A crash of timpani heralds Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, and an afternoon of American music from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. As the trumpets echo their haunting refrain, and the layers of brass accumulate, the sense of grandeur builds, evoking the vastness of the American continent, and the music provides a grandstand for the impressive brass section of the orchestra.
A more contemporary piece follows, Brio by Augusta Read Thomas. Thomas, a contemporary American composer, seeks to capture energy and ‘twinkle’ in this piece, and to a large extent she succeeds. There is no discernible melody, but the piece is far from atonal, with many bright interludes. Frequent pizzicato phrases from the string section are echoed by the percussion in a syncopated rhythm. Brio must be a ferociously difficult piece to play, but is performed seemingly effortlessly, allowing all areas of the orchestra to shine.
The main event of the afternoon is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which from its starting snake-like clarinet solo, through to the introduction of the iconic melody halfway through, is flawless in every respect. Marc-André Hamelin’s playing is superb, and demonstrates why he’s globally recognised. The orchestra play with a good variety of tempi and dynamic contrast, as the main theme morphs into successively different styles: at one point conjuring images of a marching band, and at another, visions of a speakeasy.
The second half of the concert is taken up by Bernstein’s Songfest, a selection of twelve American poems set to music for six singers and orchestra. Originally destined for the American bicentennial celebrations, this 1977 composition draws on poetry spanning three centuries. Bernstein himself described the collection as eclectic, and it quickly becomes apparent why this is not one of his more well-known works, with little to link the pieces in musical style or theme.
The singers are highly accomplished, although their words are often drowned out by the orchestra, and the lack of the text in the programme means that few in the audience know what they are singing about! Nevertheless, Nmon Ford’s baritone solo, The Pennycandystore Beyond the El, as well as the opening and closing hymns, are the most successful pieces, with good balance across the voices.
The real star of this afternoon is, of course, the orchestra, rightly considered to be one of the leading ones in the UK. It is sympathetically and energetically conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, who, interestingly enough, studied with Bernstein earlier in his career.