This June, the London Symphony Orchestra—better known as the LSO—celebrates its centenary at home at the Barbican.
Having famously changed its booking aboard the Titanic at the very last moment, the LSO is a survivor—both historically and artistically. In this excerpt from Orchestra—The LSO: A Century of Triumph and Turbulence, Morrison takes us backstage as the orchestra tunes up for yet another opening.
A gray November morning, 9:30 A.M. everything is gloomy, even the news. On the streets of London, striking firemen picket their own stations. Two Tube lines have broken down. Thousands wait in bus lines as the drizzle falls. News comes from Australia that the English cricket team is on the brink of losing the Ashes series, even earlier than the pundits had predicted. Just another average day in 21st-century Britain.
Inside the Barbican, too, an average day is starting. Here the mood is different, though. On the wide wooden platform, dozens of musicians gather. The air fills with an extraordinary sonic anarchy—a hundred or more instruments being warmed up, coaxed back into life; a thousand pieces of vital orchestral gossip being exchanged.
Two days ago those instruments and their owners were playing Russian music in Japan. Next week they will be playing French music in Italy. But today they are at home, and Mahler's Sixth, an Everest of a symphony, looms. It's the unsurpassable thrill of playing massive scores like this in packed halls that binds people to one of the most pressurized and insecure professions on earth.
From the middle of this chattering crowd, virtually invisible between the gleaming ranks of brass and the sea of strings, an oboist sounds an A. This is not just a note to tune to, it's a signal that calls this vast assembly to order. It marks the moment when a hundred individuals prepare to meld into a single entity.
The faces on the platform may change. The surroundings constantly shift. But this precise ritual has been repeated four, five, even six hundred times a year for the past hundred years. It means one thing: The London Symphony Orchestra has arrived for work.
But today there is an unexpected frisson. Where's the maestro? Clive Gillinson, the LSO's managing director, has descended from the orchestra's office, tucked high up in the Barbican's hindquarters, and wanders into the hall looking mildly perturbed. "He's never late," he mutters.
Since playing its very first notes on June 9, 1904, the LSO has been owned and governed by its own players. They answer to nobody and admit to no higher authority than the board of directors they elect from their own ranks. In theory, Gillinson is their employee. In practice, as everyone cheerfully admits, he runs the show: The LSO without Gillinson would be like a car without a battery. But this morning the battery is slightly overheated. Instructions are issued. Phone calls are made to the hotel of the absent maestro, the revered Latvian guest conductor Mariss Jansons.
Nothing, however, ruffles the LSO's Leader Gordan Nikolitch, and his invariable platform partner, Lennox Mackenzie. They have been in the profession too long to let a little unscheduled delay bother them. They stretch their legs out languidly toward the podium, casually skim through awkward passages from the massive first-violin part that lies open before them, and swap Serbo-Scottish jokes—sometimes all at the same time.
Further back, principal clarinetist Andrew Marriner warms up even more gently, blowing very soft, long notes into his instrument, until distracted by a horn player. "What? Oh God, wasn't that awful? What a shower!"
Marriner—like Goossens, Brain, Cummings, Cruft, Camden, and Borsdorf—is a name that has resonated through the LSO, and the London musical world in general, for decades. The life of a top orchestral musician is so stressful, antisocial, intensely focused, and insecure that it probably helps if you have the trade in your blood. Andrew Marriner does. Forty years ago, his father, Neville, led the LSO's second violins.
A sudden commotion at the front of the platform. The maestro has arrived, only a couple of minutes late after all. "I cannot sleep, last night, no night," he says. Riga-born, St. Petersburg-bred, he speaks English with a fervor that more than compensates for any grammatical shortcomings. "Eight days since I cross Atlantic, and still the jet lag. Thank God the symphony wake me up."
It wakes everyone up. The LSO loves Jansons, his passionate interpretations, his vitality and professionalism. "He's one of the few conductors around who knows what to rehearse and what to leave," says Noel Bradshaw, an LSO cellist for 20 years. "He's a real musician," says Lennie Mackenzie. An outsider would imagine that everyone who conducted a great orchestra was a real musician. Orchestral players know otherwise.
And Jansons, too, was steeped in this trade from the cradle. His father, Arvid, was also a much-admired conductor, until he had a fatal coronary conducting the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. Jansons has also had a massive heart attack while conducting. His doctors constantly urge him not to exert himself unduly on the podium. There is absolutely no chance that he will obey this injunction. Not while he is conducting Mahler's Sixth, anyway.
The symphony's great opening march begins: a colossal emotional journey. The orchestra hasn't played it for a couple of seasons, yet it sounds stunning. Jansons lets it run for fifteen minutes or so. "The best conductors," says John Lawley, who has seen them all in his 22 years as second oboist, "are the ones who do it with their hands and their eyes, not their mouths." Jansons gives a mesmerizing master class in the art of doing it with the hands and eyes. But eventually he stops the music and, in a remarkable demonstration of musical recall, lists everything in the previous quarter of an hour that has not been to his liking. "You are repeating bows? Two before eight? I would like it not! Please!"
His remarks create ripples that spread outwards through the ranks of strings. The best string sections are so closely knit, so unanimous in attack and timbre, that to an outsider it seems as if telepathy binds them together. You can see that in the smallest things. For instance, after the cellos have gotten carried away with their fearsome Mahlerian col legno (hitting the strings of their instruments so hard with the wood of their bows that they produce a rattling effect), they all smooth out the hairs of their bows as if struck by the same thought.
