Plenty of Swing and Attack in RSNO’s All-American Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adams, Bernstein, Barber, Gershwin: Robert McDuffie (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.3.2015 (SRT)

Adams:        Tromba lontana
Bernstein:  Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
Barber:        Symphony No. 1
Gershwin:  An American in Paris

In Peter Oundjian’s first year as RSNO Music Director, American music featured fairly strongly, including two American Festival concerts which spawned two very successful CDs.  It’s good to hear them in similar repertoire again, because I think it suits their sound very well.  They were as bright as a button in An American in Paris, for example, with plenty of swing and clear attack, plus a brilliantly sleazy trumpet that cut through the texture like a laser beam.

 Likewise, in Adams’ Tromba lontana they had a clean, very focused sound that was just forward enough to give light to Adams’ trademark tintinnabulations and gentle chuggings.  I couldn’t get so excited about Bernstein’s Serenade, but that’s principally because, regardless of the quality of the playing, I find it hard to get excited about Bernstein’s concert works, too often a hotchpotch of different things that sound as though they’ve been sellotaped together rather than integrated as a whole.  That’s not to criticise Robert McDuffie’s playing, which was open, communicative and expressive: I simply find the Serenade a difficult work to love with its episodic nature and its contrasting blocks, albeit with some lovely passages which came across well tonight.

 Barber’s First Symphony was another matter, though.  I hadn’t heard it before tonight, but its extrovert lyricism quickly won me over.  The orchestra seemed to love it, too, with its sweeping, Romantic strings, chattering winds and ringing brass which seemed to set a seal on the gloriously confident sound.  Barber structures the work in one continuous movement, a bit like Sibelius’ Seventh, but much more straightforward in this case, with clearly signposted sections and very attractive melodies.  The climax, the beautiful slow section with its sensational oboe solo, was really worth waiting for, as was the concluding Passacaglia which was purposeful without sounding driven and showcased glorious, surging strings.  The soaring climaxes, of which the work has a few, confirmed that Barber knew how to push all of his listeners’ emotional buttons, but he could do so with panache and very winning style.


Simon Thompson

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