Prom 46: National Youth Jazz Orchestra – Laura Jurd premiere & Kenton’s West Side Story – Benjamin Grosvenor plays Rhapsody in Blue

Laura Jurd
The Earth Keeps Spinning [world premiere]
Rhapsody in Blue [original 1924 scoring by Ferde Grofé]*
Kenton’s West Side Story – arranged Johnny Richards for Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, 1961, from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story [UK premiere]

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

National Youth Jazz Orchestra
Mark Armstrong
Guy Barker*

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 August, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

National Youth Jazz Orchestra – Benjamin Grosvenor plays Rhapsody in BluePhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCMaking its fourth appearance at these concerts, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra proceeded to set the Royal Albert Hall ablaze with a high-octane programme of music either unfamiliar or given in unfamiliar guises – rendered with precision and panache.

It was an astute move to open with a premiere. Now in her later-twenties, trumpeter Laura Jurd has pursued an eventful career with such bands as Dinosaur; all the while evolving her distinctive fusion of jazz, pop and folk elements. This was evident from The Earth Keeps Spinning (2018), its relative brevity in inverse proportion to its level of incident and scored with an insider’s knowledge of the jazz orchestra’s potential. Mark Armstrong directed a confident and assured account of a piece as could plausibly be expanded in length and scope.

National Youth Jazz Orchestra – Laura Jurd premiere & Kenton’s West Side StoryPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCGuy Barker took the helm for George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924), sounding simultaneously more authentic and more contemporary with jazz-band scoring for Paul Whiteman. Himself displaying no mean jazz credentials, Benjamin Grosvenor was also mindful of how the solo part is more closely integrated within the ensemble – his idiomatic and often characterful playing pointing up the concertante nature of Gershwin’s trail-blazing conception. Amplification was evident though never (at least from the vantage of the present reviewer) to the detriment of the music-making.

The highlight was undoubtedly a first hearing in the UK for Kenton’s West Side Story (1961), an extended suite arranged for the Stan Kenton Orchestra by Mexican-born Johnny Richards which is hardly less durable (and arguably more re-creative) than the film version of Leonard Bernstein’s seminal musical which emerged at much the same time. Not its least innovation is the use of four mellophoniums (pitched between flugelhorn and tenor horn), though their substitution here for French horns was doubtless a wise option intonationally.

National Youth Jazz Orchestra – Laura Jurd premiere & Kenton’s West Side StoryPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCIts ten movements playing for around forty minutes, the Kenton/Richards refit takes in almost all the salient numbers – highpoints including a visceral take on the ‘Prologue’ and a fluid reimagining of the intricate ‘Cool’. Not all of them hit the spot (‘Officer Krupke’ is deadpan to the point of dullness), while slower pieces lack the intimacy of the originals, yet the brilliance of the overall sequence is never in doubt and Armstrong drew an appropriately virtuosic response. Bernstein, not easy to please in such matters, must surely have approved.

Certainly, the near-capacity audience was unstinting in its response – prompting Armstrong to return for his own, no-holds-barred arrangement of W. C. Handy’s rousing Saint Louis Blues, 1914, brought this late-night Prom to a suitably uproarious close.

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