Falla: El amor brujo; Michael Daugherty: Fire and Blood (UK Premiere); Stravinsky: The Firebird

Gluzman, London Symphony Orchestra/Järvi

Wigmore Hall, 20 April 2011 3.5 stars

Gluzman JoffeI wonder whether the purpose of public concerts should only be entertainment or whether education too should be counted in. I for my part (in my capacity as an audience member) believe in preparation as well as active participation inasmuch as is practical. To be more precise, before a concert I usually make an effort to obtain the relevant musical scores which more often than not I follow during the performance. Thus the concert has the inbuilt capacity to entertain as well as to educate.

Presumably the London Symphony Orchestra does not think of education in the context of their regular public concerts. Fair enough, one could say. Nevertheless, for this concert, clarity was conspicuous by its absence.

They advertised the concert as follows: Falla El amor brujo, Michael Daugherty Fire and Blood (UK Premiere), Stravinsky The Firebird. Stravinsky lures us into the thrilling musical world of The Firebird (1910) with dazzling orchestration and delirious rhythm. Written for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, the score made the young composer an overnight sensation. More fire emerges in Michael Daugherty’s pulsating concerto (2003), inspired by Diego Rivera's murals of the Detroit motor industry. And there's another popular dance score in Falla's El amor brujo, originally written in 1915 for a leading flamenco artist.

Having read this notice, I made sure to borrow the 1910 version of The Firebird and the Falla score (although the Daugherty score was not available). In vain, as in the event it transpired. We did not have El amor brujo, we had only three movements – and those with cuts – from it. The programme notes specified the three movements ('Dance of Terror', 'Ritual Fire Dance', and 'Dance of the Game of Love') but they were played in a different order from what was printed and, I hasten to add, what appears in the score. The movements are spirited and were performed so. But they provided mindless (although admittedly harmless) entertainment, possibly without due consideration towards the composer.

I did not even try to follow my full 1910 version of The Firebird as the orchestra performed Stravinsky's third orchestral version (1945). I had no reason to doubt the pre-publicity announcing the 1910 (that is, the full ballet music) version for the concert as it is often performed in concert halls. Indeed, the LSO will perform it with Valery Gergiev in the not too distant future. As can be expected, the orchestra delivered the 1945 score with true professionalism although some members with more artistry than the others. The oboe solos were clear without unnecessary force while the horn and bassoon solos were distinguished by their musicality. The few solo cello motives, played with vibrato on every note, were less pleasing to this pair of ears. I mention no names because I cannot be sure of them. The programme notes obligingly include the list of the whole orchestra as well as the list of those who were on stage for this particular concert. But, clearly, this latter list was not up to date: the solo cellist was definitely not a man (as listed).

Arguably the most important part of the programme was the UK premiere of Fire and Blood for violin and orchestra by Michael Daugherty. Written in 2003 and premiered in the same year in Detroit, it is surprising that this remarkable composition took nine years to reach London. However, it needs a solo violinist not only with innate musicality but also with strong stamina and dazzling virtuosity. Fortunately, violinist Vadim Gluzman has all these qualities as well as natural communication skills without any artificial gimmicks. Composer Daugherty was inspired by the mural which Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) painted to celebrate the automobile industry of Detroit (see reproduction above). Fire and Blood consists of three movements. 'Volcano' refers to volcanoes surrounding Mexico City but also associates with revolutionary ideas. The violinist plays triple stops (on three strings at once) while the orchestra explodes with pulsating energy. The movement concludes with an extended violin cadenza accompanied by marimba and maracas.

'River Rouge' is dedicated to the spirit of Rivera's wife, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1906-1954). The solo violin introduces two main themes: the first is dissonant and chromatic while the second theme is a haunting melody with the accompaniment of marimbas and string tremolos. According to composer Daugherty, Rivera thought that the collaboration between man and machine would bring liberation for the worker. The violin soloist in 'Assembly Line' is like a worker surrounded by a mechanical orchestra. The violin part is a roller coaster ride in perpetual motion on a conveyor belt, while the orchestra imitates factory noises. Rivera's mural is about ordinary people and Daugherty composed for the people. His music is immediately digestible, exciting and meaningful. It even includes some cheesy tunes (in 'River Rouge') – expertly played by the LSO brass section – which one would not expect in a 21st century classical composition: but why not? My only concern about the piece is the demands which it makes on the solo violinist. Gluzman plays the violin as if it was the easiest thing to do. Technical difficulties don't seem to exist for him, he makes his violin sing to rival the very best singers and he lives the music. But what would happen to Fire and Blood in lesser hands?

Conductor Kristjan Järvi was driving the fiery music of the concert programme with commitment and, for the want of better word, with fire. He knew his scores well (and conducted Falla and Stravinsky from memory). He rewarded the enthusiastic audience with an encore of 'The Dance of the Buffoons' from Tchaikovsky's Snow Maiden. Thus the audience left the hall with happy tunes in their ears. It was an entertaining evening.

By Agnes Kory

Photo: Diego Rivera's 'Fire and Blood'

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