Americans in Cardiff: BBC NOW Performs Familiar and Unfamiliar Works

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Roy Harris, John Adams, Gershwin, Bernstein:  Chloë Hanslip (electric violin), William Wolfram (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Eric Stern (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 15.4.2016. (PCG)

Roy Harris – Symphony No 3 (1938-9)

John Adams – The Dharma at Big Sur (2003)

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue (1924, orch Ferde Grofé 1926)

Bernstein – West Side Story: Symphonic Dances (1960)

Just before the concert began, conductor Eric Stern engagingly informed the audience that the originally planned running order (to commence with the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue) had been perforce altered because of the difficulties in re-arranging the stage between items. Those listening to this concert (broadcast live on BBC Radio Three) on the BBC i-player should therefore note that the revised order was as shown above, and not as listed in Radio Times.

It was perhaps a pity that the concert had to open with the Roy Harris Third Symphony, not a work that fits easily into the role of curtain-raiser. Of Harris’s thirteen symphonies, only the Third has made any sort of headway in concert halls outside the United States; and although the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Eric Stern had given us the composer’s Ninth in a concert back in November 2013, the result had not been sufficient to persuade at any rate this listener than the remainder of Harris’s cycle deserved further investigation; and although recordings have suggested that at any rate some of the composer’s other symphonies are more worthy of an occasional hearing, there is little doubt that the Third can stake a claim to being Harris’s masterpiece. At the time of its first performance conductor Serge Koussevitsky proclaimed it as the ‘first great symphony by an American composer’ – I would have thought that Howard Hanson’s Second of some ten years earlier had a legitimate claim to that distinction – but Harris himself more sanguinely considered it to be a case of being in the right place at the right time.

Be that as it may, the real problem with this one-movement symphony lies in its lack of sheerly memorable melodic themes; the opening, with its meandering neo-classical lines on strings, lacks a distinct profile although there is plenty of atmosphere generated. And the third pastoral section has an alluring sense of mystery, which Andrew Achenbach in his programme note suggested an evocation of the prairie but which also had a Sibelian atmosphere – the shadow of Hanson’s Nordicism, perhaps? In this performance the balances in the dramatic fugue were not ideal, with the loud brass (with two tubas) dominating the scurrying string counterpoint; but it is hardly Harris’s fault if the final peroration conjures up images of the closing titles of Hollywood Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s. The work was received by the very full audience with polite rather than enthusiastic applause.

With the pace in the Harris generally moderate-to-slow, it was perhaps unfortunate that John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur also is dominated by a pulse that is reflective rather than energetic – even when the music is hurtling along towards its conclusion, the underlying harmonic movement remains steady. Chloë Hanslip, playing an electric violin as specified in the composer’s original score (he has subsequently recast it for cello), made an interesting contrast to the original soloist Tracy Silverman, at any rate as evidenced by the performance the latter gave with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. Hanslip was considerably more refined in tone than the jazzier Silverman, and the results were beautiful in the extreme; and the veiled tone of the orchestral violins allowed the wind-chime echoes of the harps and tuned percussion to resonate with clarity. It was unkind of Keith Potter in his programme note to draw our attention to the Richard Strauss-like chords (think of the ‘Silver Rose’ theme in Der Rosenkavalier) during the transition into the linked second movement, since the similarities conjured up images that I am sure the composer did not intend. And shortly into that second movement, Adams’s use of ‘just intonation’ occasioned a real moment of discomfort with some cruelly exposed high trumpet writing producing some quite unpleasant results. After this the manic drive towards the conclusion was well judged by Hanslip and Stern, although they could not conceal the over-extended nature of the music (Adams clearly anxious to balance the two sections of the score in terms of duration) with results that came close to producing the effect of exhaustion rather than exhilaration.

In the lighter fare that constituted the second half of this concert, the orchestra’s clarinettist Robert Plane clearly enjoyed himself enormously with his jazzily inflected opening to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This sense of fun communicated itself well to the rest of the orchestra – marvellous solos from trumpet and trombone, for example – but conversely the response from the granitic William Wolfram seemed to inhabit a different and altogether more serious world. Wolfram’s playing was impeccable, driving forwards through the music with absolute control and tone, but there was little interplay with the orchestra and indeed the soloist seemed to wish to produce a more seriously ‘classical’ effect than Stern and his orchestra. Oddly this thought seemed to have infected the audience, who delivered a more enthusiastic cheer for Plane’s clarinet than Wolfram’s piano – not, I suspect, entirely the simple result of support for a local favourite.

The final item in the programme, the ‘symphonic dances’ – much more than just a simple suite – which Leonard Bernstein extracted from his musical West Side Story made for a superb conclusion. The listener was struck again and again by the incredibly ‘advanced’ nature of Bernstein’s writing, way outside the usual parameters of the Broadway musical, with the ‘cool fugue’ in particular producing sounds more reminiscent of Stravinsky or Bartók than any other writer of commercial scores. At the same time the soaring lines of Somewhere were gloriously delivered by the BBC NoW strings and horns, and one wondered at Bernstein’s exclusion of other tunes from the ‘show’ which might have provided further lyrical interludes. The downbeat ending, reflecting that of the musical itself, also shows a desire on the composer’s part to avoid conventionally crowd-pleasing considerations. In fact the whole work shows a symphonic cohesion that is lacking in Bernstein’s more discursive symphonies themselves. Eric Stern, with his wealth of experience in Broadway scores, relished the music and obtained superlative playing from the orchestra.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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