Concert Review: The BBC Symphony Orchestra

Words: Ian C Douglas
Sunday 12 March 2023
reading time: min, words

Ian C Douglas reviews the BBC Symphony Orchestra...


Hmm, the BBC may not be exactly flavour of the month right now. But at least they still have their fabulous symphony orchestra, who just happened to be in town last night.

In fact, the orchestra has been playing since 1930. And the current performance was conducted by Lionel Bringuier, the French conductor, pianist and cellist. Bringing a little gallic charm to the proceedings perhaps, Bringuier has a no-nonsense, let’s get on with it style. No chitchat or jokes from him.

So, they dived straight into the first piece, An American in Paris. Famous from the 1951 movie of the same name, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, but composed by Gershwin much earlier, in 1928. Gershwin drew from his impressions of his first trip to Paris where he was due to study with Ravel (who appears later in the programme). In his original orchestration, Gershwin even used taxi horns to give it that authentic feel and had a few brought back to the USA. It is an evergreen composition, instantly recognisable and went down well with Nottingham’s classical music-lovers. 

The second item was another popular and much-beloved hit, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov. Also written in the 1930s. One of the variations is so tricky to play that Rachmaninov suffered nerves before the debut. So, he hit the crème de menthe before hitting the ivories. His rendition was so good he made a habit of the tipple and called the variation the Crème de Menthe Variation. And for last night’s show, the grand piano was wheeled out for Nottingham-born Clare Hammond as guest player. She effortlessly pounded out the chords and had the entire hall in thrall to her virtuosity. Stunning work.  

Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished

After the intermission, the Orchestra tackled a less well-known work, Rousell’s Le Festin de l’araignée. Which, in case your French is not up to it, translates as the Spider’s Feast. The music is from a ballet inspired by garden insects, so the feast in question are hapless flies caught on a spider’s web. Except the poor spider itself gets eaten by a praying mantis. Well, it is a French garden, you would not see such exotic creatures in a British garden.

Finally, the concert winds up with La Valse (French for The Waltz) by Ravel in 1920. The composer himself described the piece thus:

“Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.”

It is indeed stirring and majestic music, that had hearts pumping and toes tapping in the auditorium. The perfect upbeat ending before the concertgoers flooded out into heavy rains. But with such an uplifting performance, there was spring in everyone’s step. Thank you, BBC, for getting this right.         

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert took place at the Royal Concert Hall on Saturday 11 March 2023

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