It was the bagpiper that did it. Robert Jordan’s descent through the Barbican Concert Hall, piping in full Highland dress, to join the London Symphony Orchestra onstage for the deafeningly magnificent ending of Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise – that was the moment at which musical normality seemed to have returned.
The full-size orchestra, the near-capacity audience and the occasional explosions of unembarrassed coughing certainly harked back to pre-pandemic life. But the experience of being entirely, overwhelmingly, immersed in orchestral sound has long been absent. At the LSO’s season launch, the Barbican’s ultra-hard acoustic came into its own, providing waves of symphonic blast-force as Max’s Orkney Wedding lurched drunkenly around before that closing sunrise. On the podium, Simon Rattle grinned; the audience giggled at Max’s musical jokes.
Elsewhere, there were subtler acoustic pleasures. The London Symphony Chorus singing an unaccompanied Purcell anthem from the back of the auditorium’s balcony; the LSO’s brass revelling in the musical patchwork of Tippett’s Praeludium; the finely wrought textures of Judith Weir’s Natural History, with soprano Lucy Crowe as a mesmerisingly energetic storyteller amid the orchestral ebb and flow; the bleak intimacy of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No 3, a piece as full of muted quiet as Max’s Orkney Wedding is noisy.
Yet there were still Covid casualties: the scheduled world premiere of Julian Anderson’s Exiles was partial. The two outer movements were exquisite (oddly disturbing in a work so preoccupied with the past 18 months) – all shards of melody, sparkling woodwind and harsh shadows of low brass. But the middle movement, for unaccompanied chorus, was omitted (too much to prepare since large choirs have finally been allowed to rehearse again) and the Purcell and Tippett added. The resulting programme ultimately lacked coherence. While its components were individually compelling, there was little sense of overall emotional trajectory: a reminder that we still have a way to go.