A long queue jamming the Barbican entrance suggested either a security alert or a total sell-out for Sir Simon Rattle’s opening concert with the London Symphony Orchestra.
It turned out neither was the case. Despite the biggest media campaign for a music director in London memory, I counted two dozen empty seats and quite a few more given away to BBC freeloaders (why aren’t the BBC made to pay for free seats?). The great and the good of the British arts world turned out for the occasion.
The all-English programme was ambitious, daunting even. It looked better on paper than it sounded.
Helen Grime’s fanfare commission occupied a landscape somewhere between Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies without asserting personal ownership of the space. Thomas Adès’s showpiece Asyla has wonderfully effective gestures but leaves listeners struggling for a structural thread.
The star work was Harrison Birtwistle’s violin concerto, insouciantly tossed off by Christian Tetzlaff who made light of its tremendous physical demands. It featured some breathtaking interplay with, tripping happily to the front one after another, the LSO’s principal flute, piccolo, oboe and bassoon.
After the interval, we heard Oliver Knussen’s third symphony, written in his 20s when he was the coming thing and stuck in the indeterminate 1970s. The piece has not worn well.
A performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which UK orchestras can play in their sleep, was distinguished by some fine pianissimi in the upper strings and a heart-melting solo from principal cello Rebecca Gilliver, earning her a smacking kiss from the conductor in the first round of applause.
The LSO played like the LSO, neither greatly elevated nor accelerated by Rattle’s constant facial exhortations. Rattle remains Rattle, weathered by his Berlin years and rather more comfortable in his skin, but still relying on physical exuberance to reach for that elusive high.
First nights are never a good test of love. This relationship needs time to bed in. But to pretend that this concert was epic, auspicious, historic or whatever, as some (but not all) reviewers have rushed to do is to mistake image for substance – which, I came away thinking, was what this concert was all about. Throughout the event, the audience faced two screens that proclaimed ‘This is Rattle’, except when the man himself appeared in short videos, delivering polished soundbites about the music.
Not a concert that will linger long in the memory. There will be better nights.