Classical RPO Birthday Gala Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
An orchestra that's been around for two score years and ten has reason enough to celebrate its 50th birthday, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra did it in style at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday. The concert was billed as a gala, a word that often denotes an emphasis on social drinking for patrons rather than musical quality. But with William Bennett and Marisa Robles performing Mozart's Concerto for flute and harp, and Ida Haendel playing Ravel's Tzigane, music was the order of the evening for the RPO, with the proceeds going to good causes.

Though the Albert Hall staff had already filled the arena with plush chairs and packed away the fountain for another year, there was still something of a "last night" feel about the place. The programme began with that rarity, the national anthem; rather a good piece, actually, and impressive when performed by the massed choirs of the Brighton Festival Chorus, the Royal Choral Society and the Malcolm Sargent Festival Chorus ranged right and left around the Albert Hall organ. Thereafter, choir and orchestra under the genial guidance of conductor Owain Arwel Hughes and the more reserved direction of their principal conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, presented a medley of popular pieces to please all but the most fastidious of ears.

After all, was it ever so wrong to perform Handel's coronation anthems The King Shall Rejoice and Zadok the Priest with 200 voices, especially when they framed bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in a majestic reading of "The Trumpet Shall Sound"? Handel would not have objected. And if the mind sometimes strayed amid so much celebration, it was only to explore the fertile ground of speculation. How did Borodin make such grand effects from so little music in the Polovtsian Dances? And if you're not in the mood for Wagner, can he really be forgiven that gawky combination of themes in the overture to Die Meistersinger?

Many of these pieces were the favourite lollipops of Sir Thomas Beecham, who founded the orchestra in 1946 and whose conducting imbued it with a unique status. Though Beecham might well have extended his famously rude remarks about Stockhausen to include the works of the young Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, he would have surely enjoyed his Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, now firmly in the RPO's repertoire and beautifully played on Sunday. A suite of Orcadian dances in which the orchestra's leader, Jonathan Carney, took a memorable solo part, its coup de theatre, the entry of a skirling piper at the end, retains its effect of surprise after repeated hearings. And as an example of musical landscape, this Orkney Wedding belongs to a strong tradition that stretches back via Hamish MacCunn and Sullivan's Irish Symphony to its source in Mendelssohn.

Lord Menuhin being unavoidably detained with the President of Germany, Max stepped in to conduct the Walk to the Paradise Garden, showing both aspects of his role as RPO associate conductor / composer. A clear yet passionate account of Delius's masterpiece, it had that interesting perspective on familiar things that marks all his conducting of the classics, and that sharpens the appetite for more.