MSO: An American in Paris

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Published: 2nd November, 2015

An American in Paris was both the title of this Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert and theoretically the link for the three works. Though conductor Nicholas Milton made a case for this proposition, as composers Gershwin, Ravel and Saint-Saens are so distinctive as to defy attempts to connect them easily. In any case the capacity audience was there for the music and appeared well satisfied with what was played.

Gershwin’s An American in Paris was the natural choice to begin. Although it was meant to suggest Paris, the composer’s distinctly American style could hardly avoid suggesting New York itself. The bustling instruments, urgent tempo and blaring car horns, common to both cities, were well conveyed … with a little background help from the Melbourne traffic noise, which intruded into the Town Hall! To begin, there seemed to be a slight unevenness in the tempo until the work settled in but greater control for the second major theme, the hushed dreamy effect of winds and strings suggesting night and the blues. The brass players in particular relished the chance to convey that sound, while the concertmaster Dale Barthrop showed the way back to the fast, feisty and urgent cityscape with a coda-like end for emphasis.

Next was Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, a logical progression in the program suggested by Martin Buzacott’s program notes which referred to Ravel’s admiration for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. There was plenty of interest in this composition but from where I was sitting the overwhelming impression was of the brilliant performance by youthful soloist David Fung (pictured). From the outset it would pyrotechnics for pianist and a similar frenetic sound for the orchestra as it was for Gershwin. The work was not without melodic charm, however, with the theme of the first movement played lovingly by Fung, the harp a perfect accompaniment. The orchestra gave of its best whatever the tempo, and the first movement ended with a great flourish.

The piano solo to begin the adagio was slow but had an interesting rhythm, the contrasting dynamics although mostly soft were augmented by the winds, with this section taking over as “soloist” as the piano appeared to search the entire keyboard for contrast and interest. Fung dealt with this flurry of ornamentation which continued in the third movement, Presto. There was no rest for the piano as it raced through the third movement with the orchestra, the brass and lower strings as busy as the rest in this percussive chase. In such enjoyable busyness the pianist’s contribution could well be lost but the encore gave us more of the same and earned Fung very well-deserved applause.

After interval came the great work of this concert – the Saint-Saens’ organ symphony, such a giant of the repertoire that it was surprising it had not featured much in the advertising for the concert. At this point of course we were getting further and further away from the concept of an American in Paris! But it really didn’t matter. It was a thrill to see Calvin Bowman in the organ loft to play the great Melbourne Town Hall instrument, especially as the absence of an organ in Hamer Hall has left audiences deprived of this great work and others – such as the Poulenc.

The orchestra and conductor deserve equal attention in the performance, as this is truly a symphony, in which the organ plays an impressive part but is not a solo instrument in the sense of a concerto. The violins and winds introduce the introspective theme joined by brass and pizzicato cellos. The work moves slightly and already has a forte dynamic before the organ enters.

There are hints of great power in the work, even before the organ joins the orchestra. A quite lovely melody is hugely built up in a long development with brass to the fore and a strongly rhythmic sound. At last into a silence comes the deep slow notes of the organ and a chorale like melody from the strings, with the organ having a layer above the brass in this solemn slow theme. The subtle importance of the pizzicato cellos and basses was beautifully controlled by the conductor.

Calvin Bowman’s performance was all that was expected and hoped for. But it must be said that the organ part in the second part of the symphony overpowers everything that comes before. After a quite long orchestra development the organ enters with a powerful chord and continues to punctuate the orchestral activity with music including the well-known theme. The final maestoso could hardly be a fuller sound, with orchestra and organ combining for a quite sensational ending.

The one disappointment was that, having said how inappropriate an encore might be, Milton gave us one! Yes it was fine playing and very popular music, but it did somewhat detract from the power of what had gone before.

To end on a more positive note, an unexpected bonus of this program was that it showed the strength, versatility and fine quality of the brass section of the orchestra, which too often plays in the shadows!