Alastair Macaulay reviews the latest in the Philharmonia’s fascinating winter series at the Royal Festival Hall:
The Philharmonia Orchestra’s “Human / Nature” fall season is a triumph of imaginative programming. What can music express? How is man connected (alienated from) the natural world? How did he portray it, across Europe and America, for three centuries? New music immediately became absorbing, old music often became new.
It is also a triumph for Finnish musicians. This is the first season of Santtu-Matias Rouvali as the principal conductor of the orchestra; Pekka Kuusisto (conductor, violinist, composer) is its star musician. On Sunday, Kuusisto performed and conducted not one, but two concerts: a program of four chamber works at the Purcell Room between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., followed by an event at 7:30 p.m. (lasting over two hours) by music ranging from a world premiere to Vivaldi, ending with an immediate standing ovation. He’s a fabulously fresh, unpretentious, versatile and funny musician and public figure.
2. After the world premiere of “Temperatures” last night, conductor Pekka Kuusisto welcomed composer Isobel Waller-Bridge on stage. pic.twitter.com/lIup58aFlD
– Alastair Macaulay (@ AlastairMacaul3) November 29, 2021
The concert at Festival Hall opened with the 15-minute world premiere of “Temperatures” by Isobel Waller-Bridge (older sister of actress and writer Phoebe “Fleabag” Waller-Bridge – they are both in their 30s) . “Temperatures” imaginatively dramatizes climate change as if it came from within and yet from changing perspectives. At times, its dramatically stressful harmonies are reminiscent of Vaughan William’s wonderful Antarctic Symphony, with long, powerful chords full of subtle movements and tense changes. Then the music that seemed almost devoid of rhythm acquires a feverish pulse. Often – beyond any impulse – the strings, sometimes high, sometimes low, tremble.
The mind in these dangerous climatic conditions is restless, anxious. Towards the end, a step suddenly emerges, gathering strength and momentum – and the sounds of the bell add a quality of iridescence. But for what purpose? Suddenly, this initiative is running out of steam. The internal weather engine dies as we listen. Waller-Bridge is a pessimistic environmentalist (like me). But she’s also a new wave traditionalist. Romantic and modernist forms all infiltrate his score; here, all arrive at the end of the road.
I grew up near the East Anglian coast which Britten paints so strangely in his Four Sea Interludes “Peter Grimes”. Here is the birds and deep sea currents, here is the sunlight and the changing sky above the waves, here is the vast expanse of seascape that suddenly transforms with the howling violence of the storm. These pieces are marvels of orchestration. To cite two small details: a trumpet trill has a shocking explosiveness, while a tambourine very strangely helps suggest a choppy surface settling down.
In the second part of the Festival Hall program, Kuusisto cheerfully spoke, played and led his audience into a very singular and original stream of consciousness. He conducted his own improvisations framing Antonio Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” concertos as a violin soloist, playing in close and joyful collaboration with Ale Carr, the Swedish citrus player. Kuusisto never talks too much – unless you prefer your entirely speechless maestri – and he creates an atmosphere where words and music casually share the same cheerful vibe. He even describes a section of Vivaldi as having an “après-ski” vibe (and shows why); and his improvisations include musical ideas from Austria, Finland and Celtic folk music.
He is an engaging, free and spontaneous maverick; it was a “Four Seasons” like no other, effortlessly leaping across nations and centuries. His colleague Ale Carr – a cittern is a Renaissance string instrument, a kinship of the lute – is a soul mate, uniting folk and classical, ancient and modern music, with the same enchanting playfulness. (Their silent reminder was a Christmas carol arranged by Jan Sibelius: Kuusisto was whistling as he played.)
How many players does the Philharmonia have? It seems that with each concert new actors appear; Interestingly, the ensemble that played the Vivaldi was made up of around two-thirds of women.
Many of these women and men had participated in the Kuusisto Purcell Room concert. His cuisine, a fascinating selection of Scandinavian and Baltic items, could have been called “Northern Lights”, with music by Andrea Tarrodi (Swedish born 1981), Outi Tarkiainen (Finnish, born 1985), Erkki- Sven Tüür (Estonian, born 1985). born 1959) and Anna Thorvaldsdottier (Icelandic born 1977). “Birds of Paradise” by Tarrodi (2008) is entirely for strings, “Siimes” by Tarkiainen (2017) entirely for woodwind, “Conversio” by Tüür (1994) for violin and piano. Only “Hrim” by Thorvalsdottir (2009-10) included a wider range of sound – strings, wind and percussion. This, evoking the formation of forms of frost close to the Arctic, turned out to be the most poetic of all.
Learn more about Isobel Waller-Bridge: