The London Symphony Orchestra’s concert opened with that prime cut of ripely nostalgic Americana seen through the eyes of a child, Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The soprano soloist Barbara Hannigan also had to conduct the work, which was not Plan A. But Simon Rattle became a 'Test and Trace' contact, had to miss the previous day’s rehearsal, and was released only at midnight. Hannigan had sung and conducted the rehearsal of the Barber while an assistant conductor prepared the other works. Rattle, apparently having considered Knoxville as a good candidate for Hannigan’s ‘sing and conduct’ skills anyway, let her do both, which she did with considerable accomplishment. It’s difficult to think of the advantages of this practice, except that the conductor will neither rush the singer nor drown her out. And a conductor faces the orchestra, a singer the audience, at least in a packed hall. But we are used nowadays to replacing “don’t try this at home” with “don’t do this in public”.

Barbara Hannigan
© London Symphony Orchestra

“You made that seem effortless,” said Hannigan’s interviewer, adding “was it?” “Yeah” came the answer “– with this orchestra.” From the opening oboe theme from Juliana Koch onwards, there were ear-catching solos from the winds especially, and the soprano seemed to be duetting with players as much as conducting them. She did not seem at all compromised vocally by her dual role, able to drive the orchestra on in the faster middle section, yet follow that with a rapt delivery of the ecstatic line “Now is the night one blue dew”.

Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO
© London Symphony Orchestra

Hannigan was standing alongside the podium for her next contribution, singing the two Latin American poems set by Varèse in his Offrandes. Her French sounded idiomatic enough, and again her precision in metre, tempo and intonation made clear why she is in demand for modern and contemporary pieces. And she had sung neither this nor the Barber before. Trumpeter Jason Evans was splendid here and throughout, and the LSO relished what the composer called a “small-scale piece” despite its large complement of players including eight percussionists.

Song of Quezecoatl
© London Symphony Orchestra

Those at least gave Rattle the chance to programme Lou Harrison’s Song of Quetzalcoatl, which is written solely for four percussion players, the rest of the LSO becoming the audience. The variety of instruments was bewildering, including wine glasses with various levels of water in them, as if the player was home schooling his young offspring in the physics of sound. It was a piece to be seen as well as heard, so a brilliant choice for a streamed concert, as was the interval explanatory tour the players and Rattle gave of this (at times literal) kitchen department. The players were transfixing to watch as they struck, stroked, and shook their way through Harrison’s gamelan style ostinati. Who needs melody and harmony when repeated rhythmic tics are this compelling?

Sir Simon Rattle conducts Ravel
© London Symphony Orchestra

Normal (well, supernormal) melodic and harmonic service was resumed in Ravel’s Mother Goose ballet, which returned us to the theme of childhood. I am not sure there is an orchestra on the planet I’d rather hear in this score, given the characterful wind and brass players who responded to its enchantments with sorcery of their own, as did leader Roman Simovic. Rattle then led us all, children ourselves once again, into The Fairy Garden, that magical long-breathed inspiration where eventually we ascend on harp glissandi to some infant Valhalla.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream

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