A tour de force for the Liverpool Phil

Laura Davis experiences life on the road in Spain with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

FOR those used to seeing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in the art deco surroundings of its Hope Street concert hall, the first stop on the orchestra’s four-date Spanish tour is about as different as it gets.

Equally as stylish but ultra modern, Alicante’s Auditorio de la Diputación, which opened just two years ago, has a minimal design with a white, sculptural staircase, walls lined with thin strips of dark wood and hundreds of suspended lights that appear as a pool of giant tealights when reflected in the highly-polished floor below.

The tiled floors are buffed so vigourously that you can only assume the cleaner has it in for women in heels. They are shinier than a sergeant major’s boots and so slippery it’s hard to resist skidding across them like a seven-year-old who finds himself alone in the school hall.

Not that you ever would however, certainly not when there’s the chance of being witnessed by one of the many glamorous locals here to listen to the visiting orchestra. They, incidentally, have no trouble striding along the floors in killer heels.

The men are also dressed up for the occasion. Some sport Wyatt Earp moustaches or other interesting varieties of facial hair that you usually only spot in Movember.

There is no opportunity to purchase merchandise (programmes are handed out free) and few people partake in a pre-show aperitif – but in the interval they sweep into the concert hall’s small bar for hastilly sipped flutes of cava and crustless ham sandwiches.

The Liverpool Philharmonic musicians arrived that afternoon, and I among them, on a flight chartered from John Lennon Airport. The larger instruments were brought separately, in the orchestra’s own lorry, embellished with an enormous portrait of chief conductor Vasily Petrenko.

They are backstage having taken part in a short rehearsal, mainly for sound checks, and sampled the local tapas.

With four venues in four different towns in four days, touring isn’t a holiday but it has the air of one. When the musicians aren’t working hard in rehearsal or performing in the evenings, they make the most of their time abroad.

Tomorrow they will fly to San Sebastian and then on Pamplona, finishing in Zaragoza.

Before tonight’s concert, the white corridors backstage ring with the sound of musicians warming up. A row of double bass cases adorned with stickers bearing the destinations of previous trips lead to the green room. Next to them stand foam-lined trunks that held the instruments on their 1,700-mile journey.

Inside the auditorium, the atmosphere is more relaxed but very busy. I can’t spot a single empty seat. As well as drawn by the RLPO’s strong reputation, the audience have been attracted by the chance to see the guest soloist Joaquín Achúcarro performing in his home country.

Although now resident in Dallas, the Bilbao-born pianist is one of Spain’s most celebrated musicians. He is a winner of the country’s Gold Medal of Fine Arts, National Award for Music and the Great Cross of Civil Merit, and performed at the inauguration of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in front of 25,000 people and a worldwide television audience.

He has history with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, having won its 1959 Liverpool International Piano Concerto Competition – an award that boosted his early career.

Now aged 79 and white-haired, he appears to relish the chance to play with the current incarnation of the RLPO, pumping the hand of principal cello Jonathan Aasgaard in appreciation for his flawless performance in the third movement of Brahms Piano Concerto No.2.

Before the final chords have faded, the applause begins and some people leap to their feet. When it finally dies down, a beaming Achúcarro sits down at the piano again for an encore – Scriabin’s Nocturne (for the left hand), Opus 9, No.2 – which he plays with his right hand prominently on his knee.

After the interval, we are transported away from not so sunny Spain (the Liverpool drizzle has joined us on tour) to Petrenko’s birth country for Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 – one of the Phil’s signature works.

The orchestra won Gramophone’s Orchestral Recording of the Year for it in 2011 and performed the piece to critical acclaim at the Proms in August.

This performance is no exception – stylish, bold and daring, it suits its surroundings.

Liverpool Post, October 25, 2012