Elgar – In the South (Alassio) Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor Op. 64 Ian McQueen – Earthly Paradise (BBC commission: world première)

Edward Elgar, having lived until February 1934, is one of the more contemporary composers of the ‘classical’ genre. Elements of Strauss, Mahler and other late romantic composers can be heard throughout this symphony; Elgar makes good use of the expansion of the modern Orchestra, including not just strings, but brass, woodwind and plenty of percussion. As soon as the orchestra begins to play I am impressed. Partly because of the quality of sound, partly because of the already apparent togetherness of the orchestra, but mainly because of the sheer energy exerted from the first few bars alone. There was something powerful, yet calming in how the orchestra worked together as a team, as one body. They didn’t just produce a sound - they created an atmosphere. As the piece hit its peak point in the music about 7 minutes in, I realised that not only was it entertaining to hear, but also enjoyable to watch - you could see from the expression on each of the performer’s faces that they were enjoying themselves as much as we were.

The acoustics of the Barbican hall help bring out the rich harmonies and complex texture in Elgar’s writing, as the piece moves on towards its climax. I have to admit that I was in some ways unhappy for the piece to end, a bit like that mixture of feelings you get after finishing a book. It was a new and exciting piece, and I am almost displeased that Elgar didn’t write more of it. However, the concert was far from over.

There was an air of tension in the room as the audience eagerly awaited the appearance of Akiko Suwani, the youngest ever winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, replacing Jennifer Pike who was unable to perform. Especially at such short notice, Suwani displayed no sign of anxiety as she walked on stage to a warm greeting from the audience. Having studied this piece myself, I know fully well of how challenging a writer Mendelssohn can be and no matter what the status of the performer, there is always a sense of doubt about how they’ll cope with his famous E minor concerto.

But she did. Brilliantly. In fact, this was one of the best performances, both live and recorded, I had ever heard. She gracefully danced through the whole of the first movement with both power and elegance, as I sat watching in awe. She wasn’t playing notes – she was playing music. But I also felt a sense of dislike towards Suwani build up, as she continued to master every single note – she made it look easy. This piece was by no means a walk in the park, but there wasn’t a single trickle of sweat down her face, or a single frown. As much as I envy her talent, I would by a liar if I said she didn’t have the potential to be one of the greatest violinists of all time.

 

Having not heard any of McQueen’s music prior to this performance, and considering how modern classical music is increasingly experimenting with new ideas and techniques, voyaging into the more abstract styles of music, I didn’t quite know what to expect. It began powerfully, with a thick texture and most of the orchestra involved and throughout the piece there was a wide variety in timbre, dynamic and mood. However, I did find myself struggling to simply like it. I did appreciate the work and the purpose of it, especially its relevance to the poems it was based on by William Morris, but I just didn’t feel as much of a connection with the piece. I suppose it was easier to diffuse into the music of Elgar and Mendelssohn as it is seen as more ‘regular’ and more common, having a tonal centre and a distinct melodic line, but even though the whole point of McQueen’s work was to express the emotions and the messages behind the text, I just didn’t feel the same connection with the piece as an audience member. Perhaps in time, I will learn to love it and although I wasn’t so keen on it this time round, I would be perfectly willing to see it again, or any other work by McQueen.

Gabriel Chernick, age 16

10 April 2010, Barbican Centre Sir Andrew Davis – Conductor Akiko Suwani - Violinist BBC Symphony Chorus – Stephen Jackson (Chorus Master)