Juilliard & Royal Academy of Music Orchestras

Fanfare for the Common Man
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.6 in E minor
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Juilliard Orchestra
Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 3 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Juilliard School of Music in New York celebrates its centenary this coming season. Although there seemed to be no statement to that effect, this concert, which marked the debut of both conservatoire orchestras at the Proms, was as good a way to celebrate as any.

The joint orchestra had played this programme in Leicester’s De Montfort Hall two nights earlier and the appearance at the Proms was great music-making. Sir Colin Davis belied his 77 years (he’s 78 at the end of the month) and seemed to have been injected by the youthful enthusiasm of his players. Once again, young players, with no hard-bitten attitudes, brought out the best in Sir Colin (the same thing happens with Bernard Haitink) – and this was a concert to remember.

Perhaps it was the nature of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man – with timpani and percussion raised high at the back of the stage, just under Sir Henry Wood’s bust, and horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba on the tier in front – that sounded out the hall’s acoustic. From the press seats, on the back row of the stalls, I normally complain of a veiled sound from orchestras. But the Fanfare had well-rounded and focussed sound.

The remainder of the programme was equally vivid and clear – admittedly with a larger than usual body of strings (including 12 double basses) – and consisted of two contrasting symphonies. Vaughan Williams’s Sixth, while suffering from a barrage of uncovered coughing, especially through the desolate final movement, was powerful in its effect. The four movements are played without a break (which has the advantage of keeping the audience’s applause at bay until the end; sadly, the Berlioz didn’t escape so easily) – and is music of distinctive punch, although the saxophone solo in the scherzo wasn’t “sinister” in the way the programme-note outlined. The player, in a red dress, stood up and, amidst the black and white of the suitably dress-suited orchestra, there was a bit of theatricality, rather like Spielberg’s little red-coated girl amidst the overall monochrome in “Schindler’s List”.

War-inspired or not, this symphony may have been new to many of the Juilliard players – indeed, it’s not a everyday work in Vaughan Williams’s homeland (Sir Colin conducted the last performance of it at the Proms, in 1997, with the National Youth Orchestra) and, indeed, may have been unfamiliar to many of the Royal Academy musicians, too – but you wouldn’t have realised that from this full-blooded reading.

The Symphonie fantastique – here complete with all repeats, including in ‘March to the Scaffold’, and the use of the ad lib cornet in ‘A Ball’ – is, of course, something of a party-piece for Sir Colin, but it is amazing how much more you seem to hear whenever he conducts the work. A slight imbalance and unsteady intonation from the off-stage oboe in `Scene in the country’ aside, this was every bit as thrilling as past Davis-led performances – Berlioz’s helter-skelter drug-related demise with his hero, in the face of spurned love, thinking first that he being dragged off to the scaffold and then amidst a witches’ Sabbath. As a warning against drugs it is surely better than most of the public service advertisements on television, although there is a serious danger you might get addicted to the music, certainly when as played with as much as commitment as here!

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