Committed playing from an energetic bunch of young musicians
Nearly 35 years to the day I heard John Lill play Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations at Barbican Concert Hall as a teenager up in the balcony, the London Schools Symphony Orchestra’s January 2024 concert on Wednesday 10th provided another performance of this much-loved classic work. This time, Clare Hammond was soloist, and I sat in the middle of the stalls with a good view of the keyboard and the strings.
100 or so musicians between the ages of 14 and 19 years old appeared on stage with conductor Karen Ní Bhroin in an ambitious programme including Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, and the Overture from Ethel Smyth’s recently resurrected opera The Wreckers.
The playing was committed throughout, musicians clearly unfazed by any challenges the scores momentarily presented. Even if, come the end of the Berlioz, there was a sense the band was exhausted, the exertion had been worth it. This had been a spirited and engaging performance.
Special mention to the upper strings and first violins in particular whose responsiveness to conductor and soloist alike kept everyone on their toes, players and audience alike. Soloist Clare Hammond is an assertive musician whose solid confidence helped keep proceedings on track in the Paganini Variations. The work makes all manner of demands in short fast-moving sequences demanding responsiveness from all. Whilst Variation 13 might have seen the strings lacking in the weight and power necessary, this was quickly resolved come Variation 14 when everyone had clearly become accustomed with what was expected.
Expectations were surpassed come ‘The Big Ol Tune’ in Variation 18 when the golden soaring string melodies seemed to momentarily nip at the heels of the likes of a John Wilson Hollywood Film Prom. From thereon in everyone seemed to relax a little more, strings settling nicely into the vibe. Some strong solo work from the principal horn and clarinet too.
I didn’t look for perfection but did anticipate passion and enthusiasm. In this way, LSSO delivered unequivocally. A gratifying experience not simply because it was an entertaining programme, but because the entire concert was a reassuring reminder of core principles.
Seeing young people playing music at a level they’ve opted into has a reassuring effect. Yes, there’s still much to be done to reinstate music education and make it available to all. However learning experiences continue, and they are engaging successive generations. Young people are still motivated when the opportunity is available. Seeing that helps keep the wheel turning and an eye on the prize.