Myths and Realities at Southbank: Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms, Thursday 29 September 2016

Philharmonia with Esa-Pekka Salonen plays Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms

The Philharmonia comes with a guarantee of a rich concert-experience borne out of an enviable level of artistic ambition realised not only on the concert platform but in the digital space too. If you’ve appetite for a rich experience, then the Philharmonia should be the place to start.

The Philharmonia’s fifth and final concert in the Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals series paired-up the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms in an inventive, resourceful and thought-provoking production directed by Peter Sellars on Thursday.

It was a remarkably engaging performance with a visually engaging chorus dramatizing their contribution with hand-gestures throughout Oedipus Rex (Orphei Drängar), something which gave a tantalising spirit to their singing.

The line-up of soloists added to what felt like an already elevated event. Tenor Joseph Kaiser dominated the role of Oedipus physically, making the character’s tragic demise all the more evident. Willard White with his characteristically velvet voice gave a beguiling mysterious air to Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon.

Part two of the concert featured a combined the narration of Oedipus’ death and a performance of Symphony of Psalms. Sellars’ production continued with the story of Oedipus’ final days told through dance and movement and the front of the stage whilst the orchestra and chorus continued with the Symphony of Psalms.

The setting of Psalm 39 verses 2,3 and 4  in the second movement – a persistent theme that meandered through flute, oboe and clarinet – is a monument to grief and pain and manages to make the work an act of personal reflection without the listener even realising it at the time.

The ‘Alleluia’ at the beginning of the third movement (and when it returns later in the movement) by the chorus, the now combined forces of Orphei Drangar and the Ladies of the Gustaf Sjokvists Kammarkor and Sofia Vokalensensemble, was another potent reminder that the responsibility was on the listener to engage in this period of self-reflection.

The overall effect of combining both works in this way was haunting. Seeing performers act out a narrative in front of the chorus and orchestra told us the tragedy from before still lingered on, and when the production was over we were left to question whether we as the audience had found redemption at all.

This gave the production a three-dimensional quality, embedding itself in the minds of an actively engaged audience. Little wonder they stood applaud when Sellars, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, orchestra, choir and chorus directors took their bow.

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