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Classical: Sadly second rate

THE INDISPOSITION of Kees Bakels, the Dutch chief guest conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for the last 10 years, created more of a problem than usual in Poole on Wednesday, since the programme - repeated in Exeter and Portsmouth on Thursday and Friday - included Charles Ives's Second Symphony.

This early, delightful amalgam of Brahms and Dvorak, with American tunes steadily stirred into the mixture to make it rise to some glorious moments of mayhem, is repertoire material in its home country, but I can't recall ever hearing it in concert here. Richard Bernas - American, and known chiefly as a conductor of contemporary music - bravely took on the full programme as advertised.

An all-Beethoven first half didn't get things off to a good start. A raw and rhythmically rocky "Namensfeier" Overture was followed by the Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was the young, upcoming German, Isabelle Faust. She's an extremely efficient player, though suffering from a certain inflexibility of tone and occasional intonational lapses. On this showing, Faust lacks the ability to phrase characterfully, or to engage the listener from moment to moment, or with much feeling for overall structure.

In the Ives, the BSO's sometimes rough-and-ready sound, from the strings in particular, gave a not inappropriately elemental edge to the proceedings. Bernas shaped this five-movement, quite complex symphony with real finesse, too, building powerfully towards the zany climaxes of the second movement which had an explosive impact.

While such imaginative programming is to be commended, music by living composers plays a sadly small part in this year's main season. All the more welcome, then, is Kokoro, a 20th-century ensemble which is the initiative of the percussionist Kevin Field and some of his fellow performers. The group's late-night concert on Wednesday included alert, performances of Stravinsky's Septet and Ravel's "Introduction and Allegro" and, sensibly imitating Birmingham's scheme of commissions paid for by members of the audience, the premiere of Colin Riley's evocative "Taking Leaves".

Despite the BSO's stabilisation grant from the Arts Council, the abandonment of the ambitious plans for a regular new venue in Bristol has led to the departure of Anthony Woodcock, the orchestra's managing director, for the US. Yakov Kreizberg, the principal conductor who is currently "on sabbatical", is also missed. Right now, it has to be admitted that the BSO doesn't sound like the orchestra with international potential that he has steered for the past three years.

Keith Potter