United Kingdom Bernstein, Martin, Gershwin: Matthieu Eymard (vocalist), Mark Bebbington (piano). London Voices, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Robert Ziegler (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 5.7.2023. (CC)
Bernstein – On the Town: Three Dance Episodes (1944)
Manu Martin – Lim Fantasy of Companionship (2021, UK premiere)
Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue (1924, orch. Grofé). An American in Paris (1928, ed. Clague)
A varied programme here, two composers of iconic Americana bookending the UK premiere of a work of fascinating (and somewhat complex) gestation. Leonard Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On The Town began the concert. The music is expert and, as one might expect from Bernstein, extrovert in its first movement, ‘The Great Lover Displays Himself’. Robert Ziegler encouraged the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to their very best: ensemble was notably tight, particularly from the brass. Outrageous was the word that sprang to mind; initially for the central pas de deux, ‘Lonely Time,’ the music expands into great Romantic arches as the ‘lover’, Gabey, watches another sailor dancing with a girl. Ziegler paced it perfectly; the music ached and yearned. The final ‘Times Square 1944’, a depiction of vibrant city life, was zany in this performance, and at times seemed Joplinesque. It balanced the work’s opening panel perfectly.
The second half was all-Gershwin, Mark Bebbington was in fine command of his instrument; as was the RPO’s Principal Clarinet, Katherine Lacy, for her opening solo in Rhapsody in Blue. The perennial favourite here enjoyed a truly Hollywood-like sense of expansion under Ziegler, who ensured the long melodies were fully relished. Bebbington, a pianist I have long admired but only previously heard on record, plays with great attention to detail – clarity was exemplary – and a sure sense of swing. Ziegler also led a superb performance of An American in Paris, an extended tone poem full of delightful touches (including brass depicting car horns). There are significant solos here for solo violin, and RPO leader Eugene Lee was in total control, projecting perfectly. But it was Ziegler’s ability to combine discipline with true Gershwin style that was so impressive.
In between was Manu Martin’s Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra (with choir and popular music soloist-singer). A bass and electric guitar join the traditional symphony orchestra just as the music itself blends popular and classical. Martin is an excellent composer of popular music (he composed six tracks on Florent Pagny’s platinum album Aime la vie). In 2017, Martin joined Dr Susan Lim’s ALAN project, a ‘cinematic adventure’, and was commissioned to create this half-hour, six ‘act’ Fantasy. In the musical ALAN, a plush toy, refuses to be constrained – the storyline embraces both synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. Eventually it teleports to its human companion and the two are quantumly-entangled forever.
The creators of the project as a whole are Susan Lim and Christina Teenz Tan. Both work in the medical profession. Susan a retired surgeon of note, pioneering in liver transplantation and surgical robotics, who holds a doctorate in transplantation immunology form the University of Cambridge. Tan graduated from the University of Melbourne in medicine and is a Neurology resident at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles. The inspiration for the project dates from 2004, when Lim started surgical training with a robot (called ’Zeus’) in Santa Barbara, with the intent that the combination of human and machine could result in achievements impossible by either alone. Later, she lectured on the importance of ’companionship’ as regards the future of robotics. The disruptive technologies of our time are collectively a vital cog in the project’s machine. Lim and Tan are co-lyricists for the songs of the project (the Lim Fantasy ends with a song, ‘Teleportation’, sung unforgettably at the Cadogan Hall by Matthieu Eymard).
The world premiere and recording featured pianist Tedd Joselson, who came out of retirement to record the piece (a film of the premiere is available on YouTube). Three years ago, it was a pleasure to meet Joselson and to hear him at Abbey Road Studios at the sessions for the Signum Classics recording (I seem to remember an inanimate toy figured largely in the studio). Good to see it out in the world now. The title of the piece was generated by AI (Artificial Intelligence); the piece is so relevant to today, perhaps more so than envisaged at creation. Bebbington gave the work his all, his sound a little harder, certainly more brittle, than Joselson’s. The music is filmic, with wordless chorus adding a post-Scriabinesque aspect (think Mysterium). There is a distinct Hollywood tinge to both orchestration and in the approach to harmonic arrivals, while the primal use of percussion in ’Tribal Bushman Song’ is most effective (act 6). All credit to Principal Cello Chantal Webster for her contributions, too.
Bebbington realised that less is more, which stopped the music from moving too close to schmaltz. Many moments of magic are included in this score. I remain unsure as to whether the song at the end is the finest close, but there is no doubt the transition into the song itself is masterly managed.