BBC National Orchestra of Wales ends its season on an optimistic note in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Higdon, Dawson: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Ryan Bancroft (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 6.6.2024. (PCG)

Ryan Bancroft conducts cellist Alisa Weilerstein and the BBC NOW

Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B minor (1895)
Jennifer HigdonBlue Cathedral (1999)
William DawsonNegro Folk Symphony (first performed 1934, revised version published 1963)

For the final concert in their 2023-2024 season, Ryan Bancroft and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave Cardiff audiences a rare opportunity to hear William Dawson’s Negro Folksong Symphony. He wrote it in 1925 and revised after a visit to Africa in 1952. To the innocent ear, the rather homespun title might suggest a suite-like confection of traditional tunes in the manner of light music, but the substance is very different. A massive structure of some forty minutes surveys, in three diverse movements, African American origins through slavery and oppression to an optimistic belief in a better future.

The work includes elements and phrases taken from African and American traditional melodies, but those in the second movement are all Dawson’s original compositions in the appropriate style. The programmatic and symphonic elements predominate throughout. Dawson clearly took to heart Dvořák’s advice to future American composers: look to native traditions as an inspiration for their musical development. Dvořák’s apparent influence went further to clear imitation, when the slow movement, subtitled Hope in the night, was introduced by a cor anglais solo. But the extended structures show almost none of the jazz traits one might have expected from a work conceived in the 1920s, and the tone is highly charged and serious.

Dawson’s command of the orchestra was clearly immensely skilful and imaginative. Time and again, textures and sounds which emerged from the score delighted and charmed; they built to excoriating climaxes, including positively Mahlerian screams of anguish during the depictions of slavery. One particularly effective moment came at the end of the slow movement: a three-fold repletion of a simple drumbeat over tremolo string chords, swelling and diminishing. It produced an effect at once gripping and enchanting before the sudden attack into the final movement which the composer requested (a newly edited authoritative score was released online last year).

Sometimes the sheer variety of the individual moments threatened to overwhelm the overall impression, and so the inspiration seemed somewhat short-breathed. But Dawson’s command of orchestral timbres is vastly superior to that of (for example) his recently much-promoted contemporary Florence Price. It is horrifying to discover that, despite the initial success of this symphony, he composed almost nothing else for orchestra. He was consigned instead to teaching and making choral arrangements of spirituals for much of his career.

Some might dismiss a work entitled in a manner seemingly designed to lower expectations. They should take the opportunity to make the acquaintance of this superb symphony when the concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 next week. Ryan Bancroft, as one might expect, fully and enthusiastically engaged with the score, and the orchestra’s playing was white-hot. Excoriating string figurations were tackled with maximum virtuosity and delightful wind playing, as well as characterful brass interjections. A great and welcome discovery.

Before Dawson’s symphony, we had the opportunity to hear Blue Cathedral, a score which Jennifer Higdon wrote in 1999 is memory of her brother who had died young. Her own programme note aptly described the music as evoking the idea of a glass cathedral floating in a cloudless sky; the opening was indeed very beautiful and evocative. But the introduction of a more forthright middle section disturbed the atmosphere for no very obvious reason other than to provide dynamic contrast. Although the restoration of a bell-laden calm at the end was welcome, we have in the past twenty years heard Higdon’s more immediately engaging music. Even so, Matthew Featherstone and Nicholas Carpenter played exquisitely their solos for flute and clarinet, intended to evoke memories of the composer and her brother. At ten minutes, the work definitely earned a welcome to the programme.

Before the interval, we had heard Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, appropriate in this context since the work was originally performed in America during the composer’s sojourn there which also produced his New World Symphony. This is one of the grandest of cello concertos, nearly three-quarters of an hour, and scored for a full-sized romantic orchestra; Dvořák has no qualms here about challenging his soloist to strenuous delivery of the thematic material.

While Bancroft and the orchestra did not stint on the massive sonorities the composer requested, soloist Alisa Weilerstein seemed by contrast to take an almost chamber-music approach to her role. This perhaps reflects her twin specialisations in contemporary music, of which she is a commendable champion, and solo recitals, rather than works such as this large-scale concerto. Even when the composer earnestly instructs the cellist to rise to impassioned declarations marked fortissimo, she seemed reluctant to raise her voice to challenge the domination of the orchestra in the manner that Dvořák clearly seemed to expect. For much of the time, her elaborate figurations simply submerged into the texture. When she could be heard, it was clear that her thoughtful phrasing was exquisite, but much of its effectiveness failed to penetrate beyond the nearest rows of the auditorium. The result was a serious dynamic mismatch between her gently engaged playing and the loudest outbursts of Dvořák’s orchestra, and that could not wholly be attributed to the resonant acoustics of the hall.

I have little doubt that, when the concert is broadcast – it is scheduled for Thursday 13 June – the discrepancy will not be so evident, and the balance will be much more satisfactory. It is certainly thoroughly recommended for listeners either live or on BBC Sounds over the succeeding thirty days.

This year’s programmes from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have been beset by problems. They arose not least from the sudden and unexpected closure of Cardiff’s St David’s Hall as a result of newly-discovered architectural constructional problems. That has necessitated not only the relocation of concerts to the smaller Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff Bay but some changes in the scheduled programmes. Nevertheless, the BBC have continued with some very adventurous programming including a whole raft of new works, and the newly announced schedule for next year – no concerts anticipated for St David’s Hall – seems equally adventurous. The hall for this concert, hardly an obvious audience-pleaser, was very nearly full to capacity, a testimony to the continuing demand in Cardiff for classical music. One hopes that penny-pinching politicians will take note.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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