Wednesday, 8 January 2014

London Schools Symphony Orchestra at The Barbican Centre

Before the London Schools Symphony Orchestra played a note in their first concert of the new season at The Barbican Centre I had assumed that there might be some ragged or thin playing from the strings, and enthusiastic but uncontrolled playing from the brass. How wrong I was! In a programme of two contrasting halves, the LSSO proved themselves to be a crack team in spite of the fact that for many players this was their first concert with the orchestra.  The playing was certainly enthusiastic under the dynamic young Venezuelan conductor Carlos Izcaray, but also tightly controlled and well balanced.  Izcaray opened the concert with an impromptu description of the music, showing himself to be an able communicator as well as musician. During rehearsals he had discovered that 99 per cent of the young musicians had never played Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony before, and he shared their excitement at performing this fine work for the first time.

The first half of the concert was American – north and south. The tightly controlled early ‘Second Essay’ of Samuel Barber showed off the orchestra’s sensitive playing in its hushed opening, and then put the players through their paces in the central complex fugue. They passed with flying colours.

The orchestra was joined by Izcaray’s compatriot Pacho Flores for the UK premiere of Efrain Oscher’s Trumpet Concerto – ‘Mestizo’.  This involved the soloist playing three instruments – trumpets in B flat and C, and the flugelhorn. The music brought together classical symphonic sounds with those of the Venezuelan popular dance, notably the Salsa. With two South Americans in charge the orchestra could hardly fail to react to the Latin spirit and the players’ delight, and respect for the soloist, was clear. In particular the augmented percussion section had a field day. Though full of energy and spirit the performance was, nevertheless, well controlled and compelling.

The second half took us to a completely different world – that of Tsarist Russia and the tortured soul of Tchaikovsky struggling with his demons. The Fifth Symphony calls for mature playing of the highest order, and the LSSO responded appropriately. Without wanting to sound patronising, the young musicians  - and some of them only 12 years old – showed no fear: the opening clarinet motif, the bassoon first main theme and, above all, the second movement horn solo played faultlessly and sensitively by Alexandra Norbury. The strings played with confidence – even a hint of portamento when required – and delicacy, especially in the filigree work of the third movement. The brass came into their own in the fourth movement bringing the work to a fitting climax.

Once again, we were shown the value of Venezuela’s El Sistema in producing two such dynamic musicians as Izcaray and Flores; and of our own London Schools Symphony Orchestra which often fails to get the recognition or support that it deserves. The UK’s youth orchestras are a national treasure – they help to bring young people of all backgrounds together to be stimulated socially and intellectually, they help to create self-discipline and confidence, and, like the best professional orchestras, they give much pleasure to many people as they perform some of the world’s cultural masterpieces for each new generation.