BBC National Orchestra Of Wales - Rhapsody in Blue @ SDH
Friday 15th April 2016
A live recording for BBC Radio 3 took place at St David's Hall on 15th April as the National Orchestra of Wales prepares for a walk across the United States.
Titled "Rhapsody in Blue" due to the inclusion of Gershwin's classic in the second part of the performance, the main focus of the evening shouldn't be on this inimitable piece but rather the range of works being performed, spanning an impressive 80 years' worth of American composition and influence.
Presented by Nicola Heywood Thomas and conducted by Eric Stern, the stage was fully covered by instruments and performers, shiny brass and flickering bows. The first piece of the evening was Harris' "Symphony No. 3", followed by Adams' "Dharma at Big Sur". After the interval came Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and, finishing the performance, was the "Symphonic Dances" from Bernstein's West Side Story. As a collective, the pieces here offer up many classic and contemporary themes in their composition, all the while retaining their American significance and power.
Roy Harris wrote "Symphony No. 3" in 1938 and it quickly became an American classic, often regarded as the first great symphony by an American composer. This praise was apparent from the opening as cellos swell and swirl with hymnal melodies, gathering to an intensity as horns and violins continue with the melody in the second section, playing around with crescendos of crashing timpani and expansive brass in the third. Movements of expressive violins build a sweeter emotive palate, and, contrasted with the rolling build-up and powerful intonation of the final section, it is easy to see how this piece is so highly regarded by its contemporaries and peers.
As the audience was still reeling from the opening piece, next came a more modern addition to the evening in the form of John Adams' "Dharma at Big Sur", partly inspired by the winding sheer-edged roads around America's West Coast. Joining the orchestra for this piece was British Violinist Chloe Hanslip on the electric violin, and, as this piece began, there were hints of Musique Concrete as the instruments provide just intonation during most of the piece. The electric violin glided with such distinctive legato and a timbre akin to a Guqin that it's almost too easy to be enveloped in a decadent tone-induced delirium. We were all enraptured by the music, the gentle exciting electric violin, the trickling percussion and the pulsing strings and horns. A piece almost exclusively written for the ethereal tones of the electric violin, this piece turned out to be the highlight of the night with Chloe Hanslip's enthusiasm being one of the stand-out moments.
After the interval, we jumped straight into the eponymous piece. Instantly recognisable as the clarinet opens up the piece, an instant smile washed over the audience and performers alike. American pianist, William Wolfram joined on the grand piano centre stage, and, as he playfully danced around with Gershwin's wonderful jazz-influenced piano parts, the rest of the orchestra brought around the familiar melodies with knowing smiles. This is the piece everybody was there to hear, and it didn't disappoint; with a feeling of total submission to the music, it's exhaustingly good.
All of the music so far this evening had created a huge atmosphere of defiance and strength; pioneering, powerful and playful in equal parts. Truly the epitome of American ideas and influences, it didn't slow down as the final performance for the evening goes into Bernstein's brilliant West Side Story revue titled "Symphonic Dances". More than a medley from the show, it plays through its key moments with an exciting and fast-paced rhythm, countered with the slower romantic melodies and fierce fighting jazz movements punctuated by the orchestra joining in with fingerclicks and choral shouts of "Mambo!". The percussion really comes into the fore with the swing-era hi-hat work and drum call snare rolls, and the tumultuous ending of the performance deserves a most triumphant round of applause.
It may or may not be hard to believe, but this form of music performed live by such brilliant musicians evokes a massive emotional response from everyone involved, and we were left breathless by the spectacle. These pieces were written by American composers, clearly influenced by the rich history and landscapes of their country. The jazz-flecked works of Gershwin and Bernstein's showstoppers balanced wonderfully with Harris' traditional feelings and Adams' contemporary composition, a superb arrangement by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and a wonderful presentation of American classical music.
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Image credit: BBC website