras in the world playing it, led by one of the world’s most celebrated conductors. That the concert didn’t quite live up to expectations, though, may have had something to do with that background.
The LSO didn’t always sound comfortable on the Segerstrom stage Tuesday. In particular, the fortissimo sound was blaring and crowded, the hall overloaded. The (mask-wearing) strings, though nicely unified and lean-muscled, had an unpleasant tone at times, call it pushy and harsh. The woodwinds and brass were not always sharply in focus; the percussion sizzled, occasionally uncomfortably.
In short, not only did the LSO sound like a touring orchestra unfamiliar with the hall it was in, but it also sounded like an orchestra with a venue at home (the Barbican Centre, with infamously poor acoustics) that makes the musicians work harder than they needed to work here. Less would have been more.
So, too, with Rattle. He has long been a conductor that leaves few phrases unturned — that is, he is an exacting and active manipulator of rhythm and tempo, articulation and texture. It can be a fascinating and lovely thing to behold. Here, especially with the repertoire on offer, one often wished he would leave well enough alone and let the music be.
It’s not that any of these factors ruined the evening. It’s that they sometimes kept the music earthbound, kept it from being as completely magnificent as it can be.
In Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7, which closed the first half of the concert, Rattle’s attentions were certainly admirable. What a strange and wonderful piece this is, a work that seems to be inventing itself as it goes along, finding its way out of the dark, and finally arriving only when it finally arrives, at the end, once.
Rattle’s exertions made the fog clear, gave motivation to the murkiness and shape to the ambiguities. But ultimately this approach bogged down in a thicket of detail and impulse. The Sibelius, it turns out, needs to unfurl (and meander) of its own accord.
So, too, with Ravel’s La Valse, the waltz to end all waltzes, and in these end times an ever more popular piece to program. Rattle’s attentions and the orchestra’s exertions seemed fussy and controlling at times, though ultimately this music exploded thrillingly as it always does. And at softer dynamics especially, Ravel’s magnificent orchestration came through gorgeously.
Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin fared best this night. Its episodic structure well suited Rattle’s minute ministrations; its biting and violent scoring packed plenty of punch and cut through any potential clutter. Its virtuosic demands highlighted the technical prowess of the orchestra.
The concert opened with a nimble and slashing account of Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture, music of swashbuckling exuberance.
The Spark Catchers by British composer Hannah Kendall, born 1984, followed it. This 10-minute work in a mildly modernistic idiom was inspired by a poem of the same name about women who worked in a 19th century match factory. The music seems to effectively mimic the striking of matches and quick flaring of flames. It also skitters nervously and sparkles and intertwines and interweaves and generally sounded just fine. It didn’t leave much of an impression, though, amid its program companions and the audience gave it but a smattering of applause.
After La Valse, the audience insisted on an encore and was given one in the form of a less apocalyptic dance: the charming and bucolic Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 3, by Dvorák.
Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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