Powder Her Face – Three-Piece Suite (Suite No.1)
Peter Grimes, Op.33 – Four Sea Interludes, Op.33a
West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 6 September, 2022
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra filled the stage for an evening of précis suites from three big stage-works clustering round the magnum opus of the Violin Concerto by Wynton Marsalis, which had its world premiere in London (LSO, Gaffigan, Benedetti) in 2015, and it looks as though Marsalis has done a bit of editing – about eight minutes – but it still weighs in at a substantial three-quarters of an hour – perhaps Marsalis might make a suite from it.
He wrote it for Nicola Benedetti, and she is very persuasive in its huge range of styles and poetic viewpoints. She also made the soloist’s relationship with the orchestra rather like that of the viola in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a romantic loner let loose in a dreamworld, engaging with it then moving on. And Marsalis has been generous with his material in a fusion of Scottish folk music, blues, gospel, carnival, jazz and hoedown. Benedetti was at her most effective in the big cadenzas that emerge from the four movements, and her moments when she duets with a viola or wanders to the other side of the stage to a drummer and his drum-kit for a bit of a session had an unexpected urgency, as did the end, when she detached herself from orchestral worldly pleasures and just wandered off, as it were into the sunset, here back-stage.
Marsalis’s ambition is epic, but there are longueurs which no amount of fluency and craft can conceal. The folk elements that mark the opening dissolve into Copland reflectiveness and Ives hyperactive energy, and the RSNO and Thomas Søndergård proved bracingly adept at conveying that unique American grandeur, making the most of Marsalis’s primary-colour scoring and going for all the whistling, clapping, stampings and knockings required of the players with a will. It was all held together, and in many instances justified, by Benedetti’s grasp of – and perhaps patience with – Marsalis’s baggy vision, a long-distance triumph of memory, virtuosity and imagination.
This Prom had opened with the Three-Piece Suite Thomas Adès derived (in 2007) from Powder her Face, the 1995 Duchess of Argyll opera that put the twentyfour-year-old composer on the map. Adès expanded his original chamber score to full orchestra, and the RSNO players treated this later version with extreme subtlety, making the most of the music’s fractured dances, elusive scraps of melody and rhythmic virtuosity, with Søndergård releasing the score’s sleaze and glamour in equal measure.Søndergård then proved himself a consummate colourist in Britten’s Sea Interludes at their most impressionist, with wind-players and xylophone grading the quality of light like painters in an unusually restless performance of ‘Moonlight’. The last work was a full-blooded outing of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances, his (with Irwin Kostal & Sid Ramin) non-vocal compression of West Side Story, which goes for drama rather than big tunes – ‘Maria’ barely gets a look-in. The orchestration flatters players generously, there were echoes of Mahler in some of the brass writing, and the seven percussionists blew up quite a storm. As did the encore, RSNO horn-player Christopher Gough’s delirious Eightsome Reels.