The Usher Hall was full to watch Sir Simon Rattle conduct his London Symphony Orchestra in a programme of two works, both of about an hour in length. The large Orchestra was to play what we might consider a traditional symphony in its form as well as a more modern symphony-length work.
John Adams is an American composer, born in 1947, who embraced minimalism but his Harmonielehre is much more complicated. The title can be translated as 'the book of harmony' taken from Schoenberg's tome on tonal harmony. Adams had provided us in programme notes with the inspiration for each of its three movements. Indeed he had a composer's block before dreaming of a gigantic supertanker making off from the surface of San Francisco Bay and thrusting itself into the sky like a Saturn rocket. And this we heard at the beginning of the first movement before the music seemed to settle onto firmer ground. The second movement was slower and moody, as Adams describes it, with a fine trumpet solo that 'floats over a delicately shifting screen of minor triads that pass like spectral shapes from one family of instruments to the other'. The final movement began with its simple cradle song but developed very considerably finishing with a wonderful brass and percussion flurry. Throughout I found myself in eager anticipation for the next stage as Simon Rattle led his players, interrupted only by having to turn the pages of his score perhaps more often than he would have wished.
Watching Simon Rattle at work was for me very much part of the concert's enjoyment. He was totally concentrated on his players for Rachmaninov's Second Symphony with no score in front of him. First performed in St Petersburg in 1908 the Symphony restored the composer's reputation after the rejection of his First Symphony. By comparison with the earlier Harmonielehre this seems like a traditional work and enjoyable for all that. But more importantly because it was an orchestra of such high repute, the London Symphony Orchestra, playing it for us under a conductor at the height of his career. The audience showed its very considerable appreciation.
Performance: Wednesday 21st August 2019 at 8.00pm