Review of the Year 2009: Concerts

The live concert highlights of 2009

31 December 2009

tristan murailDespite the ongoing global financial crisis, the past year has seen a strong showing from all of London's major concert halls, with the resurgent LPO, Philharmonia and BBC SO having particularly strong years. Smaller and newer venues such as Café Oto, the Warehouse, and King's Place have enriched the spread of live music in 2009.

The trend towards themed series and festivals of music featuring guest musicians alongside and in addition to resident ensembles has continued apace this past year, with many of the country's best venues offering cohesive programmes of music that give shape and identity to their overall schedules. The larger festivals – The Proms, Meltdown, and the Edinburgh International – all had reasonably good years, showing increasingly diverse programmes that were at ease in (relatively) contemporary repertoire as they were in more traditional fare.

The Barbican's innovative Total Immersion series is a case-in-point of these smaller, bespoke festivals. Total Immersion highlights the work of one composer in concerts, lectures and screenings spread across one or two days. In January Stockhausen was the focus, with many of his larger, 'macroscopic' works (such as Inori) being skilfully brought off by the BBC SO under David Robertson. Tristan Murail, for too long neglected on these shores, was garlanded with a run of thrilling performances in his own day in February. Further 'immersions' took place throughout the year, with Hans Werner Henze (January) and Wolfgang Rihm (March) forthcoming. Other highlights at the Barbican this year included Kronos Quartet, Tan Dun and the LSO (not to mention Wu Man, Yan Jun and others at LSO St. Luke's) as part of the Beyond the Wall festival of Chinese music and musicians, a popular visit from Philip Glass in May, and a stunning 50th anniversary concert for Colin Davis and the LSO in June. The two resident orchestras at the centre – the LSO and the BBC SO – each impressed throughout the year with strong performances of core repertoire; Daniel Harding, Nelson Friere, Jonathan Biss and Paul Lewis all made notable guest appearances.

Ornette ColemanThe capital's other major arts centre, the Southbank (and how impressive that the city can boast two such thriving institutions), had something of a bumper year. Ornette Coleman's Meltdown had an eclectic and amazing line-up, which ranged from Charlie Haden, to the Master Musicians of Jajouka, to The Bad Plus, Mike Patton, Babba Maal, Carla Bley and, of course, Coleman himself. Rarely has such joy been felt in the concert hall as was caused by each of his stunning performances. The Ether festival a little earlier in the year went slightly off the beaten track, featuring Peaches, David Byrne, and Matthew Shipp. A highpoint of the programme was the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta's joint performance of Heiner Goebbel's Songs of Wars I Have Seen, which I had the pleasure of enjoying two seats up from a clearly stunned Alfred Brendel.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has made an impressive start to his tenure as Principal Conductor with the Philharmonia, whilst Jurowski and the LPO's partnership ahs gone from strength to strenght this year; their Schnittke festival in November and December, and their collaboration with Mischa Maisky in a new Yusopov concerto, were particular highlights. Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony's visit to the Royal Festival Hall redressed the absence of any major American orchestra from this year's Proms line-up, although the conservative tone of their chosen repertoire left some cold.

The Edinburgh Festival's relative freedom from quotas and tradition means that it often surpasses the Proms for innovative, challenging performances of contemporary and core repertoire music. This year, Batistelli's exploration of the music of craft, a Japanese re-telling of Handel's Admeto, re di Tessaglia, a strong Macbeth, an enigmatic recital from Ivo Pogorelich, and two invigorating nights of experimental music theatre (Diaspora and St. Kilda, all added up to a strong showing for the festival's musical side.

Roger WrightAs I have said, the lack of a major American orchestra at this year's Proms was the cause of much chatter, but the standard of the visiting ensembles was nevertheless high in Roger Wright's second year at the helm. The Vienna Philharmonic, the Orchester National De Lyon, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Mahler Jugendorcheter, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (whose three-date mini residency proved something of a mixed bag) all put in high-profile appearances, whilst the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain provided audiences with a highly enjoyable and gladly-received evening of fun. The MGM evening, where John Wilson's ensemble and a starry line-up of singers sang songs from the MGM musicals, proved popular, if somewhat artistically disappointing. The BBC's own ensembles excelled; from a joint, eclectic opening night, to Mackerras and the Philharmonic's G & S, to the BBC SO , David Robertson, and Martyn Brabbins' head-spinning Xenakis and Birtwistle, the range and depth of the performances could not fail to impress. The Proms Chamber Music Series at Cadogan Hall proved popular once again this year, with well-received performances from amongst others the Scottish Ensemble and the Academy of Ancient Music, whilst the Late Night Proms experienced a full house for Gidon Kremer and the BBC SSO's rather disappointing Philip Glass Violin Concerto. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the Nash Ensemble's alluring George Crumb late-nighter, nor could it for any of the other contemporary music Proms. The contemporary line-up this year was somewhat disappointing after last year's bumper stock of anniversary's, and the attendance at some of the Birtwistle commemorations was downright shameful; the new commisions proved somewhat underwhelming, and Wright and his team are going to have to work hard to blance the strength of their core and light entertainments with a strong and vibrant contemporary agenda.

King's Place frequently bewilders in its range and ambition. Alongside the continued artistic success of their regular series Out Hear/This is Tuesday, the venue has hosted a staggering array of festivals and artists throughout the year: Endymion celebrated their own 30 year anniversary, and British music in general; Beyond The Loop had John Metcalfe curating an intriguing programme of liminal British electronic music; LIFEM took in a range of 'exploratory' forms; Sonic Explorations showcased Jonathan Harvey's selections of 'academic' electronic music; The Art of News took a creative and slightly askew glance at the world of music and society. Hall Two events such as the Sub Rosa and Sargasso: C label celebrations, and the three visits by Australia's ELISION ensemble, shored up the venue's contemporary music credentials. The contemporary, electronic, alt-classical and chamber specialities of King's Place have complemented the more traditional chamber agenda of Wigmore Hall well. Wigmore continues to attract a wide array of leading international soloists and chamber ensembles – this year visits from Matthias Goerne and Christopher Eschenbach, Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort & Players, and the Scottish Ensemble with Colin Currie (amongst many others), were complemented with revealing contemporary concerts from ensembles such as Radius and the Fidelio Trio, where the work of exciting younger composers such as Tim Benjamin, Paul Newland, and Luke Bedford was heard.

Charlemagne PalestineIn Dublin and Edinburgh, the sometimes stifling focus of the main subscription concerts was leavened somewhat by the continuing opening out to modernism that was evidenced this year in the SCO and RSNO's celebrations of Peter Maxwell Davies, and in the greater showing of younger ensembles such as Ensemble ICC and Ergodos Voices, and in festivals such as DEAF, in Dublin. In London, Café Oto's singular championing of improvised and noise forms, particularly of musicians from Japan ('Oto' equates to something like 'music' in Japanese), has been revelatory. Stunning performances there this year from John Butcher, Phill Niblock, Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M, Christian Marclay, and Tanya Tagaq, have matched the larger orchestras' pursuit of hard and confusing truths every step of the way. Charlemagne Palestine's five-hour organ performance of his Schlingen Bangen back at the start of the year at St-Giles-in-the-Fields perhaps surpassed them all in that regard.

By Stephen Graham

Concert Highlight: Impossible to pick between the double whammy of the Mahler Jugendorchester and the Nash Ensemble on absolute top form in twinned Proms, and the BBC SO's grippingly mad and often overwhelming performance of Birtwistle and Zinovieff's, well, grippingly mad Mask Of Orpheus

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