"Believe it or not," says Paul Silverthorne, principal viola, "I can actually change our bowing in midconcert if, say, I feel we aren't loud enough—and the players are with me all the way." The saying goes that a string player has to keep one eye on the notes, one eye on the conductor, and one eye on his section leader. Most of this apparent telepathy, however, is the result of hard graft in rehearsal, hour after hour, day after day.
But the strings are not currently Jansons' major concern. Something else—much more mundane, yet crucial—troubles him. "The cowbells!" he cries plaintively. "I don't hear them. They are here?"
The cowbell player is summoned from his offstage post to be instructed. Jansons asks him to play the offending passage by himself, while an assistant opens and closes the door to give the illusion of a crescendo and diminuendo.
The conductor is not satisfied. "Please, again." Still not right. The orchestra is intrigued and amused by this strange jangling interlude. When the cowbells are rehearsed for the third time, some wits in the brass section start making mooing noises. Jansons shushes them, but grins at the same time. Conductors don't get very far with the LSO if they don't develop a keen appreciation of English schoolboy humor.
This time the cowbell virtuoso excels himself. The strings tap their bows on their music stands—perhaps in mock appreciation of his artistry, perhaps out of genuine empathy with a fellow player under pressure. Everyone on this platform knows about pressure. Every orchestral player has his or her symphonic bête noire—the piece with the tricky, exposed passage that is the stuff of nightmares. They may make light of it in conversation, they would never let their worry show, but it gnaws away all the same.
The pressure in the LSO doesn't only come from the demands of a constantly changing repertoire. It also comes from colleagues—for in a self-governing orchestra the players themselves are ultimately responsible for the standards and reputation of the ensemble.
And it comes from the next generation. As with athletes, the technical ability of young instrumentalists leaving conservatories rises with every passing decade. Each year, hundreds will knock on the LSO's door and ask for an audition. Ask any LSO member what they think of these aspiring 22-year-olds, and the word you most often hear is "terrifying." "Every one of my students at the Royal Academy of Music wants my job," one LSO wind player confides. "And I think I know which one will get it, too. But not just yet, I hope."
The orchestra has reached the third movement now. Jansons starts it four times. He isn't satisfied that the players have caught the malice and sarcasm of the piece. When his English fails him, he stamps his foot and makes growling noises. Only a few decades ago, orchestras needed five or six full rehearsals simply to master the notes of Mahler's virtuoso scores. Now, not only are the notes in place at the first run-through—so too are many of Jansons' own ideas: the hesitations, the nuances of phrasing, the subtle things that make the music ebb and flow.
Jansons ends the rehearsal a courteous five minutes before its scheduled conclusion. Conductor and orchestra will resume this intensive process—polishing, refining, digging deeper for meaning—in just 35 minutes' time. Tomorrow morning they will add finishing touches. Then the accumulated debris of rehearsal will vanish from the platform, the male players will clamber into the penguinlike costumes that have been worn for a century and more, the audience will gather in the Barbican's angular foyers, and a buzz of expectation will fill the air.
Not all of the 5,000-odd concerts in London each year are special, but this one is. Jansons is a hot ticket, and the LSO—which has been through more ups and downs than an elevator in its 100 years of existence—is currently perceived as being on the crest of a wave. People will expect to leave the hall, 90 minutes later, with their souls refreshed and their spirits elevated.
Orchestral players often seem embarrassed at their collective power to inspire profound emotions, usually dismissing it with a shrug or a joke. Yet the evidence must confront them every time they perform. "A friend of mine came to one of our concerts," says Christine Pendrill, the LSO's cor anglais player since 1986. "I told him I didn't think he would like it as his idea of classical music is 'Spanish Eyes.' Afterwards he was ecstatic. 'That was brilliant,' he said. 'It makes you realize how useless your stereo is.' "
Now the doors close and the oboist sounds his A once more. This time the mass tuning ritual is more subdued—a last reassurance that valves aren't sticking, reeds are responsive, fingers supple, brain and sinew absolutely synchronized. Jansons enters, bows, takes a deep breath, then suddenly clenches his right fist and brings it crashing down in the general direction of the cellos. It is not so much a downbeat, more an eruption of the psyche. And the orchestra that has entertained, entranced, and inspired Londoners through two world wars, the Blitz, and the Depression, strides ferociously away on Mahler's tumultuous journey.
It's probably the last thing on the players' minds at this moment—but a curious historical coincidence links their orchestra with this music. In 1903 and 1904, while Mahler labored in Austria to pour his hopes and fears into the vast canvas of his Sixth Symphony, a group of disgruntled musicians in London was also struggling to create an epic musical enterprise. And they, too, would invest all of their hopes in it. They would call it the London Symphony Orchestra.
The Top 5 Recordings
ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO The orchestra is in top form in this gloriously emotional recording of Elgar's concerto, first performed in 1919. Conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, this selection features Jacqueline du Pré.
SIBELIUS' SEVEN SYMPHONIES Sir Colin Davis is the finest Sibelius interpreter in the world today, and his impassioned recordings of these symphonies will probably never be surpassed.
SHOSTAKOVICH'S FIFTH SYMPHONY Few who conduct Shostakovich's magnificently defiant Fifth Symphony will generate as much passion as Andre Previn does on a classic recording. It was made in the 1960s, when he was the LSO's Principal Conductor.
MAHLER'S SIXTH SYMPHONY Conductor Mariss Jansons' blistering interpretation of Mahler's apocalyptic Sixth Symphony, recorded in 2002, is a reminder that the LSO has lost none of its fiery virtuosity.
STAR WARS ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK A film soundtrack? Isn't that a bit downmarket? On the contrary. John Williams' classic score, full of tremendous music, is played with superb panache.