Mixing musical styles can be difficult to pull off, but the London Symphony Orchestra showed how to do it with a programme of hybrids and an intriguing new work. Tim Garland has managed to create a convincing blend of jazz and contemporary classical techniques in his Concerto for Percussion, Saxophone and Orchestra that, in this world premiere performance, sat well with Gershwin’s Cuban excursion and Wayne Marshall’s liberally embellished rendition of Rhapsody in Blue.
Jazz saxophonist Tim Garland originally intended this concerto to be for percussion and orchestra; hearing the finished piece leaves one wondering how far Garland travelled from his initial ideas, given how central the saxophone is to the work. Garland’s soprano sax pushes the orchestra on in the urgent first movement and an air of menace lies barely submerged throughout. The second movement seems, on first hearing at least, the best; it’s a doleful lament with Garland’s instrument screaming a high howl at the peak of the drama. Extract the solo saxophone line and it might sound like straight jazz, but backed by the oppressive orchestral texture and Neil Percy’s energetic percussion-playing, it becomes a unique and unsettling collision of conflicting voices.
Before the Garland, two works by George Gershwin cast the net beyond the strictures of the European classical tradition. Cuban Overture (1932) was the fruit of a lively visit to the Caribbean island in the days when it was an American-friendly tourist destination and not the last outpost of socialism. The Cuban influence makes for some irresistible percussive rhythms and melodies and the LSO's trumpets were clearly having fun, but a little lightness and politeness from the strings betrayed the west coast gentility of Gershwin's well-behaved rumba. Rhapsody in Blue appeared in Ferde Grofé's fully orchestrated version of 1942 which, given that Gershwin died in 1938, the composer never approved, but Wayne Marshall's improvisations departed from the original to such an extent that some orchestral re-touching would have been the least of Gershwin's concerns. A handful of subtle embellishments at the outset gave a hint of Marshall's playful agenda which blossomed with the appearance of an extended and seemingly improvised cadenza. Marshall didn't limit himself to Gershwin's idea of jazz, and when he ventured forward into a land beyond Ellington, François-Xavier Roth shot him a surprised and delighted grin; even the maestro knew not where the pianist was heading. Marshall led us on three improvised diversions before the Rhapsody's conclusion, though the final excursion was a little wayward, clearly not ending up quite where he intended and catching Roth a little by surprise. Together they pushed the music too hard, almost rushing into the next amble through Marshall's imagination, but ultimately this Rhapsody in Blue delighted for its sense of the unexpected.
Finally, Aaron Copland's cowboy ballet “Billy the Kid”, heard in the suite of 1940, showed a composer delving into his country's national myths to bring new life to the genre. Not many ballets feature of shoot-out; Roth and the LSO's percussion supplied Copland's bullets brilliantly and made up for the hesitancy in the opening depiction of the grandeur of the western landscape. Best of all was 'Prairie Night', with gently rocking strings supporting principal trumpeter Philip Cobb's tender solo in a depiction of Billy playing cards beneath the stars.