Westminster Philharmonic

Cuban Overture
Porgy and Bess – A Symphonic Picture [arr. Robert Russell Bennett]
Piano Concerto in G

Viv Maclean (piano)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 6 November, 2004
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

The Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1972, draws its players from a wide geographical area and is one of London’s leading amateur orchestras. Highly competent musicians come together through a common love of music. Jonathan Butcher first conducted the WPO in October 1984. 20 years on, there was a festive and celebratory tone for this programme.

How intriguing, too, to juxtapose Gershwin and Ravel, and how intelligent, although Gershwin’s Cuban Overture is not a favourite piece. Gershwin did not include adroit orchestration amongst his many extraordinary talents. I find the writing rather muddy. On the other hand, the sections for just a few instruments in combination work well. Clearly, the ‘Cuban instruments’ fascinated the WPO just as exuberantly as they did Gershwin. These sections were put over with delight and verve. Missing, unfortunately, was the brash vigour needed to underline syncopation – we were still in the home counties.

Ravel’s Concerto was astonishingly well-played. It showed – immediately – how splendidly the orchestra renders elegant precision from a master orchestrator. The playing was light and vigorous; it had bounce; there was plenty of delicious woodwind, flutes especially, the orchestra responding positively to Ravel’s greater finesse and, maybe, with more affinity to cross-channel creativity than a transatlantic one.

Viv Maclean was fascinating. His pianism flowed – robust, sensitive and lyrical, present but understated, as indeed, is Ravel’s writing. Maclean’s energy was volcanic. He was steady and sturdy. Overall, he turned the piano part, usually mercurial and effervescent, into a reflective anchor. I was mesmerised by his serene gravity in the slow movement (its beginning delayed by an outbreak of fireworks almost overhead). His kept his heart, beating with absolutely even pulse, well inside his jacket and with nothing showing on his sleeve.

Boléro came next. The WPO distinguished itself in gusto, flair and momentum – in brass and woodwind solos, but also in accompaniment from timpani and strings. I admired, as never before, the cellists’ and double bassists’ good-humoured patience in plucking the same basic rhythm bar after bar. The eventual noise of the full orchestra came in a resounding swell, with the violins, at last, bearing passionately into their strings.

Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangement of Porgy and Bess gave the orchestra a full opportunity to lay into glorious tunes from this great opera, as Gershwin termed it. The melodic exuberance, optimism and ebullience was catching and enthusing. By this time, the WPO had also warmed up into swinging mode, syncopation was fired from the hip to the manner born. In consequence, the encore – the overture to “Girl Crazy” – sprang exultantly to a joyful and dynamic conclusion.

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