USA, Britain and Finland find themselves neighbours in Salford

19/10/2016

Kay, Coleridge-Taylor, Sibelius: BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds (conductor), BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 18.10.2016. (RB)

Ulysses Kay – Overture: Of New Horizons (1944)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – The Bamboula (1911)
Jean Sibelius – The Bard (1913); The Wood Nymph (1894)

The BBC Phil do these programmes so well. They rarely fit the standard template and their components often stand away from the core of what you might expect to hear in the concert-hall. First and foremost they are radio studio recording sessions but with a small audience present. This programme along with all BBCPO fixtures at Salford Quays are there as one of the BBC’s sources of recordings to feature in BBC Radio 3’s Afternoon on 3 and then to be accessible for a month or so on BBC iPlayer. A few of them are broadcast live but most, like this one, are recorded for future use. The later often include a few moments of patching to deal with small slips. There are rarely more than a handful. The producer in this case, distinguished one-time baritone Michael George, introduced the concert and assured us the recordings would be broadcast in 2018. From the control-room he directed the making of any mends that were required. The performing space is a huge hall mostly taken up by the orchestral area with about 15 tiered ranks of seating for the audience.

The programme, as usual without interval, was introduced by the Producer at the start of the concert at 2.00pm. One work The Bamboula – Rhapsodic Dance op. 75 picked up on the theme of British music being explored by Radio 3 all the way through to March 2017. Together with the Kay overture it also echoes another subject being explored at a conference in Manchester: Diversity and Inclusion in Composition. Coleridge-Taylor was African-English and Kay African-American.

Ulysses S Kay (1917-1995) graduated from the Eastman School where his teachers were Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. Kay is hardly a household name even among those moderately au fait with the American music-scene post-1945. He saw military service and this overture was written while he was still in the army. The work was premiered in Lewisohn Stadium, NY, on 9 July 1944 conducted by Thor Johnson. It was praised by Yuri Shaporin as a reflection of the composer’s hopes for new bright horizons after the War. He wrote five operas between the 1950s and 1980s. Add to this several more overtures, two symphonies (1950, 1967), a concerto for orchestra, a host of named orchestral pieces, three string quartets (1953, 1956, 1961) and a late work Chariots (1978) premiered by Ormandy and Philadelphians. The overture has a brightness, energy and open-skies appeal that places it alongside other eager life-enhancing American overtures such as Copland’s Outdoor Overture and Bernstein’s Candide. Its sanguine metropolitan drive propels it but there are Far West poetic strands too. There’s a hint of coincidental Rawsthorne in some of the aspiring passages for strings but otherwise, although very individual, it’s in the USA’s triumphant and positive tonal tradition reflected also in works like Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony. I must get my tape of Chariots out and give it a second chance. The Kay overture was not a completely new arrival – it had been played by the then BBCNSO in Manchester and the BBC Welsh in Cardiff in 1971 when the conductor was New York-born Irwin Hoffman (b.1924). The BBC Phil under Storgårds – the latter always an energetic and positive presence; this reflected in his music-making – made the overture fly.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 this week (17-21 October 2016). His Bamboula is a lively concert overture and continues the USA connection, its dedicatees being Mr and Mrs Carl Stoeckel. Stoeckel welcomed the composer to his Connecticut Norfolk Music Festival in 1906 and 1909. It begins in a very imposing manner but includes passages of gracious writing that one can imagine pleasing the audiences of the time at Bournemouth, Llandudno and New Brighton. There is warm writing for the massed strings. The whole sits well with the music of Glazunov and several times made me think of his The Seasons. It was good to welcome this work again.

Then came two orchestral works by Sibelius, a composer Storgårds is very familiar with, having recorded the seven symphonies with the BBC Phil (Chandos CHAN 10809). He knows his Sibelius rarities as well: the three late fragments – possibly fragments of the Eight Symphony – are part of the Chandos set. Here we had one work rarely heard in concert, The Bard with its prominent part for harp and a very early and fairly lengthy (22 minutes) tone poem, The Wood Nymph which sank from sight circa 1900. The Bard was played to its intimate, measured, subtle, self-communing strengths. It progresses through unhurried tensions to statuesque yet terse oratory and then falls away. Its predominantly gentle soundworld is related to Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony. It’s an extraordinary work with an impact you sense rather than instantly feel – certainly not a conventional overture. Then came The Wood Nymph. This is a generously proportioned tone-poem in episodes clearly delineated by brief pauses. The language here is early: that of Karelia and Lemminkainen. It’s an impressive work weakened a little by its episodic format. This romantic music was presented with no shortage of swelling power: ripe assertive trumpets, aerial high woodwind and surging forthright energy in the strings. Episodes that stand out in the memory include a softly glowing interlude about 15 minutes in, a cello solo with accompanying quietly intoning strings and horns subtly touching in and a long and enchanting ostinato for six violins pizzicato. Sibelius knows no restraint in an extended climax where intolerable angst is pounded out and piled high. A long-sustained crescendo thunders and blares in the manner of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. The performance was intense and rejected any sense of mere gap-filling. There was nothing mundane about this. Storgårds and the BBC Phil can, I hope, be relied on to treat us to other non-Sibelian Finnish rarities in the future including works by Raitio, Pingoud and Klami.

Rob Barnett

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