You can’t miss the symbolism in the Philharmonia’s first programme of its 2021-22 season with two Strauss works that both open with a sunrise – a new era dawning under the orchestra’s new Principal Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali. It’s also a new dawn for concert life in the UK as “normality” (hopefully) returns after the pandemic. After a year of chamber-scaled, socially distanced performances – often streamed without an audience permitted – what better way to signal this than playing Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, a work that requires a hundred musicians, its battery of percussion? Classical music is back – release the thunder machine!

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducting the Philharmonia
© Kaupo Kikkas

If your ears recover from the Strauss, Rouvali’s next programme includes Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the ballet that scandalised Paris at its 1913 premiere, the booing so loud that the choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, was forced to count out the beat in the wings because the dancers could not hear the music. The score doesn’t hold quite so many terrors for an orchestra these days, but it’s still a severe test of any conductor’s precision and control. It was a showpiece for the Philharmonia’s previous Principal Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen – they made a renowned recording together – so it will be fascinating to see what Rouvali makes of it. He started out on his musical life as a percussionist, so he should be expected to relish Stravinsky’s more savage moments. 

Pekka Kuusisto conducting the Philharmonia
© Camilla Greenwell
The Strauss double bill of the Alpine Symphony and Also sprach Zarathustra also launches the Philharmonia’s “Human/Nature” series which explores composers’ responses to our natural world – think Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, The Lark Ascending, or the River Vltava running through Smetana’s Má vlast. There are less obvious candidates too, such as Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing the dawn chorus in the Réveil des oiseaux by his teacher, Olivier Messiaen. Isobel Waller-Bridge composes a new work that fits the “Human/Nature” theme too. 

Another obvious candidate are Vivaldi’s violin concertos collectively known as The Four Seasons, but Pekka Kuusisto promises a personal touch, embellishing them with his own improvisations. Kuusisto is a frequent Philharmonia collaborator and a lively performer – who else could get the BBC Proms audience to sing a Finnish folksong for his encore?! He contributes a number of highlights to the autumn season. In October, he performs Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto, commissioned for the Human/Nature series, but in the intimate surroundings of the Purcell Room beforehand, Kuusisto leads a free concert of works by Gabriella Smith and John Luther Adams under the title “Reef and Desert”. In more traditional repertoire, he performs Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with his fellow Finn Rouvali at the helm in December. It’s a work that evokes icy landscapes, the finale famously likened by Donald Tovey to “a polonaise for polar bears”. 

Other familiar faces make return appearances with the orchestra. Pablo Heras-Casado conducts an all-French programme that frames Messiaen with Ravel. Of all the musical sunrises in the classical world, that from Daphnis et Chloé is possibly the finest, from the final section of the ballet which constitutes the second orchestral suite. Listen out for the “pantomime” section and its ridiculously difficult flute solo! 

Hilary Hahn
© Dana Van Leeuwen | Decca
Elim Chan’s programme ends with Brahms’ sunny Second Symphony, but also features the welcome return to UK concert halls for Hilary Hahn, who performs Vaughan Williams’ evocative The Lark Ascending, a beautiful piece of musical landscape painting despite those critics who despair of its popularity, and Prokofiev’s fiendish First Violin Concerto. 

Xian Zhang conducts two programmes, both featuring Alina Ibragimova playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. In London, Zhang tackles Mahler’s mighty symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, featuring Dame Sarah Connolly and Andreas Schager, while audiences at Bedford’s Corn Exchange will hear movements from Má vlast, including one of music’s most topographical works, Vltava, describing the river that runs from its source (represented by a pair of flutes) into Prague. 

Skewed very much away from nature to the sprawling human metropolises represented in the epic 1970s film Koyaanisqatsi, for which Philip Glass composed the hypnotic score. The Philharmonia plays Glass’ music live while the cityscapes, planes and pylons fill the Royal Festival Hall’s big screen. 

“Wagner has beautiful moments, but awful quarters of an hour,” was Rossini’s witty one-liner. The Ring of the Nibelungs is an operatic blockbuster spanning four evenings and lasting fifteen hours. In the 1980s, Lorin Maazel filleted it down to an orchestral “synthesis” in the style of Leopold Stokowski to create The Ring without Words, an hour-long hike through Wagner’s “best bits”. Rouvali conducts this voyage from the bottom of the Rhine up to Valhalla and the destruction of the gods… all in an hour. And it you’re missing words, Miah Persson sings Strauss’ Four Last Songs before the interval. Ah yes, intervals. Remember them? Another sign that normal service will have been resumed.

You can see details of upcoming Philharmonia Orchestra Concerts here.
This preview was sponsored by the Philharmonia