New ways to reach new minds

NDR Symphony Orchestra/ Borodin Quartet | Royal Festival Hall/Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture

Saturday's "Musical Welcome" for LPO maestro Kurt Masur was a salutary lesson in listening anomalies. The first was in the Royal Festival Hall foyer in the early afternoon, a happy hubbub of children, mums and dads lounging attentively while the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra played Voices of Spring and the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. I parked myself next to a five-year-old who was quietly pirouetting to Mozart, utterly immersed in a new-found gift that will now be hers for life. This, I thought, is how youngsters should listen to music.

Saturday's "Musical Welcome" for LPO maestro Kurt Masur was a salutary lesson in listening anomalies. The first was in the Royal Festival Hall foyer in the early afternoon, a happy hubbub of children, mums and dads lounging attentively while the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra played Voices of Spring and the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. I parked myself next to a five-year-old who was quietly pirouetting to Mozart, utterly immersed in a new-found gift that will now be hers for life. This, I thought, is how youngsters should listen to music.

An hour or so later, Alex Wilson and his Octet thrashed out some lively "Latin Beats" to adults and children held bolt-upright in the main auditorium. It was a very strange juxtaposition. But that was wasn't the half of it. Earlier on, Masur had conducted the London premiere of Thomas Adÿs's teeth-baring "prophecy" America, in which the soprano Janice Watson, the London Philharmonic Chorus and the Orchestra joined forces for a ritualistic happening where rhythms converged in acute discomfort and the texts (Mayan, Spanish and Latin) spelt unequivocal conflict.

True, the use of the F-word had at least one embarrassed listener creeping to the nearest exit, but the hushed majority appeared to be sincerely moved by this profoundly unsettling "message for the Millennium".

So there we were, deep in reflective thought, when on walked Willard White for a spell-breaking sequence of Gershwin songs. The effect was like blithely whistling in the wake of unspeakable catastrophe though, to be fair, the audience didn't seem to mind. Masur cued some uneventful arrangements of "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'", "A Foggy Day in London Town", "Our Love is Here to Stay", "Love Walked In" and "Slap That Bass", and although White sang well, he had his work cut out projecting above the orchestra.

A few hours later, the Borodin Quartet took centre-stage at the Barbican for a fresh slant on Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet, more flexible than previous performances by an older group of the same name (the current leader and violist are relative new boys) though not nearly as dramatic. Best was the brief Elegy that they played as an encore, heartfelt music based on Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth.

Speaking personally, I could happily have left it at that, but, no, there was the second half to consider - not more chamber music, or even more Shostakovich, but Beethoven's massive Missa Solemnis. Don't even ask about the connection: why on earth couldn't the Borodins have given us Beethoven's last quartet? But there was a major pay-off in Christoph Eschenbach's thrilling performance, which was just about the most profound pick-me-up anyone could have hoped for. Soloists Joan Rodgers, Charlotte Hellenkant, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Alfred Reiter enjoyed energetic though not always focused support from the NDR Symphony Orchestra and combined choral forces from Stuttgart and Hamburg. Hellenkant in particular seemed ecstatically possessed by the score, but it was Eschenbach himself whose vision burned the brightest.

Tempos were very fast and there were countless instances where newly revealed subsidiary lines shed fresh light on Beethoven's overall design. It's very much Eschenbach's way, this extraordinary concern with textual minutiae and inner detail. When he sculpts a phrase in air, you can actually hear his players respond. Not everything was perfect, but then that's life. With the Missa, the spirit is the thing, and in that respect alone, Eschenbach appears to have a hotline to the heavens.

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