Americana Concert Highlights Carpenter, Copland and Schuman

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Carpenter, Copland, William Schuman: William Wolfram (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Wilson Hermanto (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 18.10.2013 (PCG)

Carpenter – Adventures in a Perambulator (1914)
Copland – Piano Concerto (1926)
William Schuman – Symphony No 3 (1941)


This second programme in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s enterprising ‘Americana’ season opened with John Alden Carpenter’s Adventures in a Perambulator, which, it was intriguing to learn, had at one stage been considered by Walt Disney either for inclusion in Fantasia or as a sequel to it. It would have worked well in that context, since it certainly contains elements of light music with nothing to scare away a paying audience. Carpenter’s imitation of a hurdy-gurdy in the third movement is very smooth, with none of the parodistic elements of out-of-tune pipes that Puccini was to employ in Il Tabarro four years later. The Lake is a miniature impressionist tone-poem, without the stylistic imagination of Carpenter’s contemporary American impressionist Griffes, but nonetheless the emotional core of the work is delectably scored and ends with a poised violin solo sweetly played by Nick Whiting. Carpenter studied at one stage with Elgar, but the latter was more successful in his evocation of canine barks in the Enigma Variations; nonetheless the light scherzo Dogs had plenty of life, although the omnipresent glockenspiel was perhaps a bit too much of a good thing. The final Lullaby began with a swirling clarinet passage rather closely modelled on the music for the slumbering King Dodon in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel, but unfortunately without Rimsky’s glorious melody. The tune, when it did arrive on the cor anglais, was a bit short-winded and repetitive. The passing shadows hardly were allowed to disturb the mood as the baby fell asleep.

The baby would most certainly not have slept during Copland’s Piano Concerto, which opened with a challenge in the composer’s early iconoclastic vein; but rapidly the music settled down into a sweeping string melody (richly played here) and improvisatory blues. The large-bodied orchestral sound challenged, and sometimes nearly overwhelmed, the forceful William Wolfram, but he soon got his own back in the second movement where the orchestra successfully transformed themselves into a thoroughly convincing jazz combo in music that sought to out-Gershwin Gershwin and even seemed to reach forward to Peter Maxwell Davies’s parodies of 1920s swing style. The music here still sounds startlingly modern, but it has an infectious bounce that eludes many of its later competitors. Ironically the music sounded indeed more modern than the Copland score Inscape which we had encountered in the first of the ‘Americana’ series, showing how far the composer’s later move into twelve-tone music sapped his creative vigour. It is all great fun, and the smiling pianist and orchestra obviously thought so too. One would imagine that Jazzbo Brown (the pianist in the opening section of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) would have enjoyed it if he had taken on a bit more ‘happy dust’. Wolfram didn’t need it, raising some audible laughter with his sly delivery of the quirky cadenza passages.

After the interval the William Schuman Third Symphony was a much more seriously minded work, as was testified by the academic forms into which its two movements are cast. The opening Passacaglia was very obviously constructed, with the omnipresent theme often overwhelming with shrill writing for the piccolo, like a rather brasher version of Hindemithian neo-classicism. The busy string writing just before the Fugue was rendered almost inaudible by the forceful brass presentation of the passacaglia theme, and the fugue itself suffered from getting too loud too soon, leaving the music with nowhere else to go except proceed through its academic paces. The re-emergence of the passacaglia theme had none of the sense of inevitability that one finds, for example, in Samuel Barber’s First Essay, although the influence of that score (written three years before) was sometimes very clear indeed. The large orchestral forces employed (five clarinets and four trombones) provided a sound that in the reverberant Hoddinott Hall was overwhelmingly raucous in places.

The Chorale at the beginning of the second movement, scored for lower strings, restored calm; and again the influence of Barber’s First Essay was apparent, although the music lacked Barber’s sheer talent for producing a memorable theme. The addition of a trumpet solo brought us suddenly and unexpectedly into the world of Alan Hovhaness, but not even the following flute solo (expressively played by Matthew Featherstone) could bring the music to real life. The joins in the music were all too obvious, as one short-winded episodic section succeeded another in a long sequence of contrasts. The side drum tattoo which launched the final Toccata came as a positive respite, as the bass clarinet launched yet another fugue (in a theme that is familiar to students of orchestration from its citation in Walter Piston’s textbook). But the whole of this final section seemed more like the conclusion of a ‘concerto for orchestra’ rather than a symphony; an extended cadenza-like passage, manfully played by the orchestral cellos, only served to reinforce that impression. The forceful ending confirmed the feeling that the symphony was being treated as an orchestral showpiece rather than an organically conceived work. Unlike the Piston Sixth Symphony which had been presented in the first ‘Americana’ concert, which had been a real revelation, the neglect of the Schuman Third seemed unsurprising; although one was grateful for the opportunity to hear the work in the concert hall, an experience unlikely to be repeated very often if at all.

The orchestra is in exceptionally fine form at present, although the fluid conducting style of Wilson Hermanto occasionally led to some slightly ragged entries at the very opening of both the Carpenter and Schuman pieces. The concert was relayed live on BBC Radio 3 and also on 267 public radio stations in America, and is available online from the BBC i-player during the course of the next week.

Paul Corfield Godfrey