Conductors don’t normally receive a standing ovation before they have even reached the podium, but these are not normal times. Ukrainian-born Kirill Karabits was making his first appearance with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra since Russia invaded his homeland, and the Poole audience, many of them brandishing sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine, gave him the warmest possible welcome. As he explained in a brief speech, Karabits had considered changing his programme to include a work by a Ukrainian composer, but reckoned that, over the 13 years that he has been the orchestra’s chief, the BSO had probably performed more Ukrainian music than any other orchestra outside the country itself, and so he had decided to leave things as planned.
In fact the concert ended with a work whose finale has often been regarded as a symbol of resistance to Russian rule, Sibelius’s Second Symphony. Like all the really convincing Sibelius conductors, Karabits did not impose himself obviously on the music, never pushing too hard or micro-managing the phrases, yet his performance still had real cumulative power, and the various strands of the belligerent finale were drawn together with unanswerable conviction.
Before the interval he had conducted Tintagel, the best known of the three symphonic poems that Arnold Bax composed during the first world war. Bax and Sibelius were good friends – Bax devoted his Fifth Symphony to the Finn – but in Tintagel at least it’s Debussy, his orchestral Images in particular, that is the more obvious model, and Karabits and his orchestra revelled in its intricate play of sonorities. They had begun with All These Lighted Things, which the American Elizabeth Ogonek composed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2017 – three nicely shaped miniatures, vividly scored and each with the ghost of a dance form behind it, and all finally cut short by a shatteringly brief climax that ebbs away in shards of metallic percussion.