Copland: El Salon Mexico; Shilkret: Trombone Concerto; Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story; Ginastera: Four Dances from Estancia

vur Juul Magnussen, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Harth-Bedoya

Usher Hall, 11 December 2010 5 stars

Dávur Juul Magnussen

If it was something of a miracle that the SCO managed to assemble for yesterday's Queen's Hall concert, at least they are based in Edinburgh. For the RSNO, travelling from equally snow-bound Glasgow, the prospect of collecting in Edinburgh raised thoughts of potential parallels with the recent movie Le Concert, in which a scratch Russian orchestra wends its way to Paris, where it performs in front of a grumpy critic who is seduced and won over by a stunning performance of the concerto. So it turned out…

Already, on taking the stage, Mr Harth-Bedoya exuded ebullient energy, which he swiftly translated into a vibrant account of Copland’s El Salon Mexico. This was a breakthrough piece for Copland in his quest for a distinctively American music, and it's as though the throbbing, chugging rhythms that pervade the work placed an imprint on the American style in general, for they seemed to recur both in the Bernstein and the Ginastera, further prompting recollection of recent performances of Steve Reich's Different Trains.

The highlight of the concert followed, with the trombone concerto composed by Nathaniel Shilkret for the celebrated jazz trombonist Tommy Dorsey. A fascinating work in many ways—not only as music, but as an event in the emergence of media music as a distinct genre. The commission (which came from Leopold Stokowski) was at least in part about positioning Dorsey in a particular way—one might suspect with the intention of subliminally distancing his variety of demure white jazz from the raucous and earthy variety to be found in New York's Harlem district. Evidently the work's long hibernation was not a consequence of failure, but rather of contractual quadrilles, with Dorsey changing labels before a recording could be made.

Stylistically, the music is pure Hollywood, thick with schmaltz and kitsch, but executed with such chutzpah as to render its charms irresistible. The opening, with its swirl of strings, could greet any number of movie opening credits, but quickly what took hold was a similitude to Scott Bradley's brilliant scores for Hanna-Barbera animations. The connection is not from any comic intent on Shilkret's part, but rather in the art of presenting a story articulated solely through the music, with the solo trombone substituting for the visual element that the male lead would provide onscreen. Nor is there any particular allusion to jazz, save for the finale, which I think I would characterize as 'jazzy' rather than jazz per se, and for that matter less obtrusively jazzy than, say, Milhaud's Creation du Monde. Instead, this finale is breezily urgent, enlivened by the beat of a drumkit.

All the way through, the orchestra met its challenges with stylish gusto, behind a superb performance by the young soloist Dávur Juul Magnussen. There will be more outings for this work, I’m sure; and more outings too for Mr Magnussen as composers extend the repertoire for this underrated instrument.

After the interval, the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein's West Side Story. Your grumpy critic saw Bernstein conduct in London in the 1970s. After Les Noces (a perfectly enjoyable account), the pianists got to take a bow, so too the soloists; so too the chorus. The percussionists? Not so much. For Bach's Magnificat he had brought along a counter-tenor who sang like a wounded dog (you know, like one of the Longitude Prize dogs), and purveyed such whimsies as having the cellos divided, with half playing arco and the other half pizzicato in one number. Bach as no doubt he would have intended, had he had the opportunity to meet Mr Bernstein.

As a composer, one has to acknowledge the virtuosity of his orchestral technique. The trouble is that the resulting music leans so much towards that irksomely, relentlessly upbeat American optimism—the sort of optimism that finds cartoon characters continuing to walk after they've fallen off the cliff, or that finds investment bankers selling on subprime mortgage debt with as much grounding in reality. West Side Story is, after all, a musical—solidly in the intellectual and aesthetic tradition thereof. And while it is undoubtedly a particularly brilliantly orchestrated contribution to the genre, it's showtunes, isn't it? If ever I was going to learn to love the piece, it would be after the spectacular, alternately blazing and sparkling performance Harth-Bedoya and the RSNO gave it here. But I'm not.

Concluding the concert was Ginastera's four dances from Estancia—a work with striking parallels to Copland's El Salon Mexico, in the way that both composers turned to popular melodies as a way of authenticating their works' content. Parallel, too, were those driving, chugging rhythms, though in Ginastera’s hands the rhythms seem more effectively harnessed to the harmonic language, with the result that the music is more bodily engaging.

All in all, an exciting conclusion to a vibrant evening's music-making. Just as on the previous night, the audience was decimated by the weather, and just as previously, those who got through more than made up for the deficit with the warmth of their reception.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Dávur Juul Magnussen

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