Roman Kosyakov (piano), Rebecca Wood (cor anglais), Stuart Essenhigh (trumpet), English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Barber Adagio for strings Op.11a (1936) Still (arr. Zur) Dismal Swamp (1935) Gershwin (arr. Farrington) Rhapsody in Blue (1924) Copland Quiet City (1941); Appalachian Spring (1945)
Kings Place, London Sunday 19 February 2022
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
London appearances by the English Symphony Orchestra being so infrequent, it was good to see an (understandably) scaled-down orchestra returning to Kings Place for the series American & Canadian Sounds that is taking place under the auspices of London Chamber Music Society.
The ubiquitous Adagio that Samuel Barber arranged from his only string quartet almost had to feature here, but that was no hardship given the excellence of the ESO’s playing – the silence after its climax rightly made the focal-point around which this whole performance revolved.
Although his music never entirely went away, the extent of William Grant Still’s output has barely been explored so all credit to Kenneth Woods for championing Dismal Swamp (heard here in an effective reduction by Noam Zur). Taking its cue from a short yet intense poem by playwright Verna Arvey (Still’s second wife), this 15-minute tone poem evokes the no-man’s land between Virginia and North Carolina across which escaped slaves once fled to freedom. Its concertante role for piano subtly embedded into the orchestral texture, the music charts a progression from sombre desperation to outward elation through a subtly extended tonality (Still having studied with composers as distinct as Chadwick and Varèse) whose apotheosis elides resolve and equivocation with a fervency which was tangibly in evidence.
Roman Kosyakov was the admirable pianist here as in George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This also was heard in reduction, Iain Farrington’s arrangement combining the immediacy of Ferde Grofé’s original scoring with the Europeanized grandeur of his later orchestration. Placing the piano rear-centre of the platform likely accounted for any occasional failings of coordination, but Kosyakov’s characterful playing – not least in the lengthy developmental cadenza and ensuing ‘big tune’ – held one’s attention through to the indelible closing bars.
The play by Irwin Shaw for which he wrote incidental music might have passed into history, but Quiet City is among Aaron Copland’s most effective shorter pieces – its halting dialogue between cor anglais (Rebecca Wood) and trumpet (Stuart Essenhigh) given context by the modal plangency of its string writing.
The programme ended with Copland’s Appalachian Spring – heard here in the familiar suite but in the original orchestration with its prominent part for piano, along with solo woodwind contributions that stand out more clearly against the string nonet. Familiar as this music may be, its understated harmonic shadings and keen rhythmic ingenuity are never easily realized in performance, and it was testament to the ESO’s playing that the piece emerged as vividly and as cohesively as it did. In particular, the penultimate sequence of variations on ‘Simple Gifts’ had an unforced eloquence (the last statement of the Shaker hymn eschewing any hint of bathos) which carried through into the coda – its evocation of community no less affecting for being so idealized, and in music such as more than warrants that misused term ‘iconic’.
A rewarding programme and a welcome London appearance by the ESO, which will be back in action next month with (inter alia) a concert at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre that features a major new work by Robert Saxton as part of the orchestra’s ‘21st Century Symphony Project’
We still think of Alison Balsom as a new artist, a breath of fresh air for the trumpet in and around classical music. Yet all of a sudden it is nearly 25 years since she burst onto the scene, winning the Brass Final of the BBC’s Young Musician competition in 1998. Since then her recording career has yielded no fewer than 15 albums, for EMI Classics and latterly Warner Classics.
Quiet City will be her 16th – and in many ways it is her most personal album yet, as Arcana found when we sat down for a chat with the trumpeter. Balsom has poured herself a cup of tea, and the chat is punctuated with comfortable silences as she sips tea and I write. An extremely affable presence, she clearly has as much enthusiasm for the music now as she did in 1998, if not more.
Quiet City, as you may have guessed, is named after the Copland composition for trumpet, cor anglais and string orchestra of 1939. A forward-looking piece, it became a popular pick for online concerts during lockdown, its scoring favouring smaller orchestras and its mood wholly redolent of the times. It has held a very significant place in Balsom’s life, too. “I didn’t know I was going to make an album like this”, she confesses. “Quiet City is one of the very first pieces that I fell in love with to a deeper level when playing the trumpet. Copland understands the trumpet’s qualities, the melancholy aspects of the instrument and how it could sing. It is a relatively short work, so it was interesting to think about what it should be programmed with. I don’t think of myself as a jazz trumpeter, yet there is a really interesting point where in America composers were writing ‘in the gap’, letting themselves experiment. It didn’t matter that it was classical or jazz, they were taking from both realms. I found that this made a coherent journey, and found the nuggets growing to album ideas.”
