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S & H Concert Review

Adams, Copland, Ives, traditional American Hymns and Songs, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Robert Spano (conductor) Thomas Trotter (organ), City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus David Lawrence (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 12th March, 2003 (CT)

 

 

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.

Christopher Thomas.

 


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