Expert Treatment of American Composers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Charles Ives, Bernard Herrmann, Aaron Copland, John Adams, Leonard Bernstein: Roderick Williams (baritone), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra ​/ Matthew Coorey (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham 15.5.2013 (CT)

Charles Ives: Variations on America
Bernard Herrmann: Suite from Psycho
Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring
John Adams: The Wound-Dresser
Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

With the prospect of a diverse and intriguing programme of Americana spanning a century of music from a young Charles Ives to John Adams on offer, one might have thought that the CBSO would turn to a conductor of transatlantic heritage for this mid-week concert.

Instead, the Symphony Hall audience was given an opportunity to see the young Australian Matthew Coorley in action with the CBSO once again, a conductor who although starting his career as a horn player in his native Australia, has latterly spent a period as conductor in residence of the RLPO whilst working globally with orchestras such as the Seattle Symphony, BBC Symphony, LSO and Malaysian Philharmonic.

With the shockwave that Andris Nelsons will depart the CBSO to become James Levine’s successor at the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2014/15 season still resonating throughout Symphony Hall, it is likely that discerning regulars amongst the CBSO audience will be subjecting every guest conductor working with the orchestra in the near future to even closer scrutiny than is normally the case and in such circumstances Matthew Coorey will have done his reputation no harm whatsoever with a convincing and authoritative display from the podium that saw the CBSO in sparkling form all evening.

It is remarkable that Ives was just seventeen years of age when he wrote his set of variations on the national hymn America for organ, although it wasn’t until 1963 when the piece was orchestrated by William Schuman that it eventually captured the public imagination.

With Matthew Coorey and the orchestra drawing the glorious eccentricity of the music to the fore, it was very much a case of wit and grit in equal measure as the nuanced tones of muted brass gently enunciating the familiar tones of God Save the Queen collided with the grinding dissonances of the interludes and Ives’ unique take on the polka and the polonaise in a wonderfully wacky concoction that often had the audience laughing out loud.

The contrast with the severity of Bernard Herrmann’s narrative for string orchestra Psycho could hardly have been more marked as the strings of the orchestra found an ominous depth of tone and bite in articulating the music of this most progressive of Hollywood film composers. What fascinates most about Herrmann’s music are the resonances that run arterially through the heart of a score like Psycho, from the desolation of Shostakovich at his darkest, to the spiky irregular rhythms of Bartok and the extended harmonic palette of Berg. Matthew Coorley masterfully cranked up the tension through the enveloping claustrophobia of the eerie threnody at the heart of the narrative to the famous slashing violin glissandi of the shower scene in a potent reminder of the uncanny skill with which Herrmann created his cinematic soundscapes.

For musicians and audience alike, it’s easy to allow the familiarity of a score like Appalachian Spring to spawn a degree of musical apathy, yet in the hands of the CBSO the music was imbued with a spring like freshness, delicate transparency of texture and life affirming wistfulness that in the context of a work like Psycho cleansed the palette like a delicately flavoured sorbet. Matthew Coorley’s precise yet expressive gestures drew playing of sonorous warmth in the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts whilst gently emphasizing the shifting vistas of Copland’s ballet score with an unmistakable air of the open plain.

In the haunted atmospheres of John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser baritone soloist Roderick Williams once again proved himself to be a singer of rare insight. The constantly shifting harmonic haze of Adams’s evocative and imaginative orchestration set the foundation for the resonance and warmth of Williams’ beguiling voice, the qualities of which seemed to be enhanced by the stillness of Williams’s physical presence, his feet barely moving for the duration of the performance as his gaze slowly shifted around the auditorium.

Yet more remarkable however was the sheer clarity of his diction as he enunciated each word of Walt Whitman’s texts with a transparency that rendered the printed word in the programme redundant. Adams’ profound response to the ‘gentle homo-eroticism’ of Whitman’s words is surely one of the most emotionally powerful utterances in contemporary music but it is difficult to imagine it finding more heart rending intensity and poignancy than in the hands of Roderick Williams.

With the orchestra’s brass section augmented by top London session trumpeter Mike Lovatt for Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the threatening yet slinky sounds of the opening Prologue paved the way for a riotous explosion of colour that found the rapid shifts of mood in Bernstein’s music with a potent mix of menace and exuberance. It was possibly coincidence that saw Matthew Coorley occasionally tuck his arms tightly into his sides in a manner strangely reminiscent of Bernstein himself but the orchestra’s response, including the pre-requisite shouts of ‘mambo’, nearly lifted the roof of Symphony Hall.

With a bracing romp through Bernstein’s Overture to Candide forming a fitting encore, the audience departed in high musical spirits allied with the expectation of a further visit to the orchestra by Matthew Coorley in the not too distant future.


Christopher Thomas