The London Symphony Orchestra Returns

Classic Arts Features   The London Symphony Orchestra Returns
Fresh from its starring role in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, the London Symphony Orchestra returns to Lincoln Center next month for its annual New York residency.


Last year, the orchestra came with enthusiastically received programs of Beethoven and Britten spearheaded by two conductors, Sir Colin Davis and Gianandrea Noseda. This year it arrives with only one conductor: but one who has great charisma and audience popularity.

Valery Gergiev has been the LSO's principal conductor since 2007, marking his appoint- ment by giving impressive performances of Stravinsky and Debussy and subsequently lead- ing the orchestra in comprehensive series devoted to Shostakovich and Mahler. He has become a familiar presence in the UK capital and in New York, where he appears both with the Metropolitan Opera and in concert. He is famed for a punishing work schedule that takes him from one of his home bases at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg to concert halls in Japan, from Vienna to every key musical capital. Gergiev is notorious for working without a break and even at times without sleep.

Gergiev's impact on the LSO, which he conducted for the first time in 1988, has been dynamic, giving the orchestra's performances an edge-of-the-seat immediacy and passion. This was demonstrated even before he took over from Sir Colin Davis as principal conductor, in a memorable 2004 series of the complete Prokofiev symphonies that was recorded live and released on the Philips label.

To New York he brings two programs of Brahms: the "Tragic" Overture, the Violin Concerto, and Symphony No. 2 in the first, the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Fourth Symphony in the second. These are a far cry from Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella that the LSO performed under Gergiev in August at the BBC Proms, but the orchestra is nothing if not versatile in its repertoire.

When he became principal conductor five years ago, Gergiev praised the LSO's brilliance of timbre, a quality that is allied to its quickness of response and its alertness to interpreta- tive subtleties. Gergiev has capitalized on those characteristics, managing to deepen and enrich the string sound to a degree that makes the orchestra an ideal vehicle for the mellow sonority of Brahms and also the music's dramatic rhythmicality and force. In these concerts he conducts the two most genial of the Brahms symphonies, the Second radiating a sunny glow and the Fourth notable for its beguiling lyricism, albeit with a propulsive scherzo and towering finale.

The two soloists are intriguing choices. The Russian pianist Denis Matsuev has a big, muscular technique that makes him well suited for the demands of the D-minor Piano Concerto, and the Canadian James Ehnes is the perfect protagonist for the Violin Concerto. Anybody who has been following Ehnes since he first started appearing on the international scene will know that he has one of the purest and yet most sumptuous and ravishing tones of any violinist playing today. He is only 35, incidentally sharing his birthday with Mozart (January 27), but his playing is of an extraordinary maturity and thoughtfulness, his calm man- ner belying the real intensity that emanates from his playing. He was in New York's Central Park in July playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Andrey Boreyko, the work with which he made his debut with the orchestra in 2003. It was a perfor- mance that bristled with life and excitement. His keen sense of style will assuredly ease him in to the very different world of Brahms with equally transfixing results.

The London Symphony Orchestra, like other major ensembles, couples its breadth of reper- toire with a ready adaptability to the approaches of diverse conductors. As the orchestra's 2012 _13 season begins, we can look forward to it playing under such contrasting personalities as Sir Colin Davis (marking his 85th birthday), Daniel Harding, John Adams, and Bernard Haitink, who joined the LSO for its Lincoln Center residency in 2009.

Gergiev also figures prominently on the autumn schedule with a series pairing the works of Karol Szymanowski with symphonies and other orchestral works by Brahms. This is somewhat unfamiliar territory for Gergiev, at least as far as London audiences are concerned, and it is New York that will get the first taste of his Brahms. But the great quality of Gergiev is that he has the span of musical interests and the inspirational force to throw himself wholeheartedly into any project. We might not always agree with his interpretations. Subjectivity, after all, is a privilege enjoyed by the listener as well as a conductor. But many of us still treasure, for exam- ple, a wonderful performance he gave some years ago of that concert favorite, Rimsky- Korsakov's Sheherazade, which he charged with new energy, achieving a marvelous narrative sweep and scintillating orchestral clarity.

With the LSO, Gergiev is in his element. After five years of playing under him regularly, the orchestra members know what to expect and how to react. And yet, he'll still surprise them. Nothing is predictable in a Gergiev performance, nothing is routine, nothing could be described as simply treading over old ground. The element of spontaneity in Gergiev's conducting, with his famously unorthodox style of wagging fingers and sudden bursts of athletics, is something that gives his performances their particular flavor and frisson. He has the power to galvanize, to enthuse and, importantly, to convince an orchestra of the strength of his own convictions.

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