Gershwin Cuban Overture (1932)
Villa-Lobos Fantasia for Saxophone W490 (1948)
Copland Danzón cubano (1942)
Milhaud Scaramouche Op.165c (1937/9)
Copland Appalachian Spring – Suite (1944/5)
Barber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1935-6, rev, 1942-3)
Jess Gillam (saxophones, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jaume Santoja Espinós (below)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 20 October 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse
This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra took a break from ‘standard’ repertoire to focus on music by composers either American or with an American focus, in a programme which rung the changes to often vibrant and always appealing effect.
A familiar radio presence, Jess Gillam has already encouraged renewed interest in the music for classical saxophone, as her contributions amply demonstrated. Little heard in his lifetime, the Fantasia by Villa-Lobos is among those more modest creations of a composer known for his (over-reaching) ambition – its three short movements drawing animated and ruminative responses from the soloist enhanced by a restrained orchestration. Swapping soprano for the alto instrument, Gillam returned for Milhaud’s Scaramouche which was no less engaging in this arrangement than the original for two pianos; whether in its incisive opening movement, soulful central interlude or its final Brazileira which could hardly fail to provoke a response from orchestra and audience – the latter evidently appreciative of such an infectious display.
The CBSO captured the spirit of both pieces, thanks not least to former assistant conductor Jaume Santoja Espinós, who had opened the concert with Gershwin’s Cuban Overture – the percussion-clad exuberance of its outer sections a telling foil to the haunting pathos of those canonic textures at its centre. Copland’s Danzón Cubano can seem irritating in its rhythmic over-insistence, but Espinós brought an unsuspected wit and subtlety to this amalgam of coy nonchalance with an orchestration recalling Stravinsky’s forays into ‘crossover’ at this time.
Latin-American traits made way for those of a Europeanized East Coast after the interval, Espinós directing the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring with a cohesion as brought out expressive contrasts between the various sections without these becoming too episodic. The idealization inherent in this ‘Ballet for Martha’ can hardly be gainsaid, yet the chaste eloquence of its musical content came through no less affectingly – not least as the familiar ‘Variations on a Shaker Hymn’ subsided into the serene inevitability of the final evocation.
The highlight was a welcome revival for Barber’s First Symphony, whose continuous design marries Sibelian formal precision with that unabashed emotionalism closer to Russian music from this period, with a cumulative impact to its four-in-one trajectory which was palpably in evidence. From the stark foreboding with which it begins, through the relentless impetus of its ‘scherzo’ and consoling poise of its ‘slow movement’ (felicitous oboe playing by Emmet Byrne), to the inexorable force of its closing passacaglia, this was a performance to savour.
An eventful evening, then, and was more to come with a post-concert informal performance from the quintet El Ultimo Tango, familiar from its several recordings and here providing a 30-minute overview of Astor Piazzolla for what was a – necessarily – belated tribute in the year of his centenary. Those wanting a longer selection can hear this group at CBSO Centre next February, while the CBSO returns next week for a programme of mainly French music from conductor Kevin John Edusei with Kirill Gerstein in both of Ravel’s piano concertos.
Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Jess Gillam, click here – and for more on El Ultimo Tango, here. For more information on Jaume Santoja Espinós, head to the conductor’s website