Arts & Culture Music

Strasbourg Comes to London

  • February 12, 2024
  • 5 min read
Strasbourg Comes to London

Simon Mundy on Marie Linden, Marko Letonja and L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, playing at the Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 13th February.

When Strasbourg is in the British news these days, it is usually about the endless fight within the Conservative Party regarding the idea of political Europe, whether Britain is a part of it, or whether the sliver of sea that separates the island from the continent should actually be an electric fence. Strasbourg (thanks to a Conservative Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden) is the home of the 46-nation Council of Europe and, once a month, to the plenary session of the 27-nation European Parliament. Sitting on the West bank of the River Rhine, and having changed hands between France and Germany at least three times in the last 150 years, it has its own dissatisfaction with either, mixing both cultures as the capital of Alsace, which has its own distinctive linguistic, food, and wine traditions. In a very individual way, it is a pivotal city in the story of Europe – as well as being quite beautiful, despite all the invasions.

There is another side to Strasbourg, though. At the Opera du Rhin, a gem of an old theatre, there is a tradition of innovative but not outrageous productions that have given it an excellent reputation. And the city’s orchestra, which has its own modern hall slightly out of the town centre but also plays for the opera (just as the Vienna Philharmonic does), is one of the best on either side of the river for many miles in both directions. In the last century, both Mahler and Richard Strauss conducted it in their works. The Strasbourg Philharmonic is the largest orchestra in France outside Paris and the only one that can take on the full range of big late Romantic works, like Mahler’s symphonies, without having to bring in extra resources. And on Tuesday, 13 February, L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (to give it the full title) comes to London for the first time most can remember, to play at Cadogan Hall.

“We were supposed to come last season,” says the orchestra’s Chief Executive, Marie Linden, “but our conductor John Nelsons was too ill.” Nelsons is the veteran American conductor who has become something of a legend in the big works of Wagner and Berlioz. He is conducting again (and led the orchestra in a sumptuous program last month) but is still too frail to take on major tours. Instead, they are coming with their previous music director, Marko Letonja, a couple of decades younger than Nelsons but a conductor of impeccable reputation. Although from Slovenia originally, he has become a fine exponent of French music and that is what will dominate the second half of the London concert, which also opens with Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture.

“Marko always likes to bring mainstream pieces but he also likes to develop the repertoire.” So two famous Ravel works, the Suite from Mother Goose, and his iconoclastic representation of the breakdown of order in World War I, La Valse, are preceded by César Franck’s symphonic poem Le Chasseur Maudit (The Cursed Huntsman), “a work that is almost never played, even in France, which Marko has picked especially for this tour.” In between, Nikolai Lugansky plays the Second Piano Concerto by Rachmaninov, a composer in whose works he specialises and was last heard playing them in November at Wigmore Hall. “This is a big occasion for us,” Marie Linden asserts. “We do not play outside our home region as often as I would like and the five concerts we are playing in Britain will be our only tour this season.” They can also be heard that week in The Beacon Bristol, The Anvil Basingstoke, Symphony Hall Birmingham, and Llandaff Cathedral. It is also a chance to show off what she regards as the orchestra’s special characteristic. “We reflect our geography between two big cultures in that we have the best of the French tradition – flexibility – with the precision of the German. We are not a typical French orchestra; we are just as at home in the Teutonic repertoire.”

© Nicolas Rosès

The most difficult obstacle to overcome in arranging the tour has not been musical but the irksome process of dealing with post-Brexit regulations. As well as making sure the players all have passports and the right visas (since French ID cards are no longer valid for travel to the UK), there is the nonsense of needing to change trucks at the border and getting customs clearance for all the instruments. It is, of course, the same for British ensembles travelling in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, at a time when the finances of music organisations are seriously stretched, these impediments are a completely pointless addition to everyone’s problems.

Despite them, Marie Linden was determined the tour should go ahead. “It is important for us to be heard in the big halls throughout Europe – like London and Birmingham: to show the real quality of the orchestra in places that are used to hearing the best.”

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Simon Mundy

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