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BBC Symphony Orchestra

Date of Event

Sunday, 17. 5. 2020 from 20.00
Expected end of the concert 22.10

Program

  • Igor Stravinskij: Violin Concerto in D
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major Op. 92
  • Thea Musgrave: Turbulent Landscapes

Interprets

  • Vilde Frang - violin
  • Sakari Oramo - conductor

The BBC Symphony Orchestra will be celebrating its 90th birthday in 2020 and I can think of no better way to celebrate than returning, for the 20th time, to one of our favourite festivals, the Prague Spring,” says the orchestra’s director, Paul Hughes.

One of the many reasons we enjoy and value our long-standing relationship with the festival is its open-mindedness in allowing us to bring repertoire that truly reflects the BBC SO’s artistic mission,” states Hughes.

Their guest appearances in Prague always bear the hallmark of their unique approach to programming: the orchestra offers its own distinctive take on music by the Czech classics (Janáček, Martinů, Suk, Kabeláč), but also focuses attention on contemporary works (they gave a memorable performance of Czech composer Jiří Kadeřábek’s C for Orchestra at the Prague Spring in 2011, an orchestral commission initiated by the BBC SO’s Chief Conductor at the time, Jiří Bělohlávek).

This season we are performing one of Beethoven’s most exquisite symphonies, Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical gem, the violin concerto, and also the Czech premiere of Turbulent Landscapes by eminent Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave (*1928). Her music is powerful, expressively rich and dramatic,” continues Hughes.

The piece was inspired by the paintings of English Romantic artist William Turner, the renowned landscape painter and predecessor of the Impressionists. “It has been said that Thea paints with sounds as Turner paints with oils and watercolours,” says Hughes in a clear allusion to her masterful orchestration which abounds in a myriad of colours. Now at the venerable age of ninety-one, Musgrave is an internationally recognised composer. She has received a whole series of awards for her work, including the Queen’s Medal for Music, presented by Her Majesty the Queen.

Phenomenal talent

The solo part in the Stravinsky violin concerto will be performed by Vilde Frang, a phenomenal talent from the Norwegian capital of Oslo who is well known to Prague Spring audiences. When she first appeared at the festival in 2015, she was twenty-eight. Her performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto was a sensation. “In the third movement she demonstrated a wealth of consummate technical skill. Her expression reflects a kind of permanent, sensitive rubato, and a rounded, melodious tone, but she can also do justice to her name, i.e. vildeʼʽwildʼ. And this she reinforces with common sense and musicality. She convinces us that all her decisions, even if they appear surprising at first, are the right ones. Her encore (a stylised Norwegian folk song) moreover revealed that, here too, within a small space, she achieves true gestural characterisation, with a touch of humour as well,” wrote a reviewer in Hudební rozhledy. She returned to the festival two years later, this time in a chamber line-up with cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and pianist Alexander Lonquich. “Vilde Frang’s performance in this role (in Prague) was the best this century at least,” commented the editor-in-chief of Harmonie magazine. 

Breathing life into every note

We might briefly mention a few ground-breaking moments in Vilde Frang’s career to date: Her meeting with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in 1998 provided an important impulse for her artistic development. A year later she appeared as a soloist with conductor Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic – she was only twelve years of age. In 2012 she received the Credit Suisse Young Artist Award and debuted with the Vienna Philharmonic under conductor Bernard Haitink at the Lucerne Festival. Invitations to major concert venues flooded in from all over the world. A year after her debut at the Prague Spring she appeared for the first time with the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle.

Her recordings, made exclusively for Warner Classics, have attracted the critical attention of numerous prestigious media, including Gramophone and Diapason. BBC Music Magazine, for example, wrote: “Frang has the knack of breathing life into every note, whether by variations in phrasing, attack, tone or dynamic – just a few of the weapons in her impressive musical armoury.”

