If you ever wondered what a heady cocktail is like, all would have been revealed, if you’d been lucky enough to have been in the Guildhall, to enjoy our own Plymouth Symphony Orchestra’s (PSO) triumphant return to the venue, after some two years’ Covid inactivity.
3 celebrations rolled into one
Conductor Anne Kimber had chosen a barnstorming programme with a strong American connection, intended to incorporate last year’s aborted Mayflower 400 Celebrations. November to our American cousins means Thanksgiving, and because Independence Day back in July was also hit by Covid restrictions, we finally ended up with a joyous mix of all three celebrations rolled into one.
A wonderful renaissance
And what a fabulous evening’s music-making it turned out to be, made all the more rewarding by being a complete sell-out – such a wonderful renaissance for the Guildhall as a concert venue once more.
Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ provided a most impressive concert-opener, where the inspired contribution from the percussion really motivated the robust brass section to let rip, playing with sufficient confidence as to avoid scarcely a split note, or missed harmonic.
If the strings and woodwind had been able to sit out the first number, then they – as well as the rest of the orchestra – certainly got their comeuppance in the next work, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’. The eight dances include a fascinating array of numbers from the musical itself, and, with their sheer technical demands, pure razzmatazz, rhythmic complexity and wide emotional range, they could easily be set as a ‘test piece’ for symphony orchestra, just as in the parallel world of brass bands.
While Bernstein, as conductor and pianist, was fully at home in the realm of classical music, his compositions are more heavily jazz-inspired, in terms of harmonic palette, timbre, big-band effects, complex rhythm patterns, and the frequent use of rhythmic ‘licks’. To the seasoned wind players drafted in on the night, this style of playing holds little, if any surprises.
Coaxing and melding
But string-players are generally less exposed to this manner of performance. However, the PSO strings had obviously done their homework, and used the notation on the written page more as a guide initially, coaxing and melding this into a more natural, jazz-inflected phrase.
In the up-tempo dance numbers, the orchestra was so fortunate to have such a first-rate expanded percussion section, which effectively provided the motive power and engine to so much of the writing, and in such a superb fashion. However, this being Bernstein, there were also lyrical moments in the score, which gave the first-rate string section a real opportunity to demonstrate their fully-rounded tone, under the secure and confident lead from Cath Smith.
I doubt whether the choice of the evening’s concerto needed too much deliberation, given that, while there are many examples by American composers, they’re not really crowd-pullers as such. The music of George Gershwin fits the bill to a tee, and while he did write a Piano Concerto in its own right, arguably one of his most popular works still has to be his ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ – a single-movement jazz-inspired work for piano and orchestra.
Magic ‘House-Full’ signs
Unlike some of her colleagues, Anne Kimber has got the right formula for effective programming, which nearly always pulls in a large audience, or, as on this occasion, those magic ‘House-Full’ signs. She knows what her audience likes, and always aims to give it to them – a win-win situation that works a treat. But she also realises that people expect to hear a soloist, but as these rarely come cheap, she has to don her accountant’s hat, since the need to balance the books is always a matter of great concern. Therein is a further dilemma: should she choose any of the thousand or so unknown young performers out there, or go for a big name with a large fan-base, in an attempt to maximise ticket receipts, thereby keeping funds healthy enough for seasons to come?
On this occasion, Anne’s women’s intuition couldn’t have been more dependable, when she decided to bring back top international British pianist and teacher Joanna MacGregor as the evening’s soloist. With almost the skill of a forensic scientist, Anne appeared to have matched all the work’s attributes and requirements to Joanna’s DNA – creating a perfect match.
Of course, there’s a clue in the title – ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Gershwin could have called it ‘Concertino in Blue’, which would still have accommodated its ‘blue-note’ jazz idiom, as well as its single-movement structure. On the other hand, and I quote, ‘a ‘Rhapsody is a free instrumental composition in one extended movement, typically one that is emotional in character’. Furthermore, it’s a show piece, where Gershwin uses all the tricks in the book to great effect, where the overall thrust is essentially more pzazz than finesse as such.
Joanna is a classical player, but who is also completely at home in the world of jazz. In the latter, for example, she never fights shy of tweaking bits of the score, substituting ‘swung quavers’ for ‘straight’ or taking liberties with some of the tempi and dynamics, when so inclined. But this, it could be argued, is all in keeping with the work’s ‘rhapsodic’ nature.
She is also the ultimate showman – or ‘show-person’, if I really must – who, from the moment she came on stage until her departure, literally had everyone spellbound by her genial personality and larger-than-life presence. Mind you, her resplendent ‘white tuxedo’ outfit’ did play its part in the illusion.
With a nod in the direction of clarinettist Patrick Saunders for getting things off to a great start with his well-judged iconic opening-glissando, we were then treated to a uniquely-personal interpretation by Joanna, a performance of real power, especially in the double-octave passages, where it was good to hear the stalwart Steinway Grand getting such a vigorous workout, yet with sufficient left in the tank to see out the work’s adrenaline-charged close.
For some of his early life, Gershwin was a ‘song-plugger’, literally plugging his tunes on Tin Pan Alley, where he would no doubt often slip in little rhythmic extras, or tweak the tempi and dynamics, if he felt this would help make the result more attractive, and hence more saleable. Joanna MacGregor was merely following in Gershwin’s footsteps, when she sought to do the exact same on the night. Whether purist or freethinker, it would be hard to refute the overall effectiveness of Joanna’s interpretation, just as some will prefer their New-York steak served up ‘rare’, while others favour will go for ‘medium’ or ‘well-done’ – ‘chacun à son goût’, I’d say.
After such an electrifying performance and Joanna’s generous little encore of Gershwin’s own song-arrangement of ‘The Man I Love’, Anne Kimber had wisely chosen a tried-and-tested work to round the evening off on a continuing high – Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony – a perfect fit a programme of Anglo-American celebration and harmony.
Much of the ‘New World’ symphony is already familiar to classical-music aficionados, and which the eighty-or-so PSO players vividly brought to life so vividly under Anne Kimber’s inspired direction. From the full might of the brass, Becka McClaughry’s heartfelt cor anglais solo in the Largo, to the rich, warm string tone that emanates from each and every desk – these are just a few of the many qualities of this amateur symphony orchestra with realistic professional aspirations, that has been providing a musical focus in the city since 1875. This was PSO at its very best, and for me, the highlight of the programme overall.
PSO will be back in March with another great programme – Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ Overture, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, and ending with another seasoned crowd-puller – Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. So here’s hoping for another ‘Full House’ on that occasion – in the meantime, we must all continue doing our bit to ensure that this will go ahead as planned.
Philip R Buttall
top image: Leader Cath Smith acknowledging the applause
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