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By Tuesday the inaugural fanfares had died away. The tens of thousands who had thronged the open-house weekend events had gone home and so had the dignitaries from the formal gala – though not the construction workers who still have what looks like a full-scale symphony of snagging items around the site to finish.
With the razzmatazz over, the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall was ready to get down to work. Tuesday’s concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra under its principal conductor elect, Esa-Pekka Salonen, was the first standard concert in front of a paying public and the programme of music by Knussen and Mahler had clearly been chosen to put the acoustics through their paces.
The differences are striking. The problem in the old hall was the in-your-face aggressiveness of the sound, especially after the electro-acoustic system, installed in desperation during the 1960s, was switched off in 1999. Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto – a work of delectable fantasy – calls for something different, so the subtlety of colours in this performance with Christian Tetzlaff as soloist was heartening.
It was during Mahler’s Symphony No.3 that doubts started to surface. One change has been the steeper wall round the back of the platform, which has had the effect of giving extra resonance to the instruments positioned nearby. This is fantastic for the brass and percussion which now project with double the tonal glamour, but the strings at the front of the platform have been left sounding thin and puny. Orchestras will have to learn how to deal with this.
Conducting the symphony with which he made his Philharmonia debut in 1983, Salonen unleashed exhilarating power. He paced the vast score with an unswerving sense of purpose and in the later movements mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and the ladies’ and boys’ choirs benefited hugely from the warmer ambience of the new hall. It may be that the acoustic changes have not gone far enough, but the tally is not bad: nothing about the sound is worse and a resounding “bravo” can at last ring out for what is better.
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