Sunday, 30 April 2017

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave…

You have to have a lot of faith in an orchestra to open proceedings with something as challenging as Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite. This is no warm-up for what follows; there is nowhere to hide; and you therefore need an ensemble at the very top of its form from opening bar to last. So… perfect for the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, then! And they were perfect for it, too: special praise going to the athletic percussion section (who would not be allowed to even think about relaxing until the interval) and flautist Catherine Billington… – and, of course, one of the greatest brass sections this side of Brighouse. But every single player deserves as much commendation – if only for the number of tears shed throughout. (Yes, I know I am a soppy bugger: but the instant creation of such matchless atmosphere would surely have softened the sternest heart. This really was that remarkable.)

David Curtis’ whole modus operandi stands atop a steadfast foundation of trust and such faith: the attention paid to his every gesture – however subtle – shaming more complacent orchestras (and conductors). But it is from this unassailable bedrock that all the other magic grows: including the uncanny ability to transport an audience as one in space and time. Early 19th-century Pennsylvania has never sounded – or felt – so appealing.

Copland’s ballet is, for me, one of the man’s (and the American century’s) greatest accomplishments: a masterpiece of subtle portrait and landscape painting that I don’t think he ever really surpassed (although Rodeoto be played by the CSO in July – comes close for wit and bravado; but not, I think, quite the tenderness, the poignancy, found here…). And, no matter how many times I hear it, it maintains its freshness; its inventiveness. But it has to come from the heart (meaning courage and boldness; as well as emotion and compassion). Like this did….

Another work that requires such a disposition is George Gershwin’s equally astonishing Rhapsody in Blue. Again, the orchestra delivered with all their might and skill – up there with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in my favourite recording, with Leonard Bernstein. (I’m running out of ways to praise this CSO: so an almighty comparison like this will have to suffice.)

However hard they tried – although no part of the defect lies with them… – they could not, though, coax the same attitude or temperament from soloist Lucía Caruso….

I was too reticent, last time: not even mentioning her name. [It will be interesting – but, sadly, not with this orchestra – to hear this piece again in the hands of someone who, I believe, plays for the love of the music. Having witnessed said pianist play an excerpt (in this very room) as encore, there is little doubt in my mind that it will be a revelation.] Her playing, though – to me – seems more about visual effect than emotional affect – and, to be blunt, leaves me cold. [Only after posting this review did I realize that what was really missing was – pure and simple – joy….] Not only does every single phrase sound (and look – intentionally or not) like it is hard work – indeed, a struggle (perhaps stretching her technique to the limits) – but there appears to be no effort made to establish rapport (or even eye-contact) with David: her head buried in the keyboard, when it is not being tossed back, or checking that her hands haven’t flown to some distant corner of the Pump Room, as a result of her vacuous (and some might suggest vain) chironomy.

Were it not my instrument, I may have been (a jot) less critical: but this is not my sort of music-making, either; and there is certainly no need to overdramatize the rendition of a score which has excitement inherent in every note (and to its cost). A shame, really: because the CSO were so much more than convincing – Janet McKechnie’s wonderfully seedy clarinet trill and glissando dumping me immediately in some smoky corner of a downtown speakeasy; Paul Broekman’s wha-wha-muted trumpet then pushing me back in my chair until that wonderful trio of almost guttural crescendoed brass chords finally released me in the run-up to that incredible adrenaline-rush of an ending.

They were the resident club band par excellence – not only lending support, when required, but throwing all caution to the wind, just as the score requires. That this was the same orchestra that had earlier broken my heart with its portrayal of Appalachian love and landscape was more than remarkable; and, as much as I continually rave about their accomplishments, I do not believe that they will ever cease to astonish me.

After the interval (when I presume the whole orchestra was replaced by clones: such was the energy expended in the first half), a work I knew nothing about, and had never even heard before: Dvořák’s incredibly gripping Seventh Symphony.

Sometimes, there is nothing better than to have music wash over you with no preconception as to how it should be; and this disposition was rewarded with another incredibly passionate performance – but without all that emotion making the slightest dent in the orchestra’s wonderful, cohesive technique. The woodwind entry at the beginning of the Poco adagio was remarkable for its ultra-precision – and yet the pervasive sense of spiritual comfort (the orchestral equivalent of a warm, extended hug) this movement enveloped me in was intensely moving. The Good Lady Bard was similarly affected by the succeeding Scherzo – the whole work so perfectly in tune with the CSO’s unique blend of talent and insight. (David was almost balletic on the podium: more evidence of the strong relationship, the bond, which has developed between him and this unique orchestra.) This was music that grabbed you and didn’t let go – and, as all such engrossing performances must be… over far, far too soon.

CSO audiences are a select bunch, on the whole; but we all knew what treats had been served up – and how! I come away from most – not all – concerts abuzz: the energy so generated more than enough to propel me home, and through a first draft (at least) of a review. But this was – indefinably – more propulsive than most: pushing me beyond the place where words skip easily from lip to fingertip. The lack of quantity, I hope, is therefore compensated by my sheer delight – which, soloist aside, I hope beams from the page as much as my smile still does from my face.

Such joy, I think, would be diluted by my usual analysis. And, to be honest, I’m not all that keen on trying to get at the heart (although that word, in itself, is possibly clue enough) of this concert’s all-encompassing ‘specialness’. I had gone expecting a dip in my interest after the interval – which had not come to pass. And, once there, I had believed that a mundane solo performance would tarnish that work’s glittering reverberations. But I was wrong there, too. So, best to leave un-analysed; and just revel in the continuing glow. A luminosity that, as I write, I think even the impending sunrise will struggle to compete with. We shall see….

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