/Kensington Symphony Orchestra: Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony
Kensington Symphony Orchestra with Russell Keable ©Christian Hoskins

Kensington Symphony Orchestra: Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony

It is the first time I have ever seen the Kensington Symphony Orchestra (KSO) perform live. Now, having seen them, I can say it is worthwhile having a go and seeing what they can truly do. They have been dubbed ‘one of the very best amateur groups in the country’ by Classical Music Magazine and in this week’s concert at the St John’s Smith Square the KSO certainly lived up to their reputation.

As you know, I’m not classically trained in music, therefore, I could never comment on any musical score in detail, yet I can be honest about the audience experience. I had little knowledge about the pieces the KSO had scheduled in for the evening’s programme, yet I often find that it is far more interesting coming to any event with no expectations. That way, you won’t go away, too, disappointed.

The KSO devoted the night to celebrate Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s 60th birthday celebration of his ‘Sinfonia Semplice’, namely his Sixth Symphony – his most challenging and hard-to-grasp symphony, according to Copenhagen critics at the time of its premiere in 1925. The ironically titled symphony ‘Simple Symphony’ (I’ll explain why later) was the main event for the concert. However, the first performance of the night – Nielsen’s 1927 Overture: An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands – was far more compelling and captivating by contrast to his Sixth Symphony.

It is not the first time I have heard of Nielsen. During the 2015 Proms, I watched as Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra with another of Nielsen’s overtures. (Review here.) This time it was for his opera, Maskarade (1904-06) and much like his overture for the Faroe Islands, this was an exuberant, hearty and imaginative piece.

No more than 10 minutes long, conductor Russell Keable smoothly and evenly led the KSO as they performed An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands, as Nielsen had written it for the audience to experience it. The overture took you through each step of a story. A ship entering closer to the coast of the Faroe Islands. The music depicting the dark movements of the waves while the image of a mighty, vast sea becomes more and more vividly clear. Yet the calmness subtly dies down with a bird cry, and once the ship arrives onto the island coast, the tone drastically changes into a mass celebration filled with fanfares, Faroese melody, and ballet motifs. The KSO brought out the virtuosic and atmospheric components of the piece with minimum fuss. Although much control is needed in the beginning scenes of the music, the KSO gave way to a thrust of positive vibes just like the story, which ended on a cheerful and winning ‘clarinet’ note.

Carl Nielsen ©www.carlnielsen.org
Carl Nielsen ©www.carlnielsen.org

The second piece of the evening was dedicated to another Dane’s marvelous work, Malcolm Arnold’s inspiring and romantic score, Rinaldo and Armida. The ballet had its premiere at The Royal Ballet, then called the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, in 1955. With choreographer Frederick Ashton, the ballet followed Torquato Tasso’s influential verse-drama. Rinaldo falls in love with a sorceress Armida who dies when returning her love to him. Immediately after Armida’s death, a storm breaks out, yet Rinaldo escapes in time, avoiding harm.

Arnold wrote a variety of works including compositions for the theatre and film. For the ballet, you could hear the cinematic quality of Arnold’s music. The KSO brought this story to life at St John’s Smith Square and you could hear the pas de deux, the fantasy set and drama of the storm. The only thing missing was the ballet performers themselves. The KSO performed this brilliant piece and made it moving, picturesque and surreal. I only wished I could see the ballet live now.

This leaves only the ironically titled Sixth Symphony for the night, which unfortunately I simply couldn’t understand. As much as I tried to enjoy the performance, there was no synergy between each section and nothing musically memorable I could take home from it but that it was a symphony I honestly didn’t, and couldn’t, enjoy. However, Nielsen scholars remind us that he suffered from heart attacks whilst writing his symphony and, in many ways, the symphony was autobiographical in itself.

This is one way of reading the piece, as something not to be enjoyed but to be reflected on. There’s no graduation of volume or sounds, like his atmospheric Faroe Islands overture, but a straight dive into loud, brash noise, with some short bursts of wonderful music, that disappear into disorder. After hearing something as explosively dazzling and colourful as his opening overture, I was expecting something similarly melodious, but in learning more about Nielsen from the concert with the KSO, I’ve discovered that there was more to the composer than simply depicting narratives and stories into his work.

Malcolm Arnold ©bbc.co.uk
Malcolm Arnold ©bbc.co.uk

Another part to play may have been the acoustics of St John’s Smith Square’s hall. There were roughly forty, possibly more, KSO musicians that night and with all of them performing this large, big-boned piece in a medium sized space, it might not have been the best match. A larger venue, such as the Royal Albert Hall, comes to mind. This is not a criticism to the KSO or Keable for that matter, but since the symphony is Nielsen’s least performed piece, I would suggest this more for those who are familiar with Nielsen’s work. For first-timers to Nielsen , like myself, or classical music even, this would be on the bottom pile of pieces to know about.

Perhaps, I’m jumping to the wrong conclusion here. It is possible that the point of his Sixth Symphony was not to try and understand the piece, at all, but to embrace the unpredictability and uncertainty of what was instal in each section. The KSO certainly did well to perform something different, and they have really shown their mettle for diverse styles through the Arnold and Nielsen’s work. From flamboyant Faroe melody, to romantic ballet and eccentric symphony writings, the KSO have proven open-minded and willing to meet new challenges.

Their next event is on Monday 09 October with Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. (Click here for more information.) This time, I’ll be familiar with the music by comparison to Monday’s concert, and will relish the chance to see the KSO perform these fantastic masterworks.

For more information about the KSO, click here. To check out the season of events at St John’s Smith Square, please click here.