In concert – Dr Samantha Ege, CBSO Youth Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein: Korngold, Tchaikovsky & Price

Samantha-Ege

Korngold Schauspiel-Ouvertüre, Op. 4 (1911)
Price Piano Concerto in D minor (1932-4)
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888)

Dr Samantha Ege (piano, above), CBSO Youth Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 27 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Picture of Joshua Weilerstein (c) Sim Canetty-Clark

The year’s first concert by the CBSO Youth Orchestra programmed a staple of the symphonic repertoire with two works by composers whose success in their lifetimes subsequently faded almost to oblivion, only to meet with renewed acceptance in a very different cultural climate.

It might have been the first such piece he himself orchestrated, but Overture to a Drama finds the 14-year-old Erich Korngold in command of late-Romantic forces with a tonal opulence to match. Best here are the ominously modal introduction which returns transformed in a defiant peroration, and while the main sonata design rather goes through the motions – not least a ‘by numbers’ development – it engaged due to Joshua Weilerstein’s astute direction, not least his bringing out the wistful charm of its second theme (eloquently played by oboist Elly Barlow).

Florence Price’s Piano Concerto was met with a distinctly equivocal response when given at last year’s Proms, and it made a comparable impression today. The introduction – soloist in ruminative dialogue with trumpet and woodwind – promises much, but the actual Andantino proceeds rather dutifully to a half-hearted climax. This heads into a central Adagio where the piano arabesques elegantly dovetail with instrumental solos (notably cellist Eryna Kisumba) in a manner redolent of Edward MacDowell’s once-ubiquitous D minor Concerto. The final Allegretto unfolds to the rhythm of the Juba (precursor of Ragtime), but the overall effect is tepid compared to its use in Price’s symphonies, even if Samantha Ege (replacing an injured Jeneba Kanneh-Mason) might have made more of its vivacity on the way to a forceful close.

A prominent academic as well as pianist, Dr Ege recently met with considerable acclaim for her album of Price’s piano music Fantasie Nègre (Lorelt), and it would be well worth hearing her in a concerto of greater substance such as those by Adolphus Hailstork or George Walker.

Weilerstein (above) works extensively with youth orchestras, and there was doubting his rapport with these players in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Pensive if never turgid, the first movement’s introduction passed seamlessly into an Allegro whose rhythmic tensility held its expressive fervour in check. The coda’s march-past then found meaningful contrast with the sepulchral start of the Andante, its indelible horn theme (lucidly rendered by Alex Hocknull) part of an inevitable unfolding capped by a stormy return of the ‘fate’ motto and coda of gentle pathos.

Segueing unexpectedly but effectively into the Valse, Weilerstein duly made the most of this music’s elegance and insouciance. Nor did he lose focus in the Finale’s opening restatement of the motto-theme, whose appearance can all too easily pre-empt what follows. There was no lack of impetus as the music built purposefully towards an apotheosis whose affirmation was shorn of bombast, nor any risk of hectoring with the triumphal surge to the close. This is never an easy piece to bring off, and the present performance was rarely less then convincing.

For more information on this concert, click here – and for information on the artists click on the names Samantha Ege and Joshua Weilerstein. Websites dedicated to Korngold and Florence Price can be accessed by clicking on the composer names.

In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Robert Nathaniel Dett – The Ordering of Moses

Ives (orch. Schuman) Variations on ‘America’ (1891/1962)
Bernstein (orch. Ramin & Kostal)
 Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ (1957/61)
Dett
The Ordering of Moses (1937) [UK premiere]

Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Chrystal E Williams (mezzo-soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Eric Greene (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 23 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was an all-American programme, centred as it was upon the first performance in this country for what is likely the most ambitious work by the African/American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943).

Although he gained prominence as a choral conductor (his Hampton Choir having performed for President Hoover and Britain’s Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald), Canadian-born Dett failed to make a lasting breakthrough as composer – his death when barely 61 confining him to a footnote in American cultural history. The ‘sacred cantata’ The Ordering of Moses was a statement of intent when submitted for his MMus in June 1932. Adapted from Exodus and Lamentations, its text describes the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt by the parting of the Red Sea over the course of 55 eventful minutes. The brooding prelude is rich in atmospheric writing for lower woodwind and brass, while the climactic sequence draws wordless chorus and orchestra into a graphic depiction of the ‘crossing’; after which, thanks is rendered unto God in suitably festive terms – Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast an audible precedent. Much has been made of the use of spirituals but, apart from the rallying presence of ‘Go down, Moses’, they serve more a textural and harmonic role in heightening the music’s expressive potency.

