The Kensington Symphony Orchestra has got previous form with Korngold – it gave the first UK concert performance of his Die tote Stadt in 1996, thirteen years before the Royal Opera’s staging. Now, as then, Russell Keable conducted. Kings Row is probably Korngold’s best known melody and John Williams pays an obvious debt to it in his Star Wars score. The film itself is a splendid 1941 melodrama about a small mid-Western town with a fine cast including Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Claude Rains and future-president Ronald Reagan. Korngold strikes just the right bittersweet note with its rising touches of nobility that seems nostalgically American. The KSO attacked the piece with a relish that belied its amateur status and Keable gave the performance a cinematic sweep in the opening brass fanfare and there was a sense of wistfulness in the following string melody.
There is more than a touch of Hollywood glamour about George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto. It is a Romantic-style work which utilises Dixieland rhythms and the melancholy of both blues and Yiddish popular music which Gershwin was so familiar with. The first movement employs Charleston rhythms that Gershwin felt represented the young and enthusiastic spirit of American life. The KSO caught this quite well and there was a volatility to the playing that was most attractive, although there were a few moments of dubious intonation and the strings needed greater warmth. Keable chose a judicious path through Gershwin’s syncopations and built up a head of steam at the movement’s close. The Adagio had an especially bluesy trumpet that helped create an affecting nocturnal quality. Richard Uttley was light-fingered and brought a spring-heeled agility to the outer movements and never over-indulged the sentimentality in the slow one. He was incisive in the Finale’s repeated metronomic figures and Keable conducted in an expansive manner with the big climaxes opening up to engulf the listener with ardour.
Ravel’s complete score for Daphnis et Chloé is remarkable for its blend of mysticism, seductiveness and energy: a challenge for any orchestra and (word-less) chorus. The Royal Ballet’s staging with choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton and designs by John Craxton lives in the memory. The KSO had one or two moments of strained ensemble and there were occasional problems of intonation but what the playing may have lacked in sheen was made up for in feeling and commitment, thoroughly prepared. Keable ‘s pacing was sensible throughout to deal with Ravel’s complex changes of rhythm.
The opening was gracefully moulded and the strings immediately showed greater warmth than in the Gershwin. There were numerous fine solos and the woodwinds shone, especially flutes and oboes. There was a magical moment of quiet playing just before the first appearance of Pan (signified by the wind-machine) and the performance took on a mesmerising quality as it progressed. The ‘Lever du jour’ opening to Part Three was beautifully phrased and there was a decorous flute solo in the ‘Pantomime’. Keable shaped the final ‘Bacchanale’ to create surging waves of controlled frenzy rather than a cataclysmic meltdown and it capped an interpretation notable for atmosphere and musicality. The forty-strong Epiphoni Consort dealt with the exposed choral writing exceptionally well and was otherworldly and robust in equal measure: the slow and quiet close to Part One with its daring chromatic shifts had a sense of distance and the singers became positively sybaritic at the work’s close.
The Kensington Symphony Orchestra is a force to be reckoned with and its next outing is at St John’s Smith Square on March 16 is a programme of Enescu, Mahler and Lutosławski. London is lucky to have an amateur orchestra of such enterprise and quality.