The idea of taking listeners or viewers on a “journey” through a work of art is such a TV cliché that I hate to trot it out. But it applies – and meaningfully – to the business of conducting music. And it certainly applied to the way Gianandrea Noseda, conducting the LSO last week, took both his players and his audience at the Barbican through two connected pieces.
One was Mahler’s 7th Symphony, the other Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. And the connection (worth remembering for a pub quiz) is that the Berg was written in memory of Alma Mahler’s daughter by her second husband Walter Gropius. Everybody in the hothouse culture of Vienna in the early 1900s seemed to be involved with everybody else.
Neither this symphony nor the concerto came with a specific narrative, but through allusion, inference and atmosphere they do tell quasi-stories. And Noseda led us through them as though by the hand, persuasively. Watching him work raised the perpetual question of what makes a good conductor; and, as usual, the answer wasn’t obvious. Finding appropriate gestures to convey intention is, of course, important, but Noseda’s gestures aren’t conspicuously eloquent.
Much of the time it looks as though he’s pulling vigorously on a roller towel of the old-fashioned kind you used to get in public lavatories, and yet these endless downward tugs somehow inspire his players to a universe of deeply felt expression.
Both the Berg and the Mahler were profoundly moving – and not just emotionally but progressively, from A to B. The final bars came with a strong sense of arrival at some place that wasn’t where we started. And the route between the two was full of incident, especially in the Berg which had a fascinatingly alive, alluring soloist in Janine Jansen.
At around the time when Berg was writing his concerto, 1935, the German-speaking world was in a place of danger. And the attitude of German writers and musicians to the politics enveloping them was the subject of a study weekend, “Culture and the Third Reich” held at University College, London.
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