Santtu-Matias Rouvali took up his post as principal conductor of the Philharmonia in September last year. His opening season has included some memorable performances, especially of Strauss and Tchaikovsky, and so it was rather odd that for his first appearance with the orchestra at the Proms – Rouvali’s debut there, too – he should have opted for such an undemanding programme. Extracts from two of the most popular ballet scores – Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – were separated by a novelty, the European premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s violin concerto, Procession, in which Jennifer Koh was the soloist.
Koh gave the first performance of Procession in Washington earlier this year. Mazzoli describes it as casting the soloist as “a soothsayer, sorcerer, healer and pied piper-type character”, who leads the orchestra through “five interconnected healing spells”. These five “spells” form an arch, with the final one providing a resolution of sorts to the first, while the second, a homage to the patron saint of dance, St Vitus, is a scurrying moto perpetuo which suddenly seems to run out of steam, while the third is a disarticulated paraphrase of a hymn, O My Soul.
There’s a feisty solo cadenza, and some beautiful passages in which solo-violin harmonics are suspended over chains of slowly descending scales from the woodwind. But the music constantly seems to be travelling towards a destination, a resolution, that it never reaches, and the narrative of its 20-minute journey is not quite eventful enough to justify the lack of that arrival.
Koh played the concerto in a neat, yet almost understated way, and offered some equally self-contained Bach as her encore, but then many performances would have seemed understated alongside the high-definition Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev on either side of it. There were seven numbers from Swan Lake, including the obvious lollipops and some outstanding solo contributions from the Philharmonia’s principal oboe and trumpet especially, while the rampaging brass came to the fore in a lengthier sequence drawn from the three suites that Prokofiev himself extracted from Romeo and Juliet. It was all spectacular, even raucous at times, but Rouvali is surely a more interesting and searching conductor than he allowed himself to be with this choice of works.