This New Year is especially exciting and significant as we celebrate our 70th anniversary year. As we look to the future with another fantastic year of performances, workshops, recordings and more, John Evans (former editor of Classic FM magazine) takes a look back at some of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2015 highlights.
From what The Guardian’s reviewer described as a “chillingly realised” performance of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Royal Festival Hall to a recording of a new work called A Requiem for Meters, composed for Smart Energy GB’s campaign promoting smart electric and gas meters, 2015 was a typically rich and diverse year for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The RPO’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Charles Dutoit, conducted the critically acclaimed performance of Bartók’s masterpiece at London’s Royal Festival Hall in January 2015. Clearly, the Orchestra had been energised by its week-long tour of Florida earlier the same month, under the guiding baton of Pinchas Zukerman, the RPO’s Principal Guest Conductor. Also in January, rising star Alexander Shelley was appointed the Orchestra’s Principal Associate Conductor. It was only January and already the RPO had set the bar for a year of achievement – a challenge to which it would cheerfully rise.
Of course, whoever stands on the RPO’s famous rostrum, the business of touring the UK’s regions remains at the heart of the Orchestra’s life. In 2015, it was as busy as ever, bringing great music to all corners of the nation – from Lowestoft (where, in April, the Orchestra was honoured for its decade-long association with the town’s Marina Theatre) to The Baths Hall in Scunthorpe; from the Regent Theatre in Ipswich to the Wycombe Swan Theatre in High Wycombe. Among many highlights were pianist Freddy Kempf’s performances of the Grieg Piano Concerto at Hull City Hall and Cambridge Corn Exchange in May.
In between its regional concerts, the RPO continued to entertain audiences at Cadogan Hall; its London home. Highlights included Alexander Shelley’s first concert in his new role, conducting the RPO with the pianist Alessio Bax in a sublime account of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2. In March, there was a feast of Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos performed by Janina Fialkowska and Freddy Kempf, as well as the Sibelius Violin Concerto performed by leading British violinist Matthew Trusler (featuring in one of the Orchestra’s many esteemed series this year). In May, Eduardo Portal returned to conduct the RPO in ravishing performances of works by Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov. Legendary conductor José Serebrier, the acclaimed virtuoso trumpeter Allen Vizzutti… the rollcall of great musicians delighting the RPO’s Cadogan Hall audiences continued throughout the year.
Elsewhere in London, the RPO demonstrated its world-class status with, at the Royal Abert Hall, a series of acclaimed BBC Proms concerts (among the many highlights, Charles Dutoit’s “clear-minded” (The Guardian) account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.15); at the Royal Festival Hall (notably Pinchas Zukerman’s performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto and, later in the year, conductor Tadaaki Otaka with Sarah Connolly and the Bach Choir in a performance of Elgar’s Sea Pictures); and at St Paul’s Cathedral, where the RPO performed a London premiere in composer/conductor John Rutter’s 70th Birthday Concert.
Touring is one cornerstone of the RPO’s life; another is the Orchestra’s refreshingly unstuffy approach to repertoire. In this respect, 2015 was a vintage year with the Desert Island Discs concert at the Royal Albert Hall and, at the same venue, a concert of Hollywood classics conducted by José Serebrier. Meanwhile, for families, there were live orchestral screenings of the latest Thomas the Tank Engine film at Cadogan Hall. However, the crowning concerts were surely those by Alexander Shelley and the RPO in a jazz-fuelled series featuring works by, among others, Gershwin, Prokofiev and Bernstein, given in venues around the UK – another exciting series to feature in the RPO’s 70th year.
A concert that will linger long in the minds of the members of the RPO was given at the culmination of a pioneering association with Hull’s Integrated Community Stroke Service. The service aims to help rehabilitate stroke sufferers through participation in music. Benefits include improved arm and hand movement, memory and mood. Following five months of coaching sessions with members of the RPO and Tim Steiner (the creative leader), the patient-led STROKEstra gave its first concert. Stroke survivor Tracy Jacobs said: “It gave me respite from my problems, and I don’t ever want to forget this part of my stroke journey.”
Also in 2015, the RPO launched RPO TV and RPO Radio, online channels offering great RPO content, and bringing audiences closer to the Orchestra and its members. The RPO website was also relaunched making it easier still for visitors to find and book their favourite concerts, as well purchase the RPO’s wonderful recordings, available from the improved online RPO Store.
Speaking of recordings, the RPO’s collaboration with RCA Records on the record label’s album featuring Elvis Presley’s most dramatic original performances augmented with brand new orchestral accompaniments by the Orchestra has been a runaway success. The recording, released in October, was number one in the album chart for two weeks running, and has remained in the top ten ever since.
A hit Elvis album, critically acclaimed concerts of the great classics, music for all tastes and ages, and a full programme of UK and overseas touring – the RPO, led by its members and its inspired conductors, can reflect on a year of remarkable performances. Now, with the arrival of 2016, the Orchestra looks forward to celebrating a major milestone in its history: its 70th anniversary year. On the strength of 2015, one thing’s for sure: world-class music-making will be guaranteed.
Written by John Evans