BBC 100: Celebrating the BBC Orchestras review – party weekend has some fizz but ultimately feels flat

Various venues/BBC Radio 3
Seven concerts around the UK – one from each of the BBC’s performing groups – included some glorious moments, but the motley collection of works failed to create a celebratory or memorable whole

Though the exact centenary does not fall until October, the BBC is spreading celebrations of its anniversary throughout the year and across its networks. The BBC orchestras, some of which are as old as the corporation itself, got their contribution in early, with a weekend of concerts from each of the seven current ensembles, all broadcast live on Radio 3 from their home halls.

The importance of these orchestras in serious music-making in the UK across the past 100 years can’t be overstated. While their independent counterparts around the country have always had to keep one eye on the box office, mindful of the need to attract audiences and to tailor their concerts accordingly, the BBC bands have always had a freer hand, and have consistently been able to tackle more ambitious repertoire – works that were more demanding of resources and rehearsal time, or were unlikely to attract large audiences. And though their programmes nowadays may be less adventurous than they were, say, in the 1960s and 70s, when William Glock was the controller of music, the BBC remains the most important champion of large-scale new works in the UK, responsible for more premieres each year than all the country’s other orchestras put together.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBCSO with Kirill Gerstein at the piano, part of the BBC 100 celebrations
Nimble… Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBCSO with Kirill Gerstein at the piano, part of the BBC 100 celebrations. Photograph: Mark Allan

But though this collection of anniversary concerts had been coordinated to some extent – each programme included at least one work composed or first performed around the time of the BBC’s foundation, and one more or less new piece – it never seemed to generate the sense of pioneering ambition it perhaps ought to have conveyed. Not many of the rather motley collection of works felt truly celebratory or adventurous, and disappointingly few received performances that were truly memorable either.

The subfusc tone was set on the opening evening, in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert conducted in the Barbican by Semyon Bychkov, which ended with the most lugubrious performance of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (first performed in 1922), one could imagine. Before it, the pianist Kirill Gerstein had been the nimble soloist in Strauss’s Burleske, while the concert had begun with the UK premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Mari, which Bychkov had first performed last year with the Czech Philharmonic, and which like several of the new works in the series was composed during lockdown, and intended as a “reflection on the pastoral”, though it begins with rather threatening Sibelius-like brass, before quoting Dvořák and Mahler.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s concert from Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff the following lunchtime opened with the UK premiere of another lockdown piece, Sebastian Hilli’s Miracle, another rather indulgent, stylistically diverse piece of orchestral rhetoric. Conductor Ryan Bancroft followed it with Copland’s Appalachian Spring (the suite only, alas), Grace Williams’s Elegy for strings, and the suite from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, diverse 20th-century repertoire that seems to bring the best out of him, and from his orchestra too.

Howard Goodall conducts the BBC Singers in Milton Court.
Beautiful and rather touching…
Howard Goodall conducts the BBC Singers in his cantata Unconditional Love at Milton Court.
Photograph: Mark Allan

Later that day, after the BBC Concert Orchestra had joined the party from the Colosseum, Watford with a programme that began and ended with Eric Coates, and also including film music by Anne Dudley, and a short piece, Brink, by the winner of the BBC’s Young Composer Competition, Xia Leon Sloane, the focus switched to Manchester. In the Bridgewater Hall the BBC Philharmonic and its chief conductor Omer Meir Wellber offered another rather arbitrary programme. But this one was redeemed by the sheer panache of the performances, from Hindemith’s brittle, manic Kammermusik I to Tippett’s sumptuous Ritual Dances from his opera The Midsummer Marriage, via the baroque potpourri of Aziza Sadikova’s BBC commission, Marionettes, and a dashing account of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, with Giulia Contaldo as the last-minute replacement soloist.

The Ulster Orchestra’s Sunday-morning contribution from the Ulster Hall under Andrew Gourlay was entirely home grown, pairing Michael McHale’s heroic performance of Hamilton Harty’s overblown Piano Concerto – the only piano concerto I know that includes a tam-tam in its orchestration! - with Conor Mitchell’s rather John Adams-like Democracy Dances. Later in London’s Milton Court, the BBC Singers built their programme around Vaughan Williams and Howard Goodall, interleaving movements from Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor with a variety of short choral settings in the first half, and devoting the second to the European premiere of Goodall’s rather beautiful and touching Unconditional Love, a cantata setting poems written during lockdown.

That left the BBC Scottish Symphony to end the weekend, with a programme from City Halls, Glasgow, which was also the orchestra’s first appearance with Ryan Wigglesworth since he was announced as its next chief conductor from September. Here finally was a programme with a real shape and sense of purpose, with three works from the early 1920s – Kurt Weill’s rarely heard suite Quodlibet, Strauss’s Hymne an die Liebe, with Katherine Broderick as the radiant, soaring soloist, and Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck – and Wigglesworth himself supplying the new work in the form of his epigrammatic Five Waltzes for viola and orchestra, played by Scott Dickinson. Even with highlights such as this, though, there was something a little random about the weekend, rather less of a celebration and statement of intent than it could have been.

All concerts available on BBC Sounds until 12 March


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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