Lammermuir Festival (4): Gala Concert for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Lammermuir Festival (4): Rossini, Menotti, Dvořák: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Grams (conductor), Jennifer Koh (violin). St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington (Scotland). 22.09.2011 (LV)

Rossini: Overture to William Tell
Gian Carlo Menotti: Violin Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony No 9, “From theNew World”

To celebrate the centenary of one of East Lothian’s most celebrated former residents, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, along with Jennifer Koh, used one of its twice-yearly visits to St. Mary’s to play Gian Carlo Menotti’s Violin Concerto. It was a gala affair in the old parish church, with titled royalty mingling graciously with commoners. The musical centerpiece, commissioned in 1952 by the legendary Efrem Zimbalist and premiered a year later with the Philadelphia Orchestra, is a heavily conservative but thoroughly brilliant work that gives the soloist and orchestra plenty to do, and the audience plenty to enjoy.

Simply put, the 25-minute virtuoso showpiece is characterized by lots of singing, colorful and inventive orchestration (which makes one long to call the timpani “kettle drums”) and an underlying vein of bittersweet lyricism which is echoed most often in the strings. The slow movement, punctuated by exhilarating brass chords and momentarily disorienting dissonances, finds the soloist in a dialogue with the oboe reminiscent of the Brahms violin concerto. A short but thrilling cadenza ends in oddly martial triplets, leading to the return of the big tune in the strings before finishing unresolved. The last movement opens with splendid French horn calls, before giving way to a series of episodes which recall the spiky antics of Prokofiev and the sexy street smarts of Leonard Bernstein’s musicals.

The young American Andrew Grams and the orchestra gave Menotti and Koh everything they needed to achieve a triumphant success. As she had been two nights earlier, Koh was once again in a terrifically intense mode. But here she moderated her approach enough to discover and explore the music’s gentler veins. Granted, Koh had worked with the composer before making her critically-acclaimed recording for Chandos; it would be interesting to hear a more expansive, less edgy reading.

The Dvořák Ninth Symphony was less successful, mostly a routine run-through albeit with some gorgeous work from flutist Rosemary Eliot and guest leader Victoria Sayles. Some of the problem might have been the Church’s configuration, which seemed to place the brass and percussion 20 meters from the podium. Pairs of Fritz Reiner binoculars – the kind one of his Pittsburgh double bass players jokingly used at a rehearsal to see his mythically tiny beat – would have been in order. (And principal double bass Nicholas Bayley actually was situated behind one of the Church’s massive pillars.)

The evening opened with a brilliant performance of the Rossini William Tell overture highlighted by principal cellist Martin Storey’s elegant solo and gorgeous work from the entire cello section. Warming up before the concert, Storey had been playing Bach’s G Major Cello Suite; when I asked him later if this was his usual preparation for playing William Tell, he admitted that he was practicing for a trip to London the next day where he was going to play the Bach at his brother’s wedding.

It’s like that  , where abundant touches of a warm human nature, despite the sporadically inclement weather and even the presence of grumpy music critics, are always part of the inspiring landscape.

Laurence Vittes