Roots give trees a foundation, grounding them firmly, providing the stability for them to grow tall and strong. Roots are important for people too: appreciating your heritage and understanding where you come from can give you a sense of perspective. Musical roots are at the basis of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2019-20 season, which examines relationships between key works, or explores the origins of national schools, particularly Czech, Russian and British music.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO © Doug Peters
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO
© Doug Peters

Since taking over as Music Director, Sir Simon Rattle opens each season with a programme of British music. Appropriately, the new season is heralded by a new work by Emily Howard, which acts as a curtain-raiser to Colin Matthews’ Violin Concerto, played by Leila Josefowicz, a great ambassador for new music, who performed the 2009 world premiere in Birmingham. Walton’s First Symphony completes the programme, a work that acknowledges the composer’s debt to Sibelius but which is performed far too rarely. One of Rattle’s most intriguing programmes in the season is a concert devoted to the works of Percy Grainger, the Australian composer who did much to revive interest in British folk music.

In October, Sir John Eliot Gardiner digs around Czech Roots. Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass – a monster of a choral work sung in Old Church Slavonic – is partnered with Dvořák’s symphonic poem, The Golden Spinning Wheel. Grisly deeds are committed by a jealous stepmother and stepsister who murder and dismember Dornička only for their crime to be exposed by a magical singing spinning wheel… it’s darker than Grimm. Dvořák’s is programmed with Josef Suk in Gardiner’s second concert, a natural pairing as Dvořák was Suk’s father-in-law. Truls Mørk plays Dvořák’s melodic Cello Concerto, full of wistful Czech melodies, while Suk’s Asrael Symphony makes up the rarer half of the concert. The work is titled after Asrael, the Old Testament angel of death: Suk was in the middle of composing it when his wife, Otilie (Dvořák’s daughter) died.

Antoine Tamestit, who curates his own Artist Portrait series © Julien Mignot
Antoine Tamestit, who curates his own Artist Portrait series
© Julien Mignot

Gianandrea Noseda was Principal Guest Conductor at the Mariinsky for a decade, where he learnt much Russian repertoire, so is the perfect guide through Russian Roots. Noseda continues his Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Sixth, Seventh and Ninth next season. The Seventh is the massive “Leningrad” Symphony, composed during the Second World War and dedicated to the besieged city. It came to symbolise Leningrad’s stoic resistance to German invasion, although Shostakovich was later reported as saying that he depicted the Leningrad “that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off”. The Ninth confounded expectations: originally intended as a celebration of the Soviet victory over the Nazis, the authorities expected a grand work in the tradition of Beethoven’s Ninth. Instead, Shostakovich delivered a pithy work which oftens seems to playing musical games, poking fun. Prokofiev piano concertos – the Second and Third – feature, along with the suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, a deeply spiritual opera often called the “Russian Parsifal”. The Russian Roots thread also contains a number of chamber recitals at LSO St Lukes, including the Gringolts Quartet.

For his British Roots series, Antonio Pappano focuses on two symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams – the Fourth and the Sixth. Both are severe works, the latter associated with themes of war, especially to the postwar first audiences. RVW denied this, offering the rebuke, “It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.” Pappano “roots” the Fourth with Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures, featuring Dame Sarah Connolly, while Britten and Tippett both feature.

Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth © Doug Peters
Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth
© Doug Peters
2020 sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, so expect to hear plenty of Ludwig in your concert halls. Rattle is at the helm of the LSO’s celebrations, with performances of the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies along with the rarely heard dramatic oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, portraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion. The London Symphony Chorus performs the oratorio in January, but you can take part in Simon Halsey’s “Singing Day” in September to experience Beethoven’s oratorio first-hand!

Former principal conductor Michael Tilson Thomas made his debut with the LSO in 1970. To mark his 50th anniversary, MTT conducts Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette – a work he much loves – and a Russian programme of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth spearheads a Bartók series with two ballets: The Miraculous Mandarin (a murderous plot) and The Wooden Prince. Rattle conducts another stage work, Bartók’s sole opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. The start of the season also sees a Bartók Plus chamber series, featuring all six string quartets spread across five programmes.

Each season the LSO offers a valued soloist an Artist Portrait series combining LSO appearances with a series of chamber recitals they curate. Next year, viola player Antoine Tamestit takes the reins, joining players such as the Quatuor Arod, Jörg Widmann, Masaaki Suzuki and Colin Currie in some imaginatively planned recitals from Brahms to Berio. With the orchestra, Tamestit performs Widmann’s concerto – written for him – along with Berio’s Voci and Walton’s Viola Concerto.


Preview sponsored by the London Symphony Orchestra