Having been Music Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic
since 1996, Robert Spano’s international reputation appears to have
gathered considerable attention since his appointment two years ago
as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. An imaginative
approach to programming has no doubt contributed, as will his recent
further appointment as Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Contemporary
Music Festival at Tanglewood for 2003 and 2004.
On the podium Spano’s slim, even slight, build appears
perfectly in proportion to his calm, undemonstrative demeanour. Physical
gestures are controlled, with little, if any, unnecessary body movement.
Baton technique is concise, devoid once again of theatrical excess and
admirably clear, a technique that reaps real rewards in a work as complex
and rhythmically multi layered as John Adams’s Chamber Symphony.
The lush acoustics of Symphony Hall, as fine as they are, did not always
help the players in the first movement, Mongrel Airs, where every
instrumental line has an equally crucial part to play. Spano’s crisp
direction proved paramount but in contrast the leaner textures of the
central Aria with Walking Bass, showed crystalline clarity and
some beautiful sounds from the opening solo trombone and woodwind in
particular. Adams drew his inspiration for this work from the famous
roadrunner cartoons and the furious pace of the final movement was captured
with real energy by the players, as fragmented echoes of Copland, Bernstein
and Stravinsky seemed to fly around in the tornado.
The hauntingly atmospheric opening movement of Copland’s
Organ Symphony immediately cast a spell over Symphony Hall. Not
quintessential Copland maybe, more rooted as it is in the French influence
of Nadia Boulanger following his studies with her prior to the work’s
premiere in 1924 than his later fully mature style. That said the seeds
are certainly there in the central scherzo particularly. I have not
been without some doubts relating to the recently installed Symphony
Hall organ on certain other occasions although this performance took
me some way towards dispelling those doubts. Thomas Trotter, who sat
centre stage in front of the "mobile" instrument, showed sensitivity
and musicianship in no short measure throughout, his interplay with
the orchestra in the central scherzo highly impressive, whilst the conclusion
of the Finale blazed with an emphatic glory.
The decision to open the second half of the concert
with a selection of four American hymns and songs that were used extensively
by Charles Ives in his Symphony No. 2 was an admirable one and
the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus gave gutsy performances of Columbia,
the Gem of the Ocean, Wake Nicodemus, Bringing in the Sheaves
and De Camptown Races, each with a useful spoken introduction
by conductor David Lawrence and accompanied by Thomas Trotter. With
the sounds of the songs fresh in the mind it was fascinating to hear
the extent to which Ives utilised and manipulated the melodic content
of the songs in this comparatively early symphony, whilst still managing
to create a string dominated opening movement that conjures up the world
of Brahms and Dvorak that must have been so familiar to him at the time.
Once again Spano’s lean style seemed to pay dividends here, the orchestra
responding with playing of commitment and, in the case of the Allegro
second movement, charm and delicacy. Charm is, perhaps unexpectedly
for Ives, a word that kept coming back to me during this performance,
for there is an undoubted charm in both the melodies themselves and
the way in which Ives weaves them into his tapestry. The Brahmsian atmosphere
of the opening is again prevalent in the fourth movement Lento maestoso,
albeit with its imaginative use of fanfare like references to Camptown
Races and the exuberant spirits of the final coda were given full
measure by the orchestra, the dissonant "yawp" as Calum MacDonald
described it in his programme note, relished by the players and giving
an amusing glimpse of the ideas that were formulating in the composer’s
mind that were soon to surface in subsequent works.
In the case of the Ives then, a performance of insight
to relish and a hope that Robert Spano will return to treat Birmingham
to further Ivesian delights.