Rambunctious Band Turns 100 -And Plays With Unrivaled Zest

Eavesdropping on a rehearsal can tell you a lot about what gives a symphony orchestra its personality. The other afternoon, I sat in the second balcony of Avery Fisher Hall, in the front-row seat nearest the stage, and watched Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra in a run-through of Stravinsky’s The Firebird , which they were to perform the following night. As Sir Colin, a white-haired man with the sort of features that would look good on a dollar bill, led the orchestra on the kaleidoscopic journey, various musicians took advantage of the moments when they weren’t playing to have themselves a great, non-musical time. Two percussionists chuckled over a private joke. A flutist and a clarinetist exchanged glances over something they apparently found amusing in the score. Two trombonists carried on an earnest discussion: Were they arguing about Tony Blair’s decision to support George Bush on Iraq? A double bassoonist opened a book, whose title I couldn’t see, and raptly turned one page after another: Was he trying to break the Da Vinci code?

Meanwhile,theglitteringStra-vinskean vistas came and went, rigorously guided by Mr. Davis. At the end, the famous orgiastic crescendo gathered and, with the sounding of the final ecstatic chord, the whole orchestra let go with a collective whoop worthy of a victory goal in the World Cup. Putting down his baton, Mr. Davis smiled.

The L.S.O., which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, has always been regarded as the bad boy of the five London orchestras. (Its history is the subject of a new book, Orchestra: The LSO, a Century of Triumphs and Turbulence , by Richard Morrison.) The orchestra was founded as Britain’s first self-ruling symphonic institution, and its players, who choose their principal conductor and guest conductors, have been notorious for a snarkiness that has caused more than one eminent maestro to turn tail and run. (One was a young Simon Rattle, who was so bruised by a guest appearance that he refused to conduct the orchestra until a few years ago, when he made a happy return.) Musically, the L.S.O. developed a reputation for a glossy brilliance that could be as unforgiving as the London weather. I have followed the orchestra under such principal conductors as Claudio Abbado, André Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas, and in my experience, it has come fully into its own as one of the world’s great ensembles only since 1996, when the players chose the deeply genial Sir Colin as their helmsman. If the L.S.O. has yet to forge a trademark “sound” as distinctive as the Cleveland’s exquisite balance, the Berlin’s overwhelming power or the Vienna’s silky warmth, it may be unrivaled for something more valuable-a zestfulness of spirit that can lift the music right out of the concert hall.

This rambunctious band has seldom been more magnificent than it was several Sundays ago, when the orchestra gave a concert performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes . The work, which had its premiere at Sadler’s Wells in 1945, established Britten, then 31, as one of the most formidable theatrical composers since Verdi. The title character, a violent-tempered fisherman who is demonized by his fellow villagers, is among the most complex protagonists in opera-equal parts victim, destroyer and visionary. Britten’s first and greatest triumph, along with Berg’s Wozzeck , Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Janácek’s Jenufa , represents the pinnacle of operatic composition on a tragic scale in the last century, and its impact hasn’t diminished with time. What Edmund Wilson wrote of the premiere nearly 60 years ago-“[the opera] seizes upon you, possesses you, keeps you riveted to your seat during the action and keyed up during the intermissions, and drops you, purged and exhausted, at the end”-could have been written of the performance I heard. The next day, a friend called to say that he had found himself weeping from start to finish. “Never before,” he said, “have I been so aware of the sadness in every bar.”

And never before was I made so aware of Peter Grimes as a masterpiece whose impact derives from an arrangement of musical and poetic detail that becomes Shakespearean in its richness. (The pungent libretto is by Montagu Slater, from a poem by George Crabbe.) Peter Grimes is an opera that works thrillingly when fully staged, and even more thrillingly when one is absolved from attending to quaint fisherfolk, tilted cottages and a craggy cliff. Britten’s translucent score is visual and visceral on a level to make Wagner seem hazy. Its depiction of the nattering, narrow-minded village, boiling with the sort of communal dislike that only the English can muster, is Goyaesque. Its rendering of the vast, tumultuous ocean in the famous “Four Sea Interludes” is Turneresque in its terrifying splendor-waves heaving, the “tide that waits for no man” rising and falling, gulls shrieking, salt air stinging. Grimes’ soaring lyric eruptions (“Now the Great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves / Are drawing up the clouds of human grief …”), underscored by dark, lush strings, strain for transcendence like Blake’s Adam.

Mr. Davis’ association with Peter Grimes goes back many years. He made his American operatic debut with the work, conducting it at the Met in 1967 with Jon Vickers in the title role, and he and that great tenor recorded the opera in 1978-a performance that remains unmatched in its projection of violence. (By contrast, the “definitive” 1958 recording, with Britten conducting and Sir Peter Pears as Grimes, seems restrained.) Colleagues of Mr. Davis tell me that his great passion apart from music is weaving, and his mastery of that craft was manifest in the way he brought out the score’s myriad subtleties without losing sight of the larger tapestry that was unfolding.

His musicians and singers were superb. The chorus in Peter Grimes occupies the foreground in its progress from church congregation to lynch mob, and the members of London Symphony Chorus brought this crucial “character” menacingly alive. (They supplied the performance’s one brilliant theatrical touch by turning their backs to Mr. Davis during Grimes’ monologue of despair in Act III, such that their shouting of his name sounded like ricocheting echoes inside his mad head.) All the minor characters-the officious lawyer Swallow, the busybody Mrs. Sedley, the Rector Adams, the tavernkeeper Auntie and so on-had a Dickensian vividness that stopped short of caricature. Janice Watson’s singing of Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress who is Grimes’ only hope for salvation, was sweetly steadfast. Anthony Michaels-Moore was robust-if perhaps a shade too elegant-as Balstrode, the canny, retired seaman.

Grimes was sung by a burly Australian tenor, Glenn Winslade. There was a good deal of grumbling, both during the intermissions and later, about his wobbling in several of the part’s cruelly exposed high passages (apparently Mr. Winslade had arrived in New York with a froggy throat). But those moments did not diminish what, for me, was a true and moving performance. Mr. Winslade may have lacked the demonic intensity of Jon Vickers, but he brought out Grimes the poetic dreamer with a lyricism that was heartbreaking.

A few days later, after the Firebird rehearsal, I chatted with Mr. Davis and asked him what he thought was the secret behind the L.S.O.’s vivacity. “They’re virtuoso instrumentalists who really listen to each other,” he said. “They know how to give each other space. And they never play anything twice the same way.” He paused for a moment, then smiled and said something that I have never heard a maestro say about his unruly troops: “There’s something very free about these people,” he said approvingly.