Interesting Americana from Marin Alsop in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ives, Copland, Joplin, Gershwin: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop (Conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 22.2.2013 (RB)

Ives: Three Places in New England
Copland: Piano Concerto
Joplin (arr. Schuller):  Suite from Treemonisha
Gershwin:  Rhapsody in Blue

This concert formed part of the South Bank’s The Rest is Noise series, which is a survey of 20th century music. I last saw Marin Alsop at the Proms where she was conducting the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music from the American continent (review). In tonight’s concert she was clearly continuing with this exploration of American music. Alsop introduced each of the pieces from the podium – a regular feature of this series – and the LPO illustrated each of them as she talked. In a change to the advertised programme, she announced that the Gershwin would now be played at the end so that the first half would comprise the two more classically influenced pieces, while the second half would be rag-time and blues. I’m not sure I would describe Ives as classical but I think I know what she means.

The concert thus began with Ives’ Three Pieces in New England which the composer first wrote for large orchestra in 1914 and then revised for chamber orchestra in 1929. This performance was taken from an edition by James B Sinclair which retains the compositional improvements of the 1929 version while restoring the original scoring for full orchestra. The first movement depicts a memorial on Boston Common to a regiment of black soldiers who fought for the North in the Civil War. The LPO’s strings did a good job in sustaining and shaping Ives’ long lines while the spectral shades depicted by the scene were nicely adumbrated. The second movement is a riotous affair which creates a collage of some of the USA’s most famous home-grown tunes. The brass and percussion were clearly having a ball and were rewarded with spontaneous applause at the end of the movement. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced that they nailed the parody and the mocking elements in the score. The final movement is a pastoral which depicts a walk Ives had with his wife near the Housatonic River near Stockbridge. The LPO captured beautifully the transcendent and mysterious elements at the heart of the movement while the climax was perfectly calibrated.

Alsop and the LPO were joined by one of the USA’s elder statesmen of the piano, Garrick Ohlsson, for the Copland Piano Concerto. The concerto is in two movements and has a chamber music feel with the soloist given a very un-showy part. Copland identified two dominant jazz moods – the “blues” and the snappy number – and he experiments with each in the concerto’s two movements. Ohlsson is a very relaxed performer on stage and is economical in terms of movement – a skill no doubt learned from his great mentor, Claudio Arrau. The opening andante sostenuto is a slow blues number and Ohlsson captured the reflective elements of the music and was perfectly at ease acting as a chamber musician with the LPO. In the faster second movement, he handled the syncopations well and formed an excellent rapport with the LPO, particularly the woodwind who did a fine job in bringing out the sprightliness of the score and in characterising some of the vocal lines.

I’m a huge fan of Scott Joplin but his opera, Treemonisha, is not a work with which I am familiar. Joplin completed the work in 1910 and published the vocal score with piano accompaniment the following year. He died before he could secure a production and the work had to wait until the 1970’s when Gunther Schuller prepared a score for full orchestra – Joplin’s orchestration has not survived – and performed the work in Houston. Schuller also prepared an orchestral suite from the work, which combines orchestral movements and vocal and choral numbers with voices replaced by instruments. The opening overture sounds like some of the music to silent films and Alsop and the LPO did a great job in bringing out the brilliance and clarity of the orchestral writing. The LPO responded enthusiastically to the rag-time rhythms in the ensuing character-driven pieces while the soloists taking up Joplin’s vocal lines were all on form. I was struck by the profusion of instrumental colour in some of the pieces and by the funky sound effects, using percussion and banjo. Overall, this was a splendid performance by Alsop and the LPO and I shall now be going to try to find a recording of the full opera.

Ohlsson joined Alsop and the LPO again for the performance of Gershwin’s perennially popular rhapsody. The famous opening clarinet solo did not go as smoothly as it might but in fairness to the performer there was some unwelcome noise coming from the audience at the time which may have proved distracting. Ohlsson deployed a range of touch and tone colour which illuminated the score beautifully and brought out some of the lower and inner parts in a way that I had not heard before. The cadenza figurations were handled deftly and he was completely in sync with the LPO. At times I would have welcomed a greater freedom and spontaneity in his playing – the approach was at time a little too classical – and there were also moments when the balance between soloist and orchestra was not quite right. All in all, however, this was a highly accomplished performance from both orchestra and soloist.

As an encore, Alsop and the LPO treated the audience to a flashy big-band number by James P Johnson, the African-American composer who wrote the Charleston. This went down a storm with the audience who proceeded to give a standing ovation.

Robert Beattie