Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Alexei Lubimov @ The Royal Festival Hall


As my pianist mother has been the driving force behind my musical endeavours and primary musical influence, I've felt most homesick when attending classical music concerts in London.  It's with no offense to my friends that I often wish, silently, when they're in the seat beside me, that it was my mother there instead.  It's not that I'm ungrateful to have their company, but growing up in Edgewood, Washington, doesn't exactly offer many opportunities to hear world class musicians perform your favorite pieces and making it up to Seattle for such occasions were, in short, a big deal - so my mom and I would often attend concerts and masterclasses at the local colleges and universities or head to a performance by the Tacoma Symphony. 

I was delighted to be able to book at least two concerts for my mom and I to attend during her visit to London, one at Cadogan Hall and the other at The Royal Festival Hall last Friday.  I booked the second concert out of desperation, really, as my plans to take her to a show had amounted to nothing, nearly 2 days before her arrival.  So in haste, I bought balcony tickets to a full Rachmaninov performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring pianist Alexei Lubimov (whom I was not familiar with) playing the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto #4.

Now, as a sidenote, I'd like to mention that for some reason, my mom has notorious bad luck when it comes to seat partners in concert halls.  At Cadogan Hall, she had the unfortunate privilege of sitting next to a man who breathed so heavily through his nose (it must have been distracting for the musicians on stage) that I was tempted to hand him two Sudafed tablets and possibly perform sinus surgery on him myself - it was that bad. 

Minutes before the lights dimmed at the Royal Festival Hall two days later, a woman rushed into the empty seat in front of my mom, kissing her husband/partner/special friend on the cheek and exclaiming, "Sorry I'm late, at least I made it, though!"  One minor problem.  She had a beehive.  Like, a properly combed back, 4-inch 60's beehive.  And what did this Beehive do throughout the performance?  Only lean forward in her seat and bob her head along to the music - AND NOT EVEN IN TIME TO THE MUSIC.  Thank God we found new seats after intermission.


With that explained, let's move on to the main course.  I hadn't heard any of the pieces on the program before, but the way I see it, you can't really go wrong with Rachmaninov.  His compositions are technically challenging for the performer(s) and one symphonic movement can go through more mood swings than me when I've got PMS:  triumphant to tragic to vengeful to romantic to mournful ... you get the idea.  And although I hadn't previously heard the Corelli variations he arranged (all I can think of when I hear the variations is my brother struggling through 'La Folia' at the age of 7 ... if that means nothing to you, then perhaps Suzuki Violin Book 3 does ... if not, then consider yourself lucky), I was pleasantly surprised by the Rachmaninov-like twists he included and made a mental note to find the piece on Spotify as soon as I got home. 

Alexei Lubimov's interpretation of the Rachmaninov Fourth Piano Concerto was stunning.  His movements, graceful and relaxed (not to mention, not OTT, which a lot of younger musicians tend to do), gave the impression that the technically challenging passages were effortless (though the audience knew otherwise).  Because of the perfect balance he struck between passion and reservation, the audience could thoroughly enjoy the piece without the usual distractions of flying hands or sweating brow. 

However, I wasn't as impressed with the LPO ... I do prefer the London Symphony Orchestra. Maybe I've got bad luck, but every time I see the LPO something disastrous happens ... intonation issues, missed cues, etc. This time, there was a noticeable problem with ensemble, particularly in the first violins (yes, for the first time, the second violins were not at fault! I know, I'm shocked too, as a second violin myself). I don't know if they were seated too far apart from each other or perhaps it was the Concertmaster's leadership style that was in question, but they were so not together. Winds, brass and percussion were exceptionally strong and the second violins truly pulled their weight, probably partly due to an enthusiastic section principal (and yes, I will continue to call section leaders "principals" rather than the British shudder-inducing term, "leaders").

After intermission, I settled myself in for what I thought would be a boring four movements, but was again, very pleasantly surprised by the emotion and intensity drawn out of Rachmaninov's First Symphony.  The orchestra seemed more confident here; the ensemble was nearly seamless and the raw energy required of this piece was present.  Conductor Neeme J√§rvi, full of gravitas (and possibly grump, though I couldn't really tell) deserved accolades for his work - he's the first conductor I've witness reign in and finesse this rather unruly symphony orchestra.

Sorry for the harsh words, but at the end of the day, it's my opinion
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