When we say that an artist has become an icon, we mean it as a compliment. An icon is an image, and unchanging ideal – perfection, in other words, to be imitated and admired. But what happens when an icon becomes so familiar that we start to take them for granted? Then it’s time to look – and listen – afresh. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and I are setting out to do just that. We want to take that music down from its pedestal, and rediscover the burning inspiration, the living emotion and the human personality behind even the most iconic of masterpieces.
At the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, our five concerts focus on two icons of Romantic music – the Russian Sergei Rachmaninov and the Englishman Sir Edward Elgar. Both of these composers intended their music to touch the heart. ‘There is music in the air,’ said Elgar, and as well as his two passionately autobiographical symphonies (as ambitious, and intimate, as anything by Mahler), we will perform two of his concert overtures that reveal very different faces of this most British of composers: the joker, the man of the people, the enthusiastic European traveller. For Rachmaninov, meanwhile, the bells of old Russia ‘vibrated with human emotion’ and when you hear our performance of his superb choral symphony, The Bells, you’ll understand exactly what he meant.
Alongside these works of Elgar and Rachmaninov, we explore music from their contemporaries, Weinberg and Smyth, as well as living composer Lera Auerbach, whose music complements and contrasts with these earlier icons.
But we’re not stopping there. With the Royal Albert Hall we can reimagine the works of three timeless composers on a grand scale, combining large-scale orchestral forces with the power of the human voice. It is a vast building that demands a big performance, and whether it’s Verdi’s epic Requiem, a night of Wagner with some of the most thrilling voices on the planet, or a lovely, neglected fairytale opera by Rachmaninov’s great hero Tchaikovsky, the point remains the same. These artists and these works have become icons, yes: but when they’re explored by artists of this calibre, and with this kind of commitment, they’re very much alive – and able to work miracles.
Whether you are discovering these works and composers for the first time, or delving deeper to look at things from a fresh angle, we invite you to join us; together we can continue our musical journey.
Vasily Petrenko, RPO Music Director
Art by Shadric Toop