Wednesday 14 January 2015

Melos Sinfonia at St John’s Smith Square

Melos Sinfonia
Melos Sinfonia
Joel Rust; Beethoven; Sibelius; LaFollette, Baker, Woo, Melos Sinfonia, Zeffman; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 10 2014
Star rating: 3.5

Mix of new, old and rarely performed in enterprising concert from this young ensemble

Playing to a packed hall, the Melos Sinfonia celebrated 150 years since the birth of Sibelius with works by Beethoven, Sibelius and Rust last night (Saturday 10th January) in St John's Smith Square. The young orchestra, conducted by Oliver Zeffman, with soloists Ben Baker, Bartholomew LaFollette, and JongSun Woo, played valiantly to an appreciative audience despite a few problems in tuning which seem to be endemic to this cold space.

Melos Sinfonia was founded by Zeffman in 2010 and draws its performers from the pool of young musicians just starting their career in music. Performing chamber and symphonic music as well as opera the orchestra is able to play not just the well known classics but also rarely heard works and new compositions (including some they commission themselves). Tonight's concert ticked all these boxes.

The first work performed was 'Beyond the heart' a new piece written by Joel Rust (1989-). Commissioned by the orchestra the composer explained that it was inspired by Sibelius's seventh symphony (which was to be performed in the second half). His programme notes state that he used a motif from the opening of the Sibelius and his "musical language" was meant to be reminiscent of the "Romantic gestures of Sibelius' work". He also discusses how he separates the orchestra into smaller groups which conflict with each other.

What was audible was the use of Arvo Pärt-like overlapping descending scales that were overlaid at intervals with scurries which interrupted their simplicity. An early climax brought forth new ideas and a muddy dissonance, which expanded into clusters of sound. A short section of the scales returned, almost hidden underneath the clusters, followed by a section of flute led melodies reminiscent of 'The Rite of Spring', which were immediately hidden under the general sound effect, only to re- emerge, transformed into something more melodic, in the last few bars.

At five minutes long it might have been worth the composer writing a longer piece and expanding some of his ideas to take the listener on more of a journey and to make his contrasts clearer. Rust studied composition with Robin Holloway in Cambridge, and then with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He is about to start a PhD in New York. Rust has also collaborated with Melos Sinfonia before, with the chamber opera 'Red as blood'.

The rarely performed 'Triple concerto' by Ludwig van Beethoven (1779-1827) was a big ask. Written in 1804 for his patron the Archduke Rudolph of Austria this concerto was a departure from his usual orchestration and necessitated simplification of development so that each of the soloists got an equal turn to play. The result was somewhat closer to that of a concerto grosso with solos, duets etc interspersed with ripieno. Typically Beethoven, the ends of the first and final fast movements were heralded by lots of repeated chords, leaving the audience in no doubt of the ending. In contrast the second movement was sweetly chorale-like and the initial cello solo came in like a hymn.

Soloists Ben Baker (violin) and Bartholomew LaFollette (cello) had a lovely sound and blended well in their duets. But both struggled with pitch. St John's is a cold hall and musicians often have difficulty with tuning in there – necessitating lots of retuning, which is not possible when you are the middle of a concerto. You just have to do the best you can. Pianist JongSun Woo had a different problem which was that the piano was so much louder than the other soloists and negated her obvious attempts to fit into the ensemble.

Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco (1655 -1731) may have been making a piano at the end of the 17th century, but this instrument was very quiet and had a range of only a few octaves. The piano Mozart composed for was very different to the instrument we know today. It was only the addition of iron frames, patented in the 1820's, and felt coverings to the hammers (1926) that allowed the use of strings at the high tension which produce the modern sound. The repetition lever was first documented in 1821 and the sostenuto pedal came in in 1844.

This means that although Broadwood was sending his latest developments to composers like Beethoven, the instrument Beethoven was writing for would still have been more in balance with string instruments of the time. In addition, by 1801, Beethoven was already suffering from increasing deafness and may have been relying on what he thought these instruments should sound like from earlier years when the piano was even quieter.

Together these issues marred the otherwise obvious skill and expression of the soloists – but were out of their control. In another setting and with a period piano the result may have been completely different. That said Beethoven lovers were no doubt entranced by the opportunity to hear such a rarity regardless.

Symphony no 7 (1924) by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was a contrast with the busyness of the Beethoven. With less going on the orchestra was able to relax into the musicality and shaping of phrases that Sibelius' music needs.

Whatever I may have thought of the issues inherent in the Beethoven you cannot fault the bravery of the orchestra and soloists in attempting it. Nor not appreciate the fact that if no one performed these things we would not be able to have an authentic opinion about them. It will be interesting to see what the Melos Sinfonia come up with next.

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