Direct action has been part of Simon Rattle’s armoury since his days as a young conductor in Birmingham. Four decades on, he hasn’t lost the impulse and expects others to keep up. So much so that last week I found myself sitting on the ground, truly never a favourite place, in Trafalgar Square with more than 3,000 other people. Why? In 2019, in his role as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, he spearheaded the East London Academy. Gifted young musicians from diverse backgrounds would be trained and mentored by players from the LSO. For the first phase, 20 string players were selected (with brass and woodwind to join them this autumn). They should have performed in the LSO’s annual free concert, cancelled in 2020.
Last weekend that concert, the 10th under the BMW Classics banner, finally took place. The young musicians, on stage together for the first time and sitting alongside LSO string players, gave the world premiere of DreamCity, written for them by the British singer, cellist and composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson. Combining chunky rhythms, some novel string techniques and enough full-bowed lyricism to give each musician a chance to play out, DreamCity is a short, engaging addition to the repertoire.
Rattle introduced another newcomer, the violinist Leia Zhu from Newcastle, as soloist in the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns. Aged 14, with a poise and musical intelligence beyond her years, she is making that difficult transition from prodigy to star with apparent ease. She was perfectly at home in this virtuosic showpiece. Watch out for her. (The concert, livestreamed, is available on the LSO’s YouTube channel until November.)
Without any further youthful assistance, the LSO alone managed to sparkle in two of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and also played the whole of Act 2 of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, instead of just the popular bits. By the encore – more Dvořák – some in the Trafalgar Square audience were on their feet dancing. I was impressed by one rather young man, marking out the folk rhythms of the Slavonic Dance in G minor, Op 46 No 8 with head-to-toe bopping. On enquiry I learned that Daniel, aged four and a half, was at his first concert and, yes, he might well give another one a go sometime.
The Proms had no difficulty attracting a near-capacity audience for the debut appearance there of Víkingur Ólafsson, the Icelandic pianist who, thanks especially to an outstanding Bach disc, now has a cult following. As soloist with the Philharmonia Orchestra in Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K491, Ólafsson displayed those hallmarks that identify his playing: a delicacy, fantasy and clarity, combined with an ability to take risks, but not liberties. This worked to potent effect in the Mozart, where orchestra and piano are in constant dialogue. The Philharmonia’s woodwind section shone in the prominent mini-serenades that offer sonic contrast in this magisterial concerto.
Yet with the exception of the middle movement, the Bach from where I sat – and in the Albert Hall, the acoustics are so variable the point has to be made – sounded jumbled, almost adrift in the outer movement “tutti” passages. I listened again on BBC Sounds and found orchestra and soloist were in complete harmony: it’s a truism to say the Proms sound better at home, but at times it’s worth checking out what you think you heard. This was a long programme, with Paavo Järvi standing in at short notice for the orchestra’s new principal conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No 1 in D major fizzed moderately, detail somewhat lost, but Shostakovich’s Symphony No 9 in E flat had real bite and irony. High praise to the principal bassoon, Emily Hultmark, who excelled in her solo, at once quirky and languorous.
One thing missing from my week, any week, was a concert in a woodland glade. Waterperry opera festival, founded in 2017, was sufficiently enterprising to provide one. In addition to stagings of The Elixir of Love and Hansel and Gretel, this informal 10-day event has programmed three staged song cycles. I heard Lili Boulanger’s Clairières dans le ciel (1914), 13 songs, each a heartfelt exploration of loss, based on symbolist poems by Francis Jammes. The cycle was written four years before Boulanger’s premature death, aged 24. Performance and setting, on a two-tier wooden stage, were a delight. The young, rich-toned soprano Siân Dicker and the pianist Krystal Tunnicliffe paid keen attention to nuance and colours, in a simple but effective rustic staging by Emma Doherty. Debussy described Boulanger’s music as “undulating with grace”. There’s nothing to add to that.