Nothing says “classical music in 2020” like a shrunken symphony orchestra scattered across a huge stage, silently rising to its feet as its conductor enters and bows to an empty concert hall. It would be surreal – comical, even – if it weren’t so characteristic of the industry’s current struggles to keep calm and carry on. London’s Philharmonia Orchestra is the latest to launch an online season, with four concerts livestreamed from the Royal Festival Hall. The stakes are unmistakably high: there were three pleas for donations in the 90-minute concert.
Musically, this opening concert was bolder: a programme of 20th-century repertory connected to the US (“American Dreams”) under the orchestra’s principal conductor designate Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Copland’s Appalachian Spring inevitably lacked the luxury cushioning of a full-size symphonic performance, but its moments of chamber-music clarity sparkled and shimmered, the woodwind solos superb. Pairing the well-known ballet score with Dances in the Canebrakes, a rarely performed suite by Copland’s African American contemporary Florence Price, was imaginative. But even William Grant Still’s witty orchestration couldn’t make up for Rouvali’s diligently four-square approach in the first two movements, though the lively closing cakewalk – earworm material, be warned – mustered some much-needed panache.
The second half was a different matter. For Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, Rouvali joined the four Philharmonia percussionists on stage, each wielding a pair of tuned claves. The piece is like listening in to the inner workings of an impossibly intricate mechanism – and the performance was a smiling, dancing masterclass in musical communication and the satisfaction of a shared groove. Rouvali brought a similar hyper-rhythmic approach to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks, which began with the harsh brightness of a sunny autumn morning and ultimately luxuriated in long, ultra-romantic phrasing (and all the lushness missing from the Copland). Every musician played as a soloist; every note counted. This was music-making at its best, in any circumstances.