Distinguished Playing in American Festival Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bernstein, Gershwin, Adams: Jon Kimura Parker (piano) Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 8.2.2013 (SRT)

Bernstein: Overture to Candide
Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F
Adams: Harmonielehre

American music is an enormous and ever-growing genre, but there is a certain sound that I tend to associate with it when I hear it. Like all these things, it’s a limited definition based on generalisations, but for me 20th Century American works are characterised by a particular quality of brightness. Perhaps I notice it because it appeared at a time when the mainstream of European music was moving away from melodic and harmonic clarity, but for me that brightness is distinguished by aspects such as gleaming brass, sparky winds, chattering percussion and surging strings. Of course, Bernstein’s Candide overture has all these qualities in spades, but once I picked them up my ear was tuned into these aspects in all three of the works on tonight’s programme and, happily, each section of the RSNO gave a distinguished showing in each category.

The other, perhaps even more defining characteristic of American music is the preponderance of snappy rhythms. It’s these that Gershwin’s concerto primarily relies on, and it was to the credit of the RSNO that it was so comfortable with the syncopations of the work; if anything they revelled in the idea that the music was slightly off centre. Beyond the scene-stealing rhythmic moments the concerto has moments of genuine beauty, and the strings inhabited a world of lush romanticism that linked the concerto back to its heritage rather than forward to the world of jazz. Jon Kimura Parker, who knows Oundjian from their days at the Julliard, brings this music to life as if it were his very own. His playing is incisive and exciting, and thrillingly accomplished in the technical aspects, but he tackled everything with an all-important sense of good humour, something that spilled over into his encore – a rollicking rendition of the theme to The Simpsons.

This programme is music for which Oundjian seems to have a special passion, and it showed in the way he shaped each movement of the concerto. The second was supple, with the phrases seeming to flow seamlessly into one another, while the third was precisely controlled, for all its rhythmic adventurousness. He clearly has a particular sympathy with Adams’ mighty Harmonielehre, the pulverising thrill-ride that formed the second half. Adams’ work, inspired by some rather unusual dreams, came at the end of an 18-month long period of writer’s block, and in many ways it’s a comment on the process of coming out of that creative drought. The massive, throbbing opening gives way to Adams’ trademark rippling tintinnabulations before a slow movement full of angst and pain. Named The Anfortas Wound, this movement is a comment on the depression and pain that Adams was feeling during that period, and it shows. The finale brings beautiful relief, but it is hard-won, a struggle that is not completely resolved until the resolutely optimistic final chord of E flat. Adams’ best work seems to operate through contrasts of sweeping lyricism and trance-like undulations which are both hypnotically beautiful and fabulously exciting. It’s not music with which I automatically associate the RSNO, but the sheer kaleidoscope of colour that they unleashed tonight was overwhelming, and by the size and length of the ovation it must surely have won over many audience members who knew little of the work beforehand. Oundjian paced each movement with masterful knowledge of the score and the structure, be it in the massive arc of the first movement or the spellbinding, magically evocative universe of the last. I wonder if this is to be the area of music which he chooses to make his own with the RSNO? Our next opportunity to find out will come at the end of April with another American Festival, this time with Copland, Barber and more Adams. I can’t wait!

Simon Thompson