In 2018 Frang impressed the critics with an album containing works of diverse form – Violin Concerto No. 1 by Béla Bartók and George Enescu’s string octet. Finding connections and seeking interesting contexts is typical of the violinist. In one interview she tells us that she looks for inspiration in the expressions of different kinds of people – such as singers or even politicians. Frang is clear about what she wants to achieve through her music: “What I really would like to do is to connect with other kinds of arts, other kinds of musicians. I think it takes a lot of courage to go beyond the borders and connect with actors, dancers, poets, photographers. That is something I’d really like to do.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote his four-movement Violin Concerto in D in 1931, when he was living in Paris. At that time he was already writing in the Neo-Classical style and the concerto mentioned above is an example of this. The titles of the movements themselves look to early Baroque forms such as Toccata, Aria and Capriccio. The concerto also manifests clear-cut melodies, thematic treatment and extended tonality. The premiere involved Stravinsky himself conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Vilde Frang is very familiar with the work; she is performing it four times in the autumn of 2019 alone. “Frang’s vibrato in the slow movement possessed an almost Heifetz-like intensity, and the staccato section was attacked with something akin to visceral ferocity,” stated a review on the websiteBachtrack after she performed Stravinsky’s concerto in Dublin. Vilde Frang plays on a superb instrument – a violin crafted by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1864.

Stirring combination of Classical order and Romantic expression

The concert will culminate in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major Op. 92. If we remember their most recent appearance at the festival three years ago, we’ll know to expect something exceptional from this leading British orchestra and its Finnish Chief Conductor – a truly unique perspective which, in many respects, goes against today’s trusted notions of historically informed interpretation. “Rarely do we get the chance to hear Beethoven in such a stirring combination of Classical order and Romantic expression. Sakari Oramo didn’t wait for the hall to quieten down completely and launched into the work immediately after stepping up onto the rostrum. With extraordinary energy, zeal, and almost in haste, with exuberant and insistent gestures he keenly and resolutely let it be known that this was a contentious work which wouldn’t tolerate a cautious, temperate or half-hearted interpretation,” stated critic Petr Veber, summing up his experience of the conductor’s rendering of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

When Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo was appointed the thirteenth Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in February 2012, he declared at the time that “Britain was my destiny”. He had spent ten years at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a post he assumed in 1998 after Sir Simon Rattle. He manifested an intimate knowledge of, and a deep affinity for, the English musical tradition and a genuine interest in all aspects of new British music. For these merits he received an honorary OBE in 2009. “Oramo really gets under the skin of this music, and the audience showered him with warm appreciation. I can feel National Treasure status beckoning already,” commented Ivan Hewett in the British daily The Telegraph.

            Oramo belongs to an awe-inspiring group of Finnish conductors – Osmo Vänskä, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Susanna Mälkki and many others. All of them are graduates of the Sibelius Academy and all were pupils of the illustrious conductor and teacher Jorma Panula (1930). Oramo initially studied the violin and earned a living as a professional violinist for many years. He remains a fine violinist to this day, a fact he demonstrated at his debut during the BBC Proms Chamber Music series in 2014 where, together with Janine Jansen, he gave a highly successful performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins.

Music is the wine of a new procreation

2020 is the year that the music world celebrates 250 years since the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). To this day we continue to marvel at the many revolutionary ways he transformed the shape of the symphony. Innovative for the time, he considerably expanded its form and content, and in the famous Symphony No. 9 he effectively incorporated a vocal element into the fourth movement.

A large part of Symphony No 7 in A major was written in 1812 when the composer was staying at the Bohemian spa town of Teplice for health reasons. By that stage Beethoven was already partially deaf. Since various programmatic titles had been associated with his previous symphonies (Eroica, Fate, Pastoral), many of Beethoven’s contemporaries looked for non-musical subject matter in this symphony as well. Nietzsche, for example, sought mysteries surrounding the origin of art; Wagner called it the “apotheosis of dance”. Many years later Romain Rolland described it as “orgies of rhythm”. Which non-musical associations provided Beethoven with his inspiration? This would make for a lengthy discussion.

Nevertheless, if we were to regard this symphony through a prism, with the view that art may be divided as Apollonian or Dionysian (Bacchic), Beethoven’s Seventh would certainly belong in the second group. The majestic finale creates an illusion of “grandiose bacchanalia”, as Beethoven’s admirer Bettina von Arnim wrote in a letter to Goethe, who wanted to meet the composer in person and was seeking information about him. To give Goethe a better sense of the man, von Arnim was quick to attribute to Beethoven the following words, which the composer would probably have noted with some surprise: “Music is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit!