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London Town: The LSO, Vengerov, and the Queen

As my colleague-friend-mentor Bob Reilly and I approached the air-raid shelter masquerading as a cultural center under the name “Barbican Hall”, a motorcade skipped by… tiny, by Washington DC / Presidential standards. Thirty feet further, amid a handful of enthusiast bystanders, it spilled its contents—chiefly a little white haired woman—into the Barbican, blocking the entry for a couple minutes.

On the inside waited the London Symphony Orchestra with a concert framing the presentation of the 2012 Queen’s Medal for Music. And what would be the point of a Queen’s Medal for Music without Her Majesty The Queen. In contrast to her quiet, placid ways (which reminds me of nothing so much as of Harpo Marx, minus the props), she was received with much Fanfare. Literally, too: An Entry Fanfare by Dudley Bright, the National Anthem, and then the Master of the Queen's Music’s Fanfare: Her Majesty’s Welcome: Royal Gebrauchsmusik by Peter Maxwell Davies — conducted, especially, by Timothy Redman. Maxwell Davies’ piece for professional orchestra and student players is an exceedingly inoffensive, pleasant brassy curtain raiser with tasty sour tinges in the harmony and irregular rhythms that propel it with foot-tapping drive… not that there was much foot-tapping on part of the audience, royal or not.

Maxim Vengerov, whose career has been rather quiet since his prolonged Tango-sabbatical, performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. With his solid, leathery tone, he cut through the delicate, fleet, and light-footed orchestral opening that Robin Ticciati (substituting for Colin Davis, who is in ill health) coaxed from the orchestra. Vengerov did so unassailably, as if in isolation from his surroundings, and without any detours by way of nuance; rhythmically (if not intonation-wise) secure and steadily as though he had swallowed a metronome. For the most part Ticciati just followed, but he also added magnified timpani accents which, together with the straightforward, mercifully unperfumed interpretation, allowed for new, unusual hearing-angles on the concerto. Like or not-like these peculiar effects; hearing a war horse slightly anew and newly askew has to be be a welcome thing.

available at Amazon
P.Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto,
V.Repin / V.Gergiev / Kirov Orchestra

available at Amazon
Elgar, Blacher, Kodály, Enigma-, Paganini-, Peacock-Variations,
G.Solti / WPh

Despite uncharacteristic near-stumbles from Vengerov—in the first cadenza especially—there was also the suspended tenderness in the second movement to enjoy, and for those who like the infallible applause-generating effectiveness of the hurried fast-and-loud approach, also the finale. For those who thought the Tchaikovsky an odd run-through, meanwhile, a stately Adagio from Bach’s C major Sonata ought to have been assuaging stuff.

After intermission came the ceremonial bit: After a film on the short history of the Queen’s Medal for Music (past winners include Emma Kirkby, Judith Weir, Bryn Terfel, Charles Mackerras, Colin Davis), the 2012 medal was bestowed upon the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (last reviewed here in 2009)… the first time an institution was at the receiving end. A few pimply representative representatives clambered up the stage, shook the silent Queen’s hand, forgot to curtsey, and toddled off after an awkward moment of silent disorientation, all under the auspices of master of ceremonies Peter Maxwell Davies.

Robin Ticciati—who looks a little like young Jake LaMotta shadowboxing—and the LSO (amended with a few of those NYO kids) then put a most English end to the concert, with a run-through of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. After a bit of routine tedium and a cliché-sodden Nimrod variation—it’s supposed to be two friends talking about Beethoven; it often ends up two pallbearers on a rainy day in a pub—there were moments lovely enough to redeem the entire concert. Most notably the Basil G. Nevinson cello bit of the 12th variation (a much more naturally emotive section than Nimrod) and the following Romanza, with exemplary pianissimo passages and a shining string sound at last. Botched entries in the “E.D.U.” finale did little to undo this late fine impression of a reasonably good concert that has already begun to fade from memory.