Liverpool is a cool place. Back when it gave birth to the most important band of the 20th century, it was a working-class place where most of the population worked in the massive, ugly port. Smoke filled the skies, and indeed, a good bit of it remains on the now-black exterior walls of maybe the ugliest cathedral in Britain.
But, all that said, Liverpool today is a very cool place. Its fortunes have transformed. The Albert Dock is now a fancy shopping center, with at least four museums and a whole gallery of overpriced bars. The city center is clean and pleasantly uninteresting; several blocks have become a massive pedestrianized shopping center; Bold Street teems with cafes and quirky shops, and Hope Street with elegant places for dinner (try HOST’s marvelous tandoori salmon); the Cavern Club, where the Beatles first played, was unwisely destroyed years ago but has been meticulously rebuilt and even hosts bands again.
Just outside my hotel’s front door was The Beatles Story, a pricey museum dedicated to multimedia presentations about the Fab Four. When I walked by for the first time, thirty or forty Chinese tourists were being herded in by their tour leaders. I resolved to skip it.
Truth was, I was in Liverpool for the music–but not the Beatles. (Though I did listen to Rubber Soul on the way up. God, what a perfect album. But you knew that already.) It was the weekend of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s season finale, featuring not a single tune I’d heard before. The RLPO have recently surged onto the global music scene, from an already quite respectable position as one of the top orchestras in the world to still greater heights.
A lot of folks credit their charismatic 34-year-old conductor, Vasily Petrenko. The young Russian puts together performances of great polish and excitement, and shows on CD that he is a mature interpreter of the classics, too. I saw him do Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony live in London and called it “pants-browningly terrifying.” I consider his recordings of the Shostakovich Tenth and Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead to be the standards by which others are judged.
Here’s the thing that makes him really interesting, though. Liverpool freaking loves him. The whole city. Everybody. They sell his posters at the Albert Dock. He goes to Liverpool football matches. The Lord Mayor made him an “Honorary Scouser.” When he signed CDs after the concert, he was drinking a pint of local beer. He was seemingly everywhere in Liverpool’s “European Capital of Culture” festival in 2008. Oh, and one time his very young son stole his baton, so he led a concert using a pencil. Little wonder the RLPO’s executives were so eager to hire him in 2004 that they actually stalked him around Europe until they got an opportunity to make their pitch.
But back to the music: the concert opened with Edward Elgar’s “Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands,” a rather silly piece I’d never heard. For the most part, the chorus sings German poems and the orchestra plays oompah music that sounds like a wicked parody of Bavaria. But it all builds up, of course, to a smashing finale.
The concerto was for, of all things, organ: Alexandre Guilmant’s Symphony No 1 for organ and orchestra. Guilmant’s work was even more shameless than Elgar’s: basically, the organ would play a big, terrifying tune, and then the orchestra would echo it, and repeat for twenty minutes. You didn’t need to read the program to know Guilmant was an organ soloist. The most amusing moments were probably the slow movement, in which the organ plays a very languid fugue which the orchestra keeps interrupting in an attempt to add prettiness, and the very ending of the piece, when a spontaneous march erupts and everybody cheers at the finish line. Slightly spherical organist Ian Lacey had a blast playing the piece, and so did we.
Elgar’s Second Symphony doesn’t do “cheers at the finish line.” True, there is a lot of fairly dull one-two stamping about in parts–Elgar’s trademark rhythm is what I call “waddling”–but the middle of the first movement has a passage of sublime creepiness, weird slithery music that sounds like it was snuck into the draft by space aliens. The funeral march and downright ‘modernist’ scherzo made me begin to feel slightly bad about underestimating Elgar. The giant-mustachioed Victorian eminence had feelings, after all, and in the Second Symphony he wrote some music that (a) didn’t sound like Pomp and Circumstance, and (b) nobody else could have written.
Afterward, I bought a CD–Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Isle of the Dead–and Vasily Petrenko signed it. He also told me he’s visiting America this summer (darn!) but after that will be busy with his day jobs (night jobs?) in Liverpool and Oslo. Oh well. You can see his Tchaikovsky in glorious HD on YouTube. Or you can check out this picture of Petrenko père et fils et bière:
Of course, Liverpool is an extremely musical city, and musics of all styles: classical, rock, ridiculous. Oh, I haven’t mentioned the Scousers’ contribution to silly songs? It’s an instrument, not a band or a Russian import, and it’s called the “loophonium,” because, well, it’s loopy. Basically, take a euphonium (a more portable tuba) and add, um, a toilet. And strings. And then play the euphonium toilet or pluck the strings.
The loophonium is housed in the Walker Art Gallery, which also has a sound sample of the instrument actually playing an actual song. All I will say is that it sounds exactly the way you think it would sound. Also, when I pushed the button and the recording played, everyone in the gallery giggled like idiots. But hey, that’s what art is for!