In concert – Guildhall Chamber Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein: Music by Andrzej & Roxanna Panufnik, Still & Copland

Joshua Weilerstein 58_credit Sim Canetty-Clark (2)

Heather Brooks (harp), Guildhall Chamber Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

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

In concert – Jess Gillam, CBSO / Jaume Santoja Espinós: Jess Gillam’s American Roadtrip

Jess-Gillam

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

Playlist – Sound of Mind 3: Orchestral

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!

Ben Hogwood

Live review – Anna Vinnitskaya & CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla perform Shostakovich

Anna Vinnitskaya (piano, above), Jonathan Holland (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 16 March 2019

Shostakovich
The Limpid Stream: Suite Op.39a (1935)
Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor Op.35 (1933)
Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Anna Vinnitskaya (c) Gela Megrelidze

With Birmingham Opera Company’s staging of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk having finished its run, an all-Shostakovich concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony was not just apposite but underlined the rapport between the orchestra and its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

The programme centred on Shostakovich’s music before and after an infamous Pravda article irrevocably altered the composer’s evolution. Attacks on The Limpid Stream were admittedly gratuitous; this last of his ballets finds Shostakovich at his most accessible – as witnessed by the suite devised several years later. Starting with a suave Waltz (which found fame as title-music for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), this continues with a vigorous Russian Dance then breezy Galop. The highlight is an Adagio whose soulful cello melody was eloquently rendered by Eduardo Vassallo. A deft pizzicato Polka was a rather inconclusive ending: the uproarious final dance (which follows-on almost continuously) would have made for a more decisive conclusion. No matter, this was still an engaging sequence and captivatingly played.

Shostakovich conceived his First Piano Concerto for his own pianism. Influences derive more from stage and screen than any earlier concertos, but its formal ingenuity is undeniable. Anna Vinnitskaya gauged ideally the first movement’s volatile tempo changes, while the Lento had poignancy and no mean vehemence at its climax; the ensuing intermezzo an upbeat to a finale whose high-jinx were teasingly held in check. Jonathan Holland was engaging in the obligato trumpet part, and the CBSO strings retained their articulation even in the hectic closing pages.

Whether or not an explicit response to that condemnatory Pravda article of January 1936, the Fifth Symphony is crucially important for moving the emphasis within Shostakovich’s output away from the theatrical. Nothing reinforces this more than the opening Moderato, with its individual take on sonata design that Gražinytė-Tyla handled with real assurance – keeping the exposition in motion with a fleeter than usual second subject, before eliding seamlessly into a purposeful development then an anguished reprise and desolate coda. The Scherzo had ironic wit without heaviness, whereas the slow movement impressed through its inevitability of progress towards a central episode of rapt inwardness; after which, the searing climax did not pre-empt the coda with its musing interplay of harp and celesta against suspended strings.

The finale offers the greatest challenges but Gražinytė-Tyla had its measure too, her fast yet never inflexible tempo for the surging initial stages segueing into the central episode with its heartfelt recall of earlier ideas then ethereal searching towards a crowning peroration. Neither wantonly triumphal nor turgidly defeatist, this was a thoughtful yet decisive conclusion to the overall emotional trajectory; maybe those searching trumpet dissonances could have sounded even more baleful, though a sense of coming through against the odds was never in doubt.

This was an impressive account of a symphony which has been much harder to interpret once its ultimate ‘message’ became a matter for debate. Gražinytė-Tyla provided no easy answers; instead, her presenting the work as a cohesive and integral whole was its own justification.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

Unfortunately the concert was not recorded for broadcast, but you can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Anna Vinnitskaya‘s recording of the Shostakovich with Kremerata Baltica:

Live review – CBSO Youth Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru: Copland Symphony 3, Clyne & Szymanowski with Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little (violin) CBSO Youth Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 24 February 2019, 3pm

Clyne This Midnight Hour (2015)
Szymanowski Violin Concerto no.1 Op.35 (1916)
Copland Symphony no.3 (1946)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Concerts from the CBSO Youth Orchestra have long been a regular and welcome fixture on the Symphony Hall calendar, with this afternoon’s programme offering a judicious selection such as ranged across almost a century of music by British, Polish and American composers.

Many CBSO Youth Orchestra concerts feature a world or local premiere, and today started with a first Birmingham outing for Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour. Drawing inspiration (albeit obliquely) from poems by Juan Ramon Jiménez and Charles Baudelaire, this compact piece initially alternates between energy and rumination with steadily accumulating impetus. A pity, then, that the second half rather loses focus through an uneasy amalgam of waltz-like flaccidness and folk-inflected juvenilia; the whole seeming rather less than the sum of its parts.

Tasmin Little (above) then joined the orchestra for Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, now firmly established as a repertoire item after many years on the periphery. Not the least fascinating aspect is its formal ambiguity – the continuous span interpretable both as a three-movement form as well as an extended sonata design.

It was a measure of Little’s insight that she elided between these possibilities in a performance which stressed the music’s organic inevitability as much as its heady sensuousness, abetted by Cristian Măcelaru’s attentive handling of an orchestration as by no means ‘plays itself’ in terms of overall balance. This was evident not least in the rapturous main climax – after which, Little vividly despatched the brief cadenza prior to the coda’s poignant recollection then the disarming evaporation of those final bars.

Copland’s Third Symphony is another piece to have garnered regular hearings in recent years – consideration of its being an anomaly in the composer’s output, by dint of its monumental aspirations, having become secondary to the sheer impact invested into its relatively modest (Brahmsian rather than Mahlerian) dimensions. A quality Măcelaru kept in mind throughout what was a cohesive and convincing account – whether in the steadily arching accumulation of tension then release across the first movement, tensile interplay of energy and nonchalance in the scherzo, or the calmly unfolding sequence of variants on a wistful opening theme that is the slow movement. Not the least significant aspect is the degree to which Copland secures thematic consistency across the broader span in the interests of formal and expressive unity.

The CBSO Youth Orchestra responded admirably, not least when being tested to the limit by the music’s polyphonic intricacy and textural density. Gratifying, too, that the best was saved until last – the finale powerfully launched by a paraphrase on Fanfare for the Common Man, before it heads into intensive discussion of the various thematic strands then builds inevitably to a majestic peroration. In Măcelaru’s hands, the latter conveyed affirmation without bathos – as though to confirm that emotional oneness no doubt at the heart of Copland’s conception.

The performance assuredly left its mark on the Symphony Hall audience, which responded with a well-deserved ovation. Next up is a concert by the CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy – for a programme of Weber, Shostakovich and Dvořák – at Town Hall on Sunday 28th July. You can find out more on the orchestra’s website

Further listening

Unfortunately there are no recording of Anna Clyne‘s This Midnight Hour online currently, but you can hear a recording of her orchestral piece Night Ferry on Spotify below:

Meanwhile Tasmin Little‘s recording of both violin concertos by Szymanowski for Chandos Records can be heard here, coupled with a scarcely recorded concerto by Mieczysław Karłowicz:

Finally Copland‘s Symphony no.3 can be heard below in a famous recording where the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Leonard Bernstein: