Live review – Kensington SO / Russell Keable: William Schuman 3rd Symphony, Adams, Bernstein & Tower

Kensington Symphony OrchestraRussell Keable (above)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London. Monday October 15, 2018

Tower Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 (1986)
Bernstein Divertimento (1980)
Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007, rev 2008)
Schuman Symphony No. 3 (1941)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra‘s 63rd season got off to a most impressive start with tonight’s concert of American music (simultaneously continuing the Americana ’18 festival taking place at St John’s during this year), opening with the Fanfare for the Common Woman with which Joan Tower launched her wider reputation over three decades ago. Rhythmically bracing while not without harmonic subtlety, it provided a fitting showcase for the KSO brass and percussion as well as a pertinent tribute to this composer in the year of her 70th birthday.

Leonard Bernstein‘s centenary was marked with his Divertimento, seven succinct movements that touch upon most of his salient traits and a reminder that his latter-day creativity was one where less equals more. Highlights include a delectable Waltz (enjoying frequent exposure on Classic FM), wistful Mazurka, evocative Blues then a rousing March: The BSO Forever whose Johann Strauss take-off duly makes for an uproarious close. Suffice to add the KSO was not found wanting in a piece written for the Boston Symphony’s own 100th birthday.

As Russell Keable‘s opening remarks made plain, John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony was an altogether more serious proposition. First heard at the 2007 Proms, the rather diffuse 45-minute work in four movements was duly streamlined into a continuous structure lasting barely half an hour. Surprising, then, that the result seems less than cohesive – its reworking of material from the composer’s third opera one of cinematic contrast than symphonic unity. Some of his most virtuoso orchestral writing, which the KSO tackled with relish, is hampered by the recourse to post-minimalist gestures that remain Adams’s (unwitting?) stock-in-trade. Even the final section, a setting of John Donne‘s sonnet Batter my heart with its baritone part taken by trumpet (here the mellifluous Stephen Willcox), felt less than truly affecting.

After the interval, a welcome revival (likely the first in London for two decades) for William Schuman‘s Third Symphony. One of a triumvirate of such pieces by American composers to emerge either side of the Second World War, it evinces a formal integration and expressive panache that its composer never surpassed – not least in the way its four movements are arranged in two larger parts such as complement each other unerringly, and with a steadily accumulating momentum which emerges across the whole in what is itself a marvel of tensile dynamism.

Keable delineated the variations of the initial Passacaglia with assurance, ensuring textural clarity here and in the ensuing Fugue while underlining how the numerous woodwind and brass solos emerge naturally from the string polyphony rather than sounding laminated onto it. Nor was there any lack of emotional poise with the Chorale, its understated eloquence in contrast to the inexorably mounting impetus of the closing Toccata whose final pages are as visceral as any in the symphonic literature – not least when rendered with such verve as here.

A memorable reading of a seminal though under-appreciated piece such as the KSO has long championed. Hopefully future seasons will see revivals of comparable American works – the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions and Seventh (Variation) Symphony of Peter Mennin.

For further information on the Kensington Symphony Orchestra you can visit the orchestra’s website

Kensington Symphony Orchestra – 60th anniversary concert

Kiandra Howarth (soprano), Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano), Epiphoni ConsortPegasusVox CordisKensington Symphony Orchestra / Russell Keable

Barbican Hall, London, Monday 15 May 2017

Matthew Taylor Symphony no.4, Op. 54 [KSO commission: World premiere]

Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A near-capacity audience greeted this 60th anniversary concert by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and its principal conductor Russell Keable (below) – who, in a sign of continuity rare in the modern era, assumed that role from the orchestra’s founder Leslie Head over three decades ago.

Throughout its history, the KSO has been an advocate of British music past and present, and this evening was no exception in its witnessing the first performance of the Fourth Symphony by Matthew Taylor. Four years ago, the orchestra gave a memorable reading of his tone poem Storr and this new work was hardly less impressive. An in memoriam to composer and pianist John McCabe, and dedicated to his widow Monica, the 27-minute piece falls into three continuous movements. The first, pointedly marked Scherzo, maintains its initial energy across various changes of dynamics and texture (some evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett) then subsides from its impassioned climax to a central Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and expressive warmth – both amply sustained here.

On first hearing, the Finale buffa was slightly less successful. Beginning at a rather jarring remove from what went before, its nonchalant humour (not a little reminiscent of Malcolm Arnold) sounded forced rather than provocative; its seeming lack of substance not bolstered by a deftly scored intermezzo-like episode which itself waylaid the denouement. This latter, though, was powerfully controlled up to a climax that recalled the work’s opening theme on the way to a close the more decisive for its succinctness; the music literally coming to a halt.

Make no mistake, this was a characterful and absorbing work from a born symphonist, and any reservations about the finale might well disperse in the light of further performances. Not that there was much to fault on this occasion, with Keable drawing a dedicated response from the KSO to reaffirm its status as the finest non-professional orchestra in London (arguably the UK). Taylor’s exacting yet always practicable writing also benefited from the immediacy of the Barbican acoustic, not least that for two timpanists which propelled the opening and close.

Certainly, the orchestra sounded more consistently at its best here than in Mahler’s Second Symphony which followed the interval. This is a work often pressed into service on notable occasions (memory recalls its inclusion in the first concert at Copenhagen’s Koncerthuset in 2009 after the premiere of Per Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony), on basis of its epic conception and overall impact. Qualities as were often in evidence here, not least an opening movement whose literalness did not prevent a pathos emerging out of the music’s heightened emotions.

Both the lilting Andante and sardonic scherzo were fluently if unexceptionally rendered, with Caitlin Hulcup giving a soulful rendition of the pivotal Urlicht setting. Keable then steered a secure course through the vast finale, giving its extremes of motion and expression room to unfold without risk of diffuseness. Kiandra Howarth made an appealing contribution, while the combined choruses saw the climactic setting of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode through to a blazing apotheosis. The KSO’s next 60 years were duly launched in no uncertain fashion.

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website