A potency owing in no small part to its vocal and choral forces. Eric Greene was predictably sonorous in his eloquence when setting the scene as ‘The Word’, while Chrystal E Williams made the most of her small if crucial part as ‘The Voice of Israel’. Most memorable, though, were those contributions of Rodrick Dixon as the impulsive and ardent Moses, then Nadine Benjamin whose Miriam exuded poignancy and fervour in equal measure. The CBSO Chorus represented ‘The Children of Israel’ in suitably implacable and ultimately affirmative terms.

The whole performance was ably handled by Joshua Weilerstein, who ensured certain more discursive episodes in the cantata’s earlier stages never hung fire and drew a lusty response from the CBSO. Astute programming, moreover, in preceding a still little-known work with staples from the American repertoire. It might not encapsulate the whole of the musical, but Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ captures its essence via orchestration (with judicious assistance from Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) as made a suitable impact here.

Surprising that William Schuman’s bracing orchestration of the teenage Charles Ives’s bravura organ piece Variations on ‘America’ does not enjoy more regular performance this side of the pond, or perhaps the quirky and increasingly uproarious incarnations of what Weilerstein pointedly referred to as the National Anthem of Lichtenstein still rankles with home-grown listeners? Whatever the case, the conductor made a persuasive case for this engaging and effervescent music to be heard more frequently – the CBSO players remaining straight-faced throughout.

It certainly provided an irreverent curtain-raiser to an engrossing programme as may yet have blazed a trail. More little-known American music on Sunday when Weilerstein directs only a second UK outing for Florence Price’s Piano Concerto, alongside Korngold and Tchaikovsky.

For more information on the next CBSO Youth Orchestra concert, click here. For more on the composer Robert Nathaniel Dett, head to a website devoted to his work. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artsts – Joshua Weilerstein, Nadine Benjamin, Chrystal E Williams, Roderick Dixon and Eric Greene

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 – Alina Ibragimova, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Weir, Prokofiev & Beethoven

Joshua Weilerstein 58_credit Sim Canetty-Clark

Alina Ibragimova (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Weir Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1992)
Prokofiev
Violin Concerto no.1 in D major Op.19 (1915-17)
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 7 July 2021 (6.30pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Joshua Weilerstein courtesy of Sim Canetty-Clark; Alina Ibragimova courtesy of Giorgia Bertazzi

While not the centenary season as had been anticipated, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current run of live concerts has nevertheless found the orchestra in great shape, reinforced by the final event that marked an equally unexpected if auspicious debut for Joshua Weilerstein.

He may have substituted the planned account of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, but Weilerstein retained Judith Weir’s Heroic Strokes of the Bow to begin the programme. Although written before her spell as the CBSO’s Composer-in-Residence (1995-8), the present piece is among her most characteristic larger works – taking its cue from Paul Klee’s similarly titled painting for a 15-minute study in frustrated momentum, whereby violins pursue an eventful trajectory constantly undermined by rhythmic discontinuity. A belated coming to the fore of woodwind propels this music towards a peroration which never quite materializes prior to its subsiding then terse pay-off. Not a straightforward or necessarily rewarding piece to tackle, the CBSO strings still sounded engaged throughout a piece typical in its sense of ultimate anti-climax.

Alina Ibragimova then joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, its modest scale and prevailing inwardness only partly belying technical demands that were confidently surmounted here. The partnership with Weilerstein, moreover, was a good one – whether in the first movement’s gradual expressive opening-out from, then retreating-back to sustained lyricism, or the Scherzo’s cavorting high-jinx and playful nonchalance. Ibragimova’s tempo for the finale seemed initially a little too deliberate, but the panache of those brief orchestral tuttis then stealthy intensification to the rapturous return of the opening theme left no doubt as to either soloist’s or conductor’s sense of exactly where the music was going – the violin’s airy arabesques melding into the deftest of orchestral textures for the spellbinding final bars.

The inclusion of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony made for a near full-length concert which, being given twice, says much for the CBSO’s collective stamina. Ensemble faltered slightly in the first movement’s introduction, relatively weighty as Weilerstein heard it, but the main Vivace proved unanimous in response as it was trenchant in conception – highlights being an uninhibited transition to the reprise, then inexorable build-up toward a coda whose clinching of the overall design felt more potent through a slight if perceptible acceleration at the close.

Weilerstein (rightly) went directly into the Allegretto, its alternation of pathos and sanguinity ideally gauged, then the scherzo exuded a joyous animation and its trio an eloquence which was no less apposite. The finale may have lacked its exposition repeat, but the seamlessness with which this movement unfolded left no feeling of its being sold short – not least through an astute judging of dynamic contrasts then a final peroration which, if it lacked for a degree of visceral excitement, none the less concluded this symphony with unwavering affirmation. Hopefully, Weilerstein will soon be returning to this orchestra. Next month, though, the CBSO heads to the Proms for a programme featuring Ruth Gipps’s Second Symphony and Brahms’s Third, along with a delayed premiere for Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel Symphony.

You can find information on the CBSO’s appearance at the Proms at the festival’s website.