I had the good fortune of attending an evening performance of Sibelius’ symphonies by the London Symphony Orchestra last week, with complimentary tickets for arguably the best seats in the Barbican (front row centre of the balcony section, with an unobscured top-down view of the stage and the LSO).
As a casual listener of classical music (my go-tos are J.S. Bach, Vivaldi and Paganini), I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect at what would be my first ever contact with a full symphony orchestra (and the LSO no less). However as a musician and general music fan I was very excited nonetheless to be treated to such an experience. I hadn’t listened to anything by Sibelius before, although I did know he was a Finnish composer of the Romantic period and not musical notation software. I studied a module called ‘Music and the Historian’ briefly in my third year at university, and I remember coming across Jean Sibelius and his patriotic poem,Â Finlandia,Â which was written as a protest against the Russian Empire who ruled over Finland in the 19th century.
When I arrived at the Silk Street entrance of the Barbican Centre I did two things: 1) gaze in awe at the grandeur of the venue, and 2) kicked myself for not having visited before despite living in Old Street for the previous two years.
As I sat in my seat anticipating the start of the performance, I quickly Googled the programme on my phone. I found out that Janine Jansen, the soloist for the evening, had taken ill and was to be replaced by 29 year old Taiwanese-Australian and millennial virtuoso rockstar, Ray Chen.
Ray would steal the show on this night, playing like an absolute demon on, as I found out during my post-show research, one of the more technically-demanding violin concertos, and one that required a combination of musical maturity, endurance, grace, and control (this link explains the nuances of the composition far better than I could ever do). As far as I’m concerned, Ray executed the piece perfectly, all whilst making ‘violin faces’ and headbanging (quite often) in true rockstar fashion, only taking brief breaks when playing wasn’t required to dab his forehead with a black handkerchief he kept in his right pocket, and to remove the shredded horsehair from his bow.
At the end of the Violin Concerto, the audience gave a sustained ovation that demanded Ray’s return to the stage (he walked off and came back on a total of four times), and an encore, playing [his] ‘favourite Paganini caprice…number 21’. By the way, if you haven’t already, check out his Instagram pageÂ and you’ll see why he’s often credited for redefining what it means to be a classical musician in the 21st century. While his technique is classical, his sense of humour is definitely in tune with Generation Y (and he doesn’t shy away from the dog ear filters, but at least he’s only being ironic).
Check out Ray Chen doing it all three years before in Gothenburg, Sweden
Needless to say, the London Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas were also brilliant,Â and Symphonies No. 6 and 7 which followed were equally mesmerising. Even an uneducated music listener like myself could appreciate the purity of the music and the finesse with which the orchestra pulled it off. While I’m not going to pretend to understand it all, this night’s incredible performance along with the efforts of musicians like Ray Chen have turned me on to the world of classical music, and I’ll definitely be exploring more orchestral performances in London.
Check out the London Symphony Orchestra and what’s on this season atÂ https://lso.co.uk.