Karol by Candlelight?

Unless you’ve been camping in the wilderness recently, you will have noticed that the LSO has been in the news. I’m sure by now most of you will have seen our contribution to the Olympic Games in London; what an exciting few weeks it has been! This is the tour blog and so much has already been written that I won’t repeat it, but being able to play with the young musicians we work with from East London as part of the On Track programme was something I will never forget. The look on their faces as they walked into the stadium was worth the weeks of work and the endless hanging around; truly a once in a lifetime experience.

It wasn’t all smiles however. Chariots of Fire was quite a popular segment of the show, but there were some people who weren’t happy of course and complained about it, you know the kind of thing, terribly tedious bores with a sense of humour bypass. We do listen however, and so unfortunately we had to sack the keyboard player, he was just too distracting…
The orchestra was on its summer break between ceremonies, but as the last of the fireworks exploded and the rest of the world tried to figure out what on earth an inflatable octopus had to do with anything, we returned to normality. Our big project this season is an exploration of the music of the Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski, unfamiliar music brought into focus alongside the well known music of Brahms. Rather conveniently, both composers wrote four symphonies and so the framework places the first of each their symphonies in one concert, followed by the second and so on, with some concerti to augment the concerts. After a few days of rehearsal in LSO St Luke’s, it became clear that this was going to be an interesting season as the music of Szymanowski suits Valery’s attention to detail, dense textures which he can pull apart with his fingers and soaring melodies with fascinating harmonic changes underneath. On paper, the Brahms is the stuff to get people into the hall, those who may be scared off by the unknown, but as is often the case with Gergiev, he has a habit of taking something well known and turning it inside out. In rehearsal his tempi fluctuated, sometimes slow and meandering as he mulled over ideas, lingering on chords usually passed over, sometimes pushing ahead much more than is traditional.

And there you have it. Tradition. We don’t have a great Brahms tradition in the LSO, and if I’m honest with you, I have never been totally convinced in performance by any single interpreter, Brahms seems rather elusive. I haven’t fully formed my opinion on Valery’s style yet, but the sections where the orchestra can go on autopilot, the standard accelerando, or the placing of certain chords not because Brahms asks for it but because it is traditional – well, one thing Gergiev does is blow those cobwebs away, if he feels the band slowing for no reason, he cracks the whip and then forces us to linger in places we had previously left without a second glance. But that is in rehearsal, what happens in concert is something else.

The day before we left Kings Cross station for Edinburgh, where we are performing four concerts in the International Festival, news reached us of a power failure at Usher Hall which meant the unfortunate members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra found themselves with a cancelled concert and an evening sampling the delights of this beautiful city. If you follow the blog, you’ll remember that fateful evening in my home town last year when the lights went off and we continued playing Tchaikowsky in total darkness for about 15 minutes.


The show must go on after all. However, I’m not sure that we would get very far in darkness playing Szymanowski! I can’t lie to you, there were some comedians on the train who fantasised about four evenings of darkness and the resulting four evenings of whisky tasting, but of course, after Guildford, we carry a large number of backup candles and torches for when disaster strikes. Rather than silence, it would have been more of a case of Karol by Candlelight.

The lights were blazing as was the sun when we arrived at the beautiful Usher Hall. The ample acoustic, only slightly tamed by an audience, made the orchestra sound very loud and Valery spent a good deal of the rehearsal telling us to play quieter to hear the details. Although it is a loud hall, it is very clear and precise. I sat out in the auditorium to listen to Nicola Benedetti rehearse the Szymanowski concerto, at times a delicate piece with jewel like writing for the orchestra. Although the full force of the LSO was unleashed from time to time, her sound sailed over the textures easily, except at the opening when I could hardly hear her at all. This was nothing to do with the orchestra but the 15 photographers taking shots of her. I’ve never seen anything like it! Nicola was making her festival debut and as well as being a great musician, also looks rather good in photographs. There was an unseemly scrum as all the snappers stood on the seats about 10 feet away from her and clicked away, completely drowning out the music. Even more extraordinary, although the interruption was deeply irritating, she just smiled and then became absorbed in the music. It was as if the cameramen weren’t there, which after five noisy minutes, they weren’t, as they were ushered out of Usher Hall.

At the end of a very long day, the orchestra, as always, summoned up the energy to give a great performance, which judging by the comments on twitter, everyone seemed to enjoy. The lights showed no sign of going off, maybe they knew there was no point with the LSO, and tonight, in a now rainy Edinburgh we move on to the second symphonies followed by the third and fourth, before coming back to London for the Proms on Wednesday. There are no Olympics for orchestras, but for effort alone in a multi-discipline event, the Royal Mail should start getting ready to paint the post boxes in Silk Street.

About LSO

The London Symphony Orchestra is one of the world's top orchestras. Our home is at the Barbican Centre in the City of London where we play over 80 concerts every year, but we also spend quite a bit of time out on the road, touring all over the world. Recently we have toured to Germany, France, Russia, New York, Japan, Holland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Lithuania; and coming up this year are China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Spain, Portugal, Florida, Romania and a return visit to New York, where we are resident at the Lincoln Center.
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3 Responses to Karol by Candlelight?

  1. Joan says:

    Very proud of my son’s involvement in the Opening Ceremony via LSO On Track. However, I do draw the line at buying this very expensive souvenir – grass from the Green and Pleasant Land:


    Will content myself with the CD, souvenir programme and memories!

    Best wishes,


  2. Gareth I must compliment you on your usage of Italian. It is so nice to see someone use musical terms correctly in the plural ie: tempo–>tempi concerto–>concerti.

    Now if only we could get over to the masses that it is 1 PaninO, 2 PaninI !!

    Love reading your posts.

  3. LSO says:

    Thanks. I have just ordered a panino in a coffee shop and he didn’t understand me. Seems a bit more work is needed.

    Glad you like the posts!

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