The Royal Northern College of Music’s end-of-year symphony concert is a special occasion. This year we heard a solo pianist surely destined for great things, and some exceptionally good orchestral playing under a remarkable young guest conductor. And there was a world premiere to begin with.
Swell, by Fenton Hutson, does what it says on the tin. In under 10 minutes he offers us a whole variety of orchestral crescendos, most of them quite short, many overlapping and piggy-backing in effect, with a few clear motifs and themes to emerge, be heard again and provide shape.
His crescendos are made by increases of volume, intensity, complexity, and even (putting just a toe into the sea of mainstream classical expression) through polyphony, almost as if forever working towards a great climax that never quite comes. It’s tantalizing, rather than satisfying.
It was conducted by the very impressive Elim Chan, who was to appear again for Rachmaninov’s second symphony.
But first came Luke Jones, an RNCM Gold Medal winner this summer and clearly a pianist to watch. Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand requires a formidable technique, and he was up for that, but even more appealing was the gentle and poetic quality he brought to its later solo sections. Jack Sheen conducted, and, in addition to a big, space-filling sound from the orchestra of just over 40 strings, brought things alive in the march episode (a crescendo of Bolero-like qualities figuring in it).
Luke Jones followed his concerto with another piece for left hand – Scriabin’s Prelude – and also (to prove his right hand can do the business, too), Chopin’s demanding Étude in C op.10, no.1.
The RNCM Symphony Orchestra has given some great performances over the years, and it’s often seemed to me that conducting it requires a special quality that could be summed up as ‘cool head, warm heart’. There’s no lack of energy or willingness to commit in these players – like young racehorses, they want to give everything, and harnessing them to a collective task needs rare skills.
But conductor Elim Chan has those skills. I’ve not seen her in action before, but would very much hope to again. The performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 was full of passion and intensity – it also kept bringing happy surprises as she exposed elements of melody and texture not always heard, such as the little viola figure that opens the Adagio and was articulated alongside the violins’ big tune in a movement that was gloriously poised throughout.
She has an instinct for those long, unfolding melodies that makes them breathe and sing, and sometimes they stole into the texture almost unnoticeably before blossoming into full flower. There was wonderful solo playing from the wind principals, and precision in abundance from the full body of strings, the 11 celli making for a lovely, dark Russian sound.
Elim Chan (c Willeke Machiels)