Choosing a concert opener is an art in its own right. Fashions shift: the traditional overture has fallen from favour in recent years, and you might go seasons now without hearing such one-time favourites as The Thieving Magpie or Euryanthe. The opening slot is more likely to contain something short and contemporary, or worthy and obscure (cynics call it ‘box-ticking repertoire’). Or it might be empty, tipping you straight into a symphony or concerto the way a Michelin-starred chef presents his signature creation – unadorned, on a bare white plate.
The Symphony Orchestra of India began its latest UK tour with John Williams’s ‘Imperial March’ from The Empire Strikes Back – and goodness alone knows why. Nothing wrong with playing film music in a symphonic concert, of course; more orchestras should do it. But such an ominous piece (it’s basically Darth Vader’s leitmotif)? Maybe it’s just something that the SOI and its guest conductor, Richard Farnes, enjoy playing together – a three-minute blast of Technicolor orchestration to get the fingers loosened up. It’s as valid a reason as any.
Then we were on to Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, with Pavel Kolesnikov as soloist, and a 45-minute symphonic suite of Wagner’s Parsifal, arranged by Andrew Gourlay. The following night in London, under Alpesh Chauhan, the SOI was due to play Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier Suite and Stravinsky’s Petrushka. That’s some serious bling. But if you heard this relatively young (it was founded in 2006) orchestra on its 2019 tour, you’ll already know that it’s a cracking outfit. Farnes’s programme offered something different: a chance to hear the SOI stretch out and sing in music where brilliance is never, in itself, sufficient.
It’s safe to say that they nailed it, if that isn’t too coarse an image for playing of such concentration and beauty.