The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin opened its latest webcast with a Bump. Dedicated to Slatkin, Christopher Rouse wrote it in 1985 for the Saint Louis Symphony. According to the composer, Bump is “La valse meets Studio 54 ... a Boston Pops tour performance in Hell.” It opens with subdued thumps and impolite spurts and is soon in high-octane and sinuous combat. As quietly eerie as it is loudly pile-driving, Bump is intoxicating in any of its modes. I’d like to add Stan Kenton to Rouse’s quoted signposts.
The ears having been warmed (or singed), we moved back to the 1920s, and stayed there. Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto of 1926 doesn’t get out much. He gave the premiere in Boston with Koussevitzky conducting. It’s a jazzy work, slow and bluesy and, borrowing from the composer, “snappy”. Opening arrestingly with a passionate statement, the pianist’s immediate response is rather disembodied, setting the tone for the detached if alluring first movement, its desires simmering. A witty opening cadenza and brittle piano-writing informs the second movement, and the large orchestra (including saxophones) gets plenty of action and there are lyrical asides, too. It’s a compact piece – inventive and intrinsic – that returns to its powerful beginning (to my mind the recurring generous melody has something of Puccini’s Turandot to it, if coincidental given the opera was also not heard until 1926). Good to come across Copland’s droll and rebarbative Piano Concerto again.
George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was written for bandleader Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra. Gershwin played the piano for Rhapsody’s first night – in Aeolian Hall, New York City, on 12 February 1924, and the audience included Sousa and Rachmaninov. Ferde Grofé did the arrangement, as he did all those that followed; this one for orchestra (including saxes and a banjo, the latter well-caught by the DSO microphones) was published after the composer’s untimely demise.
As with the Copland, Garrick Ohlsson was in stylish and swinging form; nothing was exaggerated yet the spirit of the music was revealed totally; the syncopation was unforced, the pianist’s affection unobtrusive, and the music emerged fresh-minted, concluding proudly. Lyrical tunes were caressed but not smothered, and classical and jazz elements were perfectly proportioned and met in the middle.
There followed from Ohlsson, helpfully introduced by him, Chopin’s C-sharp minor Mazurka (Opus 50/3), full of contrasts and fantasy, given with delightful lilt.
Darius Milhaud’s La Création du monde (1923) is music for a ballet first seen at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a scenario concerned with a big subject if short in terms of duration as well as economical in scoring (effectively a pit band, including saxophone, piano, percussion and brass).
Once passed the long delay from the hubbub caused by audience-members back late from the interval or by those who had failed to spot the conductor had returned, there was much to like. Funky solos – for double bass, sax, trombone and other instruments – were all well-taken, as was a seductive one for flute. This is music (perhaps influenced by Stravinsky’s for The Soldier’s Tale, 1918) clearly to be danced to but which stands up well as an aural delicacy for the imagination, given here with much sympathy and panache by DSO members (seventeen of them) under Slatkin’s discreet direction, and what emerged was more expressive and varied than I had remembered.
The concert closed with Respighi’s cinematic extravaganza, Pines of Rome (1924). Whether the ebullience and energy of children at play, the sepulchral exploration of catacombs, the fragrances and breezes of a balmy nocturne (during which Ralph Skiano’s clarinet – which had run the instrument’s range at the opening of the Gershwin – together with delectable solo strings, met with a nightingale, the composer’s chosen recording now with digital plumage, to create the most-rapt of moods) or the extra-brassy lavishness of the ancient legionnaires coming to Technicolor life, this was a knockout performance of imagery, expanse and numerous personal touches; suspenseful and emotionally stirring too.
This enticing programme, played for the third time of asking, made for a special Sunday – during the afternoon in Detroit and effortlessly relayed (from ethereal tree-top birdsong to equally high-placed brass) to yours truly in London for an evening of engagement and enlightenment.