Detroit Symphony Orchestra – 6th October

Michael Daugherty
Rosa Parks Boulevard (Motorcity Triptych)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat (Emperor)
Arvo Part
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Symphonic Dances

Lars Vogt (piano)
Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 October, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Great, given 11 September and the continuing aftermath, to welcome an American orchestra, even if this was a curious concert, one lacking a sense of occasion. With at least two well-attended receptions on the go, and only the stalls and terrace areas occupied by the audience, I speculated how many people present were uninvited and paying! No press pack was offered, just a skimpy programme: quite where London came in the Orchestra’s European Tour schedule I know not. Nor can I confirm that if Daugherty’s piece was a European, UK or London premiere – one of those, presumably, given it dates from last year; nor indeed how ’Rosa Parks Boulevard’ fits into Motorcity Triptych (not even the composer’s note gave that away!).

Nor was any mention made that the tour should have been with the Orchestra’s Music Director, Neeme Jarvi, and that he is under doctor’s orders to rest. Leif Segerstam, no stranger to the DSO it seems, was an admirable replacement. Except that is in the single encore, a crassly vulgar Brahms Hungarian Dance No.1, in which Segerstam elongated the pauses and brought to a standstill this one of only three (of twenty-one) Dances that Brahms himself orchestrated … though this wasn’t the composer’s scoring. This version had extra percussion and exacerbated Segerstam’s crudity, giving the guy on the cymbals an excuse to bash way, which he took at every opportunity!

What a mix the DSO is. It has a wonderful string section: gloriously silky violins (Concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert is a rich-toned and generous player) and quite exceptional violas and cellos. The woodwind section, and horns, are characterful and tonally distinctive – a truly cultivated unit. However, trumpets and trombones, while accurate and reliable to the semiquaver, are searing and over-loud. Metallic percussion takes no prisoners – a cymbal-clash in Detroit means something! – while skin instruments, timpani especially, are more with the Orchestra’s generally mellifluous character. Quite why a few sections depart this trend is curious, especially as the DSO doesn’t appear to be a powerhouse band. It is though a virtuoso one, despatching the Rachmaninov with enviable unanimity and dexterity.

Leaving the encore aside, Segerstam has the measure of the music he conducts – and this was a varied programme. His Beethoven accompaniment was attractively lucid and buoyant, one with woodwind to the fore, which Vogt delicately accommodated. Elsewhere his steely fingers added ice to Beethoven’s cocktail of humanity and heroism. Yet he too often appeared indifferent to his task, which made certain chordal overemphasises rather gratuitous and, in the finale, a number of finger slips more significant than they might otherwise have been.

Similarly in Rachmaninov’s first Dance, Segerstam over-stressed while indulging ritardandos. He did though get ’Non allegro’ spot-on, with a tempo as judicious as Eugene Ormandy’s, the first conductor of Symphonic Dances. Segerstam’s ability to obtain transparent textures and a wonderful lightness of sound paid huge dividends in Rachmaninov’s ’swansong’, written for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1940. Initially lacking the scorch of Rachmaninov’s final creative fire, Segerstam bit-by-bit justified the title – for me it’s Symphony No.4 – with playing and detailing that sketched the music rather than applying it in colourful clumps (although the opening movement would have benefited from a less-dry saxophone solo).

For Segerstam, Rachmaninov doesn’t swoon or come from Hollywood; there’s no need to saturate textures. Indeed, he underlined the music’s austerity – harmonically and melodically – so that the second Dance sounded from northern climes. This waltz, as Segerstam wound it slower and slower, extinguishing ignition was related directly to Valse triste; not surprising perhaps for a native of Finland and a noted Sibelius conductor. The final and most ambitious Dance found Segerstam at extremes – very slow in the middle, then releasing a pulverising increase of speed for the climactic final bars. He opted to let the gong resonate for what seemed an eternity after the final chord – the score doesn’t call for this but the two-piano version marks a tenuto, which some conductors carry into the orchestral version. Even after the sound had completely faded, Segerstam kept his baton aloft for several more seconds, the musicians frozen like statues; fortunately the audience was equally stunned. A fascinating and revelatory reading.

To Arvo Part’s slow-evolving minimalism, I’m not drawn. The Cantus (for strings and bell), short though it is (and Segerstam kept it moving), doesn’t get beyond its one refrain; while beautiful in itself, an accumulation in dynamic and intensity leading to a sustained chord and abrupt cut-off fails to satisfy.

Elvis-free and without bassoon-playing hell’s angels or visitors from space, Michael Daugherty portrays Rosa Parks, a citizen of Detroit, a mover in civil rights’ issues, and one-time associate of Martin Luther King; she has a “downtown Detroit boulevard” named after her. Taking his cue from ’God’s Trombones’, a 1927 collection of poetry by James Weldon Johnson, Daugherty requires three trombonists to stand at various points within the orchestra masquerading as preachers. Musically, Daugherty nods to Duke Ellington’s Harlem, adds a bit of Stan Kenton, taps the seam of American nostalgia and aspiration, contrasts studio-session strings with cool, tinkly percussion and them with sassy brass and jungle-drum punctuation; the trombones croon with vibrato-soaked single notes. This diverse, sort-of-entertaining 11-minute piece displays little developmental or harmonic interest; a “turbulent bus ride,” says the composer. Single ticket please.

  • Lars Vogt returns to London on 7 November for a recital as part of the Harrods International Piano Series playing Janacek, Brahms and Beethoven in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at 7.45. 020 7960 4242.

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