The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra continued its adventurous A-series with “Time” as the theme tonight. Though due to a late cancellation from Sally Matthews, Ravel’s Shéhérazade replaced Dutilleux’s Le temps d’horloge – an unfortunate dent in a meticulously planned thematic programme. David Robertson is a regular in this RCO series, mostly conducting challenging, less accessible works. Tonight the American maestro offered an eclectic mix, with Belgian Luc Brewaeys contributing the electronics to his Symphony no. 6, pleasantly surprising the audience with its radiant colours and exciting rhythms. With such diverse composers on the programme, the audience was treated to a delightful evening of various soundscapes.

Norah Amsellem © Cosimo Magliocca
Norah Amsellem
© Cosimo Magliocca

Robertson’s theatrical and superlative performance of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question established an exhilarating vibe for the rest of the evening. The Great Hall was darkened with a spotlight on Emily Beynon, who this evening frequently contributed to the highlights. She led the three other flautists as sole musicians on stage. Off-stage in the foyer the strings were gathered, while trumpeter Omar Tomasoni performed in a spotlight on the front balcony. In this thought-provoking piece, the strings sustained long notes. The trumpeter called out the same sad but hopeful phrase to which the flautists responded each time with increasingly shrill and metallic dissonances. It is a confrontational dialogue between the two emotional voices, while the strings added a hypnotizing, time-expanding momentum. During the six minutes a wondrous, seemingly infinite, but abrupt universe was created.

A similarly unique and enchanting piece is Luc Brewaeys’ Symphony no. 6 for orchestra and live-electronics. This curious amalgamation surprises with its vast spectrum of colours and interesting textures. Among the enormous orchestration, the harp, piano and electronic keyboard sat centrally embedded. Speakers hung in the air voicing Brewaeys electronic dimensions. First violins switched with the violas, while the second violins stood atop the red stairs next to the entrances. A plethora of percussion strikingly styled the Belgian's alien sounds. Moments of lightness from an effervescent wind section or from the glowing horns alternated with the piece’s heavier moments, such as the sustained suspense in the lower registers from sturdy double basses. This symphony has not been performed since 2000, and it left me curious and eager to hear more of this composer’s music.

The soundscape burst with silvery lightness, while at other times adding a golden glow. The xylophones pulsated beneath the many layers, invigorating the piece rhythmically. The timpani and glockenspiel joined in, suggesting the ticking of time. The electronics did not serve as a mere special effect, but amplified the music adding a sonorous depth to each timbre. Instead of providing stark rhythmic contrast, its contribution actually enhanced the symphonic experience. From all this seeming chaos, Robertson impressively managed to evoke a tender, but alien universe. 

After the intermission, Norah Amsellem emerged for Lia’s recitative and aria from Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue and Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade. For these pieces, Robertson used his baton, elegantly keeping measure and bringing out all the lush colours of the two French composers. During the fragile vocal passages of the grieving mother in Debussy’s work, the orchestra consistently overpowered the singer, making some of the words barely discernable. As a last minute replacement, Amsellem sounded generally fine, but lacked an emotional dimension. Her highlight came with “Une flûte enchantée” in Ravel’s cycle. As the orchestra held back, Ms Beynon performed her magic on the flute in an affectionate duet with Amsellem’s soft soprano.

Robertson closed the evening with a transparent performance of Messiaen’s early work L’Ascension. The piece consists of four symphonic meditations on Christ’s ascension. In the first "The majesty of Christ demanding its glory of the Father" the golden sound from the trombones and trumpets glowed while creating, with an extremely slow-breathing pulse, an unfamiliar atmosphere. In "Serene alleluias of a soul that longs for heaven" the different timbres of the wind section, including a joyous cor anglais, created a frolicsome and contagious energy. In the third movement, the eclectic variations in the percussion section allowed it to pop. Together with the double basses and cellos, they created some thumping adrenaline. In the closing "Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father" movement, Robertson directed the expanding and contracting musical passages in the haunting strings, evoking an unearthly mood from Messiaen’s shrill dissonances. Robertson again handled the many layers expertly and kept measure firmly. He demonstrated again that he is a master at challenging, modern symphonic works, making them accessible to a large audience.