Riot Symphony; L’Olimpiade; LSO/Tilson Thomas review – humanity and hope

From wartime ballroom to boxing arena and venue for political meetings, Belfast’s Ulster Hall has a grand and stormy history, dating back to 1862. Charles Dickens performed there; Protestant loyalist Ian Paisley gave fiery speeches; Led Zeppelin played Stairway to Heaven for the first time. Since 2009 it has been home to the Ulster Orchestra, Northern Ireland’s only professional symphony orchestra, which played during the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s and never canceled a concert. Where better to organize the world premiere of a work whose title contains an activist commitment?

Riot Symphony, composed by Conor Mitchell, was the latest collaboration between the orchestra and the sharp, multidisciplinary Belfast Ensemble, of which Mitchell is artistic director. They combined their contrasting talents and provided a spectacular first performance last weekend. Mitchell, whose caustic Horror: a DUP opera (2019) tackled homophobia in Northern Ireland and embraced music as a tool of protest. He wrote in the program notes: “Maybe I’m attracted to [insurrection and resistance] because I come from Northern Ireland, where everything in my youth had a sectarian meaning. Even the bellicose drums of the Orange bands in July meant something.”

Related: ‘Russian protest punk and symphonies may seem worlds apart. But the idea is the same: weaponize your art’

The 50-minute work, scored for soprano (Rebecca Murphy), tenor (Michael Bell), video installation and orchestra, is based on texts by Sophie Scholl, who was part of the White Rose movement, an anti-Nazi campaign of students in Munich. She was executed for treason in 1943 at the age of 21. The work pulses with brassy outbursts, now unbridled statements in major keys, now collapsing into dark, tuba-heavy dissonance. The Ukrainian national anthem sounds. This also applies to an orchestral overlay of a song by the Russian punk bank Pussy Riot, an important source of inspiration for Mitchell. A simple, undulating woodwind figure, played forward and backward, offers lyricism. The last line – “Doch ist es noch nicht zu spät” (But it is not yet too late) – is a cry of hope.

The musicians played behind a mesh screen, onto which live video was projected by designer and filmmaker Gavin Peden. Generic images of young people in various forms of protest were contrasted with monstrous close-ups of a boiled, fried and skinned Putin. Musical colors and visual images were powerful and direct, deftly conducted by Andrew Gourlay. At the end the audience stood up cheering. The atmosphere was one of celebration, of those speaking out in a city where self-expression, compared to dark times of the past, is now possible.

Irish National Opera, founded in 2018, returned to the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theater with Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade (1734), after their success with the same composer Bajazet in 2022. Elegantly staged by Daisy Evans, with designs by Molly O’Cathain reminiscent of amphitheater and Olympic rings. The emphasis of the production was on simplicity of action and clear pattern, through simple choreography (movement by Matthew Forbes, lighting by Jake Wiltshire). Costumes combined a modern game kit look with early 18th century, tricorn and full skirts.

Featuring a lost baby and multiple confusions, the plot is the kind that requires a flowchart. Everything ends happily. Vivaldi’s long recitative passages can tire the ears, but suddenly he disarms us with extended arias of extreme beauty and virtuosity. Licida’s contemplation of sleep and dreams, Mentre domi amor fomenti, is one, gravely expressed here by the Chinese countertenor Meili Li. Aminta’s exuberant Siam navi all’onde algenti (We are like ships on the silver waves) – a high-voiced stand-alone favorite – was convincingly sung by Rachel Redmond.

The most remarkable performance came from an unexpected source: the mezzo-soprano Maria Schellenberg sang the lead role of Megacle from the pits, replacing an unwell Gemma Ní Bhriain, who performed the role. Schellenberg had only sung the role the day before, but handled each recitative and aria with the utmost precision and exciting expression. Some singers didn’t quite reach that level, but there was another impressive highlight: the presence of the Dublin-based Irish Baroque Orchestra, conducted on harpsichord by Peter Whelan. With two violins in a part, and everyone else only one in a part, this small ensemble brought shade and spice to Vivaldi’s restlessly brilliant score.

There is one other event from the past week that will remain in the memory of all present. Michael Tilson Thomas“MTT”, conductor laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra, was at the Barbican to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, the first of two performances. In 2022, MTT, now 79, announced he had brain cancer. He continued to work as much as possible. At approximately 110 minutes, Mahler 3 is the longest symphony in the regular repertoire. It requires physical energy and enormous mental agility. Within the great length, the ebb and flow of the music is meticulously mapped. No change in pace or dynamic shift should be left to chance.

Tilson Thomas, faintly palpable, maintained sinewy control yet allowed the score to surge forward with generosity and almost dream-like leisure. However, it wasn’t all good. This could be the story of what happened next: MTT’s disorientation after five of the six movements; the supporting hand of Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano, who remains a first-choice interpreter for this work; the conductor’s husband calmly comes on stage to offer water and urges him to finish the performance.

Instead, the real story was how the collective effort of every musician on stage pulled this beloved conductor through. His shaky but ethereal introduction to the finale’s serene opening melody was the epitome of tenderness. Implicitly unfolded before us the flickering proximity of death in life that so obsessed Mahler. There was sublime playing in this heroic symphonic undertaking – especially the offstage solos of trombone, post horn and flute – and there were rough moments when tension or exhaustion broke through. Above all, the collective desire for safe delivery made every note hard-won. Here was humanity at its rawest and most precious.

Star ratings (out of five)
Riot Symphony ★★★★
L’Olimpiade ★★★★
LSO/Tilson Thomas ★★★★

L’Olimpiade runs until May 25 at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London

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