Brandon Phillips makes his debut as a conductor at the City Hall.
Brandon Phillips makes his debut as a conductor at the City Hall.

Impressive performance

By Time of article published May 15, 2012

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SYMPHONY CONCERT, May 10, City Hall. CPO conducted by Brandon Phillips, soloists Spencer Myer, Alexander Ramm; Brahms: Tragic Overture, Op 81; Mozart: Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K466; Elgar: Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op 20; Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85. DEON IRISH reviews.

THERE were few vacant seats for the first concert of the autumn season, with four pre-eminent works on the programme, two exciting young soloists in attendance and a local conductor making his concert debut.

Brandon Phillips has achieved an enviable local reputation as a fine bassoonist and he has also been seen in action with the youth orchestra, playing occasional curtain raisers at symphony concerts.

But this was the first time he was given an entire programme to himself – and quite a programme at that.

None of these works would be a ready choice for a young and inexperienced conductor, which makes Phillips’s overall excellent account of them the more commendable. We now have an additional locally based conductor and we must pay him the compliment of no longer treating him as an apprentice.

Which means, of course, that he takes responsibility for his results. And, despite the overall success of his always elegant contribution to the evening, there were aspects that fell short of excellence.

The opening Brahms overture suffered from some indifferent balances, with the too prominent and therefore somewhat detached wind and brass players detracting from the necessary sense of solid cohesion, particularly in the opening section.

The other purely orchestral item was Elgar’s deceptively slight suite for strings, a work that showpieces the strings to great advantage. It requires subtlety of execution and carefully nuanced tempo choices to really bloom. Phillips’s reading was generally sound with fine ensemble, but it lacked the relaxed assuredness, even indulgence, which informs much of the writing, particularly the slow movement.

I was much impressed with his accompanimental skills in both concertos.

He maintained taut ensemble with both soloists, save for some lapses in the closing section of the slow movement, and orchestral levels were always sympathetic to the soloist.

Interpretive issues in accompaniment are a different matter, however, since the overall approach nowadays is generally dictated by the soloist.

Mozart’s D minor concerto is one of the composer’s finest works and one of the few concertos that remained in the repertoire throughout the 19th century. Most commentators ascribe this to its overtly dramatic flavour: written in 1785, it certainly presages the Don Giovanni writing of two years later.

But for all its drama, it remains Rococo in conception and mannered in style, even if novel in construction.

Although Myer delivered the taxing solo writing – full of anxious chromaticism, striding arpeggios and busy passage work – with note-accurate aplomb, one missed the underlying nervous energy which lies at the core of both outer movements.

The first became too outraged to be nervous; and the tempo of the last (the arpeggiatic opening of the principal theme becoming virtually a spread chord) tended to the hysterical.

Myers delivered a well-communicated central movement, but in its outer sections, Phillips was guilty of occasionally pushing the tempo and so losing something of the sense of quietude.

The high point of the evening was kept for last.

Elgar’s concerto is one of the great works written for the cello, although widespread international recognition has been acquired only in the past three decades. That might partially be because of its perceived “Englishness”, perhaps best described as a degree of emotional diffidence.

But there is a difference between emotion and passion; and the best English music – and certainly that of Elgar – has never lacked passion. So it was that this young Russian virtuoso delivered the solo line with a convincing musical insight and a smouldering passion that set alight the solo line.

Ramm plays with enormous musical authority. Unlike many young instrumentalists, he is not intimidated by the reflective or the elegiac; nor is he nervous about the length of pauses, or the creation of inter-phrase silence. His is a phenomenal technique and he demonstrated it to full effect in this captivating performance.

Phillips provided a remarkably flexible accompaniment, managing the frequently fragmented writing with a neat precision.

The performance garnered a well-deserved standing ovation from a delighted audience.

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