May 16, 2022

Gemma New hailed for BBC Philharmonic Bridgewater Hall performance

Dandy, BBC Philharmonic, New, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - energy and fierce attention
By Robert Beale
The Arts Desk

Saturday’s concert by the BBC Philharmonic was in large measure about the Mahlers – Gustav and Alma. The former’s First Symphony formed the substantial second part of the programme: Frau Mahler was the inspiration of the piece that opened the evening. New Zealand-born Gemma New returned to Manchester to conduct: we saw her last October on the Hallé rostrum, and the energy and fierce attention she brought then were even more evident this time.

That first piece was Die Windsbraut, by Alissa Firsova (daughter of Elena and of Dmitri Smirnov), a short essay in putting pictorial ideas into music, being based on Oskar Kokoschka’s famous painting of the same name. (Alma met him soon after Gustav Mahler had died and their relationship inspired much of his work: this one clearly shows the two of them side by side, she with eyes closed, he with open eyes and meditative stare, in the centre of a whirling storm of impressionistic colour).

The final two songs were also marked by Gemma New’s subtle handling of the orchestral textures, with lovely dancing rhythms, idiomatic phrasing and a beautiful and sensitive ending to “Where Corals Lie” and a wonderfully dramatic treatment of “The Swimmer”. I’d love to hear this conductor tackle more of Elgar’s works.

New had plenty to say in Mahler’s First Symphony. Clarity of articulation and careful pacing were apparent in the opening movement, the gradually gathering tension skilfully handled before an explosion of excitement, with the Philharmonic brass in splendid voice, as the movement hit its high-point. She has, too, a knack of radiating energy and receiving it back from an orchestra, as the Ländler-like second movement showed in its rollicking rhythms, while the Trio section had a very Austrian charm as she brought one telling phrase after another to the forefront. The klezmer-ish music of the third movement was full of the most gorgeous hesitations and anticipations (with the strings, led by Yuri Torchinsky, especially winsome).

And that ultra-upbeat finale had bounding optimism and confident emphasis, alternating with disarming tenderness and, at times, a rare kind of emotional honesty. Rhythmic discipline swept the music forward and the final pages were every bit as climactic as expected.

Read the full review here.