Sun, sea... and symphonies

Daytona beachwear: T-shirt, baseball cap and black tie. Malcolm Hayes joins the LSO at the seaside
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The Independent Culture
"You going to the Symphony?" The voice behind me on Daytona Beach's North Atlantic Avenue had the genial massiveness of Paul Robeson's. So did the build of its possessor, who was clad in regulation beach outfit of floppy T-shirt and even floppier shorts, plus socks, trainers, and the obligatory reversed baseball cap. Since I was wearing a smartish suit in the 90F heat of a Florida evening, he'd rightly guessed that I wasn't heading for the beach myself. Yes, I said, I was going along to hear the London Symphony Orchestra playing one of its Florida International Festival concerts at the local Peabody Auditorium. This was given the authentic seal of approval: "Have a good evening."

I did. And that was very much the mood around me, both on the streets and at the top of the high-rises. Everyone I met during my four-day visit to Daytona seemed to like the fact that the festival itself was there and happening, even if they probably had no intention of going along to it.

Daytona Beach is known above all for two things. There's the beach itself: 23 continuous miles of pale sand, running with arrow-like straightness along the Atlantic coast from north to south. Sir Malcolm Campbell came here in the 1930s to break the land speed record in his Bluebird V. The car itself, beautifully restored, is on permanent display at Daytona's other famous landmark, the Speedway - one of the world's great motor-racing circuits, and something of a shrine to car enthusiasts generally and to Ferrari fanatics (I plead guilty) in particular.

Meanwhile, the LSO's regular presence at the biennial Florida Festival is a major component in Daytona Beach's determined campaign to be known for something else besides sun, sand and racing cars. Kent Nagano, the London orchestra's US-born associate principal guest conductor, filled in some of the background for me.

"What has to be remembered is the sheer size of the landmass here. Outside the big conurbations, most of America consists of quite small towns with huge distances between them. I was brought up in California, and my parents used to drive for three and a half hours and back again to take me to hear the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. From somewhere like Daytona you have to go even further. Most people just aren't able to do that.

"That's one reason why the LSO's presence here is a major event. Another is its involvement in the educational side of the festival. In the Seventies America changed its priorities about these things. Mine was about the last generation that grew up with regular exposure to art as part of education. Now, on the whole, that's just... gone."

Sounds alarmingly like home, I suggested.

"It's worse here. The festival is trying to do what it can to restore that exposure. It's a commitment that's not to be underestimated. And the fact that there's a regular link with European culture, through a European orchestra, says a lot about the community."

The ongoing love affair between Daytona and the LSO began in 1966 when the festival started up as the brainchild of Tippen Davidson, proprietor of the local News-Journal newspaper and toughly dedicated arts enthusiast. The LSO came then, and has been invited back ever since. It has now played more concerts in Daytona than anywhere else outside London and, given the affection so warmly shown to it, has no intention of stopping. No nonsense about arriving at the airport and routinely piling into coaches, for instance. This year, as usual, the players were driven through the town in a 30-strong motorcade complete with motorcycle escort. "Let's be honest," a happy-looking LSO member admitted to me at yet another post- concert party laid on by their tirelessly hospitable hosts. "It's different from playing on a wet November evening at the Barbican."

The climate and setting may be gorgeous, but the orchestra does a lot more than play volleyball on the beach. This year's schedule of seven concerts in 10 days, plus a substantial crop of chamber concerts and educational work, saw to that. An afternoon "mini concert" in a local church beside the Halifax River featured the exotically named Deutz Trio - aka Paul Edmund-Davies, Roy Carter and John Alley, the LSO's co-principal flute and oboe and principal piano. Delivering their choice of music (Quantz, Kohler, Chaminade, etc) with unperfunctory expertise, they also had their audience eating out of their hands as they chatted between numbers, with Alley reminiscing about his erstwhile organ teacher's position at a London crematorium ("It's actually quite a well-paid job. And there's always work"). Robert Bourton's talk before one of the LSO's evening concerts switched deftly between demonstrating the technical intricacies of his bassoon and telling stories, including the best Beecham one I've yet heard. (Sorry, but it would take too long to tell here.)

For the Youth Concert, the 2,500-seat Peabody Auditorium was packed. On the platform was the LSO and, playing alongside the section principals, young instrumentalists picked from schools and colleges all over Florida. The LSO's "music animateur" Richard McNicol, changing gear fluently between compering and conducting, secured a neat performance of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (pantomime hisses for the LSO's unfazed trio of horns representing the Wolf; fervent applause for everyone else). His younger-than-average audience was having a fine day out, of course. Were they also listening? Judging from those immediately around me, I think they really were.

Enter at this point legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, to conduct the festival's two closing concerts. ("That man never seems to need to sleep," says an LSO violinist in affectionate despair.) Just off a transatlantic flight that had been followed by two three-hour orchestra rehearsals on the trot, the 70-year-old Rostropovich really did look as fresh as a daisy while we talked about life, art and his choice of programmes. Of Tchaikovsky's and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphonies: "Maybe in London or Paris now I would not do these ones. But here, many people will be hearing them for the first time. They're a good place to start." Of Rodion Shchedrin's Stikhira: "It was the first piece that could be officially dedicated to me by a Russian composer after I left Russia in 1974. So it is very important to me." Of his less-quick-than-preferred passage through American immigration at Atlanta airport: "They are organised. A little too much sometimes. But maybe this is one reason why they are a great nation. Also, when the man at immigration speaks to you, somehow you know that he has a big country behind him!"

In the event, the idea of one big country speaking musically to another in Stikhira didn't quite come off. "What was that all about?" someone asked me in the interval. I only had an idea because, in his engaging and excellent pre-concert talk, Shchedrin himself had explained that Stikhira is an ancient form of Russian religious chant. The work's development of this opening idea, interacting with assorted bell-sounds (real or paraphrased), was concentrated and impressive. So why no programme note, nor any spoken introduction from anyone? No wonder the audience was left floundering.

But this was an untypical slip-up in a festival otherwise studded with things to remember. There was Jean-Yves Thibaudet's scintillating playing of Saint-Saens's Fifth Piano Concerto in Nagano's second concert. In Rostropovich's first, there was 14-year-old Helen Huang's likeable, no-nonsense way with Beethoven's First Piano Concerto - how her young talent will develop is anyone's guess, but it's certainly there - and Roy Carter's lovely balance of incisiveness and elegance in Mozart's Oboe Concerto.

There was also Rostropovich's mighty interpretation of Shostakovich's Fifth, to which the LSO responded with playing of lustrous power and, in the slow movement, pin-dropping quietness and beauty - all much enhanced by the Peabody Auditorium's full and clear acoustic, which allowed the Symphony's final peroration to thunder with an immensity that thrilled. The young lady sitting next to me - tall, statuesque, and with boundless warmth towards everything and everyone around her - interrupted her passionate applause to stretch out before her a brown arm of seemingly endless length. "Wow! That was wonderful. Look at my arm." (I did.) "It's got goosepimples along it." Russia had indeed spoken to America, through an English orchestra that's currently on exceptional form. I'm glad I was there to hear it happen.

Sir Georg Solti conducts the LSO in Verdi's Requiem at the Proms on Friday 12 Sept, 7.30pm, Royal Albert Hall (booking: 0171-589 8212) and live on Radio 3.

Sir Colin Davis conducts Beethoven's Violin Concerto (soloist: Midori) and Walton's First Symphony at the opening of the LSO's 1997/98 Barbican season on 23,24 Sept (booking: 0171-638 8891)