Bold programming doesn't have to mean new music

The record industry savours discoveries from the past – perhaps orchestras should try a bit of the same writes Andrew Mellor.

I have to confess to not detecting a great deal of the much-discussed “special sound” from the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande when it played in London on Friday . What the audience did get was a grippingly physical performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony that had the hall on tenterhooks. More than decent playing, too: I can’t recall ever witnessing an orchestra’s wind and brass blend so seamlessly as one – they even seemed to sway and swoop together like schooling fish.

You couldn’t help but wonder, though, why they’d brought Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and the Grieg Piano Concerto – and not something more unusual, specialised or characteristic. Maybe something central European, something coloured by French and German influences like Geneva itself…hey, maybe even something Swiss?

They had 2,800 seats to fill, of course, which Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and the Grieg can help you do. But those pieces are all over London all the time, and with the watchmaker sponsor Vacheron Constantin inviting a canton’s worth of Swiss associates (and a good number of the Friends of the OSR coming along for the ride) there didn’t seem to be much of a need to fill seats.

I got thinking about this because it became, in a sense, the theme of the evening. I was introduced to the maestro himself Neeme Järvi at Vacheron’s glitzy post-show party, and immediately (if a little selfishly) wanted to talk about a different composer and a different orchestra: the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra playing music by Kurt Atterberg on an outstanding Chandos recording had been pumping out of my iPod as I made my way to the Royal Festival Hall that night.

Järvi was happy to oblige. When I got excited about the percussion coda that ends Atterberg’s Sixth Symphony, he responded by imitating it like a one-man-band – pumping his arms like a steam train and clashing imaginary cymbals. We moved on to the other (yes, mostly Nordic) composers Järvi has championed, and I couldn’t help but wonder why all these figures never make it into the concert hall. We could even have heard some Joachim Raff – the Swiss composer recently recorded by Järvi and this very orchestra. Järvi conducts in the UK all the time; why don’t we hear more live performances of these wonderful works he’s introducing us to on disc?

One reason is that orchestras don’t like – or can’t afford – to take risks. Fair enough, and I speak from experience when it comes to marketing tickets for 30 plus concerts in one season when there are four competitor ensembles doing the same and with a remarkably similar product. But it can be done. In 2008 Järvi conducted Taneyev’s compelling Fourth Symphony in a busy concert at the Royal Festival Hall, and he must have persuaded the bosses of that particular orchestra to take a risk on it. The concert was a belter, the music good and instantly captivating. A little like Kurt Atterberg’s Sixth Symphony, in fact.

So, not much of a risk after all then, even if it’s a slight challenge filling seats in the first place (and learning the scores, of course). Who knows – you might even create the cult around Järvi that he so deserves: “go hear Neeme Järvi to get a taste of unfamiliar masterpieces that time has unjustly forgotten”. Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen have managed to glean unusual followings for their own slippery, distinctive and wholly renewed way with orchestral programming – and that for music that’s often deemed (questionably) difficult or avant-garde.

What we have is an increasingly limited orchestral repertoire that is becoming dangerously narrow-minded even in its pockets of esotericism: Nordic music means a Sibelius symphony (not a tone poem, not a cantata), Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony if you’re lucky. Spanish music means Falla’s The Three Cornered Hat and some Granados or Lalo if you’re really lucky. South American music means…oh, hang on, our orchestras never perform South American music. Well maybe they should. And if they dared to surprise their audiences with a little more interesting repertoire from across the centuries, maybe those audiences would respond with greater loyalty and imagination of their own. Somebody’s buying those CDs, after all.

Neeme Järvi's recording of Raff's Symphony No 2 on Chandos will be reviewed in the August issue of Limelight.

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Bold programming doesn't have to mean new music
Neeme Järvi: Champion of the unfamiliar and human steam train
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