Bramwell Tovey Takes Theater Music to the Concert Hall

United StatesUnited States Britten, Tovey, Gershwin, and Bernstein: Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Alison Balsom (trumpet), Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 11.12.2014 (BJ)

Britten: Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon
Gershwin: Catfish Row: Suite from Porgy and Bess
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, orch. Ramin and Kostal

Now in his 15th season as music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, British-born Bramwell Tovey is an entertainer par excellence, but that should not be understood as in any way disprizing his purely musical talents. Quite apart from his easy way of engaging an audience through witty introductory remarks, those talents were agreeably on display in this program, in which he appeared in the triple roles of conductor, pianist, and composer.

The Passacaglia from Britten’s Peter Grimes probably ranks as the most serious and substantial piece on the program, and Tovey led an impassioned performance of it, featuring some beautiful solo viola work from the orchestra’s principal on that instrument, Choong-Jin Chang. But the piece, like the Four Sea Interludes, with which it is often paired in the concert hall, loses a fair proportion of its dramatic power when taken out of the opera house. That is not, I feel, the case with the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story, which brought the program to an exhilarating close with the evening’s strongest combination of music and performance.

Tovey had moved to the piano stool for a high-octane onslaught on Gershwin’s Catfish Row Suite from Porgy and Bess. Back on the podium, he was again clearly in command, yet I never quite lost the feeling that the music’s reliance on one oft-repeated rhythm survives the translation to the concert context even less well than the Britten.

The conductor’s own featured composition of the evening was Songs of the Paradise Saloon, an adaptation of excerpts from his opera The Inventor. The story of the opera, about a real-life con man and mass murderer, must be somewhat unpleasant, but the bar scene that furnishes the musical material for these concert songs consists mostly, in the composer’s words, of “lots of loose life with Bacchanalian intentions.”

Scored for a large orchestra and a soloist who plays several members of the trumpet family, including flugelhorn, the piece works pretty well in concert conditions. I think 25 minutes without anything like a real tune for the trumpet is a bit much—the solo part is based for the most part on detached notes rhythmically enunciated—but played as well as the evening’s guest soloist played it, the music was colorful and inventive enough to give pleasure. Alison Balsom is clearly a virtuoso of the first water, with sure musical instincts and technique to spare—not to mention excellent taste in concert wear, with her leather trousers offset by a light and elegant cloak suggestive of contemporary Belgian fashion design.

The orchestra seemed to be in great shape through the evening, with crisp articulation and tight ensemble in tuttis, and more fine solos on violin and cello contributed by Juliette Kang and Hai-Ye Ni.


Bernard Jacobson