The BBC Symphony presented a packed programme for this concert in celebration of their 80th anniversary. The performances were interspersed with two short films looking back at the orchestra’s illustrious history, with former principal conductors such as Adrian Boult and Pierre Boulez.

Owen Gunnell and Oliver Cox (O Duo), credit: Chris Christodoulou
Owen Gunnell and Oliver Cox (O Duo), credit: Chris Christodoulou

First performed at the orchestra’s inaugural concert, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture proved a rousing opening, the leaping ‘hunting calls’ of the brass a precursor to that other famous orchestral movement, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.

A fervent champion of new music over the decades, the orchestra presented two premieres during the evening. If the concert itself was a birthday celebration, then the rest of the programme was a celebration of the more neglected wind and percussion sections, who had their chance to shine in the colossal forces required to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

In ConcertO Duo, percussion soloists Owen Gunnell and Olly Cox brought a tremendous amount of energy and sense of fun to the piece, weaving around each other as they took turns to perform a complex marimba solo. This was an engaging work that made imaginative use of the instruments and staging, from whistles and untuned percussion recalling a carnival dance, to the more dark, funereal atmosphere created by tubular bells. As composer Stephen McNeff reminds us, ‘a concerto is designed to let soloists show off’, and performing with great flair and precision, O Duo certainly did this in the best sense.

The Barbican auditorium was transformed into a theatre for the second of these two new works, D’om Le Vrai Sens. This fascinating piece was based on a tapestry exploring the five senses, called ‘The Lady of the Unicorn’. The stage directions played with aural perspective, the soloist beginning from high up in the balcony before moving gradually into the stalls and onto the stage. The audience remained in near-darkness so better as to follow the spot lit movements of the soloist and the changing coloured lights on the overhead screen.

Clarinettist Kari Kriikku was utterly convincing in the extrovert solo part, his flawless technique pushed the instrument to its limit with animalistic multiphonics and glissandi, among other special effects. This was music as theatre, sometimes even with an element of pantomime as he played directly towards individual members of the audience.

The final movement was particularly striking for its otherworldliness, depicting an unknown ‘sixth sense’ subtitled ‘According to My Desire Alone’. A single repeated celesta note throughout transformed the music into what the composer described as a ‘timeless dimension’. The stage directions here again played with our expectations, the clarinet assuming the role of a ‘pied piper’ who led the orchestral violins offstage in a slow procession, while continuing to play until the music faded to a close.

The evening concluded with a long time favourite of mine, The Rite of Spring, and the BBCSO certainly did not disappoint. They performed with great power and determination, and principal timpanist John Chimes was particularly outstanding in the devastating ‘Ritual of Abduction’. At times there could have been a more mysterious, primeval atmosphere, such as the ‘The Sacrifice’ in Part Two, but this was still an exciting performance with fantastic performances from solo winds and a battery of percussion.