Prom 45: 23rd August 2001 – Late Night Slatkin

Photograph of Leonard Slatkin by Keith Saunders
Copyright: BBC/Keith Saunders

Duke Ellington
George Gershwin
Leonard Bernstein
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs*
Michel Camilo
Piano Concerto (UK Premiere)

Martin Robertson (clarinet)*
Michel Camilo (piano)

BBC Big Band, BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

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Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 23 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Continuing this year’s Proms’ crusade for American music, Leonard Slatkin took us on a stroll around Harlem in the company of Duke Ellington before whisking us off to Gershwin’s Hollywood to find the chief ’melodist’ playing tennis with Arnold Schoenberg – arguably the principle architect in the destruction of ’the tune’ in classical music. Then it was back to the East Coast for Leonard Bernstein’s response to Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto; finally the UK premiere of Dominican Republican Michel Camilo’s Piano Concerto. A more comprehensive tour could not have been wished for.

Joining Slatkin was the combined forces of the BBC Big Band and his newly acquired BBC Symphony Orchestra – for Harlem; the Big Band had the Bernstein to itself. As has become his trademark, Leonard Slatkin introduced proceedings.

Attempting, with tongue firmly in cheek, to convince a packed RAH that this concert had a British flavour, ’royal’ connections, he introduced us to the ’Duke’ and Harlem. Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra commissioned the work in 1950 – really it’s an imbalance, the band steals all the glory. The BBCSO appeared to recognise it was being upstaged by a ’courser crowd’, dressed in smart blue uniforms; they bore humility with good humour, even scoring some points themselves – for me BBCSO timpanist, John Chimes, won the day over his rival on the drum-kit, Harold Fisher, in the closing duel.

Gershwin’s Lullaby (1919) started life as a string quartet; augment personnel and add a double bass part to produce a delightful miniature that works equally well for larger forces. The piece was lost until Larry Adler, the great virtuoso of the ’mouth organ’, discovered it in 1962. Adler died earlier this month, and one almost felt that Slatkin dedicated this performance to his memory. The BBCSO’s strings were on more familiar territory; the listless swaying of the melody was reflected by the Promenaders’ movements in a very warm RAH.

The strings vacated the stage to allow for the BBC Big Band, and so … enter your compere, Mr Leonard Slatkin.Slatkin really does enjoy this kind of music-making; his enthusiasm is evident through his gestures to the musicians and the way he speaks lovingly about the music to the audience. Dressed all in black (as were the BBC SO), with whitening hair and infectious smile, this ’Lenny’ could easily have been mistaken for his namesake, the composer of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, written for Woody Herman’s band, though it appears Herman didn’t even acknowledge receipt of the work; Benny Goodman took it up. The BBCBB’s trumpets and trombones showed no sign of the extreme difficulties this piece presents to them; Martin Robertson, perhaps best known for his work with Mark-Anthony Turnage, executed his jazz riffs with an energy and forward motion that Herman himself might have found hard to improve upon.

The last work was Michel Camilo’s concerto of 1998. I say last; in fact, we were treated to the first movement of the Suite for piano, strings and harp, and Caribe, as encore pieces. All three works have been recorded on a new disc from Decca; it was interesting how well the three sat together in a concert. Camilo was given a rapturous reception before he played a note. History proved the audience’s confidence correct in what was the jewel in the crown of an almost faultless concert. The concerto is made up of three movements in a traditional fast-slow-fast format with themes recurring throughout. The slow movement owes something to the G major concerto of Ravel; it similarly begins with a solo piano. Harmonically, the second movement is also the most jazz-influenced, with echoes of Gil Evans’s orchestrations. To contrast there’s a rich orchestral mêlée reminiscent of the 70s TV scores of Joe Harnell, then the opening music returns. The outer movements are atmospheric, rhythmic and colourful.

As encores, Camilo’s ’Tropical Jam’ (Suite) was rhythmically charged to burst, and more exciting than on the disc, which takes a more moderate tempo. Caribe was the finale the audience had been waiting for, Camilo’s calling-card – supposedly an improvisation, though similar to the CD version – was again more energetic than recorded: that is how live performances should be.

Camilo was the obvious choice to end this concert. His music, like that of Gershwin and Bernstein, bridges the gap between classical and jazz genres. Better known perhaps for his work with Paquito D’Rivera and Manhattan Transfer in the 1980s, Camilo has mastered his dual roles of composer and pianist. He is a musician I would very much like to see back in London – and soon.

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