From my seat in the Stalls, the Barbican looked at least three quarters full: not bad for a chilly Thursday in November and a programme composed entirely of premières, even with the star-names of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The London Symphony Orchestra and Kristjan Järvi gave us ‘Divine Geometry’: music exploring the rhythmic and harmonic equilibrium of Bach and Handel, implicitly and explicitly. 

Kristjan Järvi and the London Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Charles Coleman’s music has a magpie approach to idiom and genre, sampling and riffing with boundless enthusiasm. Drenched gave us Handel at full throttle, picking up fragments of the Water Music and giving it effervescent orchestral treatment. There’s something of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in it, using the whole orchestral box of tricks, and alternating string-based lushness with unruly percussion. It certainly got things off to a spirited start.

Bach Inspired is more mixed: two movements are “arrangements of arrangements”, namely the chorale Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland and the E minor keyboard Prelude. These were presented, compositionally unadorned, by strings alone, and whilst residually atmospheric and highly competent, felt rather arid, like conservatoire orchestration exercises. They were considerably overshadowed by the other parts: “Innovation J.S.” and “Branded”, the latter having all the sonic fizz and crackle of the finale of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a gleaming Toccata.

Simone Dinnerstein then led us through the UK première of Phillip Glass’ Piano Concerto no. 3, accompanied in its three movements by just the LSO’s mellow, amenable strings. Glass is at his most luxuriant and emotive here, more inward than in his more rigorous earlier works. The first movement is characterised by expressive dialogue between piano and strings, the second a kind of Passacaglia with thoughtfully underlined inner parts; the overall effect is of a late-Romantic piano concerto, full of rippling arpeggios.

Simone Dinnerstein
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Dinnerstein and Järvi excel in this music: there is an attention to phrasing and contrast rarely heard in performances of Glass’ works. It certainly sounds very polished, but lacks the magnetic and hypnotic textural and harmonic gravity of Glass at his best, something that gives the surface sheen some emotional purchase. Things considerably improve in the final movement, an homage to Arvo Pärt, which has long, dark, chromatic lines, and whose repetitions spiral gorgeously onto another plane. 

As an encore we were treated to the nimble, swirling arpeggios and compacted dissonances of Glass' Piano Etude no. 6; scintillating and filled with dark hues and shadows. Dinnerstein made it sound like Ravel or Debussy. A Glass piano recital in London please.

The second half gave us two different takes on that echt-Baroque form, the Concerto Grosso. First was music from conductor Kristjan Järvi himself, in Too Hot To Handel (no sniggering). The title does not, I think, do the piece any favours, but this is excellent stuff, sometimes redolent of Stravinsky's neoclassicism, but swapping his medicinal astringency for exuberance and sincerity. Cast in thirteen movements, presented without pause, Järvi's piece is a kind of enlarged dance suite, whose material is derived from a range of Handel's Concerti grossi as well as fragments of dance music, some passages more extravagantly recomposed than others.

It's a piece that rejoices in its extravagance, the lush and very un-Handelian orchestral texture bolstered by a vivacious brass section and piccolo part, as well as bass guitar and electric piano/keyboard, and an exhaustive approach to percussion. It wasn't all sound and fury: Järvi has a gift for striking orchestral textures, with an ingenious section combining ghostly harmonics and bowed vibraphone to create something silken and aerial. On the other hand, some of it was a touch too syrupy: the sections with electric especially. But the warmth and energy of the performance, along with Järvi's full-body conducting, makes for a lively piece that got plenty of toes tapping.

Steve Reich also offered a riff on the solo/tutti dynamic of the Concerto grosso. His Music for Ensemble and Orchestra signals his return to using what might be thought of as relatively conventional orchestral forces, with a background weave provided by four trumpets and pairs of pianos and vibes. 

It’s thrilling music: fresh, lyrical, soaring, highly melodic, though hardly in the same ways heard in Glass’ post-Romantic idiom. There’s hints of Copland in the spread-out strings providing background, and bite from the pianos, the whole thing rounded out by the warmth of Reich’s characteristic pair of undulating vibraphones. We feel the glow of his other large pieces like Music for Eighteen Musicians, alongside more jagged and capricious solo writing for solo violins and woodwind, with shades of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks in its acute harmonies. It’s the sound of a composer utterly confident in flexible in their late style.