Saturday, 10 August 2013

Sakari is back, and not before time.

It seems like an age since Sakari Oramo was announced as the next Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In fact, it was only back in February 2012. My impatience to see/hear him take up his new position, which commences in the 2013/14 season, has been tamed by his recent appearance at the First Night of the BBC Proms this year with the orchestra. It was an impressive showing and offered an intriguing preview into what we might expect from this formidable partnership in the years to come.

My enthusiasm for the understated Finnish conductor has only grown since his tenure in my home city of Birmingham. My first visit to Symphony Hall as a teenager happened to be to one of Sir Simon Rattle's last concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As such, I did not witness the orchestra's oft-trumpeted transformation at his hands. After becoming hooked on concert-going (no surprise given the splendid local hall and fine orchestras performing there) I was fortunate to observe how the sound of the orchestra evolved under Oramo's leadership.

It is true that following in Rattle's footsteps would never be easy but I seem to remember that Oramo was welcomed quickly and warmly by local audiences. His experience as a violinist helped him and the orchestra to develop their string sound in particular. This influence is still keenly felt to this day, under the present incumbent. Oramo also endeared himself by frequently addressing the audience over the PA system, despite his spoken English not being entirely perfect. This is something that Andris Nelsons has been feted for but he is evidently not the first here to have done so.

Oramo's Birmingham Sibelius cycle: an underrated classic
Oramo developed a reputation for excellence not just in Scandinavian repertoire but also in English music, well known and otherwise. His work with Elgar's music has earned him a medal from the Elgar Society. He presided over a gargantuan Stravinsky cycle and recorded one of the finest Sibelius cycles I have heard. There was nothing flashy about his style or performances and this, perhaps, explains why audience numbers during his tenure in Birmingham dipped to middling levels. It is my feeling that he was not liked by all orchestra members and that he was under-appreciated by local audiences. This is, however, my own perception and probably not the whole story.

I was particularly intrigued when Oramo began to experiment with seating the CBSO violins antiphonally in some of his later concerts. I remember a very good Mahler 2 towards the end of his tenure in which this arrangement was employed. It also brought to mind Rattle's own experimentation towards the end of his own stint there. The orchestra very rarely employs this layout these days; only under the baton of more enlightened conductors. This is most frustrating when the programmes often feature two juxtaposed photographs of the modern-day orchestra, sporting violins together, with the orchestra under one of its earliest conductors, Sir Adrian Boult, with the violins very much divided. It's all terribly disingenuous.

Since leaving Birmingham, Oramo has worked with a number of different orchestras. His principal position has been Chief Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he has made a number of very successful recordings. His Schumann symphony cycle is, to my ears, one of the very best digital full orchestra versions available - no mean feat given that excellence in 'core' repertoire is so elusive among the younger generation of conductors. It is splendidly recorded and there are, as one might expect in these more enlightened times, no concerns regarding any 'difficulties' with Schumann's orchestration. A recent Elgar 2 is also well worth a listen. All of these recordings benefit from antiphonal violins, Oramo's now-preferred orchestral layout.

Sakari Oramo with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in his favoured 'Monteux' layout

I was delighted to see that he has imported this layout (incidentally the 'Monteux' layout with, left to right, 1st violins, violas, celli/basses, 2nd violins) to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which his First Night concert confirmed. The layout for this concert is significant as the programme featured contemporary, modern and Romantic works. Clearly, Oramo perceives modern and contemporary works, quite rightly, as no barrier to antiphonal violins. As I have argued before, there are surely very few composers who have written their music specifically for the 'violins together' layout and so why should antiphonal violins (with all the aural benefits they bring) not be employed more universally? I am currently listening to a fascinating new recording of Seppo Pohjola's first and second symphonies, performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Oramo, in which the violins are divided to good effect and no detriment. The same goes for a recent recording of Prokofiev's fifth symphony with the same forces.

I feel sure that the use of this layout, at least, will help to inject some much needed personality into the sound of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is undoubtedly a great orchestra. Like many of its BBC, and indeed British, colleagues it needs particularly inspired leadership to develop a distinctive sound. That is to say, whilst an orchestra can be very good, brilliant even, it can still be wanting in personality. I look on, hopefully, at my local orchestra with this sentiment in mind.

Exciting times lie ahead then, hopefully, at the BBC Symphony Orchestra. So, welcome back Sakari, and I hope to see you conducting in Birmingham again soon!


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