Three Places in New England
Treemonisha – Suite [arr. Gunther Schuller]
Rhapsody in Blue
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 22 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The London Philharmonic Orchestra continued its enterprising role in The Rest is Noise series with a concert devoted to music by three American pioneers – the four works played emerging over little more than a decade at a time when American composers were shedding the vestiges of the Austro-German influence that had dominated their thinking over much of the previous century in favour of a much stronger French connection as well as exploring the possibilities of an American vernacular. With each of them being similar in length, this quartet made a complementary and well-balanced programme, even though that balance was thrown a little off-kilter by seemingly last-minute changes to its running order.
Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England (1914) rightly began proceedings because, for all its harmonic and rhythmic innovations, it is a continuation of the late-Romanticism towards which Ives was productively ambivalent. Marin Alsop had a feel for the stoic evocation of ‘The St. Gaudens in Boston Common’, yet progress to its brief climax was effortful and unanimity of ensemble was lacking. The hectic activity of ‘Putnam’s Camp’ was more securely rendered, but too sluggish a tempo for the ruminative central section lost any momentum, while the uninhibited close was texturally diffuse. Nor was the climax of ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ ideally fervent, not least as its inward ending was throwaway rather than heart-stopping.
Next was a welcome and surprisingly rare revival for Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto (1926) – the first overt embodiment of the jazz idioms that were to permeate his music, however obliquely, over the ensuing decade. Its two continuous movements focussing respectively on the ‘blues’ and ‘riffs’ that were then the twin components of jazz, it remains a testing challenge for the soloist – not least when its undeniable virtuosity needs integrating into the orchestral response as if to confirm the neo-Classicism then holding sway in Western art music, yet Garrick Ohlsson proved unflappable in a nimble and dextrous account, while Alsop was fully alive to the music’s extremes of expressive eloquence and glancing irony.
If George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) was less successful, this was partly because it was placed last on the programme – rather than as a complement to the Copland (which is indebted to it in several particulars) immediately after the interval. Nor did Ohlsson sound as at ease with a piece which, for all its ubiquity, retains an improvisatory quality such as can easily come apart in performance. In particular, the lengthy solo passages lacked formal and expressive focus, thereby undermining the potency of the ‘big tune’ on its timely appearance, with the apotheosis incisively rendered yet lacking in panache. Excellent playing from the LPO, using Ferde Grofé’s revised scoring rather than his original for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and the outcome was a little tepid.
It would have been better to conclude proceedings with the suite that Gunther Schuller (born 1925) arranged only recently from Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (1910). Admittedly the former’s orchestration can seem too opulent in the context of what – for all the seriousness of its subject – is essentially an operetta (recent productions have opted for a theatre-ensemble accompaniment with beneficial results), but the Suite’s eleven (more or less continuous) sections give a viable overview of the work’s content as well as showcasing some vintage Joplin inspirations. The result is both diverting and pleasurable, and Alsop secured an agile and engaging response from the LPO in music that warrants regular revival.
Alsop rounded things off with a suitably breezy encore, Victory Stride by James P. Johnson. As is customary at Alsop’s concerts, she introduced the pieces (though not the Gershwin) and, while such forewords need not be either superfluous or redundant, her tendency to assume the audience had not or could not be bothered to read the (excellent) programme notes – by Anthony Burton, which she misparaphrased at least once – coupled with a tendency to overt generalisation, skirted the dividing-line between encouraging and patronising listeners. Not for the first time, one could not help but wonder as to her interactions with the audience being to whose benefit.