This programme consisted of a lot of energy and exciting humour. There were quite some refreshing moments: the exhilarating percussive energy in Rossini’s overture La gazza ladra, the contagious slapstick passages in old fashioned romance in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, and Prokofiev’s youthful optimism in Symphony no. 5 in B minor, all surprisingly connected by their playfulness. It was a great evening for music.

Mariss Jansons © Marco Borggreve
Mariss Jansons
© Marco Borggreve

When a concerto is on the short side, Jansons usually opens with an overture by Rossini. They are great showcases for the conductor to let each section shine briefly during the short but dense pieces. For the overture to La gazza ladra, the spotlight is given to the snare drums that tensely open the piece and allowed the RCO’s percussion section to shine from the beginning. Entering with the conductor and located atop the red stairways in the Great Hall, Mark Braafhart and Bence Major commanded their tiny drums, alternating between loud and soft sounds, percussion rippling through the air. The oboe and piccolo excelled, elegantly fluttering around Rossini’s themes. While Jansons controlled the strings, their presence slowly swelled up leading up to the tremendous end. The RCO’s clear joy from Rossini’s work energized the mood for the audience and set the bar high for the rest of the evening.

After quite an extensive orchestral changement the piano emerged. Omar Tomasoni, the RCO's principal trumpeter sat next to the pianist, Yuja Wang. Despite her petite physique, Wang produces impressive strength, energy and confidence. She proved herself a ready match for Shostakovich whose concerto, with its high-paced rhythms, virtuoso passages and comical punch lines, demands a lot from the pianist. Her youthful energy works well in Shostakovich’s twist and turns as her hands ferociously chased the melodies around the keyboard. Wang also evoked the slapstick moods found in the accompaniment of silent films, a type of music Shostakovich was not unfamiliar having composed many such scores .

The trumpeter consequently enhanced the witty pace of Wang. The composer originally intended to create a trumpet concerto but the first piano concerto evolved instead. Tomasoni, a veteran from the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, punctuated Wang’s slapstick with his comical timing, especially in the Allegro moderato, first movement, and in the Allegro con brio finale. After Wang’s virtuoso passages in the Lento, Jansons led the orchestra and trumpet in a beautiful pianissimo. Tomasoni produced a soft glow to create the tender mood in which Wang returned. The third movement Moderato sounded almost like a nocturne, as Wang and the strings evoked the night and its dreams. In the Allegro con brio final movement, Wang and Tomasoni returned to Shostakovich's brilliant mania. At one point Wang even jumped excitedly from her seat. Tomasoni had one more moment to shine before Ms Wang charged into the finale. The final movement was encored.

After the intermission, Jansons conducted a refreshingly optimistic performance of Prokofiev that made me change my opinion of the Symphony no. 5 in B minor. The encouraging, uplifting spirits in the Andante came alive with beautiful nuance. The brass offered their most brilliant colours; even the tuba had its moment of glory. In playful mood, the Allegro marcato connected to the Shostakovich’s Allegro con brio in the piano concerto. In rapid tempo, each instrument helped develop the playful melody: it was like a game of tag. In the third movement Adagio, Jansons finally exhibited how threatening and broodingly Russian the RCO can sound. After that preceding gravitas, the quiet opening of the final movement’s Allegro giocoso offered another moment of touching pianissimo. Slowly all the sections followed Prokofiev’s light-hearted melody and continued the optimistic towards the triumphant finale. For an evening of Russian music, Jansons surprised with an uplifting selection filled with generous warmth and witty moments.