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Review: Rebecca Tong conducts the RLPO at Philharmonic Hall ****

Who knew listening to live music in the – albeit socially distanced – company of others could prove such an emotional experience?

Because despite the inventive and innovative ways orchestras like the RLPO (and theatre makers too of course) have found to keep performances going over the last few difficult months, nothing beats the visceral nature of the live shared experience.

And with Merseyside staring down the barrel of harsh news Covid restrictions again, concerts like this Sunday morning offering at the Philharmonic Hall should be relished and treasured.

The Phil announced its new season in May and almost immediately started re-working (and re-working again) the entire programme to meet shifting Covid-safe rules and regulations. And the hard-working team continues to make overnight changes to meet unexpected challenges.

For example, Andrew Manze was due to conduct this hour-long programme of Sibelius, Beethoven and Schubert but travel restrictions led to a last-minute substitution in the form of Rebecca Tong, her own intended debut with the Phil being cancelled earlier in the year.

Since then, Tong (who is well-known to the RLPO having assisted it during her two-year junior fellow stint at the Royal Northern College of Music) has won top prize at the La Maestra competition for women conductors. So securing her services in its wake is a happy coup for the orchestra.

Above: Socially distanced orchestra and audience. Top: Rebecca Tong.

The opening ‘petite scene’ of Sibelius’s Suite Mignonne evokes a genteel, almost Edwardian sunniness and conductor and pared-down Phil together generated a lovely lyrical buoyancy.

A central polka, with a solo cello line from Jonathan Aasgaard, had plenty of sway and the epilogue – a gallop through the sections in turn - was rhythmically solid.

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is dense as treacly fruitcake and with more musical ingredients than a bottom-of-the-fridge soup. It’s perhaps no wonder contemporary critics called it “incomprehensible” and “inaccessible”. The man himself described it as ‘somewhat free, somewhat scholarly’.

Of course it’s not inaccessible but given its concentrated symphonic structure you do need to concentrate to even start to pick out its individual strands – a not all together easy ask at any point, let alone for listeners on a crisp Sunday October morning.

The spare-sized string section, along with the clarity of Tong’s conducting, assisted the attempt and there was pleasing dynamic contrast between the fugue’s thoughtful central section and its meatier outer edges.

The truncated programme concluded with Schubert’s Symphony no 5, full of teenage optimism (the prolific composer was still only 19 when he completed it, one of 200 compositions in 12 months) and musical genuflection in the direction of his hero Mozart.

The sunny uplands of 1816 are, it turns out, just what we need in the dismal Covid valley of 2020.

The orchestra bubbled along through an ebullient opening allegro, while the andante second movement was as comforting as a big cashmere hug, and the Mozartian menuetto, if a little hefty, also featured an appreciatively softer and smoother modulation.

It concluded with an enviously carefree allegro vivace, effortlessly effervescent but also impressively controlled.

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