BBC Symphony Orchestra started its season extremely powerfully, putting on an inventive programme contrasting the symphonies of two Soviet composers (Prokofiev and Shostakovich) with Aaron Copland’s Clarinet concerto written in the same decade (1940s) as the other pieces. With Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst bringing this concerto to the audiences in his unique, expessive and modern style, and with two symphonies sounding under Sakari Oramo’s baton as though they were intended for 21st century, the evening empowered the listeners to enjoy this 20th century music in a refreshingly new, clear and appealing way.
And it is no wonder the audiences felt as though their ears were presented a quite new and unexpected cocktail of sounds. The Ninth Symphony of Dmitry Shostakovich, written in 1945, was a surprise for its contemporaries, as well – while expecting to hear an opus celebrating the end of the World War II and the ‘Great Victory’, the audiences were confronted with a mixture of sounds that could be called mischievous, and were accused of ‘grimaces and whimsical gestures’. In a way, Shostakovich, it seems, stood up to expectations of him writing something similar to Beethoven Ninth Symphony with its Ode to Joy, but his idea of a joyous music was clearly different and not very deferential. Its playfulness verging on cheekiness would soon be appreciated by American critics who predicted that musicians will love to play this ‘merry little piece’.
Sakari Oramo did exactly that – he highlighted the beauty and the variety, as well as the modern-sounding instrumental palette of the Symphony, five of which movements sounded so different one felt one embarked on a new journey with each new wave of conductor’s stick. Somehow it also served almost like a presentation of the orchestral instruments, especially the winds and brass – piccolo, trombone and especially bassoon all have their moments, with the latter soloing in very different modes throughout the symphony. Oramo manaded to bring the flow, contrasts and colours out of this combination of musical ideas, as though it was a witty discussion between several people. Somehow also, the sound of the BBCSO was so rich, imbued with the depth and expertise they have accumulated during the previous season and the Proms that one enjoyed this orchestral journey, forgetting oneself within the music, feeling one could understand and feel it al fresco, without extreme intellectualizing, just opening up to sounds streaming from the stage.
Martin Fröst continued this evening where one learned how to enjoy music to the fullest with Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto commissioned by Benny Goodman and exclusively played by him during the 1950s. The concerto is a piece for a virtuoso clarinetist, and deliberately subdues the wind and brass from the orchestra to let us hear the soaring path to extremely difficult passages by a clarinet accompanied going in duo sometimes with a viola, sometimes with a harp or piano. The concerto verges on jazz and improvisation in its variations of pulse and rhythm, and flows without breaks through its three movements, the second one being a very precisely written cadenza. This was an exceptional vehicle of Martin Fröst’s talents, who, slim and snake-like in his all black attire and pointy shoes, did his usual best in making a concerto performance look like a show of a mime artist who conveyed his meanings to us through the use of his clarinet and his body, as well as with the sound world he created. The succession of musical ideas in Fröst’s interpretation always becomes so tangible you can almost feel them pouring through his mind into the instrument. The Swedish clarinettist was also attentive to respective instruments with whom his solos were coupled by a composer, as well as to Oramo who conducted the BBCSO, thus demonstrating to us how the musical partnership is formed through seemingly improvisational, but prepared in every detail process. The feeling of Martin Fröst being a transparent vehicle of music became even more evident in a Swedish klezmer melody (he mentioned it was arranged by his younger brother), where he jokingly challenged himself into improvisation that was happening right there on stage. The tune was so simple and so appealing in its recurrent variations that one felt that audience would jump to their feet and dance in the Barbican, despite all social conventions. Which they did, but in order to give the outstanding Swedish soloist with a very expressive face, almost exotic in its Nordic character, a long, standing ovation.
After the interval the conductor Sakari Oramo was given a prize from the London-based Confederation of Scandinavian Societies for oustanding achievement in promoting Scandinavian and Nordic music. Indeed, Oramo has been at the helm of developing the standard of classical music in Britain since the late 1990s when he became the head of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Now he is the Principal Conductor of BBCSO responsible for its season at the Barbican, as well for his input into the BBC Proms where he had a fantastic series of concerts this summer. Oramo finished the evening Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony where the themes could remind the listener of works of such epic scale as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony or Nielsen’s Sixth, or even Wagner’s music. The symphony does a lot of self-references to Prokofiev’s own work, and creates a unique world which was rather different, and perhaps more sombre than the first part of the evening. Oramo, though understandably changing the mood register and delving into the depths of this symphony with more profundity, still was attentive to hues and colours of particular groups of instruments, allowing us to enjoy the lyrical moments of the symphony, too. The evening was in a way a model concert where music made our way to us through different pathways and tried different approaches in filling our ears and minds, and where BBCSO, its principal conductor and guest soloist retained their grip on our perception at every moment.