tue 21/09/2021

Wigmore Hall at Portman Square / Wang, LSO, Tilson Thomas, LSO St Luke's review - al fresco chamber, full orchestra indoors | reviews, news & interviews

Wigmore Hall at Portman Square / Wang, LSO, Tilson Thomas, LSO St Luke's review - al fresco chamber, full orchestra indoors

Wigmore Hall at Portman Square / Wang, LSO, Tilson Thomas, LSO St Luke's review - al fresco chamber, full orchestra indoors

An exhilarating Sunday moving from percussionists to strings and on to a big symphony

Ensemble 12 playing to a rapt audience in Portman SquareRichard Cannon

Sometimes the big musical institutions follow off-piste trailblazers.

John Gilhooly of the Wigmore Hall has been a hero in lockdown year, keeping musicians paid up and performing to audiences live or via livestream (or both); but it was clarinettist Anthony Friend who pointed another way forward in the new environment late last summer with his series of chamber music concerts in Battersea Park Bandstand. He’s been duly awarded by the Royal Philharmonic Society, and now the Wigmore has taken its first steps outside with three Sunday concerts in nearby Portman Square. It’s safe to say they’ve been a triumph and more will follow.

These weren't the only Wigmore events: the hall was celebrating its 140th anniversary (yesterday was the actual day), so you could in fact take your pick of five concerts, the open-air ones absolutely free (if you'd booked quick enough): half an hour after the Beaten Track Ensemble kicked off their family-friendly entertainment in the square, the Doric Quartet and Tim Posner were playing Schubert’s String Quintet in the temple of art down the road, and after the two identical programmes from the 12 Ensemble outside, you could take a break and catch the second of András Schiff’s recitals (Jessica Duchen reviewed the first here in ecstatic terms). My own pleasant surfeit was to cycle to LSO St Luke’s via an hour in Regent’s Park to hear the first full romantic symphony live in over a year (Tchaikovsky 2), the green of early summer still very much present through the windows.

Beaten Track concert in Portman SquareThe beauty of outdoor events is that you can make your choice to focus or not: anything goes. The first part of the programme from the Beaten Track trio - Alice Angliss, Rosie Bergonzi and Beth Higham-Edwards - I heard, or overheard, from a seat at a table right at the back: the thud of tennis balls on the court right behind me asynchronous with the more regular beat from the tent, building works, birds, church bells at the quarter-hour, the occasional revving of motor bikes (Portman Square is big, but traffic-surrounded), children shrieking in the playground. It was wise not to amplify the players, but each of the three players introducing the pieces could have done with a hand-held mike (not allowed this time; there will be one on the next occasion). Short works by Andy Akiho and Takumi Motokawa blended beguilingly into the surroundings.

By the time of other pieces by Dominique Le Gendre and Earle Brown, I’d moved to a bench near the platform on the right, and it was jolly to join in with the physical gestures for “handpan” (two claps), “marimba” (chest beating) and “vibraphone” (thigh slaps. Pictured above: Higham-Edwards leading the audience participation, Bergonzi on handpan). The final medley took us from “I Will Survive” to “We Are Family”, which seemed very appropriate given the range of audience.

Beaten Track concert in Portman SquareNoble, melancholy and wildly exuberant Nordic strains formed the backbone of the 12 Ensemble’s perfect less-than-hour in the afternoon. Sibelius’s anthem-like Andante festivo sounded full and even rich in the open air, even if the nature of the place tends to pick out individual violin tone. And did any composer ever write a more bittersweet-beautiful extended melody than Grieg in “The Last Spring”? Between them, we heard another of Kate Whitley’s beautifully crafted pieces, Autumn Songs, commissioned by the 12 Ensemble in 2014, which carried the twitter of spring, too; a blackbird alarm directly overhead provided apt counterpoint. The time to dance on the spot came with the full-string adaptation of three of the Danish String Quartet’s folksong arrangements. The last time I heard these was actually inside a lavvo tent way up a valley in Svalbard, from the strings of the Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra; now, as then, they made everyone blissfully happy via the classiest of playing (pictured above: Eloise-Fleur Thom leads the ensemble)..

Michael Tilson Thomas and Yuja WangA relaxed atmosphere also seemed to prevail inside LSO St Luke’s later that afternoon. Even Michael Tilson Thomas, who can sometimes give the impression these days that the fire has gone out of his conducting, showed occasional demonstrations of physical exuberance in a work he obviously knows well enough to do without a score, Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony (the post-hoc sobriquet “Little Russian” sticks, though it’s more offensive than ever now that Ukraine, to which it refers via the folksongs used, is independent). The first movement’s rhythmic tautness, once the melancholy introduction is over, could have done with more spring; but the woodwind humorously characterised the marche miniature which takes the place of a slow movement, originally a wedding cortege in Tchaikovsky’s discarded opera Undine. What invention there is in the scherzo, crisply articulated, and the finale’s dazzling variations on the folksong “The Crane” duly dazzled. Full brass! Percussion! What we’ve missed, and how we need to go beyond Tchaikovsky to Mahler and other late romantic works again when things normalise.

In what would have been the first half had there been an interval, Copland’s Quiet City sounded a bit loud in the venue, but still lush and rather lovely; an appropriate reminder of what London had been – and what the City still is, on a Sunday. Tilson Thomas’s Barbican concerts earlier in the week with the phenomenal Yuja Wang had been of familiar repertoire, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto at its heart – much refreshed, I gather (Tilson Thomas and Wang pictured above and below at the Barbican concerts by Mark Allan for the LSO). From the start, Wang avoided the obvious aren’t-I-funny-ness potential in Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto with a more legato than usual response to the perky woodwind tune at the start, and thundered the double octaves in the development as surprising violence threatens equable good humour. Yuja Wang with Tilson Thomas and the LSOThe slow movement is something of a miracle, romantic pastiche that’s beautiful in its own right, the light soon going out; Wang phrased subtly and without a hint of sentimentality. The finale was predictably as brilliant as that of the Tchaikovsky, absolutely together – not always the case. But the biggest revelation of the concert, for me, came later: that little march in the symphony was surely the source for how Shostakovich starts his concerto. Anyway, it was all a delight, down to Tilson Thomas’s absent-minded turning to bow to an audience which wasn’t there at the east end of the church (we were all up in the gallery); how endearingly he brushed off the slip. Don’t miss the whole thing on Medici TV from tomorrow.

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