She recognises the relevance of Quiet City to the pandemic. “Copland was a visionary with what we needed. We made this recording in November 2021, when we were just coming out of lockdown. We all had an intense feeling of gratitude to be able to play this music live with a feeling of stillness in the concert hall, a voice that said, “Aren’t we lucky to be here?!” It is such a powerful vision, evoking the atmosphere from the first section, looking between building in New York like an Edward Hopper painting. Even working with a piano reduction I was in a melancholy mood. With this music I think of a film like Lost In Translation, and of two people with a luxury life, going to very different places. There is an isolated melancholy but beauty too, like a friend. As a piece, though, it is technically and physically challenging to play.”
She elaborates further. “Sustaining the notes can be a physical struggle, but you need command of the sound, the articulated notes – and you somehow need to make them tentative and nervous. You want to convey someone practising in an apartment block or something, being wonderfully balanced with the cor anglais and communicating with your audience or listeners.”
The cor anglais part on this recording is taken by Nicholas Daniel, who Balsom professes undying admiration for. “He is such a great musician, and has such a strong feeling about that piece. It was inspiring working with him and getting his insight and thoughts. It was incredible working with the Britten Sinfonia as well, they have great integrity and are always minded for collaboration. I worked with them in 2017, when we did the Barbican’s Sound Unbound festival. We did Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Sketches Of Spain, using transcriptions from the original studio recordings. I didn’t realise about the manuscripts, and there was a trumpet part revealed to me. He knew exactly what he wanted! I felt privileged to hear the players as at home playing jazz as they do classical.”
Also featured in the Sound Unbound concert was Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, which appears on Balsom’s album in a very different guise – tastefully rejigged to bring the trumpet forward as a second soloist, alongside childhood friend Tom Poster on the piano. “I had a different hat on for this one!” she confesses. “I respect Tom so much, I think he’s the greatest pianist to play with. We met when I was ten, so we know each other really well. With the arrangement I phoned him up and suggested it, and he thought it was nuts but a good idea. We found that Rhapsody in Blue was out of copyright, but not in the Grofé arrangement. This made the job an enormous one for Simon Wright, who orchestrated it from scratch. Any coincidences in the new version are Simon coming to the same conclusion as Grofé, and I think it is an amazing achievement. The piano part didn’t have to be set in stone, which gave Tom the opportunity to express himself even more. We did a concert in Norwich, when everything was closed, and we only had to get it right once to get it in the can.”
She may be 15 albums in, but Alison is keenly aware of how much the format has changed in that time, and how consumption habits are so different with streaming. “The greatest challenge has been finding my muse, making something that the world might want to hear”, she says, “and yet there is an amazing opportunity to pioneer. We put Quiet City with some things that we’re OK with, and some things that are more challenging, such as the Charles Ives piece The Unanswered Question, which I love, but Warner let me go for it. It’s a lucky situation to be in.”
Asking Balsom to cast her thoughts back, I ask who has been an influence on her career to date? “In terms of my teachers, I would say John Miller – an amazing teacher and trumpet guru. With him we focussed on sound, as the trumpet is all about the production of technique. I would compare him to Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid, he wouldn’t let me do the cool stuff but I’m so glad he did that! I then went on to work with Håkan Hardenberger, who taught me how to teach myself. Physically the trumpet is so challenging, but that’s not how you master it. Getting to Grade 8 is just the start! It has this incredible, multifaceted personality, it reflects who you are. We play our personalities through our instruments!”
Balsom’s husband, film director Sam Mendes, had a small hand in the album’s running order. “He suggested the use of Leonard Bernstein‘s Lonely Town”, she says, and was a good soundboard for how the album was fitting together.” Has she returned the compliment on any of his film scoring? “I have made a few suggestions!” – she smiles – “and of course he has got to know a lot of trumpet repertoire through me.”
She recognises a change of focus in the musical landscape since the pandemic, with much more emphasis on recorded music. In spite of that there are a couple of concerts planned for the rest of the year. “There was the launch concert at Snape, with full bells and whistles, which is quite a complicated affair but the only live version of the album we will be doing. After that it gets quite random, but on October I’ll be doing a recital with Anna Lapwood, the organist, and a lighting designer, at a school in Tonbridge. It’s going to be an immersive trumpet and organ recital. We know the music is amazing but how can we present it and immerse people in the music? I’m really looking forward to doing that, she’s a real force for good! I wanted an amazing acoustic and organ, and there will be a few new pieces for that one.”
