It seems kind of obvious to remark that Simon Rattle is a remarkable conductor, but his his work during this evening’s huge concert at the Barbican just does have to be remarked on. He spent the first hour giving the world premiere of The Hogboon, a community opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, practically Max’s last work, in whose closing passages the composer literally bids his listeners ‘Goodbye’. We saw the classical music equivalent of Hollywood’s cast of thousands, with performers aged six and upwards, zipping around the stage, all of them under Rattle’s genial control – you hardly noticed that he was conducting something very complicated, which seemed to be unfolding perfectly.
I’ve always enjoyed Max’s children’s operas and the like – starting with The Two Fiddlers, whose premiere I saw in Orkney in the 1970s. In these works (this is certainly the case with The Hogboon) he incorporates tonal material freely into his music – and with such craft. Whereas, in the symphonies and so on, the material is ‘refracted through prisms’ such as magic squares which make the processes much harder to hear – even though Max himself used to say he heard this music too as tonal. On this evening we were all left in awe at the work ethic of a person who could complete a work as big-hearted and amiable as this whilst approaching the terminal stages of illness.
It wasn’t such a big leap however to the second half and Symphonie Fantastique , and the equally vigorous work habits of a French music student named Hector Berlioz. It was exciting to see the gigantic orchestra composed of LSO members and GSMD students sitting alongside each other, as if the NYO were to be populated by adults. You might imagine, though who could be sure of this, that Berlioz would have loved it. Berlioz' plaintive diary entries about this work are all about not having enough musicians, and people not turning up to play when they’d said they would. Rattle (from memory) brought out the craziness of this piece which in lesser performances can get stuck in some of the thinner passages of its hour-long span. And during one of the breathtaking pianissimos he achieved I properly heard for the first time the intrusive sound of those infamous air conditioners which were the original basis of the LSO’s desire to move to a new building. This being the first weekend post Brexit-vote, we wondered what would happen to this ambitious plan, and to the international galaxy of London-based musicians, young and old(er) who had so inspired us during a generous evening.