It is often said that a good programme combines the familiar with a little bit of the unfamiliar. However for me – and, I suspect, for many present – this concert from LaVerdi weighed more towards the unfamilar and became something of a voyage of discovery.

Xian Zhang © Benjamin Ealovega
Xian Zhang
© Benjamin Ealovega
Schumann's well-known “Spring” Symphony occupied the slightly short first half. The concert focussed on the theme of spring, a theme which at first glance was perhaps the only link between the works present. One could be forgiven for thinking that the link was tenuous and more of an excuse for a so-called seasonal concert, although by the end of the evening, I found that this was far from the case. While indeed, stylistically, there is much to separate Schumann, Goldmark and Malipiero, I found that the works flowed seemlessly as though there was some sort of evolutionary thread linking them all together. By the end of the evening, I felt as though we had been on a journey, not just through the reassuring warmth of spring, but that we had delved into something much deeper and by the time the final climactic chords of the Malipiero had died away, we had somehow returned full circle to the comforting familiarity of the Schumann which had begun the evening.

Xian Zhang has been principal conductor of LaVerdi since 2009, and that definitely showed. Sometimes, when orchestras have enjoyed such a long relationship with a single conductor, their playing can seem tired and stale, but this was far from the case with LaVerdi; their performance was vibrant and alive. Zhang conducted with confidence but most noticeably with authority; there clearly existed a mutual trust between her and her players, who responded to her every nuance and played as if they were one instrument with almost perfect ensemble.

Schumann's First exuded warmth from the outset and there was much elegance to their playing particularly among the strings who phrased with precision, adopting each new tempo without hesitation. I particularly enjoyed the link into the second movement – Zhang always knew what she wanted to achieve and from this the music flowed with ease, never faltering but always with direction, as if the orchestra were leading us on a journey in which we never pause, but seemlessly glide from one event to another.  

Karl Goldmark was a Hungarian born composer who lived mostly in Vienna. A generation younger than Schumann, his overture Im Frühling contained similar amounts of optimism and lush orchestration as Schumann's “Spring” Symphony. Opening with a bright A major for full orchestra, this work is mostly triumphant in character and enabled us to enjoy the full, rich sound of LaVerdi, who adaquately captured the often heroic nature of this piece. Although bright and full, their sound was never harsh, but lush and rich, enveloping the concert hall in layers of silk rather than brittle metal. They made the most of when this short work required contrasts in character, particularly with ethereal sounding woodwinds and sometimes shimmering strings, which served as a precursor to a triumphant conclusion.

This triumphalism soon turned into uncertainty with the start of the final work in the programme, Gian Francesco Malipiero's Symphony no. 1, whose opening is characterised by short cells of music and melodies being passed around the orchestra. The different instruments often interrupt each other and even play over each other, an effect which is highlighted by the music's bitonality. Malipiero's works are less structured than those of many of his contemporaries. Malipiero actively rejected sonata form, and in general, standard thematic development in music. Instead, much of his music, including his First Symphony, is more of a conglomeration of ideas and motifs. Particularly noticeable is the work's variety through its four movements in Malipiero's use of texture and mood, which was all brilliantly captured by LaVerdi. Again, most impressive was their rich, creamy sound in the more melodic passages especially through an expressive vibrato, which Zhang really coaxed from the string players. Having said that, the orchestra as a whole really responded to the more menacing side of the work, particularly in the second movement. They also created a wonderful sense of desolation in the third movement, which contrasted with the playful motifs of the final movement. At the conclusion, all of these moods seemed to combine together as once more the cells of music built together to form a very satisfying conclusion, which left me in the same spring-like mood, which I had felt with the familiar opening of the Schumann at the beginning of the concert.