With a top orchestra there may be 30 violinists onstage, but each one must be soloist calibre. In fact, many will have solo careers outside of the orchestra. The same goes for every player in every other section (yes, triangle included).
Tonight’s concert, the first of seven to be live streamed from Hope Street, allows the Phil’s rank-and-file players to flex those muscles. With all pieces written for smaller ensembles than your typical orchestra, each musical line is left in the care of one or two musicians. These reduced forces are a necessity, enabling the RLPO to inhabit its home turf while still socially distancing.
PAUL HINDEMITH’s musical language is pretty dissonant, but the RLPO players seize the jagged threads of Kammermusik 3 for all they’re worth, wringing a sense of direction and emotion from them, especially principal cellist Jonathan Aasgaard. This work is subtitled ‘cello concerto’, and he’s got the soloist’s flair to produce more than just a busy-sounding piece of music. With only a few lucky punters in the hall [capacity is cut down from 1,700 to 240 for this run of shows], players are free to perform for their colleagues on the stage, and perhaps that’s something that benefits music from the middle decades of the 20th Century, when modernism had lost its shock value but hadn’t yet achieved ‘classical’ status with audiences.
IGOR STRAVINSKY’s Dumbarton Oaks is another sort-of concerto (like the Hindemith, one instrument or small group haggles with the rest of the ensemble), but one sounding much more old-fashioned. It’s part of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, which puts 18th-century style through a prism, like Picasso’s cubism – taking the old-as-the-hills still life and rupturing it. This is also ‘busy’ music, but some of the most beautiful stretches are the long, held chords at the end of the first movement, particularly by horn players Timothy Jackson, Simon Griffiths and Christopher Morley.
Finally, DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH’s Chamber Symphony In C Minor is an arrangement of his String Quartet No.8 – probably last heard in Liverpool on the cusp of lockdown when Manchester Collective visited in March. That original, dedicated to “victims of fascism and war”, is a brittle, skeletal thing. This arrangement for string orchestra makes it seem inescapable; you can see and hear the effort of sawing away as hard as bowstrings allow, both the players’ and instruments’ sinews taut.
A review is supposed to tell you what it was like to be at a gig, but there’s no audience tonight. Given that classical music’s image is often bound up with its archaisms (bowing, applauding, standing/sitting), it’s quite endearing to hear the players compliment each other upon downing tools. Though not in the highest definition, the cameras do the right thing in lingering on individuals, usually during solos. With music scenes of all genres in dire straits as government guidance remains… changeable, it feels like a result to have 24 people onstage together. We’ll only know if streaming a concert is enough to break even after the fact, and admitting an audience small enough to socially distance makes little economic sense for most venues. The camerawork may bring you visually closer to what’s happening, but it’s no substitute for what we all want: to be in the same room, with sounds buzzing in the air around our heads.