The London Symphony Orchestra’s annual free concert in Trafalgar Square has become such a familiar part of the cultural calendar that it’s hard to believe it’s only been around for 11 years (make it 10, if you subtract the pandemic year of 2020, when it might not take place).
The largesse of the German car manufacturer BMW, which supports the concerts, is certainly necessary: these outdoor events are a huge and extremely expensive undertaking. There’s the huge raised stage, cleverly positioned to embrace two of Trafalgar Square’s lions, magically floating across the stage like friendly deities, then there’s the sound system, lights and small army of staff from security on site to usher in the crowd of 7,000 into the compound.
It was easy: the crowd was as docile as one could wish. More than half appeared to be passing tourists. As I wandered through the crowds, I found visitors from America, South Africa and Jamaica. An Englishwoman named Jane had brought her young daughter Elizabeth for a birthday present. “I’m not really a fan of classical music, but I love any type of music,” she said. “When I was little, my parents played all kinds of music in the car, and we do the same for our children.” Were they looking forward to a particular piece? “Well, I kinda like Gershwin,” she said, referring to George Gershwin’s irresistibly sassy, swaying tracks that closed the program: the Cuban Overture and An American in Paris.
Asking around was a feeling I heard often. Also on the program are two pieces featuring young star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and a brand new piece by composer/cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson which involved young musicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as well as On Track of the LSO programme, which brings the orchestra’s expertise to 10 educational “Music Hubs” in East London. The audience seemed blissfully oblivious to all of this, just trusting the LSO to give them a good time, which they certainly did.
And luckily the gods have smiled on Trafalgar Square too. Clouds threatened at times but soon dissipated, and although the wind had freshened, the LSO players had come armed with clothespins to keep their music from blowing away. Later, the setting sun came out in full force, so the second violins were effectively blinded, as was conductor Sir Simon Rattle when he turned in their direction. But the players are real soldiers and carry on regardless.
The problem with classic outdoor events is that the sound projection is rarely up to the task of capturing the music in all its subtlety. Here, on the other hand, the system has come as close to it as humanly possible. We could savor the massed string pizzicatos in Gershwin’s Cuban opener, as well as James Fountain’s beautifully nostalgic rendition of the immortal trumpet aria in the middle.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s intimate and subtle rendition of Bruch’s melancholic Kol Nidrei and Bloch’s even more melancholic prayer from From Jewish Life was not evident outdoors, but it certainly captivated the crowd. Witter-Johnson’s new piece, FAIYA!, in which most of the LSO has disappeared to make way for players from the Guildhall School and On Track, hummed and beat with irresistible dance energy.
Sir Simon guided it all with his inimitable blend of laid-back charm and fierce energy. After Gershwin’s American in Paris, he told us, “We just have one more thing to give you” – before diving into a Star Wars medley, which the crowd clearly adored above all else. If we had been inside, I suspect it would have destroyed the house. Ivan Hewitt
Available for 30 days via the LSO YouTube channel. Information: lso.co.uk