Adams The Chairman Dances (1985)
Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major K622 (1791)
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances Op.45 (1940)
Oliver Janes (clarinet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Bancroft
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 2 November 2022 [2.15pm]
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Back from its successful US tour (the first such in almost a quarter of a century), the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra this afternoon returned to Symphony Hall for what was a programme of contrasts in which an element of dance seldom lurked far beneath the surface.
Although it is often considered emblematic of his opera Nixon in China, John Adams wrote The Chairman Dances well before completing the larger work – this ‘Foxtrot for Orchestra’ encapsulating much of its atmosphere without being intrinsic to its content. Capricious while shot through with a tellingly distanced nostalgia, this remains among Adams’s most effective concert pieces and Ryan Bancroft secured a fine account whose meticulous attention to detail was not without corresponding panache – down to its percussive ‘winding down’ at the close.
It is (nearly) always welcome when an orchestra’s section leader takes the platform as soloist, as was proven with Oliver Janes in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – easily the most popular such piece in its repertoire yet one that can easily seem bland or even characterless in performance. There was little chance of that here – not least with a swift and purposeful take on the opening Allegro that left relatively little room for lingering over incidental detail, even if something of its underlying elegance was sacrificed with Janes’s powers of articulation pressed to the limit.
This approach paid dividends in the remaining movements, not least an Adagio whose limpid eloquence was conveyed without trace of indulgence or wanton sentiment. The final Allegro, too, had a winning buoyancy – Janes evincing a deftness and spontaneity to which the CBSO responded in kind, and with a surge of energy towards the closing chords. It set the seal on an appealing rendition which, perhaps surprisingly, Janes will not repeat at tomorrow evening’s concert from Warwick Arts Centre – when that by Gerald Finzi will be the concerto on offer.
Soon to take the reins at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Bancroft is evidently a conductor on a roll as was confirmed by his take on Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. A triptych that abounds in felicitous detail (as is often belied, if not actually concealed, by the score’s lack of expression markings), it needs flexible direction for each movement to cohere, and Bancroft had their measure. The first exuded a suspenseful energy that, in its central section, took on a winsome pathos embodied by its alto saxophone melody (affectingly played by Kyle Horch).
Even more persuasive was the sardonic central dance, its waltz motion underpinning some of the composer’s most astringent harmonies as were pointedly emphasized here. If the charged outer sections of the final dance lacked the ultimate in exhilaration, the quality of the CBSO’s response was never in doubt. In the slower middle episode, moreover, Bancroft’s deliberation ideally clarified those frequently dense textures whose expressive poise is achieved, uniquely for Rachmaninoff, without recourse to an actual melody. A sign of things to come, perhaps?
Bancroft will hopefully be returning next season, but the present one continues with events to mark the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth – including two of his symphonies and the film Scott of the Antarctic, for which the CBSO is contributing live accompaniment.