Copland Appalachian Spring; Bernstein Dances from West Side Story; Dvorak New World Symphony

A rich and exciting menu of American music, including two sets of dances by 20th Century American masters.

The first set of dances was a suite from the Ballet Appalachian Spring by Copland which is firmly rooted in the `folksy’ style of American music, with its irregular jazzy metres, and quirky, playful rhythms (with odd beats tossed into the score). This was quite a challenge for the orchestra. The first six bars of Appalachian Spring have different time signatures, which is not apparent to the audience who hear just the hushed sustained opening as an introduction to the characters of the ballet.

This set of dances also gives exposed sections of the orchestra, vigorous angular motifs, and sudden harmonic shifts. The Phil gave this challenging music a very good shot. The lean textures, bold brassy percussion orchestrations and closely knit sonorities within widely-spaced vertical chords that make up Copland’s style are incredibly difficult to achieve. The string section was a little hesitant in its shimmering held chords, and in the transparent acoustic of the venue, every detail was laid bare before the audience. The orchestra relished the Shaker Tune variations. The intonation suffered a little in the spotlight, but there were effective solos from the winds particularly the clarinet.

West Side Story enjoyed its 50th anniversary recently, and the music from it in this symphonic concert suite of dances combines all the elements of the original piece. The funky Mambo had the players calling out with rare abandon – as they also had been young Jets looking for trouble in the opening finger-clicking movement. The orchestra really attacked this piece, given in its slightly abbreviated version. They enjoyed battling the augmented percussion section. The fine brass section provided that char­acteristic American brashness, while the woodwind played with great finesse and control in the Cha-Cha. Morrish, not unlike ‘Lenny’ Bernstein, physically steered the orchestra through the many changes in mood. In the end it was down to tenderhearted strings and beautiful solo horn to seek out the central romantic interest, which I felt was perhaps a little rushed particularly with the Somewhere `big tune’.

After the Interval, the TPO played with equally ear-splitting might and incisive unity of attack, this time in more familiar territory in Dvorak’ s most well loved Ninth symphony ‘From the New Work’. If the symphonic dances before the interval had captured some­thing of the cultural melting pot of New York, this performance was also a musical coalition, mixing folk with quasi-spirituals warmly played at times but also with a deft lighter touch in the scherzo. This movement was not the tap dance it could have been, but it still contrasted well with the wonderfully warm Cor anglais in the Largo, which was beautifully drawn, and not dragged out in any way. The finale was again powerful with all sections of the orchestra giving their all in a really emotive performance to end the evening with fitting panache.

Adrian Pitts