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Manchester music reviews

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

by Denis Joe

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's 2011/12 Season

As with other art organisations, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic faces cuts to its funding from the Arts Council and the local authority. The cuts could amount to nearly half-a-million pounds in the 2011/12 season. Yet at the launch of the new season there was no gloom and doom - Chief executive, Michael Ekin, seemed upbeat about the future of the Philharmonic.


And well he might. Under the baton of Vasily Petrenko the RLPO has gone from strength to strength. Initially, when the orchestra became the NW Orchestra of Classic FM, I thought that programmes would become less adventurous. That has proven not to be the case and the RLPO have continued to bring lesser known operas and new music, such as the recent St John Passion by James MacMillan, to Liverpool.


The 2011/12 season sees the world renowned violinist, Midori, return to the Philharmonic Hall to play Walton’s Violin Concert (13th Sept). The Mahler series continues with the outstanding 8th Symphony - five choirs, eight soloists and a massive orchestra will perform this work in the surrounding of the Metropolitan Cathedral (1st Oct).


October sees the legendary violinist, Nikolaj Znaider, conduct Wagner, Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which sees the debut of Saleem Abboud Ashker at the keyboards. (26th & 27th Oct).


November (5th) opens with one of the greatest choral works, featuring the eminent Huddersfield Choral Society for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The wonderful Kathryn Stott will be the soloist of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 (13th Nov) in a concert also featuring Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5.


December (8th) brings the Mahler symphony cycle to a close with the ninth. It will be interesting to see if the RLPO label intends to put out the collected symphonies. They would certainly compete well against the Rattle and even Tennstedts' versions.


January (19th & 22nd) the RLPO tackle Shostakovich’s 7th: the Leningrad Symphony. The 19th January concert features the UK premiere of Qigang Chen’s Enchantment oubliés. Chen was the composer behind the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, so this piece promises to be interesting at least. At this concert, professor of music at the University of Manchester, David Fanning, an acknowledged expert on Shostakovich, and his wife Michelle Assay will provide an introductory talk about the Leningrad before the concert at 6pm.


February (16th) also features Shostakovich; Three Poems for Chorus as well as the 9th Symphony; a puzzling piece that was supposed to celebrate the victory over Nazism but is nothing resembling the famous ‘ninths’ such as Beethoven’s. Soviet critics, later, censured the symphony for its "ideological weakness" and its failure to "reflect the true spirit of the people of the Soviet Union", and even today the symphony is one that is not taken seriously by critics. Which is a shame because although it does not have any of the drama of the 7th or the sombreness of the 8th it is nonetheless, an outstanding composition and perhaps Shostakovich’s boldest statement against the Stalinist regime.


March sees the RLPO under the baton of Christian Lindberg for two concerts (1st & 4th), both featuring Sibelius’s masterpiece: Symphony No. Two. The first concert features the UK premiere of Echoes of Eternity by the Swedish composer Jan Sandström. Sandström ‘s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra (The Motorbike Odyssey) is one of the most performed pieces by a living composer today. Echoes of Eternity was commissioned by the Extremadura Symphony Orchestra in Spain for the candidacy of Cáceres for the European Capital of Culture 2016, and promises to be one of the most interesting of UK premieres. The other Lindberg concert will feature Allessandro Taverna as the soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto.


On the 15th & 18th March, Alexander Shelly conducts, and the violinist Simone Lamsma plays in two concerts featuring Beethoven, Shostakovich and Bruch. Unanimously awarded first prize in the 2005 Leeds Conductors Competition, Shelley was described in the press as "the most exciting and gifted young conductor to have taken this highly prestigious award. His conducting technique is immaculate, everything crystal clear and a tool to his inborn musicality." (Yorkshire Post).


