Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra


by Christopher Morley

An exciting new orchestra made up of 86 music students from conservatoires in the United Kingdom and Russia makes its UK debut at Symphony Hall on September 17.

The Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra has been formed to pay tribute to the legendary friendship between those two great composers, brokered by the great cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who refused to allow tensions between East and West to interfere with his message of worldwide musical companionship.

After inaugural concerts in Sochi, St Petersburg and Moscow the B-SFO crosses the North Sea for a UK tour beginning in Birmingham and ending at London's Cadogan Hall. They bring a delicious programme of Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Pavel Kolesnikov the piano soloist), excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet, Shostakovich's music from the Russian Hamlet film, (Freddie and Edward Fox narrating), and Tchaikovsky's spectacular 1812 Overture.

Jan Latham-Koenig conducts, the first British conductor ever to have held a major appointment in a Russian cultural institution, as artistic director of the Novaya Opera in Moscow.
He tells me how he came to acquire this appointment, at last breaking the pattern of the Russian conductors who have come this way to major positions (not least Gennadi Rozhdestventsky at the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev at the London Symphony Orchestra), but none going in the opposite direction.

"I was invited by Kasper Holden in 2008 to conduct Wagner's Lohengrin at Novaya Opera. This led to further engagements. In 2011, Eri Klas retired and the theatre approached me. I was of course thrilled to be asked - it was a welcome surprise, as I hadn't really worked extensively in Russia for 30 years - the last major tour was with my own ensemble in April 1987."
And I well remember Jan's own ensemble in an amazing programme at the Barber Institute here in Birmingham, yet he seems to have been more active as a conductor abroad.
"Correct, my career has been predominantly in Europe - Orchestra National de Strasbourg, Mexico, Teatro Colon, Opera di Roma, Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Vienna and Japan. Every country has a cultural style which involves adapting how one works according to the way each orchestra functions. Authority in Russia is more important than in the Western countries where collegiality is valued more."
Thinking about orchestras crossing the political divide, I'm reminded of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra founded by the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim and the philosopher, the late Edward Said.
"We can't compare the orchestra's role to the one created for the situation in Israel and Palestine", says Jan. "The two orchestras aren't comparable.
"But I have huge respect for what Barenboim has done - choosing music as the best form of diplomatic language. I hope that ours will do the same. 25-year-olds in Russia in this globalised world have much more in common now , such as access to the same source of information), than they had 50 years ago. I hope that achieving the highest artistic standards with these talented musicians will contribute towards deepening the cultural relationship between these two great countries."
How did Jan come to choose this touring programme?
"The programme reflects the best of British and Russian music to reflect both nations - Britten's Sea Interludes, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Shostakovich Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra (a Classic FM favourite) and Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture. We have excellent soloists such as Pavel Kosenikov and Jennifer Pike and actors Edward Fox and Freddie Fox in London and Nottingham for extracts from Shostakovich's film score to Hamlet, which underlines the British-Russian cultural connections.
"Russian composers' fascination with English literature, in particular Shakespeare, remained undimmed even from behind the Iron Curtain. Prokofiev was inspired to compose one of his most popular ballets - Romeo and Juliet - and Shostakovich created his finest film score for the legendary film, Hamlet, by Grigori Kozintsev."
One of the players in the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra is Richard English who lives and is studying in Birmingham, as a double-bassist and composer, and who is also a committee-member for the excellent Ripieno Players, one of the most exciting recent additions to the city's musical scene.

"I was very much a product of the Birmingham Schools' Music Service," he tells me.

"I had most of my music lessons throughout secondary school funded by King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys and was always involved with the service ensembles, starting with Birmingham Schools' String Sinfonia all the way to Birmingham Schools' Symphony Orchestra with whom I went on tour to Germany and Spain. I was also involved in the CBSO Youth Orchestra when I was in sixth form and returned last year to be principal double bass.

"I would stand by the fact that I'm very much indebted to services for education for their emphasis on music and their commitment to the arts, which has led me to pursue music at undergraduate and postgraduate studies."

*The Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra plays at Symphony Hall Birmingham on Tuesday September 17 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780-3333.

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