MSO: American Panorama

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Published: 6th November, 2014

A recent sunny Sunday afternoon seemed the perfect day for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concert of popular and new American music. Guest conductor was Keith Lockhart, the esteemed Chief Conductor of the Boston Pops’ Orchestra who, from the outset, appeared to relish his return visit to an orchestra that responded well to his distinctive style.

If the second half of the concert was groundbreaking, the first relaxed the audience with tried-and-true composers and mostly familiar works. The Overture to Bernstein’s Candide was ideal music for the MSO, the mass of sound and the resulting enjoyment outweighing the more picky question of balance within the orchestra. However the experienced Lockhart was careful to observe conventions such as the quieter repeated phrases for the winds. The strings had a warm embracing sound that avoided schmaltz, Lockhart’s grin inviting the orchestra to have fun with what they were playing. The sheer pace of the work set a challenge that was well met.

In his address to the audience Lockhart gave credit to Dvorak as “a cheerleader for American music” so it was a pity then that no Dvorak was played! However there was no lack of acceptable substitutes. Gershwin’s Preludes arranged for orchestra had the interest of innovation (which would later be seen to link with the spirit of the second half of the concert.) This work had overtones of Rhapsody in Blue;  it was  immediately charming and people clapped after the first of the three preludes. The second part recalled Porgy and Bess with a lazy bluesy sound enhanced by the winds’ performance and careful attention to dynamics. The third was a little like “It ain’t necessarily so”, in its rhythm if not its tune. Its abrupt ending took the audience by surprise, but they applauded most enthusiastically for the work in toto.

Next was Aaron Copland’s music from Rodeo, another popular composition, although the first selections were less well-known. The first saw a very clean entry from all with a brassy ring to it. The trombone solo was surprisingly light, almost matching Geoffrey Payne’s trumpet. There was percussion for emphasis in the final rhythmically various section and a quite stylish ending. It goes without saying that this could not have been achieved without such fine musicians as make up the MSO.

There followed a section played by strings with a beautiful slow soft opening, punctuated by almost bluesy trumpets and backed by winds. The brass instruments – this time in the form of the horns – entered and soon led to a lilting melodious strings and winds section, with a folk song sound to it. Lovely. But the audience was perhaps impatient for the big finish, (which is often played as a solo work). This was achieved with a crisp vigorous sound, after development including noteworthy solos and dialogues ending with a controlled but exciting tutti.

One of the world’s most successful contemporary composers, John Williams is gaining more acceptance on the concert platform. The choice of Far and Away showed why. It referenced that much earlier film composer Eric Korngold, and was truly filmic in its creation of scenes suggested by a drum roll in the minor key, ominous winds with a change of pace to a reel type dance, and the flute recalling a different kind of folk sound (possibly of the British Isles). There was some fast fingering by cellos and basses as the sound swelled to a great crescendo and a thoroughly satisfying resolution in the major key.

So much for the familiar. After interval the orchestra and conductor let us straight into the world of jazz and the great pianist and composer Dave Brubeck … and his son Chris Brubeck, a contemporary composer.

First up was Chris Brubeck’s arrangement of his father’s Blue Rondo a la Turk, originally on the 1959 recording Time Out. The work was one of the most rhythmically challenging items on that recording and Chris Brubeck did not try to change that. But where it may have been challenging enough for a jazz quartet it had a hugely extended dimension by being arranged for orchestra, with so many musicians still needing to be in perfect sync! The musicians not only achieved this, they found themselves taken into unusual territory, for example, occasionally clapping instead of playing.

If the music sounded more like Gershwin than Dave Brubeck or even about to break into Henry Mancini that was no criticism of the arrangement. It was probably inevitable given the hugely extended scope of the work. There were many in the audience who would be familiar with the original Brubeck sound, which was of course sensationally cool for its time. That subtly made the point that age – either of the listener or the music – has nothing to do with the worth of a composition.

It would surely be the ultimate compliment to an ensemble to be included in the title of a composer’s work. This is what happened with Chris Brubeck’s second contribution to the program, the concerto Travels in Time for Three. A clever title, as the soloists comprised a jazz trio called Time for Three – plus a drummer who instruments took up a large portion of the front of the stage!

Taking the form of a concerto in three parts with the middle movement being slower, this work was however unlike any other concerto this reviewer has heard. To begin, the strings of TFT were in conversation with the strings of the MSO soon joined by the guest drummer. From here the jazz musicians became the soloists with the orchestra which  naturally had a tendency to overpower them. In part this was overcome by solos and their prominent position on the stage.

The jazz ensemble could no doubt fill Hamer Hall on its own account, being at the forefront of exponents of the genre. As such, it proved a more then worthy soloist with this orchestra, creating a memorably different experience for the audience..

There was a great connection with the first half of the program in this exciting music from the new world. As with the previous work timing was everything and it was always secure. The rousing big cheers after the first movement did not seem out of place. There were more surprises for the audience in the second movement as the drummer made music circling a large glass, as the orchestra played pizzicato. Many influences on American music were referenced as the sound built massively to end the movement. Next, quartet and orchestra joined in a lush Hollywood type sound. Why the audience applauded here is unsure and it rather broke the mood this time.

In timeless style the TFT bass-player clicked his fingers to draw in the other players. A violin solo was much more abstract while brass players did some clapping and the orchestra members, not to be left out, breathed “Yeah”, (to the amusement of the audience). The trio had a last chance to show off its talents before they swung into a rhythm with an easy lilt worthy of Copland. Again there was syncopation, thrilling brass – and the MSO providing the ultimate big-band sound. What a great piece and a worthy end to the concert!