Enormously successful in the world’s international violin competitions, Simone Lamsma won the Silver Medal in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis 2006, 1st prize in the China International Violin Competition 2005 and 1st Prize in the Benjamin Britten International Violin Competition 2004. She made her solo début at the age of fourteen performing Paganini Concerto No. 1 with the Northern Dutch Orchestra, a mean feat for any violinist, let alone one so young. She has also recorded works by Spohr for the Naxos label, proving herself to be one of the most exciting musicians playing today.


The RLPO continues its partnership with the European Opera Centre, bringing an opera by Wolf-Ferrari, I Quattro Rusteghi, to the Philharmonic Hall. This partnership is proving to be a fruitful one and strong competition to the annual Wexford Season, in bringing lesser known operas to an audience. This is the second  Wolf-Ferrari opera that has been semi-staged at the hall over the past couple of years. A couple of years back I had the pleasure of seeing the RLPO / European Opera Centre production of Il Segreto di Susanna, which is available on the RLPO label, and highly recommended.


Wolf-Ferrari isn’t very fashionable these days, as his operas are in the opera buffo tradition. Thus it is to their credit that the RLPO are resurrecting these treasures, as his works are really delightful to experience. April (4th) sees a performance of Bach’s greatest choral work, St Matthew Passion. Few composers have matched Bach for the power of his choral works and none have created anything of such intensity as this work. Vasily Petrenko will be conducting, and has an outstanding group of singers around him as well as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Choristers of Liverpool Cathedral.


April (24th) sees John Wilson take up the baton for a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard. Whilst it is one of the best loved of British operas and though it is full of the humour associated with Gilbert and Sullivan, Yeomen is a relatively serious work. The cast, include Simon Butteriss, Jill Pert and the Heather Shipp.


One of the highlights for families will be the showing of the animated version of Janáček’s opera, The Cunning Little Vixens. Created at the first Manchester International Festival by Laurent Pillot with the Hallé orchestra, this version allows audiences to experience the animated film on a big screen accompanied by the orchestral track performed live and is a must for adults and children alike.


June (9th) and the RLPO will join forces with the choir for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, hymn to humanity (though somewhat diminished by its use as the anthem for the EU), will also be on the bill as the world premiere of Maxwell Davies’ ninth symphony. As Master of the Queen’s music, Davies has said that this work was inspired by the events of her long reign, and Maxwell Davies has proven to be one of the greatest British composers.


Whilst this is only a selection of what the 2011/12 season has to offer it shows the strength of the RLPO in the diversity of the music. Petrenko has done for the RPLO what Simon Rattle did for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s: he has built the orchestra up to become a world class outfit.


The evening launch of the season illustrated the large amount of support for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Whilst Michael Ekin spoke of the public funding cuts he was able to announce that the Kenneth Stern Trust had agreed to match, pound-for-pond, donations from supporters up to £20,000. He also announced that the amount had already been raised but emphasised the need for continuing support.


Whatever your views on public funding for the arts, some of the arguments against it have a rather elitist flavour to them. Writing on the Demos blogsite, Richard Reeves brought out the old argument that classical music attracts middle-class audiences. He saw support for his argument in an Arts Council study that said “Ninety-three per cent of interviewees educated to tertiary level had been to an event within the last 12 months. This compared to 85 percent of those education to secondary level and 48 per cent of those educated to primary level.”


This ignores the tendency of higher education towards ‘inclusiveness’ that has been a factor of social policy for the past decade and more. Overlooking Reeve’s portrayal of the Association of British Orchestras as some sort of mafia, I have never seen bouncers on the doors of concert halls check the demographics of individuals and those sitting in the stalls, at the Philharmonic Hall, are not in the habit of ‘rattling their jewellery’ to show their appreciation.


The idea that the arts are the preserve of the middle-classes and the ‘educated’, suggests that there is some magical property to the arts that requires the code of a graduate degree to get to it. The reality is that anyone can appreciate a Beethoven symphony or even music by Harrison Birtwhistle.


Editor's Note: In response to recent cuts in public funding of the arts, the Manchester Salon have organised a public discussion entitled 'Valuing the arts in an age of austerity', to work out the best response to promote quality in the arts.

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