Plans are afoot for a seventeenth album, too. “I have had a good chat with Trevor Pinnock about my next project. Over the pandemic we had to re-evaluate travelling and what we have a desire to do – and there are some exciting plans on the horizon!”
You can discover more on Alison Balsom by visiting her website – and you can hear more of Quiet City and purchase the album on the Presto website. Meanwhile for more information on her recital with Anna Lapwood, and to buy tickets, go to the Tonbridge Music Club website
Andrzej Panufnik Harmony (1989) Roxanna Panufnik Powers & Dominions (2001) Still Mother and Child (1943) [UK premiere] Copland Appalachian Spring: Suite (1943/5)
Milton Hall, London Wednesday 27 October 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse; picture of Joshua Weilerstein by Sam Canetty-Clarke
The Guildhall Chamber Orchestra was heard this evening at its regular base in a programme where works by father and daughter either side of the Millennium complemented music from American composers enjoying their greatest success in the run-up to the Second World War.
A pity that Harmony has remained among the lesser known of Andrzej Panufnik’s works, as this ‘Poem for Chamber Orchestra’ encapsulates traits that define his mature output. Scored for pairs of woodwinds and a group of strings (the size variable according to forces available) placed stereophonically, its 18 minutes effect the gradual coming-together of various textural, harmonic, rhythmic and melodic possibilities in what – unusually for this composer – is less a symmetrical (let alone palindromic) form than a cumulative design unfolding from the most speculative exchanges to sustained outpouring. Commemorating both the 75th anniversary of the composer’s birth and the 25th anniversary of his marriage, it exemplifies those concerns for long-term formal and expressive integration as are achieved here with seamless cohesion.
It received a reading of real commitment by the Guildhall CO under the attentive direction of Joshua Weilerstein (who will hopefully tackle some of the Panufnik symphonies in future), joined by Heather Brooks for Powers & Dominions by Roxanna Panufnik. A composer who has often expressed a love for the instrument, this ‘Concertino for Harp and Orchestra’ falls into two contrasted parts. Enigmatically duly emerges from speculative gestures to take on increasing emotional intensity as melodic elements derived from two of the Psalms come to the fore, while Sinisterly brings a bracing confrontation with the vibraphone and orchestral harp that climaxes in a wide-ranging cadenza then heads into a haunting recessional. Heather Brooks proved an adept and sensitive soloist for one of this composer’s more durable works.
Weilerstein was surely right in his introductory remarks to suggest that William Grant Still’s Mother and Child was tonight receiving its first hearing in the UK. Arranged from the second movement of this composer’s Suite for Violin and Piano and taking inspiration from Sargent Johnson’s eponymous sculpture, its 10 minutes weave diaphanous textures around a melody with overtones of a spiritual and which – as often with this composer – yields an appealing profile. It could yet prove a worthwhile addition to the roster of American works for strings.
The Suite from Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring may need no such introduction, but it remains a testing assignment which the Guildhall CO tackled with increasing confidence. As a rule it was the more animated episodes that came off best, Weilerstein securing playing of no mean verve and rhythmic definition such as propelled the music forward as a cumulative entity. If the culminating Variations on a Shaker Hymn seemed a little too blatant in overall expression, the ensuing postlude struck a resonance through the sensitivity of its realization.
It certainly made for a fitting conclusion to this concert, and one in which the qualities of the Guildhall CO’s playing were enhanced by the consistency of Weilerstein’s insights across a varied and demanding programme. Hopefully they will be back working together before long.
For further information on the Guildhall current season head to their website. For more Joshua Weilerstein head here
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’swebsite. For more on Jess Gillam, clickhere – and for more on El Ultimo Tango, here. For more information on Jaume Santoja Espinós, head to the conductor’s website
Today’s playlist of music for the mind has an orchestral theme, which will hopefully bring you some colour if you’re stuck indoors.
This one features Aaron Copland‘s brightly-scored ballet music Appalachian Spring, the first movement of Rachmaninov‘s Second Piano Concerto, Elgar‘s Sospiri, shorter works by Grieg and Debussy, and Vaughan Williams‘ timeless Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis:
I hope you enjoy it – and stay tuned for some uplifting Friday vibes tomorrow!