Review: Anna Devin, RTÉ NSO/Michael Francis

Step-in conductor Francis here proves to be efficient and clear but ultimately disappointing

Artist: RTE NSO

Venue: NCH

Date Reviewed: April 9th, 2014


Prokofiev – Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Barber – Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Dvor ak – Symphony No 7.

If the work of “step-in” conductors were equal in quality to that of principal conductors, you could argue there is no need for the latter. But let’s face it: the natural order should be that a replacement – unless it’s Simon Rattle – falls some way short of your principal – unless it’s Homer Simpson.

For this concert, Alan Buribayev is replaced by Michael Francis, whose young career has been punctuated with impressive replacement engagements for Valery Gergiev, John Adams and André Previn.

The programme bears the principal conductor’s signature: Buribayev is so at home and so expressive in eastern European repertoire such as Prokofiev and Dvorak, and I lament the lost opportunity of hearing what he might have made of Barber’s evocation of a sweltering Tennessee.

In the event, Francis is efficient and clear but ultimately quite disappointing, notably in the concert’s first half. His efficiency is such that colours are well presented and internal balances maintained. But Lieutenant Kijé ’s satirical narrative recounts the rise to hero status of a soldier who doesn’t exist, an intriguing and witty story that Francis tells rather blandly.

There is an additional difficulty in the Barber: balance. Soprano Anna Devin sounds sweet and youthful – as opposed to mature and reflective, which is also valid – in words from James Agee’s 1947 recollection of childhood in the American south.

But that’s only when you can hear her properly. Even after paring back the number of players on stage, Francis never quite establishes the necessary balance between orchestra and singer, also losing languor and nostalgia along the way.

He fares better in the second half. As Dvorak wrestles with various tensions in his Symphony No 7 – between classical and romantic, anger and warmth – Francis combines his clarity and efficiency with an expressive drive that produces a stirring account of what many consider the composer’s best symphony.

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