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Mozart, Brahms, Dvořák:  José Serebrier (conductor), Rachel-Barton Pine (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Cadogan Hall, London 11.11.2008 (AO)

José Serebrier is a prolific conductor, and has made over 200 recordings, many of which are outstanding.  He’s won over 30 Grammy nominations. Currently I’m enjoying the latest in his Glazunov series, which is very good indeed.  Yet opportunities to hear Serebrier live in London are rare as he’s always travelling, working in Europe or America. He has a long standing relationship with the Royal  Philharmonic, however, so this chance to hear him conduct them was not one to be missed.  No wonder the Cadogan Hall was packed – those who have heard Serebrier’s recordings made an effort to be there.

The Overture to the Marriage of Figaro was a good choice to start with, because it made use of one of the features of the Cadogan Hall, the size of its platform relative to the auditorium. There’s enough space here for a decent sized orchestra, yet the building is small enough for close focus listening. Imagine candlelight and period instruments : since this building is baroque scaled, it’s not hard to imagine it developing as a specialist centre, although the demographic is broadly mainstream.

American violinist Rachel Barton Pine was making her London debut this evening with the Royal Philharmonic.  She’s worked with them extensively in the past, and with Serebrier. Together they recently recorded the Beethoven and Clement Violin Concerti. In the circumstances, many lesser artists would use to the concert to promote the CD.   But these artists are far more original.  Instead, they chose Brahms’s Violin Concerto, with its dramatic shifts of tempi and colour.  The cadenza used here was Fritz Kreisler’s well known version, which suited Barton Pine’s strongly focussed performance.

Since I’d come to hear Serebrier, I was fortunate indeed to have almost the best seat in the whole building, just above the musicians and within eye line of the conductor.  This was wonderful, because it was the perfect spot to follow every gesture and response.  There is infinitely more to conducting than merely waving a stick. Serebrier started conducting aged only 11, and studied with Monteux, Stokowski and Szell, glorious conductors of the grand tradition. Yet what Serebrier also learned was that their greatness was based on sound fundamentals – understanding how the music works, combining of intelligent analysis and artistic flair. Serebrier’s work with Stokowski on Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony is the stuff of legend.  At the time, this symphony was considered unplayable as it is so complex, requiring three conductors.  The experience taught Serebrier the importance of thoroughly studying how a score works as music, understanding its logistics, so to speak, so it can be translated into performance. In 1974, Serebrier conducted the symphony compressing the elaborate rehearsals so efficiently that the London Philharmonic was able to produce what is still one of the classic recordings of the symphony.  Please follow this link to read more about this remarkable achievement, and about Serebrier’s amazing career. It’s impossible to give the full story justice, otherwise.

If you read the link, you’ll understand why it was so fascinating to watch Serebrier from the orchestra’s viewpoint, to get the feeling of what it’s like being part of the orchestra.  There’s a lot more to conducting than waving a baton, but it’s almost impossible to describe.  It’s certainly not the cultish egotism that’s fashionable these days, but something more connected to musical and personal integrity.  Serebrier’s movements are precise and easy to follow, he wastes nothing for mere show. It must make the players feel secure, for he treats them with respect, knowing they can deliver fully, with the simplest of indications. This is a very good ochestra with some formidably strong players, like Clio Gould, the Leader of the violins, whom I once heard take over during a performance when something started to go seriously awry. By stabilising the strings, she gave the conductor (not Serebrier!) a chance to pull things together again.

Serebrier has conducted a great deal of Dvořák, so this performance of the Eighth Symphony brought out its sharp, fresh and bracing character.  The famous flute melody which enters adds a more poignant note, in this case for reasons perhaps not purely in the music. The flautist, Emer McDonough, seemed under the weather, playing somewhat under par for a musician of her calibre.  Serebrier was keenly aware, slowing the tempi gently easing the pressure. Quietly, one of the horn players walked off, returning with glasses of water, surreptitiously passed on. The communication was so subtle, the audience might not even have noticed, but it was palpably obvious that the players and conductor were looking out after each other.  Serebrier earns respect because he cares.  The final movement allowed McDonough some relief, and Serebrier let the trumpets and celli lead the exuberant dance at its heart. Again the brass and timpani which heralded the beginning of the symphony enter, and the symphony ended with a vivacious coda.

Anne Ozorio 

Jose Serebrier's web site is here :

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